By Cameron J. Anderson
Some conversations are not easily forgotten. One morning last May, New York artist and long-time friend Chris Anderson called to share some devastating news: hundreds of her paintings, prints, and drawings had been destroyed in a fire that swept through the Bronx warehouse where they were being stored. Her life’s work, at least most of it, was gone. For those who don’t know Chris, she is a pioneering spirit in the art and faith community, an accomplished artist, a quick wit, and a mentor to many.
I listened in disbelief as she described what had happened, doing my best to offer the comfort I could. In that same season, she had suffered other losses. How, I wondered, would she manage going forward? Then, near the end our call, she volunteered, “I’m thinking about making some new work.” Amid considerable grief, Anderson felt the tug of her studio.
Five months later a new painting by Chris filled the space of my open question. She had submitted a triptych entitled Twenty-Seven Faces of “The Beautiful” to a new CIVA traveling exhibit. The work consists of three canvases measuring 18 x 18 inches, each containing a grid of smaller squares measuring 6 x 6 inches. Twenty-seven squares in all, each one contains a unique rendering of the Madonna and Child. Concerning this work Anderson writes:
For centuries artists have been drawn to “The Beautiful” portrayed in the relationship of Madonna and Child. In Twenty-Seven Faces of “The Beautiful,” I investigate only a few of the countless interpretations of the theme. I have chosen images that not only depict the subjects’ faces in closest compositional proximity, but also express most clearly the dynamics of intimacy – whether in a simple kiss, a touch, or an embrace. These private, ordinary, and everyday moments shared by the infant Jesus and his mother Mary become the profound standard bearer of “The Beautiful.”
Twenty-Seven Faces of “The Beautiful” is a brave piece and here is why. First, where religious art is concerned, images of the Madonna and Child are among the most clichéd. On occasion Chris has worked with other religious images, but her oeuvre mostly features large wall installations of contemporary subjects having to do with the land, suburban sprawl, the meaning of home, location and dislocation. Against this back drop, she turns now, late in her career, to smaller, devotionally-directed pieces. Indeed, while writing this short essay, Chris confirmed that “Twenty-Seven Faces” is the advent of an entirely new body of work. She has started something.
There is a second reason that makes this a courageous piece: Anderson’s bold mention of “The Beautiful” in her title and its association with Mary and her son Jesus further complicates the matter. Contemporary discourse about beauty remains complex, often contentious, and the mention here of its connection to the sacred puts it over the top.
Finally, and as if gunning for more trouble, “Twenty-Seven Faces” and its abundant Renaissance references is delivered to the viewer absent of irony. Chris paints as one who chooses to believe, even to worship. Inside the Christian community that is probably a safe move, but the sincere treatment of a biblical subject is not likely to advance her standing in the art world.
A further comment or two regarding Anderson’s repeated Madonna and Child image. In each of these 27 renderings, Mary is ever-attentive and in some, the seemingly restless Christ-child returns his mother’s adoring gaze. There is not, I think, a deeper human bond than that of mother to her child. Other loves may rival it, but I doubt that any surpass it.
Generally speaking, art inclined toward the sentimental is thought to be non-serious. But don’t confuse sentimentality with affection. The pair may seem to share a common origin. That is, an image or idea may warm our heart and, having recognized this, we are drawn forward – perhaps out of ourselves – toward some new state of mind and being. But the connection between sentimentality and affection cannot hold since the former longs for a lost moment or an unrealized hope while the latter draws us to real relationship and loving action. Affection manifests itself as devotion and declares that we are going forward together. When affection is absent, belief is hollowed out. But when affection is fully present, we attend to the people and things we love. If you are searching for belief, watch for the evidence of affection.
One final comment about Anderson’s triptych. As Mary attends to Jesus and he rests in her presence, the space between them abounds in knowledge. The Gospel of Luke confirms that Mary knows to whom she has given birth, and Jesus understands what it is that he has come to do. In a way and face to face, each understands the other. The suffering servant-born to Mary, came to teach and heal, to taste death and then resurrection, and, finally, to assume his cosmic and eternal rule. And so, in these frames, his gaze is also directed down, out, up, and away toward both the world that is the work of his hands and the one he has now entered as the Son of Man. It turns out that in these intimate Madonna and Child scenes, affection has already begun to undo every human Empire. Egypt, Babylon, and eventually Rome will be supplanted by the kingdom of God. In due course, every modern empire – no matter how unshakable or impermeable it may seem to us now – will fall.
On this Christmas Day and in the year to follow, perhaps you will find a quiet moment or two to explore the space that exists between the adoring eyes of Mary as she attends to her son and eyes of the one who came to seek and save us all, as he looks back toward her and out toward us.
Cameron J. Anderson is the Executive Director of CIVA and author of The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Church (IVP Academic, 2016).