RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY
Van Dyck to Cezanne
24 January–10 April
Admission £15, concessions available
This show claims to be the first major overview of Rubens’ work and legacy. It is not a review of Rubens tout court but of Rubens and the painters he influenced. And so we are shown a small number of Rubens’ own works and besides them work by artists who were influenced by Rubens either as to subject matter, form or content. And in an add-on to the show, the artist Jenny Saville has brought together works by artists who shared some of Rubens’ preoccupations.
This part of the show has been much praised, largely because the works in question are generally of a much higher standard than those in the main body of the exhibition. However, there is no attempt to show whether these artists are in any way part of Rubens’ legacy. In fact it takes an effort to find out who the artists are. But Picasso, De Kooning and Twombly are very recognizable and like Rubens they do have an interest in women and colour. But why include a Warhol of Jackie Kennedy? It is not vigorous. Or coloured. And during his career Rubens moved away from portraiture.
Artistic legacy is a tricky thing. At its most straightforward there can be direct debts. Vigée-Lebrun’s beautiful self-portrait owes both its simplicity and its informality to Rubens’ Le Chapeau de Paille. The Academy is showing the self-portrait but only an engraving of the Rubens. That is disappointing, but all too typical of the exhibition.
And then there is the problem that Rubens’ legacy is often hard to pin down. The Garden of Love is one of the few major works by Rubens at the Academy. A room is dedicated to its influence on Watteau and his fêtes galantes. And there is an element of shared subject matter and a comparable skill in execution. But Rubens and Watteau were very different artists. They are similar in their preparatory drawings. In these Watteau is beautiful and charming and finely observed. But Rubens has all that plus added vim. And in the painting Rubens is baroque. His work is filled with quasi religious cherubs in a setting which could easily be transformed into an altarpiece. And however voluptuous the women may be, there is none of the stagy and slightly sinister sophistication of Watteau. Rubens is wholesome. Watteau is a melancholic seducer.
The legacy of Rubens’ portraits also needs to be nuanced. The most striking of these in the exhibition is that of the (?)Marchesa Maria Grimaldi with Her Dwarf. Next to it there is a perfectly decorous Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son by Van Dyck. Van Dyck has borrowed the composition from Rubens, opened it up and added restraint. Just the kind of thing which made his fortune. By contrast, Rubens makes you stare and stare. The Marchesa looks ‘knowing’ and very beautiful. Looming over her shoulder is a tall, brutish dwarf. He is dark. She is pale. Her black dress is covered with gold filigree. The colours around her verge on the acidic and instead of Van Dyck’s cool and elegant background, there is a compressed space with ornate columns and overflowing plant life. This painting is profoundly unconventional. The other ladies in the room – Gainsboroughs, Lawrences, Reynoldses – are really a legacy of Van Dyck. Beside Rubens they are vapid.
Indeed, Rubens’ exuberance is something which the show struggles with. Some of Rubens’ more spectacular works such as the Antwerp Descent from the Cross are too large to bring to London. Others such as the decoration of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall are physically part of their surroundings and cannot be moved. And others still, such as the Marie de Medicis series, are just too many to show and end up on a sad, full size video. These Medici pictures are the case in point for the modern viewer struggling with Rubens. They are large. There are twenty-four of them. And where they hang in the Louvre there are too many other interesting paintings to see before you get to them.
Fortunately, and perhaps more by luck than judgement, the show has been able to overcome the problem of how to show Rubens at his most overpowering. It has just one such painting, Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt. This hangs alone on one wall in a room with dull works by other artists, many of whom share a justified obscurity. The Hunt is one of series by Rubens and it is large and strong. An uprearing horse gives the picture its centre and dynamic upward thrust. Pictures of rearing horses managed by perfectly controlled politicians and monarchs were a contemporary fashion, followed by Rubens himself. But this painting reverses the trope. Here a wild-eyed man is dragged backwards from his saddle by a tiger. Then in the bottom left a brawny (Farnese) Hercules figure rips open the jaws of a lion which has got its claws into a man who is lying down in a dying Grecian attitude. Other beasts and horsemen fill up the canvas. The picture is held together by the beautifully painted pale tones of the animals’ skins. And though this is a scene of savagery and desperation, there is also pathos as a lioness, barely noticeable at a first glance, carefully tries to protect her blind cubs. That lifts the picture. It shows genuine feeling amongst all the swagger and fury. And this pathos is something which Rubens added over and above the master he drew on for this painting. For this is very much a legacy painting, and the legacy is of Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari. This show is misconceived. The exhibits are often poor. But there are some great works by Rubens rarely seen in this country.
THE TALE OF QUISQUIS
Reading the Rule of St Benedict as Story
Hugh Gilbert OSB
Gracewing, 209pp, pbk
978 0-852447543, £12.99
Anyone who expects this book to be remotely similar to the tales of Brother Cadfael, the detective monk of Shrewsbury Abbey, will be disappointed. The author was appointed Bishop of Aberdeen in 2011 and previously as Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey was renowned for his retreat conferences to monks and nuns. This book is the third fruit of his reflections.
The Prologue of the Rule of St Benedict says To thee are my words now addressed, whoever (Quisquis) you are, who renouncing your own will to fight for the true King, Christ the Lord, are taking up the strong and glorious weapons of obedience Hugh Gilbert sets out to show that the Rule traces the journey of a person through life fromthat initial renunciation to its destination, eternal life. It is a life of being loved by Christ and participating in Christ’s love for all others. The `Explanation’ at the beginning of this book provides a masterly summary of the Rule as a way for both the life of the monastery and that of the individual member.
Hugh Gilbert explains how heinterprets the Rule as the way for anyone who is called by Christ to follow it. He ends this section with this brief summary, ‘the Tale of Quisquis tells how someone who has fallen in love with Christ (Prologue) and entered a fellowship of brothers (1-3) is led through the humility of obedience (4- 7) to a love of God expressed in constant prayer and a love of neighbour expressed in assiduous service (8-72):
The story of the monastic life of Quisquis begins when he arrives at the gate of the monastery and is met by St Benedict himself, who delivers an exhortatory homily to any who seek God in this school of religion. The homily is called the Prologue in the Rule of St Benedict and is the foundation, based on Scripture, for the life for all who follow Christ’s way to eternal Life. Those who use Bishop Hugh Gilbert’s book would be advised to have a Bible and a copy of the Rule of St Benedict alongside. The author throughout uses Latin and French quotations which are usually, but not always, translated. The Psalm numbering is that used by the Roman Catholic Church.
Quisquis enters the monastery becoming first a postulant and then after some months, if all seems well, he is clothed in the habit as a novice. He receives instruction in the Rule of St Benedict and the customs of the monastery. He is under obedience to the abbot as one responsible for the bodily and spiritual life of all the brethren. The community of monks becomes his family and he learns to become integrated in the hope that he will be one with them permanently.
Quisquis appears only briefly and occasionally in the rest of the story. After the year as a novice in Benedicts time (it is usually longer now) if all goes well and he is elected by the monks, Quisquis makes his promise and signs his petition which he places on the altar of the oratory. The liturgy of profession, described beautifully in Gilbert’s chapter 15, makes Quisquis a full member of the monastic community for life.
Each chapter of this book is a thorough exposition of one of the chapters in the Rule of St Benedict. Originally addressed to Benedictine monks and nuns, these conferences need to be read slowly and thoughtfully, sometimes even prayerfully. Do they have much to say to others? Space hardly allows even a glance at every chapter but a few could be mentioned to answer the question. In his chapter 6, Bishop Hugh Gilbert reflects on Benedict’s chapter 4 of the Rule, a marvellous collection of Gospel teaching about the aims and ways of Christian living, beginning with love of God and our neighbour. They would make an excellent basis for preparation for Confirmation.
‘The monk should desire eternal life with all spiritual longing and to this end he should keep death daily before his eyes.’ Gilbert’s chapter 7 is a fine meditation on this theme, which is not popular these days but surely it is one to place regularly before every parish congregation.
Chapter 12, ‘Wells of Prayer’, and the next chapter, ‘Intercession’, would benefit everyone who is trying to pray and needs helpful stimulus to this chief expression of our love for God.. Chapter 14, ‘The “Ordinary” Life’ shows what St Benedict had to say about loving our neighbour and is applicable to every Christian, whatever his or her position in life. It needs to be read alongside the Rule and could be used in a parish discussion group to encourage the growth of a good community spirit.
Crispin Harrison CR
THE TIARA AND THE TEST TUBE
The Popes and Science from the Medieval Period to the Present
Paul HaffnerGracewing, 300pp, pbk
978 0852448601, £14.99
The author of The Tiara and the Test Tube clearly has a liking for an alliterative title, and this one might well suggest a mystery novel. In fact, however, the greatest mystery examined is the mystery of the nature of God’s being and of the creation. The tiara stands for the faith of the Church, and the test tube suggests an opposition between this faith and experimental science: an opposition tirelessly pressed by some scientists, who mistakenly suppose that faith, and in particular in this context the Christian faith, is to be properly regarded as mere superstition – harmless enough if we can
be persuaded that all faiths are the same, but dangerous if spiritual faith is viewed as presenting a truth superior and in opposition to the truths increasingly being exposed to the light of scientific (experimental) method.
The author challenges this assumption on the grounds that it is impossible for one truth to contradict another. In fact, I think I should not use the word ‘challenge’, since the argument is carried on peaceably and charitably, by the Church, at least, and the truths turned up by science are cause of joy, provided that scientists recognize that the truth must include various sorts of truth, including aesthetic, moral, philosophical and theological truth. (I would also insist on adding economic truth to this list – Haffner does not say so explicitly, although he does show great concern for the world’s poor.) This has always been the case, and its recognition has resulted in much of the good that has been done in the world. Really science cannot get on without these other forms of truth.
Medical science has from early times been supported and even expedited by the Church, with provision of hospitals; education has long been a prime concern; agricultural science, initiated by the Church, has improved the land; and the great interest shown by the Church in astronomy tends not only to the glory of God but to our understanding of the creation in all its aspects and to the expansion of mathematics with all the benefits and insight that can arise.
What about Galileo and his treatment by the Church? I was releived to see that this question is not shirked, but examined and shown to be not the open and shut matter that I, at least, was taught in my youth.
A detailed history is presented of the involvement of popes and other clergy in several branches of science and philosophy, not to mention invention and technology, and recent popes have been fine exemplars of this. The Vatican has a well-respected observatory with strong links to one at the University of Arizona. The scholarship of recent popes has been profound, and I can only suggest that what I have said here provides an opportunity for close and instructive reading: far more so than a brief review. Indeed it would be a wonderful thing to see this work expanded to ‘Christianity and Science’.
I cannot help being reminded of something in Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her play cycle The Man Born to be King: ‘I can only affirm that at no point have I yet found artistic truth and theological truth at variance’.
war Resistance 1914–1918: An
Lutterworth, 314pp, pbk
978 0718893675, £20
The commemorations of ‘Great War’ centenaries will be around for some time, with churches hosting or otherwise adorning our civic events, as during the war itself. But is there a less popular, more prophetic role which we are called to fulfil?
Clive Barrett thinks so, though he offers no blueprint for alternative remembrances. Rather, his meticulously researched survey uncovers the wide range of opposition to the war, rarely mentioned in 2014 but with a growing volume of accessible material and the added sharpness of protests from within the Establishment.
Consider this broad assessment: ‘In general, the Church of England’s response to the war was shameful’. How come? It looked to the government, not the Gospel. When police raided the offices of many anti-war groups, one man offered to help by surrendering the most subversive literature on the premises; he handed over a New Testament. Gore on The Sermon on the Mount once suffered a wartime ban.
Barrett’s judgement is backed by an unparalleled array of detailed evidence. Notable bishops and parish clergy, famous for other achievements, often fail the test even on attitudes to Conscientious Objectors. If the prolonged ill-treatment of COs was a disgrace, their tribunal questioning was often ludicrous.
Sometimes the attitudes of the hierarchy shock us; why do good men make bad decisions? Fifty pages of endnotes give chapter and verse for Crockford Prefaces, Lambeth Conferences, army and prison chaplains, Dearmer and Temple, Raven and Bell, Tubby Clayton and Woodbine Willie (of course), Dick Sheppard and Vera Brittain. The early peaceniks are not all liberals; the story reveals ‘Tractarians’ like Herbert Runacres of Pusey House, backed by his Principal Darwell Stone. Sometimes it was harder to be an Anglican war-resister than a Quaker one.
Barrett wonders why so few of the famous war poets used biblical imagery, and offers a suggestion; when it is so used, its power is evident. But one Flanders headstone shuns the familiar war-memorial phrases; after the name, rank, regiment and dates we read, ‘Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war.’ Not alas, an Anglican.
And looking beyond two world wars, ‘Wherever the peace movement was at its strongest, there was a distinctive Christian presence among the leadership’. We are not yet in Wilberforce or Shaftesbury territory, but one day such twentieth-century leaders may be worthily honoured. What of the much-maligned George Lansbury or the heroic Thomas Attlee, another Anglican and elder brother of the future Prime Minister?
The book concludes: ‘Future generations looking back on 1914–1918 can see how, in a highly charged society, an apparently unpatriotic and eccentric anti-war minority was not only vindicated, but was changing national attitudes towards conscription and war for ever. They were not only subversive, they were right.’ Not all will agree, but none can now ignore these thirteen chapters of half-submerged histories, with arguments backed by much suffering, sound theology, and little outward glory.