March 9, 2010

Image as Insight: About That Altar Mural...

The image from my previous column can be seen in the sanctuary of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. The church building was completed in 1952.

This Byzantine-style mural was painted by Sverre Hanssen, a Norwegian artist who lived from 1891-1968 and was married for a time to the author Brenda Ueland. Hanssen's work can be seen in nearly 75 churches of many denominations in Minnesota as well as at the Minnesota State Capitol.

Here's what the Gloria Dei website says about it:

"The altar mural is a figure of the risen and ascended Lord of Glory seated on the right hand of the majesty of God the most high. In his left hand is a jeweled Book of the Gospel. His right hand is raised in benediction upon the world and all who worship at Gloria Dei.

This is the earliest type of the figure of Christ that was used in the ancient Christian Church. It derives from the style of Byzantine art and expresses very clearly the truth that we think of Christ as the Lord of Heaven and earth, who has returned to Heaven to be our eternal Guide, and to plead our cause before the eternal Father. The halo about the head of Christ is encircled with faces of angel cherubs from real-life models."

When I first lived in Minnesota, I had a job at that church for awhile, putting together the weekly worship aid and newsletter. The painting in the sanctuary was, as you may imagine, the subject of occasional conversations. People tended to either love it or hate it.

One person who had gotten married at Gloria Dei described how irritating it had been to get her wedding pictures back only to find those giant feet resting on the heads in every photo. Another person who was a sibling of one of the cherubic models was, 30 years later, still struggling with that association. I was always a little bugged by those cherubs myself, since childish angels just seem like bad theology. Cherubs are actually kind of scary when you encounter them in scripture, as are most of the angels. Not for nothing are they always saying, "Fear not."

If I look at that painting the way my culture tells me to, I hate it. It bothers me on a lot of those culturally-prescribed levels. Besides the (considerable) theological issues, I think it's in poor taste and not all that well executed. It evokes memories of really bad Sunday School art, dramatic skies and grand gestures, overwhelming stormy seas in need of calming. I also think it's awfully white bread-ish, with its little blond kiddies and a pretty, otherworldly Jesus.

If we stick with Margaret Miles, then none of that stuff really matters. My reaction to it simply tells me this is not the image that's going to help me be more Christ-like. And so, I need to find a different one. But this painting might be the very thing that speaks to the hearts of some who see it, the very thing that helps them remember how to be kinder, more generous, less judgmental, less fearful, etc.

If that's what it does, then the questions of how tasteful it is simply fade into irrelevance.


Meredith Gould said...

Ok, I could see how ending up with feet on one's head in every wedding pic could be annoying. Still, I like the goopey style of this art and absolutely love that the website description is written in overwrought language. Seems fitting.

Sue said...

The thought of feet on one's head in wedding pictures made me giggle. But then, I'm not the bride!

I really believe that what speaks to one person's heart, may do the opposite to another's--kind of like how Rob mentioned his story of the hymn. I dearly love the imagery of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (and I'm not Catholic, nor was I raised in that tradition) but I prefer a more symbolic heart surrounded by thorns and light. The versions that have all the ventricles, etc. may be physically faithful but gross me out--but obviously someone finds them appealing.

I find it interesting that the artist was married to Brenda Ueland--I have always found her book about writing, inspiring.