The Meaning of Dinner Plates–Julie, Judy, and Jesus

18 May

 The mind is a strange thing. I was sitting today in Sunday worship, receiving Communion bread from the silver plate that the pastor held–and suddenly Julie Green popped into my mind, overlapped a nanosecond later by Judy Chicago. I tried to put these dissonant images out of my mind, but it is now six in the evening, and I realize that I must write this blog installment.

Julie Green teaches art at Oregon State University–she has been in the news, getting attention for a project she entitles, “The Last Supper.” Beginning in 2000, she has painted 600 plates that depict the last meals of death row prisoners who have been executed. Green paints the details of these meals onto second-hand porcelain plates, using a cobalt blue that reminded her of traditional English and Japanese china. At this link, you can see a plate of a hearty breakfast requested by a prisoner in California in 1927.

Judy Chicago came to my attention through the exhibit (in Chicago) of her 1979 work, “The Dinner Party.” This work is an immense open table set with thirty-nine place settings, thirteen on a side, each commemorating a goddess, historical figure, or important woman.
See the photo at this link–

It was, without doubt, the silver plate of the Communion service (technically known as a paten, which means “plate”) that brought these images to my mind–even though it is the “divine food” on the plate that is significant: the bread/body of Jesus, on his own death row, shortly to be executed.

Meals have been symbol-laden throughout human history, but Judy Chicago and Julie Green focus on plates as symbols that point to very specific realities of our lives. In her own words, Green says, “I am inspired by contemporary society. I research, and then, I point. This is true of all my work.” Her plates point to the reality of capital punishment, in a very mundane manner. She sees her plates as a “quiet” protest. She doesn’t plan to stop making them until capital punishment is abolished in the United States. Green devotes six months each year to her plates, intending to produce fifty each year.

Judy Chicago “points” as well. Each plate points to a woman of importance who deserves to be remembered. The gigantic table with its thirty-nine plates points powerfully to the fact that these and all women have been relegated too often to second-class status. The tiles in the floor register the names of 999 additional women.

The sacraments of the church also point. The bread on the plate points to Jesus at the critical moment of his life–his violent death, executed. It points, as well, to the significance of his death. He died in the course of, and because of, a life that embodied commitment to what is most profoundly important in life–justice and caring deeply for his fellow humans. We can identify with death row prisoners, just as we (especially women) can identify with the women assembled for the Dinner Party. We identify with the executed Jesus, too. We recognize that death is crucial for our lives, as well. We hope against all odds that in our deaths we will share in resurrection and union with God, as Jesus did.

All three of these plate-symbols and the meals that accompany them are community meals, not solitary. These symbols remind us that we live and die in community–even if we sometimes feel that we are in solitary confinement, living lives of anonymity. Green and Chicago underscore–rather, their plates cry out–that we must care for one another and that there is a community of those who care for us, no matter how low our social standing. I see Jesus and his meal standing within the symbols of Green and Chicago. For me, these two artists provide clothes for the Jesus-symbol. The sacrament of Holy Communion accepts these two studies of contemporary society and points with them, as well.

Both Green and Chicago went to a lot of effort to learn how to paint on plates. Such painting has a long tradition, but it is a “common” tradition, belonging to women, that has not been respected. It is frequently spoken of scornfully as “arts and crafts.” The artists submitted themselves to the discipline of this plate painting, and they recognized that it is truly genuine art–fully as much as the work of those men who scorned it.

There is deep pointing here: the bread on the sacramental plate is common bread; the body of Jesus is a common body; our bodies, we who eat at these three symbolic meals, are common bodies–full of commonness. Our communities are common, mundane. These symbols point to our hope–that our commonness will be embraced by God and through death will never die.

Art cannot be exhaustively explained in words; nor can a sacrament. But there is meaning there, deep meaning.

Reflect on the strangeness and unlikely connection of these three: Julie Green’s Last Supper, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, and Jesus’s Meal of Holy Communion.

Phil Hefner, 5/18/2015


6 Responses to “The Meaning of Dinner Plates–Julie, Judy, and Jesus”

  1. Karl E. Peters May 18, 2015 at 1:01 pm #

    This is a wonderful blog. Thanks so much Phil. It strongly links sacred and profane and shows how everyday things and activities can have meaning that is of utmost significance, that is sacred.

  2. Richard Busse May 18, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    Thanks for the message: a meal, community, justice.

  3. Barbara Harrison May 18, 2015 at 7:56 pm #

    A very interesting juxtaposition here. Thank you for the thought provoking images and ideas – much to think about.

  4. Barbara Whittaker-Johns May 28, 2015 at 11:47 am #

    I just registered for your blog, Phil, and this is the first post I’ve read. It evoked my memory of many times you have inspired me to trust what I’ve known, but not yet fully lived. I’ll name just two here. In IRAS (Institute on Religion in an Age of Science), where I met you, you were the first leader I experienced “pointing” to the arts – poetry for example – as a significant avenue for knowing the sacred in the midst of wrestling with intellectual ideas. So here, you have lifted up two amazing artists who do what you yourself do so well. Second, as you “point” out here and have so often in IRAS, knowing the sacred through art cannot be separated from identifying with the ways we are called to change the world for the better. I was immensely moved to learn about the art of Julie Green serving the abolishment of capital punishment. By the way, I enjoyed the fullness of what could be offered via the links, and wouldn’t want graphics to crowd too much of the art of your writing! Finally, I think devotion to religion, science and art enables our hoping for union with God beyond death, to dismantle any odds against our knowing that it is, and will be, so.

  5. Larry Foster July 4, 2015 at 12:46 pm #

    Yes, I agree. The mind is a strange thing. I just discovered your blog. I’m a former student of yours at LSTC, class of 1969. I’ll never forget the systematics course, Pneumatology from Below. What came to mind on the plates topic triggered Tillich’s supposed notion that symbols participate in reality. Then the neurons sparked a pondering of anamnesis, one of the few words I recal lfrom Greek class or somewhere. Didn’t that mean a kind of re-doing and remembering? Then Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of Morphic Resonance came to the front plate. I think he suggests we are closer to the past (Presence of the Past) than we think. Could communion range from symbol to transubstantiation- in, with, and under? Thank you for the thought for food. And for the affiirmation of strangeness in the organization of our consciousness. And for the work and ministry that you do! Fond memories of your classes.

    • philnevahefner July 5, 2015 at 1:02 am #

      Very pleased to hear from you, Larry. I do remember you. Weren’t you also a professional baseball player–or am I mixed up? Your comments could spark a long conversation. We’re on the same wavelength, I believe. Best wishes to you.

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