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Transpositions Has Moved

May 19, 2011

As of tomorrow morning, the 19th of May, this site will be history and will be the new Transpositions, so make sure to add this to your bookmarks and stop by for a visit. We invite all of you who have been following Transpositions to switch over to the new site, which means subscribing to our new RSS feed, and getting updates through Facebook and Twitter. If you were subscribed to this blog by email, we will be transferring your email subscription for you, and you may have already received a notice in your inbox.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in our conversations about theology and the arts over the past year, and we look forward to many to come at the new Transpositions!

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art

May 19, 2011

Elijah Wade Smith is a musician and visual artist pursuing his PhD at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St Mary’s College, the University of St Andrews, as well as ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Scotland. He contributes to the blogs Lost in the Cloud and Things and Stuff.

Elijah has recently published a seven part essay titled “The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art” on his blog Things and Stuff.  The original title for this essay was The Development and Justification of Violent and Extreme Depictions of Suffering in European Crucifixion Scenes of the Late Middle Ages’, but this was a bit cumbersome. He has graceously allowed us to post the introduction of his essay on Transpositions, and you can view the other parts of his essay by using the links below:

  1. Introduction
  2. Theological and ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church
  3. Social and cultural developments in the Western Church
  4. The conflated Man of Sorrows’
  5. The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’
  6. Grünewalds masterpiece
  7. Conclusion

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The first time a Westerner sees the piece they might be unsure of what to make of it.  The nude figure resembles familiar depictions of the Passion of Christ, bearing a crown of thorns, sitting with his head slumped over and eyes closed.  But there are also two perplexing differences: this Christ is hooked up to an IV and covered with sores.  One reads the title: Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS.1

This is American artist Maxwell Lawton’s definitive work, but what is it doing?  With such a striking representation of Christ perhaps Lawton is making a critique of some sort.  Is it a profane image intended to mock American Christianity’s relative apathy toward the global AIDS crisis or more profane yet: to irreverently associate the judgmental American Evangelical view of Christ with the stigma-ridden communities associated with AIDS simply to upset conservative onlookers?  Or was it Lawton’s goal to communicate something far more profound, relevant, personal and theologically significant?

When we look into the long history of Christian art Lawton’s Christ with AIDS bears a striking resemblance to the images of Christ’s Passion that appeared in late medieval Europe from which he is intentionally borrowing.  During this period we find images depicting extreme suffering in the context of a graphically violent—and in some respects, non-historical—crucifixion scene.  It is our argument that these depictions of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif (in contrast to the common first-millennium depiction of ‘Christ in Victory’ motif) are justifiable in light of the developing theological, ecclesiastical and societal/cultural context of Europe in the Late Middle Ages.  We will also analyse how these developments were demonstrated in late medieval religious art, paying special attention to Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.2

Read parts twothreefourfivesix, and seven at Things & Stuff.

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1 Maxwell Lawton, Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS, 1994, St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town.  Maxwell Lawton, ‘Maxwell Lawton: Gallery’; Available from; Internet; accessed 28 April 2011.
2 It must be acknowledged that even within the narrow context of the West—the Roman Catholic Church—these changes in devotional practice take place at different rates in different locations.  Still, it is possible—with the evidence at our disposal—to come to definitive conclusions for Europe in general regarding its development.  See Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 63.

The Meaning of a Photograph?

May 18, 2011

It is my intention to present – through the medium of photography – intuitive observations of the natural world which may have meaning to the spectators. – Ansel Adams

Transpositions is Moving!

May 16, 2011

On Friday morning, Transpositions will be moving to a new and improved site, and we wanted to let you know now so that you can be prepared to move with us. We are setting up an automatic redirection service from this current site and will be transferring those who have signed up to receive emails, but if you are following us with a RSS feeds, you will need to subscribe to the new feed once we go live. At this point, we are just giving advance notice, but we will give all the instructions on the new site this Friday.

In the meantime, you can ‘like’ our Facebook page and definitely stay tuned to Twitter where we will be providing updates. Thanks to all of you who have followed Transpositions over the last year, and we look forward to continuing our conversations on theology and the arts at our new location.

Ethics and the Implicit Beholder

May 16, 2011

Lately, I have been thinking about how when we look at a painting we not only complete or finish what the artist began, but we also can become unwitting participants in the fictional world of the painting. In his wonderful essay “The Work of Art and Its Beholder,” Wolfgang Kemp argues: “In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception.” Kemp’s essay is essentially an explanation of ‘aesthetic reception,’ a methodological approach to art history, which takes this aspect of works of art very seriously. Aesthetic reception recognizes that works of art are made for an “implicit beholder” and that looking at works of art involves an “asymmetrical” communication between the artist and the real beholder.

 He develops his theory through an interesting analysis of Nicolas Maes’ The Eavesdropper (1655above). Our status as ‘implicit beholders’  is obvious because the painting addresses the viewer through the maid who looks ‘out’ of the painting. The painting is a comment on the moral implications of looking, and it invites consideration of when an onlooker becomes an eavesdropper.  In a sense, The Eavesdropper provides the viewer with a fictional choice. Should we join the maid in her invitation to be an eavesdropper? Should we pull back the curtain? Although the maid invites us into the scene, it is, of course, impossible to see or hear what is happening in the room beyond.  As Kemp says, it is “by the art’s grace [that] we have “only” the painting.”

After reading Kemp’s discussion of The Eavesdropper, I was reminded of the work of contemporary painter Eric Fischl. Many of his paintings, like Maes’, have a domestic setting, but in these familiar and intimate settings (at least for those who live in homes like them) Fischl often confronts us with disturbing scenes.  What is most interesting about Fischl’s work, however, is his ability to make the viewer feel as though he is witnessing and potentially implicated in the scene before him.


His painting The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching (2000, above), masterfully draws the viewer into the action of the scene. A middle aged man sits, nude, upon a white chair covered in a strikingly red floral patter. He looks straight at me, scrutinizes me. I become aware of a shadow on the wall, and I recognize that a woman is undressing before this man, and that I am somehow standing in her place. What relationship do these two people have? What exactly is going on here? Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved by looking at this painting. I am thrown into the scene and become a complicit participant as this narrative unfolds. While Maes offers us the grace of a curtain, the only grace offered by Fischl is that we do not see what happens next.  The bed directly behind the man suggests where the story is headed, and his gaze is hardly one of love and care.

Both Maes and Fischl place the viewer into awkward positions.  By simply looking at these paintings we are caught up in a tense moment when some choice, or some action, is demanded of us.  While such a position can be unnerving, it may help us to explore a moral dilemma in a ‘safe place.’  Furthermore, they may also help us to develop sympathy for others faced with difficult decisions.  Because we are participants in these scenes, we cannot simply judge the actions displayed as though we are on the ‘outside.’  In a fictional, and yet powerful, way we stand in the shoes of another.

Image Credit: The Eavesdropper and The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching

C. S. Lewis: Writer and Poet

May 14, 2011

Review of  Part III: Writer (chapters 19-21). Alan Jacobs, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” 265-280; Peter J. Schakel, “Til We Have Faces,” 281-293; Malcolm Guite, “Poet,” 294-310 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Editors., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. This review is the final in our week long series!

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The final three chapters by Alan Jacobs, Peter Schakel and Malcolm Guite, like the others of Part III: Writer are occupied with Lewis as a writer of fiction and poetry.

Jacobs’ chapter on “The Chronicles of Narnia” explores why Lewis might have chosen to write fiction for children, despite many scholars finding it an odd choice for an older childless literature Professor. Both Danny Gabelman and Steve Schuler have expressed disappointment in the lack of consideration of links with Lewis’s fiction and his most significant fictional influences in their reviews of the first two sections of the Companion. Jacobs almost single handedly saves this volume from those charges being wholly proved. His discussion of faery is also particularly strong (271-274).

Jacobs also demonstrates the way in which Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia has shifted the Lewisian scholarly universe, though his assertion that Ward’s argument is ‘iron-clad’ seems prone to claims of overstatement, even though I too agree that it is particularly persuasive scholarship (269). Jacobs argues persuasively that Ward’s argument problematizes Lewis’s suggestion that he was ‘imaginative man’ and ‘religious writer’ (269). Jacobs questions the reality of Lewis’ authorial statements. The last section of the chapter is also concerned with assessing the scholarly impact of Planet Narnia (2008) which he connects with his argument about sovereignty (discussed below).

So too does he question Lewis’s views (as reported by Walter Hooper) on the ordering of the series. This is not a new argument, and it seems ill-placed in the midst of this chapter. Moreover, this section contains an odd assertion that Jacobs knows best the ordering, and that Lewis, if he disagreed with Jacobs, is “mistaken”:

If Lewis really and truly thought that the series was begun with The Magicians Nephew, he was simply mistaken. The original order of publication is the best for any reader wishing to enter Narnia. (271)

What is most odd about this assertion is that the previous page was spent explaining a different ordering based on internal consistency.  All in all, this section doesn’t advance the chapter, providing too little information for those who’ve not come across the debate before while casting aspersions without sufficient evidence which fails to satisfy those that are familiar with the debate. It may have been better to leave this section out altogether as it curiously diminishes an otherwise strong chapter.

There is only one section in this chapter where Jacobs offers a substantive critical argument. Titled ‘Disputed Sovereignty,’ the section contends that the ‘story in itself’ of The Chronicles of Narnia is that of sovereignty, the crown’s rightful heir and usurpation of the throne. It’s a generally straightforward critical argument which concludes in a very brief summary which restates the argument that the Narnian Chronicles are an allegorical representation of the Christian gospel.  The bald assertion isn’t so much the problem as the lack of links made throughout the ‘disputed sovereignty discussion’ with Jacobs’ conclusion. It is a difficult argument to follow to its conclusion if one doesn’t already have a background in the scholarship.  Jacobs offers no textual evidence and no real framework by which this interpretation comes about:

In short: there is a King of Kings and Lord of Lords whose Son is the rightful ruler of this world. Indeed, through that Son all things were made, and the world will end when he ‘comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, though ‘his kingdom will have no end’, in the words of the Nicene Creed. Meanwhile, in these in-between times, the rulership of Earth is claimed by an Adversary, the Prince of this world. And what is asked of all Lewis’s characters is simple, as the biblical Joshua put it, to ‘choose this day’ whom they will serve. (275-6)

In many ways this chapter is strong, but one wonders what might have been had Jacobs taken his end point as his beginning: “But understood more deeply and fully, the Chronicles, with their elaborate complement of images, contribute to an askesis, a spiritual exercise. They are a kind of training in how to long and who, to long for” (279).

Peter S. Schakel’s chapter considers Lewis’s last published work of fiction: “Til We Have Faces.” Schakel offers a chapter particularly well suited to the purpose and likely audience of the Companion. He offers a overview of the background, form, and themes of Til We Have Faces in a manner that will guide those looking for a first foray into research about the work. He gives a nod to many of the strains of criticism most prevalent and finishes by suggesting that this work is indeed work of high critical praise, though he wonders whether given Lewis’s aim for the work, he may have fallen short of the expectations of his reading audience. Like Jacobs, it is Schakel’s final line that offers insight into his own interpretative approach: “Likewise readers must learn how to see what they are shown by the myth, shown – or enabled to taste – what the essence of Christianity is, and not simply told what it is about” (290).

In the last chapter of the Companion, Malcolm Guite explores Lewis as a “Poet” (294-310). While first acknowledging Lewis’s formidable powers as a poetry critic, Guite sees his task to assess his poetic output anew. Guite is well placed for this task, and as very few are able, he makes reading poetic criticism feel like refreshment. Guite argues persuasively for a more charitable reading of Lewis’s verse suggesting that he is much more concerned with the crises of modernity than has been acknowledged and his “redemptive reintegration” in all areas of his work is equally apparent in his poetry (308). The strength of this chapter is in Guite’s even handed assessment of Lewis’s poetry that offers a reading which highlights the influence of Owen Barfield, W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot. It also shows that Lewis’s poetry is better than the middling to minor poet status he’s been heretofore awarded. Lewis is considered a war poet, a contemporary poet concerned with modernity, and a poet within the Irish tradition of Yeats (which does accord with his birth).  In many aspects this is the most original of the final three chapters, and, I would argue, one of the Companion’s contributions most likely to have enduring impact on Lewis scholarship.


I hope you’ve enjoyed the extended review of the Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis over the past week. As a final point, if you are looking for a useful addition to your Lewis library either as a student or a professor, there is much in this Companion to commend it, not least the bibliography which offers a good selection of secondary sources that go beyond the popular and the most obvious.

C. S. Lewis: Writer (of journeying and heavenly things)

May 13, 2011

Guest Contributor, Travis Buchanan offers this discussion of Part III: Writer (chapters 16-18). The discussion below assumes familiarity with David Jasper, “The Pilgrim’s Regress and Suprised by Joy,” 223-236; T.A. Shippey, “The Ransom Trilogy,” 237-250; Jerry L Walls, “The Great Divorce,” 251-264 from Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  2010.

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Conveniently, all six of the works by Lewis surveyed in these three chapters from the Cambridge Companion cohere in that they are concerned at various levels with the motif of a heavenly journey of one kind or another. Taking them in order: in The Pilgrim’s Regress we are exposed to John’s allegorical journey toward Christianity; in Surprised by Joy Lewis recounts for us his own intellectual and spiritual  journey ‘from “popular realism” to Philosophical Idealism; from Idealism to Pantheism; from Pantheism to Theism; and [finally] from theism to Christianity’ (1943/1976, 5), a figurative and actual heavenly destination; in the Ransom trilogy, Ransom first travels to space which he discovers is not the vast lifeless vacuum of popular science but the true and living heavens, teeming with life, as he voyages first to Malacandra (or Mars) in Out of the Silent Planet and then to Perelandra (or Venus) in Perelandra. The final installment (That Hideous Strength) concludes in a reversal of the first two books with rather a descent of the heavenly deities of our solar system to earth to frustrate the demonically-inspired plans of the N.I.C.E.; and finally, The Great Divorce narrates the dream or visionary journey from purgatory-hell to heaven of a particular man. One cannot read these works and fail to conclude with Jasper that ‘the pursuit of joy’ ‘finally defined for [Lewis] in Christianity’ ‘was, indeed, the central quest of his life’ (227–228). It may be that Jasper is more interested in ‘that Romantic longing which drives the journey’ in pursuit of joy than any ‘theological destination’ in which it might culminate (223), but he is mistaken in his claim that Lewis is too. Jasper errs in implying that Lewis (as well as his great influence and heavenly guide in The Great Divorce, George MacDonald) would affirm the Romantic characteristic that ‘it is not the arrival itself but the journeying and the joyful anticipation which are the true homecoming’ (224). Apparently this affects how Jasper reads Lewis’s accounts, for he says of Regress that ‘the journey and the quest of this book continue to haunt the reader, even if the final goal of Lewis’s Christianity itself finally fails to attract or persuade’ (225). In other words, it is the Romantic quest that matters (as far as Jasper is concerned in this chapter), and not the theological destination at its end.

Fittingly, Lewis might answer Jasper from the book reviewed in the third of these chapters here considered, The Great Divorce. In an exchange between a liberally-minded clerical ghost resistant to ‘a final answer’, and insistent on always being given ‘the free play of Mind’ defined by unending inquiry and the contention (not dissimilar to Jasper’s) that ‘to travel hopefully is better than to arrive’, one of the ‘Bright People’ who inhabit heaven countered as follows:

If that were true, and known to be true, how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for. […]You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched. […] Listen! Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now. […] Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage. (1946/1996, 43–44)

Perhaps one factor contributing to the reason that for some Lewis might paint the earthly journey more interestingly than the heavenly destination (or, similarly, why Milton’s Satan might receive more praise than his characterization of unfallen angels or of God the Father or God the Son for that matter) is that the fallen sphere (wherein the whole life of the Christian is one, as Augustine said, of ‘holy longing’) is more accessible and so describable than the heavenly one, though Lewis does well even there, as the Ransom trilogy and The Great Divorce especially testify. The difficultly of describing the Christian’s eternal home is one not unique to Lewis however. Scripture encounters the same problem, and thus its attempts to picture the eternal state are thrown back upon earthly imagery (thrones and jewels and temples and rivers and trees).

But what else could serve other than metaphor and analogy to make the unpicturable intelligible to its mortal audience? The apostle Paul expresses this difficulty in describing what he witnessed when he was ‘caught up to the third heaven’ by baldly stating that there he ‘heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter’ (2 Cor. 12:2, 4). But how exactly would one relate to humans ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9)? Or as Jesus questioned Nicodemus regarding being born again, ‘If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?’ (John 3:12). Lewis puts his finger on the problem in his second preface to Screwtape Letters in confessing he bore

a sort of grudge against my book for not being a different book which no one could write. Ideally, Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient’s guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lopsided. But who could supply the deficiency? Even if a man—and he would have to be a far better man than I—could scale the spiritual heights required, what ‘answerable style’ could he use? For the style would really be part of the content. Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven. (1961, xiv)

The journey toward joy is immensely interesting, especially when depicted by as gifted a writer and as deep a thinker as Lewis. But we must not be so captivated by his focus upon Desire, and he would warn us not to be, that we lose sight of Desire’s end, the object for which it exists, which in this case is a Subject—God himself. The point as Lewis would stress is to get ‘further up and further in’ (as in The Last Battle), to scale the distant mountains (as in The Great Divorce). And so the first words spoken to the ‘good and faithful servant’ by his master are not, ‘My what a journey you’ve had—to travel hopefully is better than to arrive you know . . .’ but rather an invitation to come ‘further up and further in’: ‘Enter into the joy of your master’ (Matt. 25:23).

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Travis Buchanan just completed his M.Litt. at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of St Andrews and is beginning research for his PhD.