Jonathan Homrighausen ’23: Heaven’s Roof

Part of our “Art and Artists are Essential” collection and invitation.

“This calligraphic piece, Heaven’s Roof, juxtaposes two meditations, from two religious traditions and in two different languages, both on the wonders of creation and the God who, like an architect, designed and created our cosmic home.

The inspiration for this piece came to me recently when I took a workshop in runes, an ancient writing system used in Germanic languages such as Old Norse and Old English. I thought back to a poem I studied in college, ‘Caedmon’s Hymn,’ a beautiful hymn from the earliest Christian monasteries in Britain. As the chronicler Bede recounts it, this poem was revealed to the monk Caedmon in a dream:

Now we must praise the protector of the heavenly kingdom
the might of the measurer and his mind’s purpose,
the work of the father of glory, as he for each of his wonders,
the eternal Lord, established a beginning.
He shaped first for the sons of the earth
heaven as a roof, the holy maker;
then the middle-world, mankind’s guardian,
the eternal Lord, made afterwards,
solid ground for men, the almighty Lord.

Note the architectural language: heaven is a roof, and this ‘middle-earth’ is a domicile made fit for humans. Reading this, I recalled one of the morning blessings in the Jewish prayerbook:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe,
who spreads the earth above the waters.

After six months of socially distancing at home, the connection between our individual homes and our shared planetary home seems all too obvious! In this piece I have transliterated Caedmon’s Old English poem into runes. The runes are arranged densely and architecturally, like a house. The tight, angular texture contrasts with the curvy, graceful letters of the Hebrew blessing. The colors here, walnut ink over a light green watercolor wash, suggest dirt and the green wonders it houses.

As a calligrapher, my art reflects on words worth pondering, and shapes them for you to ponder as well. This text-focused art form naturally complements my graduate coursework at Duke on sacred texts and the complexities of their interpretation.

COVID and its ensuing recession have been terrible for the arts, and I don’t want to downplay that. But I also see a lot of creativity from artists both in what they are creating and in how the arts world is rethinking its practices. In the calligraphy community, for example, much training takes place in weekend workshops, which can be costly to travel to and prohibitive for students with busy schedules. Now many workshops have been moved online and spread out in smaller chunks, so teaching and learning are much more accessible. Since March I have studied with teachers in Chicago, Portland, Missoula, and even Slovenia—all from my home.”

“In 2025, I hope that we look back at 2020 not only as a time when artists supported one another and built community, but a time when we rethought how the way we teach and train the next generation might make space for more voices.”

— Jonathan Homrighausen, PhD ’23 (Religious Studies)

Heaven’s Roof by Jonathan Homrighausen, PhD ’23.