Saturday, January 28, 2012

Christ and the Steward of God’s Creation

Image Collage (2012) by Bro. Jeffrey Wilson, T.O.R. [1]

(Click on image to view larger picture)


This work was first conceived after I wrote a reflection on the one year anniversary of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and Gulf of Mexico oil spill (http://franciscanfriarstor.blogspot.com/2011/04/holy-week-2011-way-we-treat-ourselves.html). The reflection centered around a statement that Pope Benedict XVI made in Caritas in Veritate, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa” (¶51). Pope Benedict’s statement echoes a quote that is popularly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.” I wanted to visually depict the spirit of these two statements. Below are some of my initial thoughts and reflections on the symbolism of the images in the collage. Although these notes do not reflect every conceivable aspect of the collage, I hope that they may assist in making this collage a beneficial and fruitful form of meditation and prayer.


– Bro. Jeffrey Wilson, T.O.R.

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Christ: The image of Christ is taken from Salvador Dalí’s, Christ of St. John of the Cross, which many consider to be the greatest religious painting of the 20th century. In his work, Dalí took the lone figure standing at the far left of the painting from a drawing by Diego Velázquez and the figure standing by the boat from Louis Le Nain’s Peasants Before Their House. In a similar manner, I have used Dalí’s image of Christ for this collage.

The crucified Christ is hovering over the landscape representing that Christ’s passion and death is the source of healing and reconciliation for the violence and division depicted in the scene below. The original sin of Adam and Eve wounded the created order, both humanity and the rest of creation. Therefore, Christ’s salvation and restoration heals all creation; both humanity and the rest of creation. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ recreates all things. “And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Rev 21:5).[2] “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:19-21).

Throne: As Christ is the source of healing and reconciliation, the throne represents the source of division; domination over others, the domination over both humans and the rest of creation. The stone foundation disperses the weight of domination and oppression evenly among the humans on the left (humanity) and the elephant on the right (the rest of creation). Below the throne, a rift begins to open in the ground and spreads out towards the observer, growing wider as it goes. The rift represents the growing division and alienation between humanity and the rest of creation.

The two serpent armrests represent the direct opposites, or antitheses, to the great commandment given by Jesus. “The first is this, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29-31). The opposite of loving God with all one’s heart is idolatry. St. Paul equates idolatry to greed; “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (Col 3:5). “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph 5:5). The serpent head on the man’s left hand side symbolizes greed/idolatry. Below the serpent’s head, lies a stack of money and a bag that is tied tightly closed. While the money represents monetary greed, the cinched bag represents those things that we covet as our own, and thus, greedily desire above God. In other words, they are our idols.

The serpent head on the man’s right hand side symbolizes the opposite of loving one’s neighbor as oneself which are malice, violence, and unjust war. The right hand side is customarily a warrior’s weapon hand. Below the serpent’s head are a machine gun and a gurkha knife, tools that can be used for violence and war. “Simeon and Levi, brothers indeed, weapons of violence are their knives. Let not my person enter their council, or my honor be joined with their company; For in their fury they killed men, at their whim they maimed oxen. Cursed be their fury so fierce, and their rage so cruel!” (Gen 49:5-7).

The throne rests on two stone tiers, or platforms, that serve as the foundation. The front of the top tier is engraved with seven symbols representing the seven deadly sins while the bottom tier is engraved with eleven symbols representing various expressions of the seven deadly sins in today’s culture. The lower symbols are meant to help interpret the corresponding symbols above them, starting from the lower tier to the upper tier and on to the two serpent armrests.

Man and woman on the throne platform: The man sitting on the throne represents the leaders in society, those in governments, businesses, and communities. He holds a posture of superiority and dominance. He believes that the two serpent armrests are at his service. However, he is actually slave to them. “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34). His head is wrapped in a white cloth and he is holding his face in his left hand. In his right hand, he holds on object representing the double helix of human DNA topped by an atom with the Earth as the nucleus. This object represents the human desire to control and manipulate every aspect of created order, from designer babies to the splitting of the atom. The man views the Earth and all of God’s creation as his own possession and not as the gift that it truly is.

The woman standing behind the man is an image of Diana Moore’s sculpture, Figure of Justice, and represents those who do not actively engage in the exploitation, oppression, and violence but still benefit from these actions. She is tying a blindfold around her eyes to insulate herself from the truth around her. In many ways, she is like the rich man who ignored the needs of Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of sin” (¶1859).

Two men holding up the throne: The two men holding up the throne represent those people who are exploited and oppressed for the benefit of others. The pairing represents solidarity and philia love (the love of friendship) among the human race despite the presence of exploitation and oppression. The man on the left/front is an image of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, The Shade, while the man on the right/back is an image of Evan Benelli’s sculpture, Sisyphus.

† Young woman and man sitting under the throne: The young woman and man sitting under the throne represent those in despair from exploitation and oppression and the love that can support them. The young man is an image from Robert Shure’s sculpture at the Boston Irish Famine Memorial. The young woman is an image of Lyn Maxwell’s sculpture, Sitting Arab Woman.

† Man and woman kneeling: The man and woman kneeling represent the “cry of the poor;” those who are in anguish and who are completely ignored by those who have power and influence in society. “Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves call out and not be answered” (Pr 21:13). The man is an image from Kenneth Treister’s sculptures at the Miami Holocaust Memorial. The woman is an image of Lyn Maxwell’s sculpture, Famine.

† Elephant: The elephant is the largest living land animal on Earth and represents creation that is exploited and oppressed by humans. God gave the Earth to humans in order to care for our needs and it is meant to be used wisely. However, there are times when God’s creation is exploited and oppressed for the sake of human greed and because of simple apathy.

† Prophet and the lion: On the right of the collage, a prophet and lion stand on a cliff and look out over the scene. The paring of the prophet and the lion represents truth and justice and the proper relationship between humans and the rest of creation. “The lion has roared, who would not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken, who would not prophesy?” (Am 3:8). “Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them! I, the LORD, have created this” (Is 45:8). “I will listen for what God, the LORD, has to say; surely he will speak of peace to his people and to his faithful. Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Truth will spring from the earth; justice will look down from heaven” (Ps 85:9, 11-12).

The prophet is an image of Walter Seymour Allward’s sculpture, Justicia. The prophet standing on the cliff is inspired by Gustave Doré’s engraving, The Prophet Amos. The Prophet Amos pronounces various crimes committed by the nations: “Because they threshed Gilead with sledges of iron (Am 1:3); Because they exiled an entire population (1:6); Because they […] did not remember their covenant of brotherhood (1:9); Because he pursued his brother with the sword, suppressing all pity, persisting in his anger, his wrath raging without end (1:11); Because they ripped open pregnant women (1:13); Because they hand over the just for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals; They trample the heads of the destitute into the dust of the earth, and force the lowly out of the way” (2:6-7). The crucifix that the prophet is holding represents the “Christian lens” of the prophet, that is, the Christian perspective and understanding of the proper stewardship and care for God’s creation. This perspective is “Christocentric” and is reflected in St. Paul’s Christ hymn; “He is the image of the invisible God the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible [...] all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17).

The lion is an image of a Sir Thomas Brock’s sculpture, Agriculture, at Queen Victoria Memorial, Buckingham Palace. The lion is inspired by several sources such as the lion being the king of the animal kingdom, the Lion of Justice, and the Lion of Judah. At first, it may appear that the lion is looking directly at the observer. However, upon closer observation, one discovers that the lion is actually looking over the observer’s shoulder. The prophet is looking over the violence of the scene while the lion is looking at the violence that is occurring back behind the observer in their society. The observer is invited to follow the lion’s gaze and examine the reality of their own situation. Concerning the relationship between humanity and the environment, Pope Benedict XVI explains, “This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments” (Caritas in Veritate, ¶51).

† Girl in red: The girl is an image of one of Kenneth Treister’s sculptures at the Miami Holocaust Memorial. The girl in red is inspired by the girl with the red winter coat in the Steven Spielberg’s movie, Schindler’s List. In the documentary, Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust, Spielberg discusses the symbolism of the girl in red and explains, “America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death. It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone’s radar, but no one did anything about it. And that’s why I wanted to bring the color red in.”

In the collage, the girl in red represents the young innocent victims of violence and war. In one sense, she represents the loss of innocence and the vulnerability of the orphan. Righteousness in the Old Testament was often measured by how one treated the most vulnerable in society: widows, resident aliens, and orphans. The color red represents the blood of the innocent and the sin of those that shed this innocent blood. “When you spread out your hands, I will close my eyes to you; Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow. Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool” (Is 1:15-18).

In addition, the color red has a second meaning which is tied to the San Damiano Cross. The San Damiano Cross depicts blood rolling down Christ’s arms and flowing from his pierced side and feet onto the other figures in the scene. This represents Christ’s redeeming blood that washes his disciples clean and blesses them. In a similar manner, the color red in the collage represents Christ’s redeeming blood. Dalí’s image of Christ is meant to be beautiful so as to be a direct opposite, or antithesis, to the image of Christ in Matthias Grünewald’s The Crucifixion. Thus, Dalí’s image of Christ does not bear any nails or reveal any blood. The collage tries to balance the beauty of Dalí’s image of Christ with images of Christ’s passion that are placed into the scene below. The red of the girl’s clothing represents Christ’s saving blood. At the bottom of the scene, a nail embedded in a rock represents Christ’s crucifixion nails while a rock opening of a geyser represents Christ’s open wounds and the living water that flows from Christ’s side.

† Human bodies: The human bodies at the bottom right of the scene are an image from George Segal’s sculpture, The Holocaust, at Legion of Honor Park in San Francisco. They represent the victims of violence, war, and genocide. The blending and shading of the bodies is inspired by the “atomic shadows” left by human bodies from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb explosions. The bodies also bring to mind Carl Sandburg’s poem, Grass:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.
However, violence and destruction have left the scene devoid of any living vegetation. In this case, the grass has not been allowed to work.

† City buildings: The city in the background is comprised of the largest buildings in the world. They represent unhealthy progress and development, that is, seeking progress for the sake of progress which is fueled by pride, consumerism, and the belief that bigger/more is better. In many ways, the city can be viewed as a modern day Tower of Babel. “Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves’” (Gen 11:4). Pope Benedict XVI explains, “Openness to life is at the center of true development. […] The acceptance of life strengthens moral fiber and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual” (Caritas in Veritate, ¶28).

† Oil covered lake: The oil covered lake represents environmental pollution and is particularly inspired by the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Three oil covered birds add to the environmental disaster scene. Instead of offering God the sweet aroma of the fruits of the Earth, a thick, black, toxic smoke rises into the heavens. “Awake, north wind! Come, south wind! Blow upon my garden that its perfumes may spread abroad. Let my lover come to his garden and eat its fruits of choicest yield” (Sg 4:16). “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2 Cor 2:14-16).

† Buffalo bones: The dead buffalo, or bison, adds to the scene of environmental violence. Many believe that, at one time, the buffalo represented the largest population of any wild land mammal on Earth. However, they almost became extinct in the 19th century do to over hunting. In fact, during the wars with the Native Americans, the U.S. Army encouraged the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo in order to deprive the Native Americans of their main food source. The violence against the buffalo represented violence against humans as well.

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[1] The image of the Martian landscape and cliff are from NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org.

[2] New Testament scripture quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation while Old Testament scripture quotes are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) translation unless otherwise noted.

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