Martin Luther is often credited with the saying, "Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?" The point is that church music should be lively, attractive and fun.

  In the New Testament book of Revelation we are told that those who dwell in Heaven play music (Rev. 5:8, 14:2, 15:2). Furthermore, earthly merriment will cease (18:22). St. Paul uses the musical instrument as a comparison to the Christian message (1 Cor. 14:7), and the early church leader, St. Ignatius makes a similar comparison in his letters to Ephesus (4:1) and Philadelphia (1:2). 

  The musical instrument in all these passages is the ancient "kithara," which is almost always translated into English as "harp." The kithara was very popular in the Greek and Roman world, and was often played in disreputable contexts. The prophet Isaiah referred to disreputable music played on the kithara by harlots (23:16).

  The picture shows Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love/lust, playing a kithara, and even though the terra cotta representation is very rough, you can see it is not a harp. The ancients knew it was not a harp. They had a distinction between a kithara and a lyre (which is more like a harp). See Pausanias, Description of Greece on Laconia, 17.5.

  The kithara is more like a guitar. Here, Aphrodite is using a pick to pluck the strings, just as if it were a guitar. Sometimes the guitar is thought to be a disreputable instrument, and certainly Aphrodite is a disreputable musician, but, in spite of that, the kithara is played in Heaven. It seems that each of us, when we get to Heaven, will be issued a guitar, not a harp.

  This statue is in the archaeological museum of Pella, Greece. Photo by Richard Davies. Use with the usual restrictions.

April 2024

  This year, 2024, in the Western church calendar, Easter is the last day of March. Let's think about Easter as a celebration. How might we celebrate it?

   In the first half of the 20th century, one of the most popular songs was "Easter Parade," and the lyrics began, "In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it . . ." The thought was that a man would sing this to his girlfriend as they strolled along the avenue on Easter day, both of them dressed in their finest clothing.

  What has this to do with Easter? Nothing. However we secularize everything.

   I hope you find this month's picture funny. It is a Roman-era statue of Aphrodite getting ready for some big affair. She is wearing jewelry and apparently had a mirror in her left hand and some make-up held by the thumb and forefinger of her right. Then there is the hat. Wow! Maybe she is getting ready for the Easter Parade.

   Easter is a promise of new life and eternal life, but the guys and gals in the Easter Parade are no more aware of this than was Aphrodite.

   Isn't there a better way to celebrate Easter than wearing big hats and walking on the avenue to show off your clothes?

   This statue is approximately 1 foot high, and is in the Louvre, Paris, #Br4423. Feel free to use this photo for non-commercial purposes, as long as you give credit to the photographer, Richard Davies

March 2024

   In the USA, February seems to be a special month. In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is in February about 80% of the time. The two most esteemed U. S. Presidents (Washington and Lincoln) were born in February. And, in the secular calendar, Valentine's Day is in February.

   It was once thought that, in ancient times, there had been a church saint named Valentine but the church has concluded that this saintly fellow did not exist. Even so, that saint's day is culturally important. On that day, restaurant business increases, and it is one of the most profitable days to sell cut flowers.

   Valentine's Day indicates that it will soon be Spring, a time for amorous love. This month's picture shows a woman dressed for an evening out. What sort of evening is indicated by the fact that she is being bedeviled by two erotes (or cupids). Of course Eros (Cupid) was the son of Aphrodite (Venus), and he was one character, but he seems to have multiplied. We find images of many cupids.

   Can you read the expression on the woman's face? I cannot. Maybe she is thinking about the future. Maybe she is doubtful about the man she is to meet. Or maybe she is dreaming about a wonderful future, or just a wonderful evening. What do you think?

   In any case, people share similar thoughts and impulses theoughout all ages.

   This vase is in the Louvre, Paris, item MN718 (N3371). Photo by Richard Davies. No commercial use, please, and give credit to the photographer.

February 2024

   Here is a portion of a simple scene from a Greek vase. The entire scene includes four figures: a seated man offering a gift of love to a woman. (The gift is probably an egg.) Eros flying above them. And the fourth figure is the woman we see here.

   In this picture, as shown here, we can see the man is holding a crown or other adornment he will probably offer to the woman. Above, we can see a similar adornment held by Eros (or Cupid) to confirm the love affair.

   The focus of this particular pictue is the other woman, looking directly at the event. In her right hand she holds some article of clothing or adornment that, I think, she has taken off. With her left hand she pulls at her garment. I have seen this gesture in many Greek vase paintings, and it always seems to symbolize some sort of distress.

   I see this as a picture of jealousy. St. Paul was concerned about jealousy as a negative emotion that harms us and others. (Rom. 13:13, Gal. 5:19-21.) We are beginning a new year, and maybe you need a good New Year's Resolution. Take some time with Rom. 13 and Gal. 5. See if there is a resolution there that fits you. See if you can curb whatever negative emotion disturbs your world.

   This vase is displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago: Anonymous loan, 67.2012. The photo is by Richard Davies. Please do not use this photo for commercial purposes, and if you do use it, give credit to the photographer.

January 2024

  In April 2019 a fire broke out in the roof section of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and the Cathedral was almost destroyed. News reports indicate that repairs to the Cathedral are almost complete, and it will soon be open to the public.

   Prior to the fire, among the many things displayed in the Cathedral were a large set of wood carvings depicting events in the life of Christ. They were large carvings, perhaps half-lifesize. They were carefully painted. They depicted people with great expressiveness. And they were old, having been made around 1350.

   Did they somehow survive the fire? Will anyone be able to see them in the future? I do not know.

   Several years ago I visited Notre Dame and photographed the carvings. For the December blog I thought it might be appropriate to show one of these photos: the Magi bringing gifts to the young Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). This obviously didn't happen on Christmas Day, and it may have happened when Jesus was around two years old, but it has made an impression on many. I might think the visit of the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20) was more important, because if Jesus came for shepherds, clearly Jesus came for everyone. But the ones who carved these scenes gave scant attention to the shepherds and exalted the "kings." We can think of the "kings" as representing the entire world.

   If you have a chance to visit Paris, take time to meditate and pray in the Notre Dame Cathedral, regardless of what your faith tradition may be.

   Please don't use this photo for commercial purposes, and give credit to Richard Davies as the photographer.

December 2023

The myth of "Jason and the Golden Fleece" is well-known, and sometimes is considered a children's story. Unfortunately the full story is not appropriate for children. Jason was assisted in getting the golden fleece by a witch named Madea, who then ran away with Jason and became his wife. She did unspeakably evil things to help their escape from her home. 

   In the ancient world, magic was considered to be real, and it was never used for good. Myths about witches and their magic told that witchcraft was always bad. Since people expected magic to yield bad results, we are told in Acts 8:9ff about the condemnation of a magician named Simon. In Acts 19:19ff we are told about people destroying expensive writings that gave instructions for performing magic, also because magic was never used for good. 

   This month's picture is from a scholarly book about ancient magic. The book, "The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation," edited by Hans Dieter Betz, gives us thousands of ancient magical spells. The spell shown here is for winning a horse race. You were to inscribe the two strange symbols on the horse's hoof along with an appropriate prayer to the demons.

   It all seems very strange to us, but it was very real and important in the ancient world.

November 2023

The ancient Psalmists sang lyrics such as, "The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night" and "You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day." (Ps. 121:6 and 91:5.) The promise is that God is with us at all times, both day and night. In day time the ancients had fears about warfare and sunstroke, but the fears at night were worse, because the dangers were unseen. Demons were especially active at night, so the prudent person would work to mollify the night demons.

   Here we see a vase on which a woman is shown in a ritual to mollify the night demons. She is burying some sort of cake to satisfy their cravings. When the ritual is complete, she hopes to be safe for a while.

   Last month we saw an elaborate vase showing the story of Medea, a powerful witch. Witches were important, because they knew the secrets of the demons. Probably a witch had instructed the woman on this month's vase.

   In contrast, the Psalmist sings about the person who meditates on God's law during the day and the night. (Ps. 1:2) The vase is about 2,400 years old, and the Psalm may also be about the same age. They were two entirely different views of how powerful demons are (or are not).

   You can see this vase in Munich, Germany, in the Antikensammlungen, item number 559. Photo by Richard Davies. Please do not use it for commercial purposes and please give credit to the photographer.

 

October 2023

When we think of ancient pottery, we probably think of something like this photo: a fancy pot with a nice shape and some really intricate pictures. (The body of this vase pictures the complex myth of Medea, a witch who became queen of Corinth. The top part of the vase pictures an Amazon battle.)

   Now look at St. Paul's letter to the Romans, chapter 9, verses 17-22. He is saying that some people are in positions of power (such as the Pharoah who held the people of Israel captive in the time of Moses), but God can make people in any form God wants to make them, just like a potter can make a fancy vase or an ordinary pot. He seems to be saying (among other things) that the Pharoah was an ordinary pot, in spite of his earthly power.

   The most common, most ordinary pot in Rome was a chamber pot, the pot into which people urinated before they went to bed. Such pots would ultimately be destroyed without any regrets. Pharoah was such a lowly pot.

   Was St. Paul really talking about Pharoah, or was he talking about the Roman Emperor? The Emperors duing his ministry were perhaps the worst collection of Emperors ever: Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Later, in chapter 13, St. Paul advises the Christians in Rome to obey the Emperor, but in chapter 9 he may be saying that they are nothing more than God's chamber pots!

   You can see this vase in Munich, Germany, in the Antikensamlungen. Ask to see the "Medea-Krater." Photo by Richard Davies. You can use it under a creative commons license as long as you give credit to the photographer and not use it for commercial purposes.

Photo of the Month

September 2023

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