O Radiant Dawn

NOTE: As our week-long series honouring Dr Ewan Bowlby, our beloved past Editor-in-Chief who died in December, ends, his friend and colleague Karen McClain Kiefer offers a final reflection. To read more about Ewan, see the Transpositions post:  Honouring Dr Ewan Bowlby.

It can often seem as if we live our lives under the oppressive gloom of the shadow of death, surrounded by the darkness of our mortality.[1]

To the average reader, those opening words of Ewan’s reflection on the painting, The Harrowing of Hell, in his Transpositions article for ‘The Art of Advent’ series[2] would at most engender an affirming nod, while some may find his words downright uncomfortable. For Ewan, however, they were literally words of life and death. He wrote them around four years in to his cancer diagnosis and, unbeknownst to him at the time, he had less than that amount of time remaining in his life (he died three years later, in December 2022).

So much time and effort are devoted to fighting off or evading death in modern society, as we battle to control and prevent disease, disguise the signs of ageing, or even seek to deny the reality of death.[3]

While Ewan was aware of his likely limited time, I never saw him complain or wallow. He did not seem to see his situation as a battle with cancer or death. He focused on life and living and transforming the sting of a deadly disease into meaningful, life-affirming action – which may at least partly explain his zeal for the arts, and for scholarship, and for accompanying others through the darkest of times.[4] At the same time, he acknowledged head-on the struggle and the suffering of human existence. He was unafraid of confronting despair, which, I believe, helped him to fully embrace deep joy.

The Harrowing of Hell, Unknown Artist, © Ivan Vdovin / Alamy Stock Photo.

Such a disposition allowed him to deftly consider this ‘monstrous’ painting for an Advent series of reflections at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in St Andrews, which was the basis for an accompanying series in Transpositions and this reflection of his in it.

In considering the painting, paired with the O Antiphon, ‘O Oriens’,[5] he effectively linked the shadowy waiting of Advent with the dark depths of the culmination of Lent – Holy Saturday. While some hail this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday as a triumphal victory of Christ over death in a harrowing of hell, others, like Ewan, also acknowledge the emptiness of that day, the seeming godforsakenness of the abyssal depths of desolation, the apparent failure of a would-be Messiah who was humiliated by a vicious death and now lies in a dark, lonely tomb. But there of course is more to the story, the ultimate pure joy of which we can miss if we overlook the depths which were overcome.

An awareness of our inevitable end hangs over us as a vague, threatening prospect, yet we choose to keep our eyes to the ground rather than face the looming presence blocking out our light.[6]

Ewan was a Holy Saturday ‘buddy’ – someone with whom I could plumb the depths of existential crisis or discuss disorienting, uncertain territory in which either of us might find ourselves. . . or simply commiserate on annoying writer’s block (which could feel like an existential crisis at times!). He understood, far better than I will probably ever realise, the foreboding emptiness of the unknown and the importance of demystifying it by acknowledging it, and, if necessary, venturing there.

In the painting The Harrowing of Hell the jaws of death lurk menacingly in the shady background. . .The hellish monster seems to be looking directly into our souls, easily penetrating the barriers we try to create between our own lives and the unsettling reality of human transience.[7]

He knew that we can find liberation in breaking down our own barriers and ‘going there’ – confronting the hellish monster looking into our souls. He could find humour in those situations, which I greatly appreciated. He cleverly highlighted humour amid the absurdity at the heart of the Christian faith in an article on crucifixion comedy:

Finding humour in the Passion narrative might also capture something of what Paul referred to as the ‘foolishness’ of the cross: the defiant, irrational hope which is a central part of the Christian response to the Crucifixion.[8]

He noted that humour and comedy can be extremely effective in confronting paradox, in ‘preserving a “foolish” hope for something better in the face of extreme adversity’.[9]

On occasion I found myself laughing with Ewan at interesting paradoxes, including those involved in doing theory-oriented academic work that engages embodied artforms which transcend attempts at language to codify them. ‘Is it any wonder we struggle at times?’ he said during one particular walk, to which my only authentic response was to have a good laugh. It was always nice to laugh with Ewan.

Perhaps that was partly due to his relationship with death, with his own mortality. He knew that ‘death has lost its sting’[10] (‘Death has done all death can’, as he states in the reflection) and there is no place we can be where God, through Christ, has not already gone. Nowhere is this more challenging to consider than death and the depths of hell. But engaging such a painting as The Harrowing of Hell and such elements of the human condition yields the fruits of understanding the impermanence of death and despair and an openness toward hope, especially of the New Creation into which Christ ushers us.

The O Oriens (O Dayspring, et al) antiphon reminds us of this hope in Advent, as we wait in the wintry darkness of December:

O Dayspring, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

And Ewan reminds us that this Advent-anticipated Dayspring is a radiant dawn even in the depths of hell on the darkest day of the Triduum:

. . .the painting is not dominated by this embodiment of mortal dread but by the peaceful power of the Dayspring who illuminates the foreground: the ‘true light’ arriving in the world (John 1:9). The artist’s work turns the medieval tradition of Christ’s triumph over the forces of Hell into a luminous image of renewed hope.[11]

The ‘luminous image of renewed hope’ was especially evident in an Advent installation he helped me hang, titled ‘O Radiant Dawn’, in which we veiled the windows inside Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church (fortunately for several of us ITIA Transept artists,[12] his zeal for the arts was matched by his physique for it – Ewan was tall!). To our delight, the resulting remnants of light and glowing colour were gentle reminders of the Light overcoming darkness.

  

As he did in his reflection on The Harrowing of Hell painting, Ewan leaned into the arts to address the tension encountered in many paradoxes of our human experience and faith journey. I believe through the wisdom gained from his intentional disposition related to living with cancer, he could find hope in the depths and encourage others to see glimmers of light when hope seems veiled.

But Ewan provides his own answer to navigating such challenging territory:

[H]ow can we translate this cosmic struggle between light and dark, life and death into our own lives?

Perhaps it requires us to begin to see pitch-black despair as only a prelude to the brightness of joy.[13]

When this is published, we will have just entered the Triduum, the three holy days in which we engage the ultimate paradox of salvation through defeat, of new life through death. We will be in the interim space of suffering and death before rejoicing in the utter joy of the Resurrection. Ewan has much to teach us about that space, even as he has passed through the threshold between this world and the next.

I think Ewan would find humour in the similar paradoxical juxtaposition in which I am finishing this reflection – it is Palm Sunday. We just heard the Passion Gospel narrative and formally entered Holy Week. And I am sitting in a café watching the farcical Kate Kennedy parade pass by.[14] That’s worth a good laugh. Here’s to you, Ewan. Happy Easter, my friend.

 

 


Image Credits

Photos taken by the author.

The Harrowing of Hell, © Ivan Vdovin / Alamy Stock Photo.

[1] Ewan Bowlby, ‘The Art of Advent: O Oriens’, Transpositions, December 13, 2019, https://www.transpositions.co.uk/the-art-of-advent-o-oriens/. Excerpts from this reflection are interspersed throughout the remainder of this post.

[2] Artist unknown. Painting is dated as the fourteenth century and is noted to be from Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

[3] Bowlby, ‘The Art of Advent’.

[4] Chief among the ways Ewan accompanied others was through his participation and work with other cancer patients through Maggie’s. Cf. Prof George Corbett’s reflection on Ewan: George Corbett, ‘It Will Flame Out’, Transpositions, March 31, 2023, https://www.transpositions.co.uk/it-will-flame-out/.

[5] Also known as ‘O Dayspring’, ‘O Morning Star’, or ‘O Radiant Dawn’. These are references to Christ as the inbreaking Light in the darkness.

[6] Bowlby, ‘The Art of Advent’.

[7] Bowlby.

[8] Ewan Bowlby, ‘Crucifixion Comedy’, Transpositions, May 17, 2019, https://www.transpositions.co.uk/crucifixion-comedy/.

[9] Bowlby, ‘Crucifixion Comedy’.

[10] ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’, 1 Corinthians 15.55 (NRSV).

[11] Bowlby, ‘The Art of Advent’.

[12] Transept is an ITIA postgraduate-led group of artists and arts enthusiasts. Cf. The Transept web page: https://itia.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/activities/transept/; Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/itiatransept/; and Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/itiatransept/.

[13] Bowlby, “The Art of Advent.”

[14] The Kate Kennedy procession is an annual 97-year tradition in which students and townspeople parade through town as characters from over 700 years of St Andrews history, including cardinals, monarchs, bishops, golfers, and even former St Andrews University rector John Cleese. The most anticipated character is the legendary Lady Katherine Kennedy, the adored niece of St Salvator’s College founder Bishop Kennedy. Legend has it that ‘Kate’ would come visit her uncle and was idolised by students.

 

Author

  • Karen is finishing a PhD program in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts after careers in corporate management, consulting, and pastoral and theatre ministry. She explores theological and theatrical contexts of ’empty space’ and general human disposition toward it, with emphasis on improvisation (specifically Playback Theatre) and Holy Saturday. Since 2017, Karen has led or advised ITIA’s Transept group, a postgraduate-led group of multidisciplinary practicing artists. Karen was an editor for Transpositions from 2017 to 2022. As Editor-in-Chief, she fostered a closer partnership between Transpositions and Transept, hosted the In/break exhibition on the Transpositions site, and introduced regular series into the publishing schedule.

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