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Thou Art Worthy O Lord to Receive Glory and Honor and Power

Lee Kogan

MYRTICE WEST IS ONE OF SEVERAL self-taught artists—William Blayney, Howard Finster, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Hugo Sperger among them—for whom religious faith and the writings of the New Testament book of Revelation in particular are a springboard for creative expression. Religion, a powerful stimulus for many folk artists, is central in West’s life. Her belief in God and the Bible has been a healing force in her life, which has been filled with struggle and pain.

Folk artists are not the only creators stimulated by religion; music composers have also been driven by the need to create. The text from Rev. 4:11—“Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power”—is the subject of the second work in West’s Revelations Series. It calls to mind one of the most stirring compositions of western music: the Messiah by George Frideric Handel, written in 1751. Handel used text from Revelation for the final chorus of that work, preceding his “Amen” finale.

Both works—the West painting and the Handel chorus—are part of a larger compositional whole. West concentrates on the apocalyptic last book of the New Testament for her series of thirteen paintings, selecting imagery from the body of that book and its epilogue, which culminates in the coming of the New Jerusalem. In her painting Thou Art Worthy O Lord…, West combines material from Rev. 4 and 5 in a single canvas.

For his oratorio, Handel drew on a broader range of biblical texts. The libretto is based on parts of both the Old and New Testaments as compiled by Charles Jennens, a friend of Handel. Trained from childhood as an organist and composer in a German Lutheran environment, Handel was himself capable of providing appropriate biblical texts for his oratorios and other sacred choral works. On an occasion when the Archbishops of Canterbury and York wanted to instruct Handel on the choice of the texts suitable for the occasion, he responded, “I have read the Bible very well and shall choose for myself.”

The scriptural texts used for the Messiah, set as arias, recitatives, and choruses, cohere remarkably. And, unlike West’s extensive inclusion of excerpts from two chapters of Revelation, the text for Handel’s “Worthy Is the Lamb” chorus focuses on but a few lines from Rev. 5:12-13.

Both artists express a deep religious faith through their works. The Messiah, a dramatic setting conceived as a historic universal theme, transcends parochial religious underpinnings. In a series of alternating orchestral and continuo movements, Handel relates the story of Jesus as symbolic of the history of humankind liberated from slavery by a great leader. The work represents the fulfillment of humanity’s redemption. The text is enhanced by expressive instrumentation and musical cadence that brilliantly follows the text. Handel balances homophonic and polyphonic writing, choruses, arias, and recitatives, various musical textures, and dramatic pauses.

Handel’s setting of “Worthy Is the Lamb” is given importance as a culminating hymn of faith and meditation. This epilogue, in two balanced sections, opens with a poignant chorale concentrating on the suffering of Jesus and his sacrifice to redeem the world (Rev. 5:12). The rhythmic pace and tempo quickens as visionary textual material is stressed before the music returns to the unifying chorale. In the second section (Rev. 5:13), a more complex polyphonic “Blessings, honor, glory, and power” ends with a unifying chord, paving the way for the close of the epic drama.

While Handel in his final chorus transformed the vision of John of Patmos through music, West translates John’s vision literally, carefully selecting verses from Revelation to form a comprehensible whole, expressed in her unique vocabulary. The text of Revelation elicited powerful responses from both artists, and each quickly transformed that response into a masterpiece. Handel completed the monumental Messiah in a mere 24 days. Undoubtedly, Handel was strongly moved by John’s powerful vision, but it would be naïve to attribute the speed of his composition exclusively to inspiration: Handel was, after all, a very skilled technician. West took a longer time (several years) to conceive and draft her Revelations Series. However, West conceived and completed this one painting, Thou Art Worthy O Lord…, in a single day.

In both their works, Handel and West extol God’s heavenly realm. However, while Handel concentrated on Rev. 5:12 and treated the adoration of the Lamb of God, West creates a more expansive vision, combining sections of chapters 4 and 5. Not only does she include the Lamb’s adoration, she also depicts heaven with God’s rainbow-covered throne, surrounded and adored by a heavenly court, as she celebrates Christ’s unique role in the unfolding of John’s apocalyptic vision.

St. John’s narrative provides West with rich imagery. Among the unique characteristics of Revelation are the repeated references to the numbers four, seven, and twelve. These are reflected in West’s painting, for example, by her depiction of the four living creatures described by the text—the man-beast, eagle, lion, and calf—as well as the “seven seals” that mark the book held by the gigantic hand and the “four and twenty elders” on either side of the throne. In dangerous ages throughout history, numbers, symbols, and esoteric imagery created a sense of mystery and ensured a safe method of encoding ideas that were antithetical to the established beliefs held by those in power.

St. John the Divine, who appears in the lower right with his back to the viewer, stands before the door that opens onto this heavenly vision (Rev. 4:1). As in other paintings in the series, John’s physical presence emphasizes his importance in the narrative. In the central upper-third of the composition, West depicts God on the throne surrounded by the heavenly court: twenty-four elders wearing white garments and golden crowns. The heavenly emanation takes the form of a reflecting rock or precious gem, whose brilliant form is framed by the gleaming multi-colored bands of a rainbow. God is given dramatic presence through visual effect and the suggestion of aural accompaniment. Harmonious heavenly voices, suggested by the angelic choirs and musical notes painted in both upper corners, as well as the sound of thunder indicated by the flashes of lightning to either side of the rainbow, underscore the majesty of God.

Verses of several songs taken from Rev. 4:11 and Rev. 5:12-13 are recorded in the painting and extol Jesus as being worthy to take the book (the Bible), open its seven seals, and thereby usher in John’s apocalyptic vision and the world’s last days. The oversized hand holding the seven seals is framed by the figure of an angel. The seals ornament a black rectangle that looks oddly like a black domino, which in this context is a portent of grave consequences for the wicked on Earth. The book of destiny or doom for the Earth suggests the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, which West subsequently documented in another multi-painting series. West acknowledges the importance of the seals and the book by carefully painting them within the grasp of the celestial hand. Her reverence for the Bible is ever-present: she often quotes from Scripture and speaks of the significance of reading the Bible. In this case, her canvas even appears in the form of a large book, its pages revealing the mystery and wonder of the heavenly realms.

John’s revelation of a “sea of crystal” (Rev. 4:6) is pictured in the lower third of the composition. It is manifest in the rainbow reflected in the water, accentuating the glitter from the celestial throne. In a row at the central edge of the crystal pool, West places the seven lamps of fire—the seven spirits of God—whose flames are also reflected in the pool and add even more light to the dazzling scene. Surrounding the crystal sea are four creatures that appear to support the sea. According to one concordance, the Interpreter’s Bible, these creatures—part mortal, part celestial, all living and having many eyes—exist to carry the platform of God’s throne. They resemble a man, eagle, lion, and calf and were identified as such in the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Isaiah.

Centered in the compositional space, though modest in size so as not to overshadow God, is Jesus in the form of the slain Lamb. Both God and the Lamb are objects of adoration and worship, and their duality and placement are focal points in the composition. The Lamb is delicate with a sweet facial expression. Its blood is all the more touching by its subtle rendering.

Concretizing her understanding of Revelation is the text that West incorporates into the painting. These song-like lyrics appear near the appropriate characters, as in a comic strip. She also includes the trumpeting angel’s welcome to heaven: “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Worthy is the Lamb.” The artist signs her name at the bottom right, placing it on the simulated corner of a curling book page. This artistic conceit may serve to distance West from the sacred setting, while at the same time making her an integral part of it.

Compositional balance and sensitivity to the decorative surface mark West’s style. The painting is both unified and varied in form, line, and color. The horizontal format is balanced by the strong, vertical heavenly stone, which, framed by the rainbow and its reflection, is set on point and so energizes the whole. The curve of the reflected rainbow contrasts with the linearity of the rows of elders and the placement of the seven lamps. The elders—precisely drawn, all equal in importance—contrast with the more freely drawn and arranged angelic choir.

The myriad details, presented in a carefully ordered space and in a flattened perspective on a shallow picture plane, intensify the viewer’s experience. The palette of warm yellows, earth tones, billowy whites, and pale blues illuminates the landscape, which is punctuated by white lines radiating over the central core and the yellow, lightning bolt striations on dark green bands. The thin, multicolored rainbow and the deep red portion of the central gem contribute to the colorful blaze.

Although West is remarkably faithful to the text, she exercises creative license in two ways: she elects to replace the harps in the angelic choir with keyboards and—perhaps to avoid crowding an already sufficiently detailed space—chooses not to represent the section of text in which the elders remove their crowns to bow and pay homage to Jesus.

The formal details of both West’s painting and Handel’s musical setting testify to these artists’ faith in the message of Revelation. Belief in Jesus as the fulfillment of hope seems to underscore both artists’ strategies for life. While Revelation had special meaning for first-century Christianity, the text has continued to inspire artists to illuminate the narrative through remarkable musical and visual media through the ages.


Lee Kogan is the director of the Museum of American Folk Art’s Folk Art Institute, an adjunct assistant professor of art and art education at New York University, and an authority on 20th century self-taught artists. She has written and lectured extensively on African-American folk art. Kogan was senior research consultant for the Museum of American Folk Art Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists by Chuck and Jan Rosenak (1990), project coordinator for the exhibition and accompanying book Thornton Dial: Image of the Tiger (1993), co-author of Treasures of Folk Art: Museum of American Folk Art (1994), and project coordinator for the exhibition and book Self-Taught Artists of the Twentieth Century: An American Anthology (1998). In 1999, Kogan served as curator of the exhibition The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won’t Do and authored an accompanying book.


Excerpted from Wonders to Behold: The Visionary Art of Myrtice West. Copyright © Mustang Publishing Company, Inc. Reproduced with permission.


 

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