[Art credit: David Ligare, Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia), 1994. Oil on canvas, 20″ × 24″. de Young Museum, San Francisco.]
Translated literally as “guest-friendship,” the word xenia expresses the ancient Greek notion of hospitality, which included the practice of providing guests and strangers with baskets of food. In that culture, xenia was regarded as a social responsibility and, more than that, a religious offering. This is not so unlike ancient Jewish culture, with its laws providing for the care of strangers (e.g., Leviticus 19:34), and later, Christianity, with its scriptural injunctions to “be given to hospitality” (Romans 12:13; cf. Hebrews 13:2; 1 Peter 4:9).
Neo-classical artist David Ligare invokes the concept of hospitality in his painting Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches, subtitled Xenia. Staged against the California coast inside an open stone-walled structure, a pitcher of grape juice and a stack of bologna sandwiches catch some sun. These foodstuffs were inspired by Ligare’s time as a volunteer with the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, distributing meals to the homeless—an activity he has been engaged in for decades.
Traditionally, the still-life genre reflected not just the artist’s mastery of technique but also the philosophical, spiritual, or moral questions of the age. This painting sits well in that tradition. According to Ligare, “the picture is truly complete if it inspires others to enjoy the privilege of serving those ‘strangers’ among us who are in such need.”
The allusion to the bread and wine of the Eucharist cannot be missed, not only because of the sameness of substance but because of the reverent way in which the elements are presented, as if on an altar.
One question the painting raises is how to define Christ’s body. A multivalent term, it is used in scripture to refer to, among other things, the church, who is to be the hands and feet of Christ, and, less directly, to society’s most vulnerable, whom we are to serve as if they were Christ himself (Matthew 25:31–46).
May Christ’s gracious offering of himself compel us to offer ourselves to others in radical hospitality, extending friendship to every corner of our city. And may the broken and crushed find nourishment this season at Christ’s table.
To view more of Ligare’s paintings, visit www.davidligare.com.
The Art Spotlights have been selected by Victoria Emily Jones, who blogs at ArtandTheology.org, seeking to connect Christians to the rich visual, literary, and musical artworks of the church’s past and present. She is currently working on a chapter for the forthcoming book Neo-Calvinism and the Visual Arts, and has just released a Stations of the Cross audio tour of works from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Follow her on Twitter @artandtheology.