The seraphim above God’s throne proclaim what is known in the Christian liturgy as the trisagion: 'holy, holy, holy'. The holiness of God is the glory of divine love that fills the cosmos. The glory of divine love in Isaiah 6 holds together judgement with the hope for restoration and transformation. Each of the works of art in this exhibition illumines Isaiah’s picture of heavenly glory, judgement, and salvation.
James Hampton’s use of shimmering tins and foils and purple paper give his Throne the radiance of divine kingship. When light catches the foil of Hampton’s work, it refracts outward in all directions, much like the seraphic proclamation of God’s glory throughout the entire earth.
Rowan LeCompte’s Isaiah Window makes use of light too, though diffusing it, creating a visible harmony of colours and shades.
Giotto shows the divine glory mediated by a seraph, as the text of Isaiah does, but he makes this mediation christological. It is a crucified glory that wounds St Francis, marking him forever as an image of the overflowing excess of Christ’s love.
The wounding quality of Giotto’s seraphic glory can serve to remind us that Isaiah’s prophetic calling is one of judgement rather than of immediate consolation. Yet the fruitful tension in Isaiah 6:9–13 is that the judgement of God contains within it the promise of redemption—even if it is not readily apparent in the judgement itself. God will judge and punish; but God will also atone and redeem. The two restored chapels that frame the figure of Francis in Giotto’s image recall God’s commissioning of Francis: ‘My house lies in ruins; restore it’ (Bonaventure The Life of St. Francis, 2.1). The first phrase is judgement, the second the hope of restoration.
Divine judgement needs illumination. Israel’s exile is a calamity, a searing trauma in the biblical imagination. What message could be discerned in Israel’s imprisonment in Babylon? Without prophetic illumination, God’s judgement is opaque, inscrutable, even foreboding. The meaning of God’s judgement is like LeCompte’s stained glass window at night when no light shows through. No matter how intensely we examine the lancets, we can discern in them no sense, no order. Yet when lit by the sun, the glass comes alive with the hope of meaning and purpose.
Similarly, the prophet’s words of judgement bear within them a word of hope by the simple fact that God continues to speak to Israel. God is not silent; his judgement is not final, his punishment not opaque. The word from the throne is a covenantal judgement, wounding in order to heal. Hampton captures this tension perfectly by placing a placard high above The Throne. It is the apex of both his art and his theology: ‘Fear not’.
The wounding transformation begins with Isaiah himself. Who must Isaiah become in order to perform his divine vocation? He undergoes his own judgement and atonement (‘Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips!’; v.5) so that his identity can be transformed into that of a prophet who can perform his commission. The liturgical setting of the LeCompte window, like the setting of Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, befits this narrative of purgation, transformation, and mission. In the liturgical movement of the cathedral, one passes the Isaiah window on the way toward the eucharistic altar, there humbly to receive atonement and transformation. One passes the window again at the benediction, when one is sent out into the world in peace.
Just as Isaiah was transformed by his encounter with the seraph, so too was St Francis. When he received the stigmata, Francis’s flesh became a seraphic performance of Christ’s incarnate life. St Bonaventure relates a story of how Francis, burning with the fire of Christ’s charity as he travelled, touched the body of a companion who was shivering with cold. The touch of Francis’s holy flesh warmed the shivering man because Francis himself had become the seraph’s burning coal (v.6) that purifies, illumines, and enflames with the fires of love. Francis performs both the reality of Christ and the seraph. Like Isaiah, he beholds the glory of God, suffers transformation, and receives the vocation to go into the world, singing the seraphic trisagion amidst the choruses of Babylon.
Bonaventure. The Life of St Francis. 1978. Trans by Ewert Cousins, in The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St Francis, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press)
6 In the year that King Uzziʹah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven. 8And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” 9And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
‘Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.’
10Make the heart of this people fat,
and their ears heavy,
and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without men,
and the land is utterly desolate,
12and the Lord removes men far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.