Monday, November 22, 2010

Judah Ivy
Prof Brian Bantum
Nov. 21, 2010
Christology in Thomas Eakins’ “Crucifixion”
Thomas Eakins’ “Crucifixion” was completed in 1880, when artistic Realism as a movement was at its zenith. Eakins in particular was a man who fully embraced the scientific age, and attempted in all his work to appropriate as much as possible of the science of perspective, mathematics, and anatomy. He lived in a time when science and reason were hailed as the real approach to truth, and faith was looked at as the irrational impulse of a more primitive age. 1880, the year Eakins' “Crucifixion” was completed, was itself a symbolic landmark for positivism. Thomas Edison patented the incandescent light bulb that year and the first town Wabash, Indiana was completely lit up with his new innovation. Eakins contact with the burgeoning scientific movement was not that of a bystander; as a young man he studied to become a surgeon (his hometown of Philadelphia was a hot spot for what was then considered “modern” surgery) before ultimately choosing the life of an artist.
The choice of Eakins to portray Jesus is in itself puzzling. He was (as far as any surviving testimony indicates) not a religious man in any sense of the word. His biographers and friends claim that he was an agnostic. It was the only “religious” piece that he ever painted. The rest of Eakins’ subjects were in line with realism’s standard, depicting scenes of contemporary everyday American life; usually with some person of societal standing such as a scientist, athlete, or doctor as one of the main subjects. Most of his later paintings were of people he was personally acquainted with. This oddity of subject matter isn’t the only thing that makes the “Crucifixion” stand out in his corpus of work; it was also the largest of Eakins’ “narrative” paintings, in it the figure of Jesus is life size.
The shadow-shrouded face of Jesus in the painting suggests to me the artist’s sense of distance from the man Jesus, the fact that though he could parse the physical aspects of Jesus’ historical life, the Man himself was an enigma to Eakins. People are known by their faces, and our personality is largely communicated to the people around us by our facial expressions. We recognize this easily enough in conversation: it is considered impersonal and rude to speak to someone without looking them in the face. We’ve all seen lovers stare into one another’s eyes in an attempt to communicate and enjoy one another’s personhood when words fail. To look someone in the face while making a statement is tantamount to swearing: “look me in the face and tell me that”. In scripture, for God to “turn His face toward you” is a sign of nearness, communication, and blessing. The face is the conduit of personality and the primary contact point of all human relationship. And to Eakins, Jesus’ face is in shadow, because Jesus is to him a mystery.
The difference between knowing particularities and knowing a person is precisely the sort of gap that science itself still, over a century after Eakins’ painting, cannot bridge. Without faith it is impossible to know God, and Eakins is honest enough to represent his own personal darkness concerning the person of Jesus. Eakins as an artist spent his talents in the quest to show things in scientific realism, to unite the disciplines of investigative science and to shine their collective light on his subjects with confidence that the result would be a “true” portrayal. He went as far as having his students take gross anatomy so they could more realistically render the human body (in imitation of his own prior experience with surgery), and used mathematics and the study of optics extensively to obtain the proper angles of shadows and reflections in his painting. He did this in reaction to the more mythological and “academic/classical” schools of realism which used their technical skill to represent the human form in idealized or otherwise unrealistic ways. It is easy to see his toolbox at work in his painting of the Lord’s crucifixion. The hands and fingers are twisted in rigor-mortis like fashion. The tendons in the wrists stand out as if they are actually bearing a substantial amount of the body’s weight. The bone in the hip, the knees, and the ribs, everything in the painting makes it clear that this is really a man’s body. There is no question that Jesus Christ is a man here, with a real body of flesh and blood. It is apparent that the difficult dimension for Eakins to portray is not the humanity of Jesus, but His oneness with the Father.
Then there is the setting. A majority of paintings of the crucifixion include other characters, Mary and John at the base of the cross, other disciples or perhaps patrons of the painting looking on in reverence. In this painting no one looks on but the viewer, and particularly, Eakins. Jesus Christ came to give us real union, through his flesh and blood, to the Father and through the Spirit, to one another. Even in His death, our Lord took the time to speak to his beloved disciple and arrange for the care of his mother. We know from the gospel accounts that there were people present at his crucifixion. But Eakins doesn’t show us this, for Eakins couldn’t see it. Just as the face of Jesus is a riddle to Eakins, so is the family of Jesus.
Another significant element is the titulus, the written notice above Jesus’ head. Crumpled and blurred, one can still make out “IESUS NASARENUS REX IUDAEO…”. This is not just any crucified man. If the subtly rendered crown of thorns doesn’t make it clear, the notice gives us particularity in a name: Jesus, of Nazareth. Further, it gives us the charge: the King of the Jews. He is not divorced from humanity but belongs to a people. Eakins includes this information intentionally as an acknowledgement of the gospel accounts, yet even here it seems to be more of a label than a meditation on the Jewishness of Jesus. It’s listed as a blunt statement of fact. The main focus is always the Man on the cross.
The artist has chosen to portray Jesus as just far away enough so we could not reach out and touch him, yet the painting is framed in such a way that His figure dominates our field of vision. Here might be an emphasis on the immanence of Jesus; however it’s not necessarily the immanence of God, since Eakins doesn’t know Jesus as God incarnate. It’s the immanence of a character that cannot be escaped. It’s not a soothing image, it’s disturbing and uncomfortable. Eakins knew this and still sent it to exhibits of his work even though it consistently got negative reviews. Here is an example of the typical reaction to the “Crucifixion”:
“Thomas Eakins’ ‘Crucifixion’ is a large canvas representing a horrible form of death in a most ghastly and horrible manner, and it may well be doubted whether such a picture serves any good purpose outside of the classroom of an art school. The only emotion inspired is one of horror at so grim and pitiless a representation of torture and death. Whether the work is well done technically or not is hardly worth considering; one does not care to examine it closely enough to find out”. (‘Art at the Exposition, This Year’s Display of Pictures,’ The Chicago Tribune, 6 September 1882)
Considering the overall harshness of the image, there is one feature that stands out by virtue of its minimalization – blood. The token amount of blood at the hands and feet, the apparent absence of blood from the crown of thorns, and the total absence of blood from scourging or the spear-wound in the side seem odd in what otherwise is such a stark portrayal of death by crucifixion. The absence of the spear wound might well be explained by this being a portrayal of Christ at the point of death, before the soldier pierced his side, yet even the choice to portray that segment of time is significant in its avoidance of the Blood of Jesus, since that is the one place in the accounts of the crucifixion where great significance is given to Christ’s bleeding. Why then the neglect of blood in the representation? I would venture to guess that it has to do with Atonement. Jesus’ blood has a central place in our faith, we are told in scripture that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22, ESV). Jesus said of his blood that it was “of the new Covenant” “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. In fact, the blood of Christ is the most mentioned feature of His death in the New Testament, as a sacrificial satisfaction, as the means by which our sins are taken away, and we are bought for God. Understanding this, it is easy to see why Eakins’ portrayal minimizes the blood that would normally result from wounds like Jesus suffered at the crucifixion. Eakins doesn’t depend on Jesus of Nazareth’s blood for atonement; the death itself is the puzzle that confronts our artist. We might expect a quite different representation of Christ’s wounds If Eakins’ scientific means of perception were able to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ death as an atonement for his sins and ours - but they cannot.
What can we learn from Eakins’ “Crucifixion”? For one, we can learn honesty. It’s far too easy, in art and in words, to get lost in good intentions and warm sentiments. There is a strong tendency to merely repeat comfortable descriptions which –however true- are not our own and which we don’t recognize as descriptions of something –or someone- actually there. It’s near impossible to look at Eakins’ painting and talk glibly about the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as if it were a theory rather than a historical event. For us as believers, hopefully we’re shocked into some understanding of the reality of Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnation of God. Hopefully we will be struck with the realization that the atonement isn’t just a theory, it was something accomplished through Jesus’ fully human body hanging on a cross some 2000 years ago in Jerusalem.
Secondly, we can glean a lesson concerning the use and limitations of Science. Eakins’ knowledge of anatomy, mathematics and history reports, but it’s blind to meaning. It can see, but it cannot understand. Science amplifies the clarity of our vision, and this is an extremely useful thing. It tells us that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross. He really died. However Science cannot go beyond this; it takes the “imago dei” - that capacity for relationship, the spirit’s capacity to hear God’s Spirit, the freedom to commit oneself – to understand that Jesus Christ died for me. This is something that Science is not meant to stand in for.
Thirdly, we can recognize the power of Jesus Christ’s historic act in submitting himself to death. I don’t claim omniscience, but it occurs to me that there was more than academic interest for Eakins in this painting. For a man who was so fully sold on the positivist vision of the perfection of mankind and of human knowledge through Science, such a portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth’s death comes out like a screaming question. What is this man on the cross for? Why Him? If we can be saved by our own creations, then how is it that this Man and His cross will not go away? This is what makes Eakins’ work so powerful for me. For the Agnostic, for the Atheist, for the Believer and for the Apathetically undecided, Eakins’ painting is a testament that none of us can escape the confrontation inherent in the Crucifixion of Jesus.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Opened my email this morning and read an email from a ministry called "Messianic Prophecy Bible Project". They're creating a bible to be used in outreach to Jewish people & to counter "counter-missionary" orthodox Jewish groups. It made me remember my time in Israel talking to orthodox Jews and reading through the OT a couple times. I recall there was a point where I was wondering if Torah observance was really necessary and to what degree, and what the exact relationship of the New Covenant to the old was. I remember talks with gentile believers in Israel that left me disturbed at their take on the New Covenant and the place of the Old, and wondering how different my own was, and if they were right that meant that Jesus really did mean to "start a new religion" that only borrowed a few concepts from Judaism.
I worked through most of those issues with the help of God, some, like the place of Torah observance in the life of a Jewish believer, I don't have completely cleared up yet. I can't imagine how confusing it would all be if I was an observant Jew who heard and wanted to believe the Gospel but was under the barrage of all the counter-missionary arguments.
I then went to Google videos and viewed some of the debates between believers and anti-messianic Rabbis, and the anti-messianic Rabbis in general seemed to have a more solid grasp on scripture than the believers. It was a little disheartening, and I prayed and went to my bible for some encouragement. I flipped straight open to Matthew 22-23, starting out with the portion describing Jesus' encounter with the Sadducees about the resurrection. The first verse I spied was . That struck me and I read on through the part where Jesus in his encounter with the Pharisees told them that the point of the law, the hinge and goal, was Love of God and Neighbor. Then on to the condemnation of them and their entire system, pointing out all their inconsistencies and the way they failed to read and apply the law correctly in accordance with the Great Commandment. He exposes them as the ones who were responsible for the murder of the OT prophets and who would be responsible for the persecution and murder of the NT prophets/scribes and wise men, ending with his loving plea over Jerusalem as the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her.

That was reassuring, to say the least. I can't think of a single scripture that would have been more so right then. So I popped in Switchfoot's "Hello Hurricane" & listened to the title track, drank a half gallon of tea, and went on a run through Discovery Park, where I took the above photo with my cellphone.

On other notes, Brandy is pregnant! we just found out last week. I'm always paranoid whenever she's pregnant that something will go wrong with the pregnancy/baby, so pray for me. That's part of my fear of having more children, I feel like all the ones so far have five fingers and toes, and we should quit while we're ahead. But God has spoken, and the due date is projected for July 22nd of next year. I'll publish the names but you have to promise you won't steal them. If it's a boy (which so far all the unofficial prophecies have pointed towards) we'll name him Elias Orion. If it's a girl, Ethne Evangeline.

We had our second Home Fellowship last night, TJ & Destiny came (of course) as well as Will from School. Sunday the church is going to have a big push to get people in home fellowships after the big Harvest Crusade that just came through town.

I registered for Winter classes the other day, Prayed and then wigged out after the bad-christmas-esque experience of hoping for and getting excited about particular classes which end up being full by the time I get a chance to register. I got stuck (I thought) with some lame classes that have nothing to do with my major, but after talking to my advisor I found out that the classes I really need aren't in the online catalog and all I had to do was fill out a couple of independent study forms (which I did).

"Do not let your hearts be troubled" - we have one instructor, the Christ. Now if only I could get consistent in following His instructions!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

OK, so after a day at TJ's disassembling the car I determined that it wasn't the ball joints, and had to take it in to the shop where they told me it was the wheel bearings. And it was expensive. Thankfully we had enough to scrape together to pay for the fix and we have great family that helped out too.

I'm registering for classes tonight, Latin II, Belief Morality and the Modern Mind, and either Independent readings in Classical Greek, Medieval Philosophy, or History of Post-Reformation Christianity.

Yet more tests tomorrow, seems like we've got one every week.
Thanksgiving's fast approaching! It's my favorite "Get together" holiday. It's got a good premise, low commercialism, and it's to the point: friends, family, food, fun. No mandatory present buying, no mandatory decoration, no covetous insanity pulling at the national heartstrings. Thank God for Thanksgiving. We're planning on going down to my granny's/aunt's place in Centralia to celebrate, they're out in the quasi-boonies, far out enough for woodsmoke to be a common smell. Centralia also had a 3.9 earthquake today.

You know, I'm sure there are all sorts of interesting things to post, but very little's coming to mind right now....let's see.... we've started a home group, so far it's just TJ & Destiny coming, though I've invited some more ppl who've expressed interest. We still don't really have anything in the way of worship. Trying to make my way through Siegbert Becker's "The Foolishness of God" on the relationship of reason to faith in Jesus Christ in Martin Luther's writing.

Oh, yes, there is some massively large news (that at the moment is very small) but I'm not at liberty to divulge it yet.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Headed over to TJ's tomorrow to attempt to replace one of the Minivan's ball joints. The obscure little part went bad about three quarters of the way through California on our way back, and the wheel started making a rhythmic 'pthbbbt, pthbbbt' sound as if it were going flat. I pulled over at a gas station where a few homeless people tried to make conversation with me in an attempt to ask for change, but I wasn't in a charitable mood and was on the ground checking the lug nuts and feeling back behind the wheels to make sure the control arms weren't bent on any of them so they eventually got the hint. Then a military looking guy pulled up towing a Jeep on a trailer in a big manly truck so I asked him if he knew anything about ball-joints. He confirmed my diagnosis and told me we'd be all right driving the van back to Washington on a bad ball joint. I was very relieved as it was about 2am by that point and Brandy couldn't find any of the information for the Triple-A membership she'd bought for the trip.

So now I've gotta try and fix it, Lord willing, it sounds pretty do-able and cheap. I've done it before in another life - with Tim Lemoine back in MN - on another vehicle, but memory's pretty hazy.

Just finished having sabbath with the family, It makes me very thankful that I've been able to continue this family tradition with my family, and that the kids have come to look forward to it every week. We turn out all the lights, light a few candles and the menorah as we sing the shema, and then have communion before (sometimes after) we eat dinner. We then generally sing "See ye first" and I'll read Josiah's picture bible to the kids.

Today, since I thought I'd be going over to TJ's tonight to try and fix the van, Brandy had ran out to the store to shop and I was home alone with the kids, something that doesn't happen very often. So I watched them dance and danced with them to some of the "Putomayo Presents" music on my computer, and noticed that Jaelle has a mean salsa step! I took some pictures and wrestled with them all, and then dug out the little Westminster Shorter Catechism and went over two questions with them, "What is the Chief End of Man? (Answer: Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever) and "What is God?" (Answer: "God is a Spirit, Infinite, Eternal, Unchangeable, In His Being, Wisdom, Power, Holiness, Justice, Goodness, and Truth") Josiah has both of them pretty much down, and Jaelle got close, I was satisfied with Enoch's mumbling attempts to repeat after me. I really like some of the question and answer stuff from that little book, it's edifying for me, and I can't think of a much better definition of "God"

God is a Spirit, Infinite, Eternal, Unchangeable, In His Being, Wisdom, Power, Holiness, Justice, Goodness, and TRUTH!

The kids just finished cleaning their room with a little help and a few spankings from mommy, and Josiah had me read to them from his picture bible, we got up til the Judges. Now Brandy will be reading Narnia to them - they're on the Last Battle, not sure what we'll read them next, I'm thinking the "Tower of Geburah" series by John White, I remember how much I loved those when I was little.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

what could I miss
in the crust of false bliss
blinking visions
fast flickering
Oh God, true God,
meat and milk,
blood and bone,
the dead and the Raised,
the one on the throne;
what could I miss
that could call for regret
in a world that's all paper
hollow fame, a plastic threat?
Babylon's wine,
precious blood of your saints
I have sipped from her hands
made a whore of myself
How could I
a man of twenty and nine
ten years in your service
lose sight of your mind?
Walk, walk in the light
while you have the true light
before that darkness curls in
with its roundabout sin
then how will you know
which way you should go?
Believe in the Light!
It's thicker than sin
and richer than the opulence
that thrusts its wares
from every screen
Christ touch my eyes
to see it's rotten
turned to dust and blown away
let your hands be strong upon me
peel the leeches off my skin
you are God
then what is money?
what are things?
and what is ease?
the droppings of the clinging bats
on which swarming roaches feed.
get me out of this decaying cave
be the sun, the warmth inside my blood
beat your flaming wings inside me
raise me up above the flood.