The Body in Ancient Greek Art
26 March–5 July
members/under 16s free
If time is short or you need one of the savoury pancakes from ‘Abeno’ in Museum Street you might visit the first and last rooms of this show. There are another 150 items on display, many of them from the Museum’s permanent (and free) collection. But if you do just concentrate on the first and last rooms it is likely you will want to stay. These rooms show some of the finest Greek or copies of Greek sculpture in this country plus the Belvedere Torso, the work which inspired Michelangelo’s Adam. The show is the first time the Torso has been shown in Britain.
The exhibition is a thematic overview of the human body in Greek art. There are a lot of pots and a fair number of modern versions of what the sculptures might have looked like. Most of the bodies are bodies beautiful, an idealized compendium of the best bits from previous sculptures. Occasionally there are some ugly faces. These belong to philosophers and clowns. There are also people who put their own features on idealized Greek models to show there is no depth of vanity or silliness the rich will not stoop to. And in the idealized features of Alexander the Great we have an early example of short, ugly man syndrome. But even where the images are grotesque, they are always highly finished. There is no deliberate roughness.
Because the show is thematic rather than chronological it can be hard to focus on. And there is no attempt to explain how the great flowering of Athenian sculpture occurred. Maybe there isn’t the evidence. But there is evidence for Greek attitudes towards the
body, and the depiction of men as opposed to women. The culture of the gymnasium must have had some bearing on the fondness for the fully nude male. Pace the exhibition’s notes, this was not a matter simply of being a warlike society. Most Mediterranean societies were warlike, but they didn’t exhibit male nudity. And there is little by way of honourable battle scars on these warriors. Our contemporary equivalent is not the martial hero but the gym bunny and the footballer minus the tats.
In this world the women are, of course, lightly clothed, less so if they are a goddess. The first sculpture of a woman which the visitor sees is ‘Lely’s Venus,’ a second century CE Roman marble, copied off a Greek bronze. This sculpture is no Dame Angelina Jolie but a full figure of a woman. Why we have different ideals of beauty over time and between cultures is just one question the show might have addressed. Without that perspective it is difficult for us to assess from a contemporary Western perspective how charged this sculpture might have been. However, the pose of the Venus just about covering up was much copied and became a model for Renaissance Bathshebas and Judiths. Lely’s Venus fits in with the kind of nudes Titian and Goya painted for the private consumption of discerning gentleman patrons but it takes an effort of the imagination to see this.
The depiction of men is altogether stronger. Sadly, there is only one major bronze, the preferred medium of Greek sculptors. This is a second-century copy of a work by Apoxyomenos. It shows a young man, eyes cast down, torso and legs beautifully balanced, the musculature symmetrically perfect. Rather more interesting is a stone copy of Myron’s discus thrower which has balance and movement despite the chilly perfection of the white marble. There is no sweat here, but a sense of ease and force. And beneath that work reclines the River God Ilissos, designed, if not executed, by the great Phidias. This is breathtaking. The suggestion of strength and movement and power is achieved in a resting, semi-recumbent figure. What would in later centuries become a cliché in a thousand pediments is here a living stone. It is technically very fine, and the technique is at the service of a forceful and lifelike design. A near perfect work, but one which we only know after it has been much battered.
The same irony of history dealing hard blows to works which came so close to perfection is found with the Belvedere Torso. Michelangelo wouldn’t restore it, wisely reckoning that would damage the physical and artistic integrity of the piece. It is the final work in the show, and itself yet another copy of a Greek bronze original. It cannot be viewed in the round like the great works of Giambologna which derive from it. But it is a presence. No wonder Greek artists reckoned that they were creators of something greater than mere nature.
The General Election
Were you up for Balls? That was the question on the morning of Friday 8 May; for there was no doubt that the defenestration of the erstwhile Member for Morley and Outwood was the highlight of Election Night TV coverage. Like the ousting of Michael Portillo in the Labour landslide of 1997, the defeat of Ed Balls made for great television, whatever your views on the politics of it all happened to be. Even before that though, there had been at least two other ‘shock’ moments of the night: the first right at the very beginning of the BBC’s coverage, when an even-more-surprised-looking-than-normal David Dimbleby announced that the exit polls forecast that the Conservatives would be by far the single largest party; and then a few hours later, when the result for the Tory marginal Nuneaton came in, and it became apparent for the first time that they might actually win a majority. These three moments were among those that made for one of the most exciting election nights in recent history, at least for those of us watching from the comfortable security of our living rooms. The other shocks were mostly concerned with the collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the meteoric rise of the SNP in Scotland. Such were the percentage swings in Scotland that poor old Jeremy Vine had to recalibrate his Swingometer on the BBC.
There was also much comedy to be had, although sadly most of it was unintentional: Paddy Ashdown promising to eat his hat if the exit polls turned out to be true (they were, he didn’t) was far funnier to watch than anything poor old Jeremy Paxman managed to come up with on Channel 4’s ‘alternative’ election coverage. Channel 4 nonetheless subsequently boasted that their show was the ‘most watched election coverage on commercial TV’ – which given that almost everybody tunes into the BBC for these occasions is a bit like saying that England’s cricketers came first in the last Ashes series, apart from Australia.
Worth an honourable mention among the alternative coverage was Have I Got News For You, whose panellists must have stayed up very late (or got up very early) to record an episode that went out less than 24 hours after the polls closed and yet took full cognisance of the result. A notable defector from the Channel 4 stable was the impressionist Rory Bremner, who brought two shows to BCC2, one before the election and one after it. Sadly, neither was very funny.
Less funny still was the reaction to the Tory victory on social media and the blogosphere. It is rapidly becoming the case that Conservatives are about the only group of people who it is acceptable to mock and berate in public. Certainly some of the comments and ‘jokes’ that were made in the hours and days after the election would have led to public outcry and very probably arrests had they been made about any other group of people. The irony is that by and large it is not traditional Labour voters who compose these barbs, but the left-leaning middle classes with a guilty conscience: in other words, the people who used to vote Liberal Democrat and find Rory Bremner funny.
There was undoubtedly much anger in the land at the unexpected result of the election. The scale of this in certain quarters reminded me of the reaction to the defeat of the women bishops legislation in 2012: the system hasn’t given us what we want/need/have a right to, therefore the system must be broken, therefore the system must be changed. It is amazing how democracy works right up until the moment that it doesn’t.
The Church of England reaction was, of course, far more muted. The church Times reported that ‘the mood of Church of England bishops judging by Twitter was, by and large, glum’. Two things strike me about this: first, that it has come to something when the foremost way to communicate with the successors to the Apostles seems now to be via Twitter; and secondly that ‘glum’ is a wonderfully Anglican word in its moderation and lack of enthusiasm. The Bishops of Sodor & Man, Chelmsford and Leeds were all quoted to illustrate the glumness of the Episcopal Bench, with the Bishop of Leeds suggesting on his blog that the Bishops’ pre-election pastoral letter had been largely ignored. I wonder what lessons might be learned from that?
So the Bishops were not impressed. But that aside, the election coverage was a great time for fans of politics, drama, tragedy and David Dimbleby, and much the best thing on TV for a long time. What a pity that thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, we won’t get another night like it for five whole years.
Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy
Catholic Truth Society, 48pp, pbk
978 1784690656, £2.50
Jesus Christ is ‘the face of the Father’s mercy’ or Misericordiae Vultus and we need to contemplate that face, most especially in 2016, a year of Jubilee. So writes Pope Francis in a short booklet called a ‘bull’ but with far from bullish tone. It thrills with the perception that the Church’s greatest strengths are both her sense of need for divine mercy and her reflection of that mercy pastorally. Drawing on Scripture and tradition, Francis urges reflection on the profundity of the divine love, especially as encountered in the sacrament of reconciliation. The Pope’s own episcopal motto miserando atque eligendo recalls words of Bede on Jesus calling Matthew ‘looking upon him with merciful love and choosing him’. Recognizing Christian vocation as being in a context of that mercy is the thesis of this booklet in preparation for a year to deepen discipleship. There is a valuable section on the relationship between justice and mercy, ‘two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love’. Jesus’ meals with sinners show mercy and respect for the dignity of all, and are allied to his praise and practice of faithfulness to divine law. Pope Francis uses St Paul as the obvious example of the merciful reframing of justice brought about in Christian conversion. The forthcoming Jubilee is labelled ‘extraordinary’ and this adjective applies well to the author’s paragraph lauding Islam and Judaism for believing ‘no one can place a limit on divine mercy because its doors are always open’. The Pope continues with an aspiration that the Jubilee year ‘will foster an encounter with these (and other noble) religions…eliminat(ing) every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination’.Misericordiae Vultus is a big ask for a world where human mastering and dominion of the earth leaves so little space for mercy. In the new humanity of Christendom service of God’s mercy in deed and word is one of our most intriguing and attractive features, and this booklet is aid and inspiration for that enterprise.
IN SEASON AND OUT OF SEASON
Crafting Sermons for All Occasions Jeremy Davies
Canterbury Press Norwich, 256pp, pbk
978 1848256026, £19.99
Those of us charged with the awesome responsibility of preaching will benefit from this very readable book. Jeremy Davies not only gives us a clear insight into what is the primary purpose of preaching, he also provides fine examples of sermons delivered on a variety of occasions together with an account of how they came to be crafted. The introduction to the book is as important as its text, providing as it does a fine exposition of what a sermon truly is. For Davies preaching is about proclamation. The preacher is not primarily there to lecture or, in a narrow way, to teach. He is not leading a seminar or a Bible study. This is a theme that is usefully picked up from time to time throughout the book. In his commentary on his sermon at a wedding Davies wisely comments: A‘ homily is not a commentary or a lecture and a preacher will inevitably leave some strands untied and some connections not pursued.’
The book offers eight chapters on various themes that dominate our preaching; the liturgical year, the occasional offices, ‘special’ services like Harvest or Remembrance Day, to name but three. We are given the text of two or three sermons relating to the theme. Each is accompanied by a commentary on the sermon, usually explaining the precise context in which it came to be preached, why the preacher chose to treat the subject in the way he did and the theology that undergirds it. These commentaries, while mostly helpful, can occasionally jar. In the commentary on a sermon preached at a nuptial mass we are given the author’s views on same sex marriage. Interesting they may be but not especially helpful in gaining a deeper insight into the construction of that particular sermon. Not all readers will be happy with the doctrinal implications of one or two of the sermons shared with us. That, though, is but to state the obvious within the context of much Anglican preaching and acts as wonderful stimulus to work out how and why one disagrees with the content.
Davies would be the first to encourage the preacher to think about his or her immediate context when preaching. Such thoughts did cross this reviewer’s mind as he reflected on his frequent Sunday sermons to a congregation barely in double figures, who faithfully and regularly turned out on a tough housing estate; more so as he thought of the frequent sermons to the often vast congregations who gathered for funerals. The expectations of those present seemed to be more in line with funerals shown in EastEnders and coronation street, than with the congregations that gather in the cathedral church in which most of Davies’ excellent sermons were delivered. In a sermon on the Eucharist Davies draws perceptively on his experience of preparing teenage boys for confirmation as a curate in East London. How much many of us would welcome a companion volume that offered us material that had resounded among its hearers in urban priority areas. Nevertheless, Davies sets out the theory and technique which, when followed, might well produce the appropriate sermons for such a context. It would be good, though, to have such examples of the completed work as we have in these fine cathedral sermons.
THE SERVANT AND THE LADDER
Cooperation with Evil in the Twenty-First Century
Andrew McLean Cummings
Gracewing, 468pp, pbk
978 0852448540, £20
Fr Cummings thinks you are more sinful than you realize, and has some old-fashioned theology to prove it. His style is so redolent of the past – the gender of pronouns is far from neutral, and there is a lot of Latin – that one could miss the ferocity of what he is saying; this is what being mugged by a man wearing galoshes must feel like.
At the end of the seventeenth century the question of how a person sins by taking part in the sinful act of someone else had come to be put in the story of the servant and the ladder. If a servant holds a ladder that his master uses to commit a crime, is he guilty too? Or, to bring it up to date, what do you say to someone who works in a shop that sells pornography? In the five hundred years between the first story being an easy example and WHSmith starting to stock ‘lads’ mags’, different answers have been given. There is a lot that can be learned from Cummings about them, but his answer is the point of the book.
Cummings accepts a distinction between formal cooperation, and material cooperation. They have different intentions, to cooperate formally with evil you have to share the evil intention of the person who you are helping; in material cooperation the evil intention is not shared. But what if the cooperator shares the intention unwillingly?
Most people will make a moral judgement on the servant holding the ladder, or the cashier selling the pornography, on the basis that they are under duress. But, as Cummings says, that is not good enough. First, we must decide if an action is good or bad, and only then what the consequences of that action are for the person who performed it. According to Cummings, the servant and the cashier are guilty of ‘implicitly formal cooperation with evil’, because their actions are directed to an evil end, and there is no good reason why they should be holding the ladder, or selling the magazines. As long as the agent has any responsibility at all, i.e. as long as someone is not physically forcing the man to hold the ladder, or the cashier to exchange the pornography for money, duress does not make cooperation material. The servant and the cashier are guilty of formal cooperation, albeit implicit, and are in a state of venial sin until they find new jobs.
‘Reminding the faithful of the true character of such cooperation will be a valuable stimulus to reviving a sense of sin’, Cummings concludes. Busy penitents might want to avoid his confessional, but they would be missing out.
THE LORD OF THE WORLD
Robert Hugh Benson
First Rate Publishers, 160pp, pbk
978 1507767078, £4.99
‘Was it conceivable, his earthly mind demanded… he and his few thousands should be right, and the entire consensus of the civilised world wrong? It was not that the world had not heard the message of the Gospel; it had heard little else for two thousand years, and now pronounced it false… It was a lost cause for which he suffered… sanity sat on the solid benches of materialism. And this heaviness waxed so dark sometimes that he almost persuaded himself that his faith was gone… he cried as One other had cried on another day like this – Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!… but that at least, he never failed to cry’. So wrote Monsignor Hugh Benson’s hero Pope Silvester, the Pope literally of the last day named after the 31st December Saint, in his novel on the end of the world. Written after the turn of the nineteenth century, its poignant realism and vision of spiritual battle is as relevant to our day as it was to that of a century ago. I picked up and read this new reprint of the classic Lord of the World firstly because Hugh Benson lived and wrote in my parish of Horsted Keynes and secondly because his end time book has come to the world’s attention as a favourite of the current Pope Francis. In an interview attended by The Times at the start of 2015, Francis described reading Lord of the World as his eye opener to the ‘ideological colonisation’ of secularism. The book is a bold turning of the tables on H.G. Wells’ vision of materialistic utopia with its storyline depicting Christianity being put under a ban in the name of such utopia. Pope Francis sees Benson’s century-old novel speaking to our own day of à similarunified civilisation and its power to destroy the spirit’.
My own links with Benson are through his mother Mary (1841–1918), widow of Archbishop of Canterbury Edward Benson, moving the family to my parish of Horsted Keynes. This came about after Edward’s death as Mary moved south with her distinguished progeny including Hugh’s brothers ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ author Arthur and ‘Mapp and Lucia’ comic novelist Edward. Though Archbishop’s son, Hugh converted in 1904 to Roman Catholicism and became a great Catholic apologist. His book By What Authority provides a refreshing counter to perceived wisdom on the English Reformation lamenting as it does its undeniable destructive side. Lord of the World depicts a world 100 years on from 1907 where humanism yoked to freemasonry and Marxism comes into world dominion. Holding Christian faith becomes a capital offence and euthanasia is obligatory when your health fails. Benson depicts the return and growth to world dominion of the Antichrist, depicted as being like socialist politician Ramsay MacDonald attaining European then global dominion. His combat with the Catholic Church – bishops and priests are hanged in Westminster Cathedral and Rome is bombed – precipitates the end of the world with the last page a dramatic portrayal of papal Mass and Benediction at Nazareth in anticipation of Christ’s full unveiling.In the story the monarchy and the Church of England are easy targets for ‘ideological colonization’ and fall, leaving the Roman Catholic Church sole buttress against aggressive humanism that holds to the divinity of man excluding any supernatural realm. There is a powerful image of this in St Paul’s Cathedral renamed Paul’s House where the Antichrist leads a packed congregation in the unveiling and worship of a nude mother and child. This has echoes of the worship of Goddess Reason in Notre Dame during the French Revolution involving clergy who desert the church for the regime. Sometimes old books beckon us to a reading and with it a refreshing of wisdom for new times. I enjoyed Lord of the World as a reminder that dominant ideas aren’t always right ideas and that the forsaking of a supernatural perspective is no guarantee of human flourishing. With Hugh Benson I see human flourishing as inseparable from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He alone can eradicate ‘the leaven of malice and wickedness’ within us and set us on the best forward course by his Spirit, who is appropriately subject of the last Mass on earth in this extraordinary novel.