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"the whole rational creation formed a single dancing chorus"
May 31, 2013 8:34 AM   Subscribe

The Dancing Saints is "a 3,000 square foot icon wrapping around the entire church rotunda, showing ninety larger-than life saints; four animals; stars, moons, suns and a twelve-foot dancing Christ." Among the icons are traditional saints like Francis of Assisi and Mary Magdalene, but most of them are non-traditional saints, like Florence Nightingale, John Coltrane and Lady Godiva's Horse. The Dancing Saints Icon is inside the St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. You can watch a video tour of the church's architecture, read an interview with iconographer Mark Dukes, and a short essay on the Dancing Saints Icon by Richard Fabian.
posted by Kattullus (25 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is right the other side of the hill from me - it's a wonderful church. We went for a friend's installation as pastor and there was something about feeling like all the dancing saints were dancing for her/with her that was really wonderful.
posted by rtha at 8:38 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


In San Francisco, John Coltrane is a traditional saint, with his own church.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:39 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find this problematic--it denies xian liturgical tradition in favour of a progressive swamp that means nothing, and it usurps people of other faith traditions to take part in that. Also, horses cannot be baptized, and cannot be saints--leaders of communities of the faithful.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:44 AM on May 31, 2013


Florence Nightingale is actually not a non-traditional saint, but a regular one with a liturgical commemoration for Episcopalians.

Also, horses cannot be baptized, and cannot be saints--leaders of communities of the faithful.

The horse is actually not depicted as a saint. There is no halo, the iconographical indication of sainthood. Lady Godiva on the other hand is being portrayed as a saint.
posted by Jahaza at 8:47 AM on May 31, 2013


I was kidding about the horse, and I am good with Nightingale (i do have a problem with the ECLA and the episcopals canonizing MLK jr, but that's another point), but this is so ahistorical: Bacchus wasn't gay for one example; Herschel and Frank as xian saints is not that different than the politically convient christianizing of Edith Stein, for another; though Black Elk is a mystic, he is not a mystic in the episciopal tradition, which digs the genocidial element of we just respect their spirit that you find all over the west coast even more egregious--and besides that, episcopals, who have a long iconographic tradition of their own, making the orthodox over because it looks cool is just maddening.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:54 AM on May 31, 2013


(Black Elk did not have a choice to "convert", his conversion was part of a colonial tradition, and this colonial tradition means that to make him a xian figure is to ignore his works)
posted by PinkMoose at 8:55 AM on May 31, 2013


I find this problematic--it denies xian liturgical tradition in favour of a progressive swamp that means nothing,


Barger: You had this conversion experience when you were 23. I know you have had experiences of a lot of different Christian denominations and other religions too. When you had your conversion experience did you feel you wanted to explore religion because it wasn’t in your background?

Dukes: No not really, because you see I thought that everyone believed the same thing and it was just very simple. I didn’t know about denominations. I had heard about Catholics and Methodists and stuff like that but I really didn’t put it together because I wasn’t a Christian then. But then I went through the frightening experience of realizing that there are all these denominations saying all these different things. I was new to the faith and I didn’t know hardly anything except that Jesus has faith in me and I have faith in him and that is good enough.

posted by rtha at 8:59 AM on May 31, 2013


I'm disappointed Jesus is depicted jam-band dancing rather than doing a paradiddle... St. Gregory's could have been known as the Episcopal Church of Jesus Tap Dancing Christ.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:00 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think there's an important difference between making someone a Christian figure and saying "we see the presence of God in this person's life and acknowledge that person's expression of the divine even if they are not Christian" which is how i read the dancing saints. I can see someone taking offense and it does seem better to have some dialogue wIth the communities whose figures you're representing, but expanding the scope of who Christians see as holy is a good thing to my mind.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:04 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


(Black Elk did not have a choice to "convert", his conversion was part of a colonial tradition, and this colonial tradition means that to make him a xian figure is to ignore his works)

I don't see why making these people "saints" makes them Christian, even if it's in an Episcopalian church. I see it more that they recognize that these people are righteous and are models or teachers or healers. The word "saint" means different things to different groups of people.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:07 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Does twelve-foot dancing Christ hire out for parties?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:09 AM on May 31, 2013


Some of the people I think I noticed there; Chewbacca, Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth I, a Native American Indian wearing jeans, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Leif Garrett.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 9:09 AM on May 31, 2013


Herschel and Frank as xian saints is not that different than the politically convient christianizing of Edith Stein, for another;

It's markedly different, in that Stein converted to Christianity as an adult and became a Carmelite nun and Herschel and Frank were not Christians. That's a pretty important difference.

(Black Elk did not have a choice to "convert", his conversion was part of a colonial tradition, and this colonial tradition means that to make him a xian figure is to ignore his works)

Its not clear to me how much you know about Black Elk, but his conversion was as an adult and appears to have been done on his own terms. His works are notable in part for the way they seek to reconcile Lakota belief and Christianity, something that has been the subject of much scholarship in recent years.

I don't see why making these people "saints" makes them Christian, even if it's in an Episcopalian church.

As noted above, Black Elk was a Christian, he became a Catholic in 1904 and was a leader in the Lakota Catholic community.
posted by Jahaza at 9:10 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wasn't clear that I was speaking about all the saints portrayed, generally. Anne Frank and Malcolm X, among others, are not Christian. I shouldn't have used that particular quote, since I was referring to Pink Moose's previous comment as well. I can't see a reason why Christians can't contemplate or meditate on the lives of people that aren't part of their tradition, if those people have given something valuable to humanity.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:23 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Black Elk's work is a syncretic mix of christian and aboroginal influences. He converted reatively young, and he converted after Wounded Knee. Many current Sioux have problems with the wholeness of his conversion. Dana Identity's Strategy: Rhetorical Selves in Conversion might be helpful here.

You are right about Stein. What I am saying is that the Vatican tends to forget her judaism, that the narrative is quite black and white. She was a jew (which we don't talk about) and she found jesus (which we do.) I do not think that her conversion was insincere--but it is part of a long tradition where we consider conversion around ethnicity as singular and solid.

I understand that holy people who teach us how to live closer to god, can function theologically--I have a slew of them, myself. (Emma Smith! Emily Dickinson! Roger Williams! Frank O'Hara! Geoffrey Hill! William Blake! Anneken Jens! Eliza Snow! Harvey Milk! George Herbert! Thomas Hardy! Sarah Coakely! Louis Reil! Gabriel Dumont! Ralph Stanley! Sun Ra! Agnes Martin! ) (yes, they are mostly anglo or american). But those people are not liturgical saints--they do not have the power of the saint as determined by the tradition of the larger community.

I think we have to be very careful. I have done Anglican liturgical work, radical Anglican liturgical work, but the patterns mean something, and we need to know why we are breaking them. (For example, a large portion of my faith rests on Thomas Hardy's The Oxen--it is the single most important document in my returning to the church. I do not expect my local Anglican parish to read The Oxen instead of the creeds.)
posted by PinkMoose at 9:30 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


WE can mediate, but I am not sure within a liturgically bound church narrative is the best way to do that...
posted by PinkMoose at 9:31 AM on May 31, 2013


PinkMoose, are you equally fastidious about your practice borrowing from others' as you are about others borrowing from yours? I imagine the opposition to moving the celebration of Jesus's birth away from the pagan solstice celebration is pretty fierce.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:06 AM on May 31, 2013


i do have a problem with the ECLA and the episcopals canonizing

Many of those people aren't cannonized. Tutu isn't even dead! Many are not Christians (Ghandi? Su Shi? Sadi?) and are just examples of great historical figures and teachers, so I wouldn't get to hung up on this mural of beings.

Also, the word for members of the Episcopal Church is "Episcopalians". "Episcopals" would describe just about anyone with an episcopal tradition such as Roman Catholics or Greek Orthodox for example.

Bacchus wasn't gay for one example

Which Bacchus we talkin' here? And who's version of history are we talkin' about?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:06 AM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


they do not have the power of the saint as determined by the tradition of the larger community

Its an Episcopal Church, what "power" are you speaking of?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:09 AM on May 31, 2013


Black Elk's work is a syncretic mix of christian and aboroginal influences. He converted reatively young, and he converted after Wounded Knee.

He was 39 or 40 years old and it was 13 years after the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Its an Episcopal Church, what "power" are you speaking of?

Well it would be the General Convention for Episcopalians, who add people to their calendar of commemorations.
posted by Jahaza at 10:28 AM on May 31, 2013


Its an Episcopal Church, what "power" are you speaking of?

Well it would be the General Convention for Episcopalians, who add people to their calendar of commemorations.


Being added by the Church to the Calendar is not a "power" of a saint and half of the depicted are not on the list anyway. I think you may have thought I was asking "who has the power to make a saint in the Episcopal Church", rather I was rhetorically asking "to the Epicopal Church what powers are saints endowed with?" Unless you are in the terribly "high church" end of the spectrum of Episcopalians, their "powers" are limited to being remembered for being good Christian examples, just like many of the folks in this mural, they don't interceed.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:40 AM on May 31, 2013


I was kidding about the horse, and I am good with Nightingale (i do have a problem with the ECLA and the episcopals canonizing MLK jr, but that's another point), but this is so ahistorical: Bacchus wasn't gay for one example; Herschel and Frank as xian saints is not that different than the politically convient christianizing of Edith Stein, for another; though Black Elk is a mystic, he is not a mystic in the episciopal tradition, which digs the genocidial element of we just respect their spirit that you find all over the west coast even more egregious--and besides that, episcopals, who have a long iconographic tradition of their own, making the orthodox over because it looks cool is just maddening.


Doesn't the actual article say that these figures are not all Christian? It seems like many of them have some bearing on Christianity, but the Kangxi emperor is on there, for instance, and he banned missionaries after the missionaries refused a syncretic approach.

I don't know - I think there's a genuine and perhaps unresolvable tension in this type of radical Christianity between the desire to respect the autonomy of others' traditions and the de facto universalism of faith in a god. If you believe in a supreme being or truth, every thing and every one has some relation to that thing - that isn't optional. Classically, of course, Things And People Not Formally Christian get designated other, wrong, bad, misguided or damned. In a better but still pretty problematic way, TAPNFC often get designated "Christian by default even if they don't know it", as in The Last Battle. But the question still remains: how to acknowledge and talk about the belief that everyone and everything stands in relation to the supreme being/truth/whatever, without making it such that everyone and everything are Christians or else wrong?

I don't think that's a question that has a tidy "don't culturally appropriate" answer, even though cultural appropriation is a problem embedded in the issue. I'm not sure there is an answer that pulls it all together in a satisfactory way while still talking about actual humans who have lived.

Representation is extremely tricky.

A non-religious organization, The Beehive Collective, gets around this by using animals appropriate to the watershed of the region depicted instead of humans when they depict human activities. So you get frogs and rats and squirrels working or cooking or reading to children.

A group I'm part of has really struggled with this question of representation, although not in a spiritual context. We have a mural that depicts some key moments in Minnesota history, sort of collaged. (I'm actually not that happy with it.) We did talk about either not having key moments, just having idealized figures doing idealized things; or about having animals instead of people; but we decided that we'd have the moments with as much historical accuracy as we could. We felt that there was some value in depicting actual people in a historical setting. But that comes with risks - who decides what "key moments" are? How are people depicted? How is the scene arranged?

The thing is, I don't think you can have figurative art with any kind of claim to political content that does all these things (realism, fairness, politically right-on depiction, expression of how the group creating the work sees the world) at the same time. And that's kind of what I see in this church mural. You can, if you choose, see it as a fail-ridden monument to whitey's solipsism and cultural appropriation - I think almost everything that majority-white organizations produce or do can legitimately be read this way. But I am not content with that reading, because I think that a strictly negative reading doesn't do justice to how people think, where they come from, what they try to do. When I look at this thing, my main sense is "here is a specific church community which wanted to show relationships among many people across time and across many intellectual traditions, with the goals of reflecting the beliefs and feelings of members of the church community itself and illustrating that all people and things have relationship to the supreme being/truth".

I think it's perfectly legitimate to say that "all people and things have relationship to a supreme truth" is a colonizing, terrible idea in itself. (I'm an atheist, but I find that a lot of the problems of theology crop up elsewhere in life; you don't actually get away from them by getting away from religion, because religion is a subset of human experiences generally rather than something unique and separate.)

But the thing is, if you really do believe that all people and things have relationship to a supreme truth, it's better in my view to try to think through what you mean by "all people and things" than to draw a bright line around the people and things you are willing to depict and consider.
posted by Frowner at 10:57 AM on May 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Does Paul Erdős's presence on the Wall of Saints give Jesus an Erdős number of 1?
posted by willF at 12:18 PM on May 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is personally very topical - just this past week I was invited by a new group on Flickr to share photos. of St. Gregory of Nyssa. Apparentlly they found me courtesy of tagging I had made on pictures of my last visit.

Besides the illustration of dancing saints, perhaps you might be interested in the liturgical dancing they practice there. It's not a common practice at Episcopal churches in the US, though my own parish has included dancing as part of the mass a few times in the past.

They have a very nice sung morning prayer service during the week which I highly recommend if you're into that sort of thing and in the neighborhood.
posted by grimjeer at 3:07 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a certain amount of wishful thinking in the commentary: e.g. celebrating Elizabeth I as a champion of 'religious peace' (Edmund Campion might have begged to differ), or claiming that Charles Darwin was a 'deacon in the Church of England'.

Overall this sums up (in an exaggerated form -- well, this is California after all) a lot of my feelings about liberal Anglicanism: slightly absurd, intellectually indefensible, but I can't help loving it.
posted by verstegan at 2:21 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


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