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Giotto

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, Before 1337, Fresco, 270 x 230 cm, Upper Church of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Umbria, Universal Images Group North America LLC / DeAgostini / Alamy Stock Photo

James Hampton

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, c.1950–64, Mixed media, Smithsonian American Art Museum; Gift of anonymous donors, 1970.353.1-.116, © James Hampton (orphaned work); Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC / Art Resource, NY

Rowan LeCompte

Isaiah Clerestory Window, 2014, Stained glass, 7.2 x 3.2 m, Washington National Cathedral, S8 Window, Photo: Danielle Thomas, Courtesy of the Washington National Cathedral

The Healing Wounds of the Glory of God

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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.

 

References

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)