Prepare for winter with Benjamin Dewey’s ‘Game of Thrones’ prints

Have Jon Snow and Daenarys Targaryen face off on your wall before they face off on TV.

Benjamin Dewey, artist for The Autumnlands and creator of The Tragedy Series, will help hype you for the return of A Game of Thrones with these two prints, featuring everyone’s favorite Mother of Dragons and King in the North.

It’s more than likely that we’ll see Jon Snow and Daenarys Targaryen stand face to face at some point before the series ends, so why not hang these two prints up facing each other and live out that scene now?

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New site, The Pushpin, offers prints by comic artists

Featured artists include Ryan North, Kate Beaton, Johnnie Christmas, Michael Cho, Jeff Lemire, Chip Zdarsky and more.

If your walls crave some comic art love, The Pushpin has your hookup. The new site is selling giclée prints featuring artwork by Kate Beaton, Johnnie Christmas, Michael Cho, Jeff Lemire, Sarah Lazarovic, Christian Northeast and many more. In addition, they’re selling Pushpin Originals, which are exclusive prints by Kagan McLeod, Ryan North and Chip Zdarsky — including Zdarsky’s humorous “Solar System” print.

“Science is more important than ever. And even more important than science, is letting people know how much you love science,” Zdarsky said about his Pushpin Original. ”So I wanted to create a poster that could convey to your houseguests that you’d be perfectly at home retweeting Neil deGrasse Tyson, or that you read National Geographic magazines as a kid. My highly informative information graphic on THE SOLAR SYSTEM™ does just that.”

Science teachers may have some issues with it:

Continue reading “New site, The Pushpin, offers prints by comic artists”

Cats break out the jugs and washboards in Chris Schweizer’s latest papercraft

Chris Schweizer wants your desk to be festive for all holidays, not just Christmas. Following last year’s Paper Nativity set, he’s created a fun, fall-themed Black Cat Jug Band.

Continue reading “Cats break out the jugs and washboards in Chris Schweizer’s latest papercraft”

Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes: Part 5

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Advent Calendar Day 16: Jeanette, Isabella

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“Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” is a lovely five hundred year-old French carol in which we see two villagers hurrying to pay their respects to the newborn Christ child.
Aside from shepherds and magi, the canonical gospels (and, really, the majority of the apocryphal ones, too) are absent visitors and homage-givers. Yet in some cultures, especially France, there is a tradition of villagers and laborers spreading the news of the holy birth and flocking to participate.I haven’t had any luck finding the root of this, but it goes back at least as far as the late middle ages, and I suspect that it developed by the late 13th century. Beginning in 1315, Europe suffered a series of crises –the Great Famine, the Black Death, the Little Ice Age, populist revolts, and dynastic wars – that slashed the population by at least half.Before this, though, Europe’s population had drastically increased, health and mortality had seen marked improvement, and a long period of warmth and increased growing seasons coupled with better farming technology and a lack of external raids meant that enough food could be produced to support and encourage this growth. By 1300, Europe was more full of people than it had ever held, and this, I believe, would have put a strain on Nativity organizers.There would not have been many religious ceremonies in which peasants and laypeople could have been officially involved, but a living Nativity would have been such an avenue. If you have a handful of folks eager to participate, then you have your kings, shepherds, and possibly angels. If the greater part of a large high medieval population boom congregation wishes to involve themselves, you have to get creative.It’s also important to note that the Feast of Fools (ostensibly started as a liturgical observance meant to remind clergy of scripturally prescribed humility, but more likely it was an internally hilarious moose-lodge type of endcap to the Christmas season by the subdeacons from whose feast it likely evolved) had cemented itself in France as a public festival in which the lower stations were permitted unprecedented social rights during the feast day. Just as they would with Christmas in the mid-19th century and Halloween in the 21st, the ruling and upper classes took umbrage with these short designated periods of social revolution, and began to try to implement rules curtailing those rights, and over the 13th century you see increased resistance to the Feast of Fools from the Church. Though the feast isn’t officially outlawed until 1431, there’s definitely a movement to see its raucous side diminished if not extinguished, and I believe that the villagers-in-Nativities movement is an attempt on the part of religious and community leaders to shift their population’s energies from the Feast of Fools to Christmas (either that, or the communities themselves shifting their energies from one celebration to the other in order to retain as much of their practices as they were able). There are two points that I think support this assumption:1. Many of the social switcheroos (mayor is beggar/beggar is mayor) that form the heart of the Feast of Fools become standard European and, later, American Christmas traditions (though we don’t have them anymore, with their last remaining vestige a carol about demanding figgie pudding under threat of perpetual occupation).2. The tradition associated with the villagers evokes the Feast of Fools itself. There is a makeshift parade (the carols associated with the villagers nearly always focus on the journey to the manger) to the home of the highest in the region. Only in the nativity, the social subversion of the Feast is itself subverted, and the peasants are willfully going to the highest (who is, by virtue of his humble birth, also the lowest) not to demand food and presents but to instead offer them.That the villagers don’t bother to try and Bible it up so far as dress or naming conventions go gives further credence to the likelihood that the one tradition evolved from the other. The villagers of the French tradition are French villagers, provincials, not ancient Hebrews. Even today, French nativity crèches boast santons, which are depictions of near-modern provincial characters. And Jeanette and Isabella, with their decidedly medieval European names, bolster that tradition.I didn’t want the anachronism of putting turn-of-the-14th-century French girls in this nativity set, so I took their names and matched them to the regions from which those names later sprung – France and Italy, or, at the time of the first Christmas, Gaul and Rome (and dressed them accordingly). Daughters of citizens of Rome in Jerusalem, Jeanette and Isabella are in Bethlehem to get some country air, accompanying their dads who are occupied administering the census. They’re best friends and I reckon that this is one chapter in a childhood filled with many.
Advent Calendar Day 17: Amahl

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When I was a kid, my dad ran an opera company, and every Christmas (at least most of the ones that I remember) he put on a one-act Christmas opera by Gian Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors.

I know this opera backwards and forwards, having watched it who knows how many times, sat in on many of the rehearsals leading to those performances, and even being in it, one season as Amahl (I think it was only once, but it may have been twice) and another, later, as a camel driver.

Amahl is the story of a crippled boy whose livelihood (goats and shepherding) has been slowly whittled away by economic hardship until his only avenue is begging, which he intends to undertake the next day (though he is an unrepentant liar, so he’s probably just going to lounge on a rock or something).

The Three Kings stop at his house on their way to Bethlehem and seek lodgings. The impudent Amahl pesters them with a series of comic interactions, and the poor mother, with no other means by which to support her sickly child, makes to steal a little of the treasure being taken to some baby who won’t even appreciate it. She’s caught, and the kings forgive her in Christ’s name. Amahl, moved by this show of mercy, decides to give Jesus a present, too: the only thing he has: his crutch. When he reaches out to pass it to the kings, he stumbles, and catches himself on his previously lame leg. Miraculously healed, he dances around and leaves with the kings for Bethlehem.

Oh! And there’s one of those villager parades mentioned in the last essay.

The opera was the first ever commissioned for television, and, airing on Christmas Eve in 1951, had the largest audience ever for a televised opera. It was a yearly tradition on NBC until 1966, when disagreements between the network and composer led him to take the broadcast rights away.

Beverly Easterling Erin Denison Namie Cleamon R. Down

Advent Calendar Day 18: The Cherry Tree

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The cherry tree has come to be associated with Christmas through the Cherry Tree carol, a six hundred year-old ballad set during Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. In it, Mary, passing under a cherry tree, gets a pregnancy craving for one, and asks Joseph to reach up and grab her one. Joseph, either doubting her tale of divine conception or not yet having been told of it (both versions exist), tells her that if she wants a cherry so bad then she ought to have the baby daddy get one for her. At this the cherry tree bends down to allow Mary to pluck a cherry from its branch. Joseph either then repents of his momentary doubt and spitefulness, or an angel appears and tells Joseph of Mary’s miraculous, dadless pregnancy.

This story stems from yet another apocryphal infancy gospel, but doesn’t have a Christmas or pre-Christmas setting. It’s set later, during the flight to Egypt. Mary’s craving isn’t a natal whim, but a nutritional necessity, and Joseph is upset over his inability to provide the family with food or drink in the desert, their supplies of both exhausted. The tree, not cherry but date, is called upon by little Jesus to bend down and give them fruit. Also its roots break the surface and provide plenty of water.

This is one of the many lil’ Jesus miracles.

The drawing here is, like in the carol, a cherry tree intended for a Christmas setting. I like the idea that the tree, its sentience activated, wished to continue it is worship, and followed them, providing food and shade and standing really still when anyone else was looking.

Advent Calendar Day 19: Little Drummer Boy
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The message of the carol “The Little Drummer Boy” is a good one: let each person make gifts of his or her means or talent, however meager.
Its single accolade upheld, I can now dwell on how much I dislike this song. For me, it’s likely a mix of irritation as a listener (it’s SO boring and repetitive and dirgey) and frustration as a singer (as a bass, any choir I was in that performed it saw those of us on the low register relegated to the endless and identical onomatopoeia). In either instance, my time would have been better served doing literally anything else on the planet. Come on, choir, get a drummer. Heck, even beat-box if you really, really need vocal percussion. That pa-rum-pum-pum-pum needn’t double the song’s length.I’m not alone in my contempt for this song. I’ve many a friendship whose bond has strengthened in our mutual dislike. David Bowie’s “Peace on Earth” was written for his duet with Bing Crosby because he famously refused to sing such obnoxious drivel. So why is this song so terrible?Well, it’s NOT terrible when it’s used for its intended purpose: children’s amateur choral performances. It’s a deliberately simple and repetitive song crafted specifically by its composer, the great and prolific music educator Katherine K. Davis, for youngsters whose musical and cognitive abilities don’t yet permit greater strain. And, so far as an elementary-age choir piece goes, it’s fine. But it shouldn’t be sung by adults without drastic alteration to the arrangement (which the song rarely, if ever, sees). It’s the Christmas equivalent of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”So despite how much I dislike the song, it’s not the song itself that I dislike, but the purpose to which it’s been turned.A similar song, but far more interesting in its complexity, is “Patapan”, a 300 year-old French carol which also has vocal instrumentation AND the central character of a little drummer boy (his name is Willie).

Listen here: https://youtu.be/s5Tk1n0VbeQ

SO! You’ve been tricked. The little drummer boy in the Nativity set is actually Willie of “Patapan” fame. Bwahahaha! I guess he could still be the kid from the other song, too. Santa has eight gazillion songs about him, drummer Willie can certainly have two.

Advent Calendar Day 20: The Caganer

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The caganer is a staple of Catalonian Nativity scenes, which, traditionally, have a lot of specific characters, including a weaver spinning thread and a woman washing clothes. The caganer, however, isn’t undertaking a professional task like the others; he’s hidden off to the side, pooping.

The figure, which likely began appearing in Nativity scenes in the late 1600s, seems to me a commentary on the pastoral motif that had become very popular during the baroque period. City folks, artists, and the nobility were enamored with the idea of a simple country life, but their romantic depictions rarely reflected its struggling, dirty reality. The caganer could easily be seen as a representation of the “real” within the idealized, tethering the first Christmas to reality in a way that the contrived and emotionally manipulative Nativity arrangements were failing to do.

There is a wonderful modern narrative that not only sweetens (Christmasises?) the idea of the caganer but which ties him to another poop-centric Catalonian Christmas tradition, the Tio’ de Nadal, a smiling log that poops candy on Christmas morning. As there is no earthly way to improve upon this juxtaposition of these two regionally and thematically linked characters, I’ll simply link to it. It’s a short, brilliant read:

http://comicsalliance.com/benito-cereno-and-anthony-clark-bring-you-a-true-christmas-story/

Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes: Part 4

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Advent Calendar Day 13: The Midwife

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The midwife appears in the apocryphal mid-2nd century Gospel of James, as well as a variety of other non-canonical books that likely used James as one of their sources for nativity stories.

In the story, Mary goes into labor and Joseph leaves her with his sons (plural, which I missed earlier; I ought to have included at least one more in the set. Whoops!) in the cave to find a Hebrew midwife. He comes across one walking (the first woman he sees, luckily), and they race to the cave. Joseph is pretty darn open about the whole conceived-by-the-Holy-Spirit thing, laying all his business out without much prodding, and the midwife seems dubious until they get to the cave and Mary’s nethers are all aglow, lighting up the cave.

The midwife is understandably awed by glowbaby Jesus and the story told by Joseph, and runs to spread the news to some close friends.

When I was in early college I stumbled across the Gospel of James and was floored by it, mostly because, so far as Jesus fan-fiction goes, it’s pretty solid, filling in a lot of the gaps in the canonical gospels, satisfying genre conventions (annunciation of pregnancy to an old but pious couple, etc), and, most of all, adding elements that gave it an earthy and ancient realness (the stable being a cave, for instance, and the logistical necessity of a midwife). I copied it longhand in order to help with memorization. For some reason, who knows what, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to be able to recall.

Advent Calendar Day 14: Salome

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Though the apocryphal Gospel of James doesn’t dwell on the medical details save for the description of a bright light accompanying the delivery, future books do, and Jesus goes from being “born” in the traditional sense to either phasing through Mary or beaming out of her, Star Trek-style, depending on the source.

The midwife, having witnessed temporarily intangible nightlight Jesus appear in this manner, runs out of the cave and encounters Salome, whose relationship with the midwife isn’t fully articulated. Is she a friend? An acquaintance? A relative, maybe? I kind of like the idea that she’s a nosy neighbor frenemy.

Anyway, the midwife tells Salome about Jesus’s miraculous conception, and Salome ain’t buying. So we get a scene that’s basically narrative apologetics for the Virgin Birth: The midwife, alerting Mary to the fact that she’s a subject of “great controversy” (highlighting the symbolic nature of this tableau; two people who’ve been talking about something for forty seconds do not a great controversy make), asks Mary to “show herself,” and Salome checks for a hymen.

Salome’s hand then withers up and seems likely to fall off, which I consider pretty darn fair payout for anybody keen on subjecting someone to the humiliation and discomfort of a physical virginity test, though contextually it’s Salome’s doubt, not the act, that causes it. Salome, freaked out and in pain, cries up to God to forgive her for doubting, and reminds him of how good a person she is. An angel appears and tells her to hold baby Jesus, which she does, and is cured.

Salome served a very important narrative role for early church followers, which was to give a scene in which the met-with-skepticism-Virgin-Birth is directly addressed not by pronouncements but by hard proof (albeit internal anecdotal proof).

I considered drawing her screaming at her dying mummy hand, but I thought it might pull too much from the hopeful solemnity of the crèche scene. Also, because the notion of a hymen being evidence of virginity is, biologically, an errant one (and one that I think has a negative social impact for both genders), I didn’t want any parents to have to explain it to their youngsters, probably necessary given its centrality to this particular story.

Unrelated, today is my thirty-fifth birthday.

Advent Calendar Day 15: The Druggist

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In one of the apocryphal infancy gospels, the 8th or 9th century Arabic First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ, there’s a lot of crazy stuff that bolsters then-current theological traditions (infant Jesus gives a speech about his own divinity, chases off a robber band, brings to life toy animals, thwarts a vampire, and turns his hide-and-seek playmates into goats), especially the burgeoning emphasis on relics as a standard part of altar construction/veneration in the church. Some folks want to date the Infancy Gospel a couple of centuries earlier, but aside from the statistical unlikelihood of pre-Islamic written texts that could have been translated by westerners in the 17th century (which is when this one found its way to Europe), the motive of any scripture is always colored by the situation of its author(s), and the Infancy Gospel practically reads like a J. Peterman catalog of potential relics, explaining how they would have come to be preserved. This, I think, is the most striking indicator of a post-second-council-of-Nicaea (787 CE) date of authorship, when relics became official church policy rather than merely accepted church policy.

In this book, Jesus’s circumcision is given a specific location: the cave of his birth. The midwife takes the foreskin (yep!) and/or his umbilical cord, and puts it in an alabaster box full of oil-of-spikenard (muskroot). She then gives this to her druggist son and tells him to never sell it. The verse that immediately follows tells us that Mary of Bethany procured the box and used the oil on Jesus when she washed his feet and head, so apparently the druggist didn’t listen to his ma.

Basically, this is the origin story of the Holy Prepuce, which is what the church called Jesus’s foreskin, a relic of which there were, as might be expected, many (after all, what church wouldn’t want a divine weiner flap on the communion table, legit or not?). There’s a lovely article by oft-mentioned Christmas expert Benito Cereno about controversy surrounding these, and you really should read it, but this story is the evidence of its preservation, the eBay certificate of authenticity of the 8th century:

http://benito-cereno.tumblr.com/post/76697555260/your-post-about-st-valentine-got-me-thinking


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Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes: Part 3

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Advent Calendar Day 10: Balthazar

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In yesterday’s write-ups I discussed why we default to three as the number for the magi; today I’ll touch on why we give them kingly status.

Early Christian writers (including some of those who penned the New Testament) made a concerted effort to tie Christ with scripture of the past, and the magi-as-kings interpretation is a post-Biblical example of this continued theological tradition. Though Psalm 72 (including the verse pertinent to this write-up, “May all kings bow down to him, may all nations serve him”) is clearly a literal blessing/prayer from David to his son Solomon, it becomes viewed around the 600s as a prophecy about Christ, a complete departure from its original intent, but one that quickly cements itself in the Church. The problem is that, as prophecy, it leaves some holes, especially a notable lack of kings bowing before Christ. For some, EVENTUAL bowing hundreds of years later by kings and emperors was enough, but some thought it ought to reflect events during his lifetime. Thus, we see the magi transformed into kings in order to account for this theological addition.

So this creates some obstacles: the kings are probably not from the same country, or else they would not be true kings. So the all-Persian/all-Babylonian grouping disappears, and we begin to see the varied ethnicity that has become such a staple of nativity depictions.

In the 700s, global sociology, at least for Christians, was viewed through a Noahic lens, with the assumption that all of the world’s population descended from the three sons of Noah: Japeth populating Europe, Shem populating Asia, and Ham populating Africa (this latter notion would be used to justify slavery in the United States, citing that Noah’s curse on Ham’s son extended to all his offspring, and that this curse is slavery).

With the world thus divided, the kings best serve prophetic purpose by operating as a stand-in for their continents as a whole. So we see each given a fixed position and clear ethnicity, elements which exist to some degree or another to this day. And while two of the kings, Melchior and Caspar, are all over the place, race-wise, Balthazar has been consistently depicted as Sub-Saharan African for the last six hundred years (a likely result of the increased presence of black people in Europe), though his blackness finds its way into writing and art as far back as the 1100s.

Balthazar, whose name, along with those of the other two kings, comes from an early 4th century Greek source, serves a symbolic function beyond the geographic. Like the other kings, he takes on the responsibility of being a stand-in for a third of mankind, and as such represents the first stage of life. Balthazar is young, about twenty, the avatar of youth. And though I’ve never read commentary saying so, I’d like to think that this gives added bravado to the gift of myrrh (each of the named gifts is associated with a specific king, traditionally, and myrrh is linked with with Balthazar). Myrrh is an embalming fluid, and I’d like to think that it’s a statement on the cavalarity with which the young regard mortality.

Balthazar is sometimes depicted riding an elephant, but I don’t like that approach. It doesn’t make much sense for someone from Nubia/the Sudan (my take) to be riding an Indian elephant, and there’s little precedent for domesticated African elephants. The latter also gives a kind of Africa-as-fantasy vibe that I think has bad social repercussions. I gave him a dromedary, which would have been abundant in Nubia. And the color palette? Yanked from Franco Zefferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth miniseries, in which Balthazar is played by James Earl Jones. I’ve always been a big fan of Zefferelli’s color choices (both in film and his art direction for opera) and thought this would be a good place to give a nod to his influence.

Advent Calendar Day 11: Melchior

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Following up on the writing from yesterday, Melchior is the king whose presence is representative of Asia. A king of Arabia (though in earlier traditions he continued to be associated with Persia even after his co-kings had scattered to India and Babylonia), he serves to showcase the second stage of life, middle-age, and is usually being depicted as being in his forties. As Arabia is so often associated with equestrianism, he’s often depicted atop a horse, as I’ve done here.
Melchior is paired up with the gift of frankincense, generally interpreted as a nod to Christ’s divinity, as the incense would’ve been used in religious ceremony.Though the kings are depicted in nativity art (like here), it’s generally accepted that they wouldn’t have been there. The most popular school of thought is that there was likely a one-and-a-half to two-year span between the birth and the Epiphany, the day in which the Church celebrated the arrival of the magi and thus the revelation of Christ to the gentiles (celebrated on January 6th, from whence we get the twelve days of Christmas, the lead up to the second holiday), which accounts for both travel time needed between when the star appeared to mark Christ’s birth, spurring the magi’s quest, and the order by Herod to kill males under the age of two to eliminate this prophesied rival. Even December 25th proponents who argue for same-season visitation allow for twelve days. Since Jesus was circumcised at the temple in Jerusalem eight days after being born, the likely scenario is either that the family stayed in Jerusalem (only a few miles from Bethlehem) to await their turn in participating in the census, or, having already done so in Bethlehem, returned to Nazareth.

Advent Calendar Day 12: Caspar

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Sometimes called “Gaspar,” this is the European king, coming from Turkey (then Tarsus). He’s almost universally depicted as elderly, serving to exemplify the final stage of life. He gives the gift of gold, which is likely where the Tarsus association stems; Tarsus was the big merchant hub, gold its dearest offering.

He’s usually the first of the kings to kneel before the baby Jesus, an action which carries with it a lot of significance (and ties them to Psalm 72:11). Kings, unless ceding defeat of pledging fealty, wouldn’t have bowed, and in doing so Caspar both fulfills the prophetic interpretation of the Psalm and mirrors the kneeling of later Christian religious observance. Narratively, his venerable age (and station) give the other kings precedent to follow suit.

In many traditions, Caspar was Indian, hailing from the part that is now Afghanistan. There are more theories tying Caspar with historical figures than other kings, most of them to this region. Because of this, Caspar is, like Balthazar, sometimes depicted riding an elephant.

Since I depicted the other two in the more generally accepted Noahic tradition, I figured Caspar ought be in there as well, so that there’s thematic unity amongst the three designs. Thus the Turkish rather than Indian version, with the Bactrian camel a nod to the Central Asians that would later claim descent from the Magi, the most notable of whom was probably Kublai Khan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes: Part 2

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Advent Calendar Day 5: Shepherds

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Shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night, tell us something important:

Christ’s birth, according to the story told in the Bible, WASN’T in December.

Or, at least, that was the reasoning used by the early Church when they attempted to peg down the likeliest date for Christ’s birth, with most of the notables pushing for a March, April, or May birthday: the lambing season.

So why the later move to December 25? The popular theory is that it was a deliberate attempt by the church to co-opt the many pagan festivals that occurred during this time, as many cultures had solstice celebrations when the day was at its shortest. But while the church DID appropriate those festivals, and while the church would certainly do this on later occasions – Valentine’s Day, for instance – that wasn’t the motive with Christmas, just a happy byproduct. Many of Christmas’s trappings (Trees and greenery, ec) stem from pagan celebratory practices, but the Dec 25 date precedes the Gregorian method of conversion by cultural appropriation, and is rooted in the idea that Jesus’s conception was the same date as his crucifixion, the latter erroneously calculated by the second/third century Christian author Quintus Tertullianus as March 25th.

I’d usually be wary of this theory of the Christmas date motive because when it is proffered it’s mostly by Christians intent on trying to dissociate Christmas from any pagan roots, or, worse, December 25th literalists, and almost any time Christian apologists latch on to a school of thought that supports a theologically rigid but fragile position it’s an immediate red flag on its academic validity (just ‘cause of a terrible, terrible track record). But the annunciation (conception) argument has one REALLY big thing going for it:

The split in dating between the Eastern and Western churches.

Eastern churches, at least as far back as the mid-300s, have their annunciation and crucifixion dates set not at March 25 but on April 6th/7th, thereby putting their Christmas at January 6th.

I’d lay money that the Eastern crucifixion date precedes the annunciation one, since the crucifixion date has a deductive starting point in the Gospel of John, whereas the annunciation/birth dates are 100% guesswork. If the Easterners ran the same place-the-annunciation-at-the-crucifixion-date play that the Westerners did, and that seems to be the case, then that offers the simple motive of dating Christmas nine months later, rather than assigning it to coincide with pagan festivals.

That said, Christmas as a religious holiday certainly benefitted from its alignment with existing festivals, using them as a back door for doctrine and worship in the public sphere.

Anyway, back to the shepherds. Watching their flocks in springtime, probably.

When Penny was two, we got her a Fisher-Price “Little People” Nativity set and I was astounded that it came with no shepherd. Multiple animals, three kings, an angel, and the Holy Family, but no shepherd. And that really rubbed me the wrong way. I can’t imagine that the folks at FP are pushing a theological agenda, but I didn’t care for the message created by the absence. The only folks on hand in the set to pay liege to the Christ child are kings and an angel of God, the cream of the social crop. Four “haves”, no “have nots.”

The shepherds, the first to be alerted to lil’ Yesu’s presence, are, to me, an extremely important symbolic element of the Christmas story. They showcase that Christ’s kingdom is first and foremost for the downtrodden, the meek, the poor, all those folks mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. Though there are plenty who jump through theological hurdles to try and disenfranchise the disenfranchised (even with shepherds, I’ve seen suggestions that the shepherds in the story were extra special fancy super-shepherds, in charge of temple sheep intended for sacrifice and therefore of high station in their field and community, not common rabble), populism is central to the Christ narrative and, in my view, the Christian faith. That shepherds and kings (we’ll get into the kings later) are both humbled and awed by the presence of Jesus puts them on the same footing. They are made equals (right here in the corporeal world, no less!) by the God-child’s arrival.

As someone who’s placed a lot of emotional stock in fairness since I was a wee one, I love the equalization that the shepherds represent in the narrative.

Advent Calendar Day 6: Stable Boy

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Though I’ve never seen it played this way, I would expect that Mary and Joseph wouldn’t be the only out-of-towners in for the census, and surely not the only ones for whom the inn had no room. Were I to tackle a Nativity story, I’d make the stable a crowded, dirty, and possibly dangerous place, with lots of folks from all over huddled in against the elements and the dangers presented by sleeping outdoors in an urban environment. Part of this would be thematic, but it would also be a logical bend to swing.

A small town might be a trusting town when it comes to known neighbors, but with a big influx of strangers even the most welcoming sorts would likely take precautions against the troubles that might accompany anonymity – a stranger who knows not to whom an ox belongs might feel no guilt were he to contemplate stealing that ox from its nameless owner, or so might the owner assume. To that end, it seems likely that whomever owned or managed the stable might’ve employed a rough-and-tumble teenager to sit watch at night as deterrent to anyone who might make use of Bethlehem’s sudden and temporary population surplus.

I’ve never encountered a stable boy in a Nativity narrative, but that doesn’t mean there oughtn’t be one. Mine isn’t much moved by the events going on; he just wants his shift to be up so he can blow his wages on some rad sandals.

Advent Calendar Day 7: The Heavenly Host

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I wrote up my reasoning behind the design of the archangels back on day 4, but I ought to elaborate on why I picked four (three of whom are shown together here):

It’s because I’m lazy.

I’ve heard the four-archangel number thrown around since I first became interested in this stuff back in college. Four is an absolutely fantastic number when it comes to an ensemble, especially if the personalities vary drastically, which I expect they would here. Three is great if you have a protagonist and side characters, but if you want narrative equality amongst your group with the lean efficiency of a minimal group dynamic, four is the ideal; it’s why I use a gang of four in the Creeps books.

The Catholic Church only recognizes three (the ones pictured in the middle here): Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the only ones mentioned by name in the canonical scriptures. But Raphael’s mention, in the Book of Tobit (recognized in orthodox Christian traditions but not officially in Judaic ones), says “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand ready and enter before the glory of the Lord.” So where does four come from?

Angel stuff is all over the place in the Bible, and extra-Biblical sources. These four come from our earliest (and richest source) of angelography, the Book of Enoch. Enoch wasn’t canonized as part of the old testament/Tanakh (the primary conflict in its inclusion probably the then-radical notion that angels might rebel against God), though it WAS widely read and oft-cited (it’s quoted in Jude and mentioned in the non-canonical Epistle of Barnabus), and has informed much of the theology and myth that surround angels.

So you could go with four, or seven, or ten, or one (the generally accepted possibilities), but like I said, four has the best and most convenient narrative possibility, and that’s where I like to set my tent. Uriel, of course, isn’t on hand; he’s spiriting John away.

Seraphim

Seraphim are a class of angel mentioned in Enoch (surprise!), Isaiah, and Revelation, and their name means “burning ones,” so I drew ‘em as angels by way of the Human Torch. They’re described as having six wings (one pair to cover their face in the presence of God, the other their feet, ‘cause feet are dirty).

Art note – I drew the angels in pen, but did color holds on the seraphim in the computer to turn the line art red for the first row and orange for those in the back. I then watercolored the color-printed line art. I’m happy with the results and will likely employ them in the future.

Cherubim

The blue cherubim (the plural form of cherub, culturally recognized as chubby nude babies with feathery wings) are described in Ezekiel. Six-winged again, though since “feet” is sometimes a biblical euphemism for private parts I hedged my bet and threw their middle pair at crotch-level. The four animal faces (ox, eagle, lion, and man) come from a popular assumption that the four cherubs seen by Ezekiel are the four “living creatures” described by John R in Revelations are the same quartet.

Now, these may seem like unusual angel drawings, but I’m actually playing it pretty conservatively; I’m leaving out the whole covered-in-eyes thing and I’m not making hands grow out of anyone’s armpits. There’s only so much one can do design-wise before you completely sever the connection between subject and audience, and I feel like I pushed these as far as I could go without doing so.

Advent Calendar Day 8: The Ox and Ass

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onnThe Ox and the Ass are staples of art and song, but if we stick to the Biblical birth stories, we find them noticeably absent.

We could argue the chicken/egg thing with a lot of the Nativity characters so far as whether their narrative presence was interpreted symbolically, or if they were a part of the narrative BECAUSE they served a symbolic purpose, but with these two barnstormers it’s clear: their presence is entirely symbolic.

The ox and the ass (I know the cutout says “donkey”; that’s a concession for any beleaguered Sunday School teachers who would otherwise have to contend with the continual readings of rapscallious eight year-olds eager for a language loophole) represent Jews and Gentiles, respectively. The Ox, a cloven-hoofed creature that chews cud, is clean by the legal standards, a Jewish animal, good for eatin’ and sacrificin’. The ass, with its equid hoof, is not, and thus represents the Gentiles.

The push on the part of early Christians Peter and Paul to unexpectedly promulgate Christianity outside the confines of Judaism was a HUGE deal for the religion and for history (by permitting cultures to maintain their existing cultural practices, the belief system became hyperdisseminatable). So backdating that move symbolically to the time of Christ’s birth allows for a later staple of the Christ narrative to find presence at its beginning (there will be a couple of other examples of that exact same thing with other characters)*.

In any case, this symbolic representation of these two groups, worshipping baby Jesus in miniature, also gives us a very creative interpretation of Isaiah 1:3. The Book of Isaiah (part of the Old Testament/Tanakh) is viewed through a Christian lens primarily as it relates to Messianic Christ via prophecy, but 1:3 (“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib, but Israel doesn’t know me; my people don’t comprehend”) isn’t prophetic in the least, it’s just a flowery gripe, UNLESS you assign prophecy to it after the fact once the symbols (probably purloined from the verse in the first place for art dating back as far as the 300s) are part of the story. There’s a long tradition of people of faith reinterpreting existing scripture to meet the spiritual needs of their time and the changes that their world has necessitated, and the ox and ass serve as a reminder not only of the embrace of cultural pluralism by the early church but of how sacred texts are ever-evolving things, not in their content but in how that content is perceived.

*In that tying-later-stuff-to-the-beginning vein, I’m actually really bugged that there’s not a non-canonical infant gospel in which baby Jesus spits a seed from whence grows the tree that will be used to make the cross. Come on, Gnostics, you really dropped the ball with that one. Or maybe they didn’t. Does that one exist? I hope so.

Advent Calendar Day 9: The Retinue of the Magi

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We Three Kings, right? The Gospel of Matthew neither gives them number or royal status. This is one of the most widespread examples of cultural tradition taking hard root in the religious consciousness. Most folks who have studied the Bible know this, but still have no problem with the kings being a standard part of the Christmas narrative. Which (if you haven’t caught on to my leanings over the past few days) is a great thing, in my book. It’s important, I think, that religious folk recognize that much of the narrative we associate with the Bible stems from a long tradition of interpretation and addition (not even a post-Biblical thing; folks in the Bible itself do this throughout when addressing earlier scripture) rather than cold reading. The acceptance of the three kings shows that even those who subscribe to strict literalism (itself, despite protestations, built on codified interpretation) are willing to concede to scriptural divergence when properly acclimated (I’ve never known a literalist who protested the inclusion of three kings in a Nativity scene unless he or she was a hardnosed iconoclast across the board, objecting to crèches in their entirety).

So why three? Well, three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) are mentioned by name, so associating each with a specific giver is as good as theory as any other, and the only one whose genesis is scripture-specific, leading to widespread acceptance in Christian circles. But there are plenty of traditions dating back to the early days of the Church that give different numbers, the most popular being twelve, accompanied by a small army of attendants, students, and guards, their movement being notable enough to require royal permission to travel through Judea, hence the court with its king, Herod the Great.

Had I not been lazy, AND unwilling to outnumber the lowly with the high-born out of concerns mentioned in the shepherds write-up, I’d have opted to make nine additional magi to accompany the kings; as it is now, I offer four, totaling the number of Magi at seven, an unpopular but existing grouping probably rooted in a misreading by 12th century college professor/theologian Peter Comestor of the histories of Josephus in which seven nobles are said to rule in a sort of loose parliamentary system in conjunction with Darius of Persia, interpreted by Comestor as wise advisors, ostensibly setting precedent for a standing council of seven magi. Since the general consensus of early theologians was that the magi were Persian, this is better reasoning than some theories, and it lets me get away with drawing five fewer magi.

Over the centuries, the assumed regional origin of the magi has slowly spread from Persia to Yemen and Babylon to ever-reaching expanses southward and eastward, encompassing Arabia, Central Africa, India, and, most recently, the Far East. Depictions of Caspar as a Southeast Asian have skyrocketed over the last decade or two, part of a longstanding tradition of using the magi to insert more ethnic diversity into the Christ narrative. Those who think that shoehorned diversity in existing narrative franchises is a recent movement are clearly ill-informed, as nativity art has been doing it for centuries upon centuries as the “world” has expanded outward.

The four here are from India, Ethiopia, China, and Persia, attempts on my part to round out the more specific regional origins sometimes assigned the magi but less in keeping with traditional representation of the three popular named kings of western tradition. Also a gifts-and-studies-laden camel, and a camel driver with a mount.

Smash Pages Q&A: John Arcudi on Country Blues

The other night I discovered that John Arcudi had a great love of country blues, dating back several years. As a result I decided to interview him about the topic. Please enjoy.

Tim O’Shea: What made you initially attracted to country blues as opposed to other musical genres?

J0hn Arcudi: Well, obviously I listen to all kinds of music, but my intro to the country blues was R. Crumb’s card set from the 80’s. I was working at a comic shop and it was difficult to ignore the amazing portraits. That led me to seek out the Yazoo CD’s and I fell in love with the music. It wasn’t until a few later that I really went nuts and sought out some of the more obscure artists (Sylvester Weaver, Blind Blake, Washington Phillips, etc) and really put together a collection.

Can you name some of your favorite musicians?

fff3Charley Patton, Barbecue Bob Hicks, Gus Cannon, Blind Willie McTell (anybody who reads Lobster Johnson may have already figured that out), Frank Stokes, and — while he’s not exactly a blues musician — Blind Willie Johnson is pretty incredible! Oh, and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t like Leadbelly. But that’s a just a few.

Do you listen to music as you write?

Nah. Can’t do it. When I listen to music, I listen to it, y’know?

What about Sylvester Weaver, Blind Blake, Washington Phillips, appeal to your musical sensibilities?

Well, Blind Blake and especially Sylvester Weaver were virtuoso musicians, so I’d like to think anybody would be helpless before them, but Washington Phillips is another story. Not to say he couldn’t play, because he could, but it’s his voice! That odd and almost sweetly haunting singing. And the songs he sang are equally magnetic. Phillips performed Sacred Music, which is frequently inspiring and uplifting, but Phillips wasn’t that exactly. It sounds almost like an injured angel singing.

Please enlighten us about the Lobster Johnson connection

I gave the “Harry” character (who previously had no last name) the surname “McTell.”

Do you ever go to venues to see music.

Not as much as I used to, which was all the time, but I get out when I can because there is NOTHING in the world like live music!

Chris Schweizer’s Paper Nativity Informational Notes

Over the next month, Chris Schweizer will be offering thoughts on the Nativity set model (a large papercraft crèche) mentioned last week that you can find and download here:

https://gumroad.com/l/ThkR

Rather than run it everyday Chris has given us permission to run it every few days.

Day 1: Marymar

My version of Mary is influenced by The Gospel of the Origin of the Blessed Version and the Childhood of the Savior, now generally known as The Gospel of Psuedo-Matthew, written in the early 7th century for a Christian community clamoring for Jesus prequels, and from the Protevangelium, written about fifty years after the Gospel of Luke was laid down. Both were important sources for medieval sacred art.

Mary is was the only daughter of Joachim and Anna, two extremely righteous people who found themselves childless in middle age. Despite his piety and charity, Joachim (much like Job) was suspected of wickedness by his neighbors, here because God had opted to refuse them children. We see echoes of the many other late-in-life-miraculous pregnancies in the Bible here, as their prayers are answered, and Anna becomes pregnant with Mary.

They dedicate Mary to the temple where she goes to live and serve, but as she nears menstrual age the temple priests start to fret. She has to leave before she gets her period, which would defile the holy place. So, with much ceremony to determine a match suitable for such a miraculous child, the priests arrange an engagement between twelve-year-old Mary and Joseph, at whose home she goes to live until she reaches fourteen, at which point their marriage will be consummated.

Now we get to the canonical Gospels, and Mary receives word from the angel Gabriel that she will be with child from the Holy Spirit.

Her soul doth magnify the Lord, yeah, but she’s also barely a teenager and I expect that the attention of the visitors is a little overwhelming, so I drew her curled up, trying to process the magnitude of the whole thing.

Advent Calendar Day 2: Josephjoey

This version of Joseph is influenced by the Gospel of James, or the Protevangelium, written about 60 years after the Gospel of Matthew, and he was probably created/developed in order to support the pet theory on the part of some early Christians that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. There are a few bits of scripture that run afoul of this concept, but outside of semantic wording there’s still a really big obstacles on this notion: Jesus’s brothers and sisters.

Centuries later there have been plenty of other explanations proffered, but the easiest one (and the one latched on to by early adherents) was that Joseph had been married before he was engaged to Mary, and that the six siblings of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament –Simon, Joseph Jr, Judas (a different one), James, and two unnamed sisters (do they number two in the gospels? I can’t remember, but the plural “sisters” means at least two) – are technically Mary’s stepchildren.

So here’s the story: The priests at the Temple know Mary needs to get married off, but because of the special circumstances surrounding her birth they want to make sure that whatever match occurs is good in the eyes of God. So they summon all of the bachelors in good standing (Joseph, at this point, is a widower), and perform a ceremony to try and discern who God would wish to be Mary’s husband. Joseph goes out of religious obligation, but doesn’t really want to be there. He’s old in his own eyes. He’s had a happy marriage and he misses his wife and he has a bunch of kids, some of whom are already grown, and he doesn’t want to be an old dad with a wife not much older than his youngest child. So he just pays lip service to the ceremony and when all the men are supposed to present their staffs he keeps his at his side. Nothing happens, and the priests do the ceremony again (“we’re not leaving here ‘til God gives us a sign”). One notices that Joseph is basically lip-synching, and they insist he participates. When he does, a dove flies over and lands on his staff.

So Joseph is stuck. He doesn’t want to marry this kid, but the priests insist that it’s his religious obligation.

In some later versions of this story, Mary comes to live at Joseph’s home during the engagement (not unlikely; she wouldn’t have been able to continue living at the temple), learning to run the household and helping to raise (babysit) James, a few years her junior.

Now we get to the Gospel version, which I think finds greater depth via the prequel-reluctant-husband story.

Joseph is engaged to Mary and discovers that she’s pregnant. And he chooses to quietly divorce her (the marriage is pretty much in play once the engagement is solidified; it’s the consummation that finalizes it, held off in this instance because of Mary’s youth) rather than make public her condition or insist on punishment.

Joseph has always been my favorite character in the Bible, and it’s because of this. Even before the story has him learning of the divinity of her pregnancy, he harbors no ill will to her, no desire to reclaim honor by vengeance, no chastisement, nothing of the social barbarity (by our/my standards) that speaks to the time and place and culture from whence he sprung. And from the time I was a kid, I found more nobility in that than near on anything else in the whole book.

The version of Joseph espoused by the early church may have been crafted to explain this calm and measured and merciful side, much at odds with his legalistic predecessors. Joseph is older, so he has the wisdom of experience to recognize and forgive youthful mistakes. He has children, so the usurpation of his bride’s babymaker by another sire doesn’t threaten his bloodline. From a pragmatic fatherly standpoint, his teen biological sons may be at risk of fatal punishment were they suspected of the adulterous union, the most likely paramours given household proximity. And Joseph was a reluctant bridegroom in the first place, so he would likely see Mary’s pregnancy as a blessing, a means by which to remove himself from the engagement through no abandonment of responsibility on his part.

In The Gospel of Matthew Joseph is told in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is divine, and that God wishes him to wed her.

Though some dogma insists that Joseph was wholeheartedly faithful in his belief of this (there’s even a school of thought championed by St. Thomas Aquinas in which Joseph never suspected any hanky panky and knew that Mary could only have conceived divinely and that the divorce was because he thought himself unworthy, which is such a stretch as to boggle my noggin), but I like reflecting on the perpetual doubt that Joseph must have felt. I prefer my religious figures humanized, and Joseph is at his most admirably human when he discards suspicion, and it doesn’t matter whether that acceptance is rooted in fervent belief or simply the possibility of that belief. That he opts to wed, that he chooses to raise the child as his own, this is the first example we get of the direction that the New Testament will take, this sense of throwing off the legalism of the previous generations for the love and mercy that will be at the heart of Christianity.

My version here has a super fancy staff, much grander than his station would suggest, that I figure he might have made himself as a hobby project, because, you know, carpenter.

Advent Calendar Day 3: James

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James, as depicted here, is Joseph’s youngest biological son, still part of his household, and, as such, likely to have traveled with them to Bethlehem. I have him gathering firewood, as I assume he’d have been the one to run errands, get food, etc, as Joseph stayed near Mary for the sake of both safety and propriety.

In church and narrative tradition, James serves as a counter to Paul in the early church, treating Christianity not as a new religion but as a sect within Judaism. He and Paul are at odds over whether Christ’s message is for the Jews or for the entire world. The apostle Peter serves as their negotiator, espousing a middle path of compromise. James, in a dual role a high priest of the temple AND a bishop of the early Christian church (not, at the time, conflicting stations) serves as a kind of Chief Justice for early church decisions, and accepts Paul’s dogma-shattering recommendation that gentile converts needn’t behave according to Jewish social contract, but with the caveat that certain other behavioral law be implemented.

It’s James, I think, from whom we get the legalistic tradition of Christianity, at least symbolically. Sure, any religion is going to codify behavioral principles over time, but James’ influence directly steers the notion of distinct cultures maintaining their practices in full while still converting to this new faith into what we instead eventually get, which is the desire on the part of the church that the faithful homogenize into the existing Christian culture. I don’t know if this is a widely-held view, or if it’s held at all, but it’s my take on the fella.

Advent Calendar Day 4: Uriel and Lil’ John the Baptist

day 4Jesus’s cousin John, who will later grow up to be the wild-eyed desert mystic and prophet of the Gospels, is probably about six months older than Jesus, and thus presented a problem for theologians who accepted the version of events in which Herod ordered the slaughter of all Hebrew children under the age of two (a deliberate echo by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew to Pharaoh’s edict thirteen hundred years earlier). Why wasn’t John killed?

The story that evolved was that he was spirited away to join the Holy Family whence they had fled in Egypt, and the vehicle of his deliverance was the angel Uriel. You can see a version of this story in the DaVinci painting “Virgin of the Rocks.”

Uriel is, according to Rabbinic tradition, one of the four archangels (the four that we’ve culturally come to accept are Uriel, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael, listed by name in the Book of Enoch, composed between 100 and 300 BCE).

Angels are tricky. We often take “Messenger of God” mentions as being angels, though context makes it unlikely that they looked inhuman, and rarely is there anything contextual (though theologically there is opposition to this idea) to conflict with the idea that the messengers ARE men, used by God for His purpose. When angels are identified as angels and described, often in the apocalyptic genre with books like Daniel and Revelations, man, they are out there.

Uriel here takes his design partially from Daniel 10 (dressed in linen, belt of gold, eyes like torches, face like lightning, skin like burnished bronze) and partially from Ezekiel, where I pulled the four-faces thing (though this springs up in plenty of other books and in other forms). I gave him human feet instead of calf hooves, though.

Lil’ John here hints at his future in the wilderness, with his filthy matted hair and casual feral nudity.