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The Episcopal cathedral in Chicago is hosting a display of the " Keiskamma Altarpiece ." Made by artists in Hamburg, South Africa, the altarpiece is a monumental needlework, combining fabric, beads, wire work and photographs, and reproduces the form and dimensions of Matthias Grüenewald’s circa 1515 " Isenheim Altarpiece ." Described as a "message of hope for people who are contending with the devastation that AIDS has wrought in their lives in the midst of poverty and other hardships," the work was first shown in North America last month in Toronto as part of the sixteenth International AIDS Conference. From Chicago it travels to UCLA, where it will be displayed in the university’s Prosser Museum of Art as part of the UCLA AIDS Project . The cathedral has posted photographs of the altarpiece on its website. And although a good friend of mine at the cathedral tells me that the photos come nowhere near to doing the work justice, even on my computer screen it looks splendid. Here’s the description of the panels provided by the cathedral:
[T]he Keiskamma Altarpiece offers solace, strength, and inspiration. The Keiskamma Altarpiece depicts the annunciation, crucifixion, resurrection, and other events from the New Testament from the point-of-view of the people of the Keiskamma region. It is constructed as a series of hinged panels that open to reveal three "layers": The closed altar depicts the crucifixion using local Xhosa imagery. The biblical figures are replaced with women and men from Hamburg and the surrounding areas. In the position of the crucified Christ is a widow in Xhosa traditional mourning with an old lady and children beside her. On either side are two elderly women who have been stalwarts of the community and who have borne much grief. When the first panels are opened, the altar presents a vision of hope, redemption, and restoration. The vibrantly colored images depict trees, birds, fish, cattle, spiritual worship, and traditional village life. This idealized picture of Hamburg and environs includes the large figure of a local prophet, a man wearing a red dress who runs in the sand to make decorative prayer patterns with his feet. The innermost panels depict the resurrection using life-size photographs by Tanya Jordaan of three grandmothers and their grandchildren framed in ornate beadwork. This section of the altar represents the wisdom of the old and the hope for the new generation.
A couple of points. First, the folks in Chicago are to be thanked for hosting the altarpiece and sharing it with the world on their website. It’s a fair amount of effort to get all that done, and if the folks at St. James hadn’t stepped up, few of us would be able to see it. Second, seeing the altarpiece installed in the front of the cathedral shows just how dull the place looks without it. The cathedral is being remodeled, and they might want to consider incorporating something as beautiful as that altarpiece in their new sanctuary. And I expect they’re already thinking along those lines. Third, the Keiskamma Altarpiece is a work of a community for a community. The folks in Hamburg didn’t make that altarpiece for Chicago or Toronto or UCLA; they’ve loaned it to them. They made it for themselves as an act of their own devotion. And if those South Africans can produce something as radiant as that altarpiece, we have to ask why congregations in Grand Rapids and Toledo and Bakersfield can’t do the same. I think they can. So let’s get on it. My fourth point is more delicate, and conceivably inappropriate. I’ve never been to South Africa. I don’t know the artists who made this piece and I don’t know what it means in their community, so I offer an apology to them if I offend them by misunderstanding their work. My observations are of an ex-Episcopalian American looking at their altarpiece displayed in an American church. It’s very beautiful and deeply sad. Grüenewald’s painting is all about Jesus¯Jesus conceived, Jesus serenaded by angels at his birth, Jesus loved by his mother, Jesus proclaimed as the Lamb of God, Jesus crucified, Jesus dead and buried, Jesus raised in victory. But Jesus has evaporated in the Hamburg tapestry. Where Grünewald has the suffering Lord, not only lacerated by thorns and nails but bearing the marks of ergotoxicosis, the South Africans have a widow in mourning standing in front of a pale cross. Where Grünewald has a triumphant risen Lord, the South Africans have photographs of themselves. The shape of the work of art makes reference to the Christian past, and there is that pale cross on one panel, but the presence of a faith in the crucified, risen, and to-come-again Lord of All is almost muted to the point of near silence. And displayed in that church¯the cathedral from which Frank Griswold was elevated from bishop of Chicago to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the man who presided over the Episcopal Church’s official rejection of the final authority of the Scriptures and the necessity of Christ for salvation¯it’s hard to look at that splendid tapestry in the Cathedral of St. James and not see it as an icon for the Episcopal Church, a confession in which Jesus of Nazareth has become a faint memory or a quaint tradition. Senator-priest Danforth carefully forgot to mention him during his sermon at President’s Reagan’s funeral. The presiding bishopess-elect refers to him as a woman. And the clergy maintain that his words are the inventions of an irrelevant past, charming but ineffectual unless modified for current needs. Like that final panel in the tapestry, what’s really important in the Episcopal Church is us, here and now, not the man of Nazareth, Jesus, back there, then, and coming as judge. And those bits of cloth and color and photography are supposed to give me "solace, strength, and inspiration." Yes, they are beautiful, pleasant, delightful to look at. But I wonder if they will help me be faithful to my wife when I don’t want to be, or help me be generous when everything in me compels me to tighten my fist, or if they will lead me to kiss a leper. I wonder if they will wipe away my tears. I wonder if they will raise me from the dead. Nope, don’t think so. It’s gonna take a whole lot more than fancy needlework to wash away my sins. AIDS is terrible, in Africa or in San Francisco, and we are all deeply diminished by it wherever and however it appears. But so too is breast cancer, so too was the plague, and it seems to me that Grüenewald knew that all suffering is balmed by Jesus’ care, healed by his suffering, and transfigured through his resurrection. But this isn’t a story that you get from the Keiskamma Altarpiece, and it’s not a story the current Episcopal Church seems eager to tell. So like reading the Book of Common Prayer in a current Episcopal Church, that Keiskamma Altarpiece is very beautiful, and deeply sad.

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