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On the Arts: Community

David A. VanderMeer

David A. VanderMeer is the minister of music and fine arts at First Presbyterian Church of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Engaging with visual art is a great way to consider diversity across thousands of years and thousands of miles and to remember the diversity in our own specific time and place.

To begin to explore the visual arts in relationship to the Eucharist for this column I again turned to Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, the summary report of the World Council of Churches in its effort to work toward church unity, published in 1982. This was also the year I began my own full-time service in the church. I marvel at the many ways the world and the church have changed in that forty-year period. Some of these changes have become challenges—we are constantly reminded of declining church membership, and many of us are too familiar with the “worship wars” of the past decades over what sort of music is right for worship. However, there have been many positive changes over the years, including the focus on liturgical renewal in most mainline Protestant denominations and an emphasis on sacramental practices, particularly in the PC(USA), that includes encouragement to celebrate communion much more often than a typical “first Sunday” schedule. As I look out at our congregations, I also see much more diversity and inclusivity among our worshipers and our worship leaders.

Weigh In, ink on paper, Jennifer Bunge

For me, one of the most exciting changes in the last four decades among Western Protestant churches has been a movement toward incorporation of visual art into the worship and mission of the church. Of course, it has been a process of re-incorporation, since art and the church have been in conversation in many places and eras in history. The visual arts are thriving in many churches, and my own experience suggests that many congregations have great interest in finding more ways for worshipers to experience visual art and express themselves using material. We know that listening and reading are not the only ways that people encounter and begin to comprehend their world. Words are wonderful, of course, but many people respond more intensely to visual stimuli. For me, the heavenly feast of the people of God calls not just for spoken liturgy, but also for musical, visual, tactile, and even olfactory liturgy! A few well-placed bread machines properly timed can create an aroma in your sanctuary that will welcome your worshipers and direct their attention to the sacrament they are about to experience.

In its discussion of the Eucharist, Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry states that “the sharing of one bread and the common cup in a given place demonstrates and effects the oneness of the sharers with Christ and with their fellow sharers in all times and places.” All times and all places—the communion of all the saints––includes believers of all ages and sizes and shapes and genders and nationalities and from all the areas and eras in which they live(d). When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are communing with the person sitting next to us in the pew, but also our great-grandmothers, Sojourner Truth, Queen Elizabeth I, J. S. Bach, Michelangelo, and Jesus himself. We come to our Lord’s supper.

One of the ways we can help our congregations get a sense of this experience is to use visual art. In the works that I reference in this article you will see images as diverse as the saints who gather at the table. The oldest piece is a fresco from the Church of St. Martin in France that dates from the twelth century. In contrast, The Feeding of Judas, a woodcut print by Indian artist Solomon Raj, was done in the twenty-first century—Raj died in 2019 at the age of ninety-eight and made art up until the time of his death. The print shows disciples gathered around the table behind Jesus, who is giving bread to a kneeling Judas.

Fresco from the Church of St. Martin, Vic-sur-St-Chartier, France, twelfth century

The Lord’s Supper, Jesus MAFA, 1973

People of the faith have been sharing the bread of life for two millennia. As our common meal foreshadows the heavenly banquet, the words from Luke 13:29, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God,” echo in art from east and west and north and south. The Lord’s Supper from the project JESUS MAFA in Cameroon shows disciples gathered around the table. JESUS MAFA refers to a collection of paintings of the life of Jesus created in Cameroon in the 1970s based upon community enactments of biblical scenes.

Moving from the south to the east, The Last Supper by Sadao Watanabe shows a last supper scene from a Japanese perspective using a stencil printing technique on handmade paper. Images of communion from all over the world remind us that we are communing with people all over the world.

In the Cup of the New Covenant, Jan Richardson

Engaging with visual art is a great way to consider diversity across thousands of years and thousands of miles and to remember the diversity in our own specific time and place. Artists Paul Stoub and Jan Richardson make images of tables where all are welcome. In Paul Stoub’s painting Unity, we see a full, round table from above with diverse ages, ethnicities, and abilities represented around it. Similarly, Jan Richardson’s collage The Best Supper shows a round table from above with many partaking in a meal and table friendship, including animals. Both of these works preach a sermon without any words attached.

Representational art may increase our understanding of what is being represented. But art can evoke many levels of response and many meanings. The abstract painting by Jan Richardson called The Cup of the Covenant speaks to me of mystery, majesty, and love. I cannot fully know how it speaks to you, but I can imagine that if I print this art on the cover of Sunday’s bulletin, at least some in the congregation will respond in deeply meaningful ways. For some, at least, the mystery of sacrament may be experienced most meaningfully through the mystery inherent in abstract art.

Communion has many faces—some somber and intense, some joyful and spirited. We can portray these many faces in our music, in the tone of our prayers, in the manner that we serve and receive the elements, and in the chalices and patens that we use. Sacrament is about material, so all the materials we use are important, including fabrics that drape the table and the bread we serve. Fabrics from around the world emphasize that the sacrament is for all of us, the smell of bread baking stirs our senses of taste and smell (as noted above, bread machines are a way to accomplish this), and a variety of different kind of breads adorning the table illustrate the abundance (and diversity) of our blessings.

As I gathered the images for this article, I turned to a serigraph by John August Swanson. I am always drawn to this image because I love the colors and the complexity in the details. The disciples’ robes are rainbows of color, and the border of the work is made of tiny illustrations, forming layers of images. In the end, this image feeds me, just as Holy Communion feeds me. Just as I finished this article I found a new image, The Last Supper by contemporary artist Christina Saj showing abstracted figures around a table with many layers of color and imagery. It was a completely unexpected gift of beauty from the artist and a gift of the Holy Spirit. Soli Deo Gloria.

Christina Saj, Last Supper, oil on canvas, 54″ x 72″, 2000

On Liturgy – 56.2

On Liturgy – 56.2

One Friday during a recent low point in our community’s COVID-19 infection rates, my husband and I bought tickets to a dinner show at an iconic jazz club in our city. The evening’s featured performer was a local musician who also happened to be a congregation member—I had not yet had the chance to meet him, and I was eager to hear his music.

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On Liturgy – 56.2

On Preaching – 56.2

In keeping with the Directory for Worship, Kaela (not her real name) was presented for baptism with neither undue haste nor undue delay. She was thirteen years old, wearing her backpack and clinging to a stuffed animal as she walked to the baptismal font. Her mothers had been Presbyterian for a little over a year—they joined soon after visiting our church’s booth at the downtown Pride festival the year before.

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