DRAWING IN SILVER AND GOLD:
Leonardo to Jasper Johns.
Until 6th December, 2015
Metalpoint is to graphite as the harpsichord is to the piano. Both metalpoint and the harpsichord can be wonderfully precise, and both have been used by great artists. But they are no longer mainstream, and were swept away by media with more dramatic potential.
In fact metalpoint never really was mainstream. It originated in the Low Countries and in the early Renaissance flourished in Florence and parts of Germany. It was gradually replaced by graphite, a cheaper medium and one better suited to the age of impassioned sketching which followed on from Michelangelo. By the seventeenth century metalpoint was a dead art – the British Museum has been lent the only known extant silverpoint work by Rembrandt. In the nineteenth century there was a revival of metalpoint in homage to the Early Renaissance. The Nazarenes in Germany, and Burne Jones and Holman Hunt amongst the Pre-Raphaelites, practised it; but, as this very fine show makes clear, no artist of the highest stature has used metalpoint since the days of Holbein the Elder and Raphael.
A film at the start of the exhibition shows why. To quote the Museum’s introduction, ‘Metalpoint is a drawing technique where the artist uses a metal stylus, usually made of silver, on abrasive preparation so that traces of the metal are left on the surface, resulting in a visible drawing. The fine point allows for precise lines so that stunningly detailed drawings can be achieved. Metalpoint lines cannot be easily erased and the artist needs to carefully plan the design or run the risk of having to start all over again. In the hands of the greatest artists metalpoint could also be used more freely for creating rapid sketches.’ In other words, it is a palaver. And it is expensive: in Florence Leonardo learnt to use metalpoint in the workshop of the goldsmith Verrochio. Metalpoint also requires a lot of skill to use effectively.
Yet, within its limitations, metalpoint has advantages. It is highly durable and doesn’t fade easily, though it is always quite pale. And within a limited tonal range and in combination with chalks and coloured papers it can be remarkably effective. The greatest sustained example of metalpoint work is Botticelli’s illustrations for Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia’: now in Berlin, but shown a few years back at the Royal Academy. For its show the British Museum has brought together a hundred examples of the art with major works by Rogier van der Weyden, Filippo Lippi, Pisanello, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein the Elder. The earliest date from c. 1410 and are some earliest of the genre to survive.
Amongst the Italians, first up are studies of a monkey by Pisanello. These are charming. They were used as patterns for how to draw a monkey, and the beauty of the fur and the sweet pose make the little sheet of drawings very seductive. Equally precise are some of the portraits – that of an Elderly Man by Ghirlandaio, with its thick neck, wattles, a stern cropped head, and tight lips (possibly he had lost his teeth) is especially impressive.
Of the two major works by Leonardo, the study of two arms crossing each other in a typically naturalistic but impossible pose shows both the fluidity and precision which metalpoint can achieve, and its flexibility when used in combination with washes and chalk. ‘Some Illusions (2) 2013’ by Bruce Naumann has been placed next to it as an example of a modern artist continuing the tradition, but Naumann is thin and weedy compared to the depth of Leonardo. The other major Leonardo on show is the ‘Bust of a warrior.’ This is the pin-up of the exhibition, one of those highly worked Renaissance profiles which seems to have developed from coins and medals. However skilful it may be, it is cold and unprepossessing.
Raphael’s ‘Head of the Virgin’, a preparation for the Pasadena ‘Virgin and Child’, is quite different. Though a sketch, the elegant rhythms of curves and ovoids ensure that Mary is not a simpering, pretty face. Seventy years older, Rogier Van der Weyden’s head of a woman is much more formal; and yet within the limited means of the medium we have another attractive woman, one who looks out, lovingly but concernedly, with both a smile and sadness. She wears a headdress whose stiff folds are hinted at with delicacy and economy.
Indeed, it is in portraits that the show shines. Jean Fouquet’s ‘Portrait of the Papal Legate’ is rather ‘Wolf Hall’. Dürer’s Jacob Fugger is a tough, hard Master of the Universe. And his unfinished portrait of a Young Boy is one of the most sinister and unsettling pictures I have ever seen. This is not a showy show but it is well worth your time. The Museum is currently showing next to it an exhibition of Pacific Bark painting: truly all the world is to be found in Bloomsbury.
SIR HUBERT PARRY
Choir of Westminster Abbey, James O’Donnell, Onyx Brass, Daniel Cook Hyperion, CDA68089
We are so used to hearing music as background noise that it is easy to forget how thrilling proper music – carefully performed and equally carefully listened to – can be. I would submit that the recording of ‘Jerusalem’ included on this wonderful disc is as thrilling a two minutes and forty nine seconds as you can find on compact disc. To learn from the informative cover notes that Parry’s favourite part was the D in the second stanza at the words ‘O clouds unfold’ was a bonus, since this was the part above all which drove me to play the track again and again, no doubt to the vexation of my neighbours. Jerusalem – a piece of music which has been slaughtered by countless village choirs and incompetent organists up and down the country and across the decades – is here returned to its rightful splendour. It is worth buying the disc for this alone.
That is not to say that this disc is a one-track pony. Far from it. From the moment that Onyx Brass begin the fanfare that launches ‘I was glad’, this disc is full of treats, bringing new vision and insight to even some of the most familiar pieces of music. The brass excel in the ‘Coronation Te Deum’ as well, creating that spine-tingling, earth-moving noise that only a top-rate brass
ensemble can produce. At the organ, Daniel Cook is mesmering in ‘Jerusalem’, mellow in ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ (another beautiful piece of music rescued from mediocrity here), and coolly efficient in the ‘Fantasia and Fugue in G major’. Throughout the disc, James O’Donnell coaxes performances from the Westminster Abbey Choir that are not only crystal clear but also full of passion and commitment – perhaps most of all as they proclaim the ‘vivats’ in ‘I was glad’, and the loyal declaration rings around the Abbey’s ancient walls.
Also included on this disc is ‘Blest pair of sirens’, ‘Hear my words, ye people,’ and the ‘Great Service’ in D major. The latter name could be applied across the disc – this is a great performance that will raise the soul heavenward; it is also a reminder of Parry’s greatness as a composer of church choral music.
THE ADVENT CANDLE
(Printed privately and available from the author: 40 Cwmgelli Close, Treboeth, Swansea, SA5 9BY – firstname.lastname@example.org Offers for bulk buying for junior churches available)
It is always a pleasure to receive a new book from Gill Rabjohns, and this volume is no exception. It is beautifully illustrated by Helen Jones, and will make an excellent tool for families keeping Advent together. The theme of the book is that families (be it the family unit in the home, or the gathered church family helping and caring for one another) should ensure that the seasons of the church are properly kept and marked. I would suggest that churches selling or giving these books out also supply an Advent candle that can be lit and burned while the story, or part of the story, is being read. Once readers have finished ‘The Advent Candle’, then the family could move on to read the story of Christ’s birth. This could also easily be done by those who live alone and might help in reaching out to the housebound.
The story is a simple one about a candle bought by the Gates family; Mr Biggs the candle-maker, who expects to spend Christmas alone; and the story of the birth of Christ. It is beautifully told, and the biblical narrative – which is revealed to the children through the light of the candle – is woven into the narrative in an easy-to-understand way. The final gift Mr Biggs brings to the family in the story is a carved Christmas Crib: a firm reminder that Christ must be at the centre of our Christmas celebrations, and that – no matter what we have or who are – is the most important thing. It also serves as a reminder that we are called to share the Christmas story with others and to see our family as being all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Children and adults alike will enjoy the story of the Advent Candle. It will encourage people to think about the true meaning of Christmas, and about keeping Christmas and Advent traditions that help to deepen their faith and that of those around them. Just as at the end of the story young Ben invites Mr Biggs to be with the family for Christmas Day, I encourage you to have ‘The Advent Candle’ as your companion this Advent and an Advent candle in your home to help light the way to Christ.
AN ETHICAL CASE FOR ELECTORAL REFORM
A Christian Approach
Grove Books, 28pp, pbk
978 1851749423, £3.95
Bishop Colin Buchanan’s recent contribution on electoral reform is a valuable document for anyone wanting seriously to debate the case for the House of Commons being elected by single transferable vote (STV), rather than by the present first-past-the-post system (FPTP). Buchanan’s commitment to the cause is illustrated by his service as Honorary President of the Electoral Reform Society from 2005 to 2012.
As he points out in his introduction, the Church of England, one of the first public bodies in England to adopt STV for its synodical elections, has been rather coy in recent years when commenting on electoral reform. He might have made his argument even stronger by noting the call by General Synod in the present century for the government to give serious attention to the issue. Buchanan notes that the House of Bishops’ Who is my Neighbour? (published prior to the recent general election) completely ignores this debate. A church with a claim to hold the high moral ground in electoral procedure remains silent.
Buchanan identifies two problems. There is a need to recognise that different electoral systems are not just matters of convenience, but must be judged on a moral scale. There is also a requirement to note that those who speak of the ‘settled view’ of Westminster are essentially the MPs of the two main parties, who have most to lose from any threat to their numerical strength in Parliament.
Reviewing the present situation, Buchanan addresses head-on the claim that FPTP provides strong government. This may have been so when general elections were mainly fought between only two parties; but even then one ended up with a disproportionate distribution of seats compared to votes cast. In recent years the evidence that such a system produces strong government has worn thin, and large majorities occur less and less. It is now harder even to justify the system by its results.
Buchanan examines recent defences of PFTP by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of Parliament, and exposes the clear weaknesses in its case. Westminster, on the one hand, seeks to discover the wider public view; but, on the other, informs us of its settled view. When parliamentarians come to vote, moreover, they do not place the same limitations upon themselves, and so each of the main parties has opted for something more than FPTP when it comes to electing their own party leaders. Parliament has also provided different voting systems – with variable degrees of proportionality – for electing such diverse groupings as devolved governments, members of the European
Parliament, elected mayors and police commissioners, as well as for local government elections in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
By far the best chapter in the booklet is that on the major ethical issues at stake, where Buchanan’s arguments are a tour de force. Eight ethical shortcomings of FPTP are listed, and a review cannot do justice to them all. Disproporcionality, randomness, pressures to tactical voting, and wasted votes are among the issues raised. Each argument is, when necessary, well supported by detailed electoral statistics.
In his fourth chapter Buchanan turns from a critique of the present system specifically to argue for STV. He especially commends a four member constituency as providing sufficient seats for representing a wide range of opinion. For many, of course – and perhaps Buchanan does not pay sufficient attention to the issue – the one-member constituency is a sacrosanct part of our political system. Buchanan notes, however, that the sense in which an MP speaks for all his or her constituents, other than in addressing immediate case work, is thin to say the least. He might have added that in local government we have long been used to two or three councillors in each ward, sometimes of different party affiliation. It is difficult to see why this could not work just as well at national level.
A useful appendix sets out the different kinds of proportional representation that might be on offer. While these are arguably an improvement on FPTP, one is left appreciating the particular value of STV. For those who wish to learn more on the subject, a helpful second appendix is provided.
This modestly sized booklet is to be welcomed. It provides a concise, important, and challenging contribution to Christian thinking on representative democracy.
THE ULTIMATE THREE MINUTES
The story of two great human watersheds – their preparation and their coinciding
Sussex Academic Press, 280pp, pbk
978 1845197346, £14.95
If wisdom is practical knowledge, then it is linked to life-long learning and the distillation of many spheres of human interest into a hopefully well-lived life. As a priest and a historian William Cummings has a perception of divine wisdom set against the canvas of space and time known to us from science and history. In this book, fruit of a long pastoral ministry in Norfolk and Sussex, there is foundational and transformative wisdom.
The ultimate Three Minutes is a title that refers to the dying of Jesus Christ: it mirrors recent popular science books entitled The First Three Minutes (Steven Weinberg) and The Last Three Minutes (Paul Davies), addressing the Big Bang origin and predicted heat-death of the universe respectively. Cummings addresses the person of Jesus Christ in the Gospels as the climax of world history: revealing where we come from, what we are as humans, and where we are going.
The book is primarily a history book. It runs through the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic Period into the Bronze Age and the ascent and descent of nations and empires, always with an eye to the Old Testament and emerging monotheism leading towards the coming of the Saviour and revelation of the Trinity. The timeliness of Roman rule and peace under Caesar Augustus for the Incarnation is noted as the ultimate ‘Idea’ running on from the mastery of fire and invention of writing, and in anticipation of the discovery of electricity and the features of the cosmos.
Traditional-minded Christians will warm to Cumming’s picture of Christianity as revealed, pointing to the labour of God in Christ carrying the consequences of sin and the ongoing role of the sacraments in conveying that grace to mortals. I liked his analogy of the Doppler Effect as a 21st century parable of the origins, person, work, and progress of Jesus Christ. When hearing for a minute or two the passing of a train, we find sound shifting ‘from high-pitched expectation to the deep-throated satisfaction of fulfilment to rumble afterwards’. World history has expectation fulfilled on Calvary with the sacraments ‘rumbling’ to us of ‘unique and all-embracing redemptive truth’.
The book sweeps authoritatively through world history weaving into it the insight given in Jesus Christ as to its and our purpose. That purpose can distil our immense knowledge into the simple yet profound wisdom of God: who is with us, and awaiting us.