Out from Darkness
Image: Euphorbia milii, 2007. Carbon and Graphite, 19"x19" ©Julie Sprinkle, 2009.
Over the past few weeks of Lent, we have been looking at various metaphors and symbols for the way death is transformed by the presence and working of Christ both in our individual lives and in the world writ large. Steve Halla used a skull in his meditation on baptism, Sørina Higgins spoke of the bounty incipient in the death of a small, buried seed, and Luci Shaw spoke of the way death sometimes comes on slowly, our bodies and minds forgetting what they once were, like cut flowers fade in their vase. All of these images involved an element of change and renewal, but also a “natural” object that, via art, has come to be associated with and stand for that change.
The culmination of Lent and our collective ruminations on new life through death, Easter has several emblems of its own—other natural symbols that can give a physical shape to our theology, and clothe a narrative that is inescapably troubling in forms that help us also recognize the beauty of this most costly grace: the egg is an ancient symbol of re-birth and stands for the tomb from which Jesus arose; the lily likewise emerges from the earth clothed in white; and, in the American south, the dogwood blossom has become associated with the crucifixion for its cross-like bracts marked at each edge with a red stain said to represent the nail-marks on the hands and feet of Christ.
But for all their folkloric charm, none of these familiar symbols of celebration adequately represent the harsh context from which Easter’s joy emerged. Is there a natural symbol that speaks more eloquently of the shock of that first Easter morning, of the way that light shone directly from the darkness?
Aside from the cross itself, no symbol of the passion of Christ speaks to the irony of a crucified Messiah like the crown of thorns mockingly pressed upon Jesus’ head by his executioners—the very symbol of regal authority and honor transformed into a means of further physical and psychological suffering. While it may be only tradition that links the “crown of thorns” plant (Euphorbia milii, native to Madagascar) with the Biblical events, it was identified by a first century B.C. Numidian king, and some researchers cite evidence that the plant had been imported into the Holy Land by the time of Christ. Its flexible stems, bearing densely packed inch-long spines, make it a likely candidate for the historical crown, but how can it also be a symbol of the triumph of the Lord as well as his suffering?
Botanical artist Julie Anne Sprinkle leads us to see the crown of thorns anew by turning an attentive, even scientific eye to the plant as more than just a symbol, paying careful attention to it as a natural, living thing in its own right, as well. In her graphite and carbon dust work pictured above, Sprinkle reminds us that the plant is more than a prop, but partakes of the cycle of growth and renewal that God has gifted to the whole of creation. It is not just thorns, but leaves and flowers emerging directly from the stalks that may have twisted around the Savior’s brow, not unlike the sprouting staff that marked Aaron’s line as the true priests of God.
In Sprinkle’s composition, the thorns are neither ignored nor diminished, but neither do they have the “last word” on the plant’s identity. Rather, the means of reproduction and expansion in the world strain towards the light, even seeming to carry the light within themselves. In no small part, this visible redemption of thorns is due to the method in which the work was created, combining the fine linear qualities of pencil drawing with the velvety blackness of burnished charcoal dust in a combination she calls “blackwork” to reference traditional embroidery and photographic techniques. The light is so clear because it stands in contrast with such deep and total darkness, the latter achieved by applying the remains of what has been burned.
Linking this piece with the power of natural symbols discussed above, Sprinkle comments that “the ‘Easter’ subset of [the ‘blackwork’ series] addresses the way the broader human family searches for meaning in our world. The linking of certain plants with the deeper mystery of faith turns each individual observer into the connecting thread between the earthly infinitesimal and the transcendent divine.” “Euphorbia milii” also helps us link the joy of Easter morning with the inescapable sorrow of Good Friday, helps us recognize that the work of redemption was not done easily, but was nevertheless finished and complete in Jesus. A light has shone forth in the darkness, and all of us in the BioLogos community join with the Church Universal in proclaiming the good news that Christ is Lord, and He is risen, indeed!
In addition to her award-winning botanical art, Dr. Julie Anne Sprinkle produces work in the traditional fiber art of tatting and guides fishing and climbing trips from Colorado Spring, CO, where she lives with her arborist husband and Springer spaniel. One of her tatted stars was featured in a previous post. Julie holds language and political science degrees from Trinity University in San Antonio, and earned a Ph.D. in German from Georgetown University, specializing in comparative medieval literature. More of her creative work may be seen at her website: www.juliesprinkle.com
Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.