Until 10 January 2016
According to Simon Schama, Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Sir Winston Churchill is one of the greatest portraits of the twentieth century. Shortly after it was displayed in public for the first time the portrait was destroyed, allegedly because it made Churchill look old and senile. Since he couldn’t have seen it, this makes Professor Schama’s judgement a miracle of tele-criticism; and in the spirit of such fantasies we should be glad that Churchill was not painted by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, the first great maker of the unsparing portrait.
We might also compare the pettiness of Churchill to the attitude of Ferdinand VII: a man reviled by contemporaries and historians, but who was gracious enough not to destroy the genuinely unflattering portraits Goya made of him. There are six large and unflattering portraits of the king by Goya, the finest of which is this exhibition. In truth, no artist managed to make Ferdinand look good – and Vicente Lopez y Portana has a particularly car-crash version worth looking out for. But this show’s portrait not only shows the king to be malign: it does so with ermine, and braid, and silks rendered with dazzling freedom. Maybe for once in his portraits the darkness of Goya’s vision fitted the subject matter, and this great survivor could speak truth directly to power.
The National Gallery’s show has been called one of the greatest of the last ten years. A comparison with the Rembrandt earlier this year says it isn’t. For one, there are plenty of poor paintings in it – as far as we can tell Goya was largely self-taught. The earliest paintings in the show are practically primitive, though even these show a superb, smooth handling of fabrics – there was never a painter of such black humour who delighted so much in fine silks. And in the early pictures the faces are often doll-like, the more so with rich patrons than close friends. And the perspective was often awful: you only have to see the desk in his 1795 Duke of Alba and the squashing effect it has on the duke’s beautifully clothed stomach and hips.
The composition can be messy – as it is in the first great picture in the show, The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbón. But look at that picture and see the way Goya places the Infante and his son in imperial profile against powerful, vigorous, and untrustworthy courtiers; while a beautifully observed hairdresser prepares the hair of Don Luis’s wife. All of these are early examples of the strengths of Goya’s portraits.
Another long running theme in that picture is the way it echoes the great Las Meninas of Velázquez. In a sense, the long dead Velázquez was Goya’s most important teacher. Time and again Goya took from him his royal poses, his hunting mise en scène (Goya was a fanatical hunter), and the shadowy presence of the painter himself. The most intriguing of the self-portraits, that of 1792-95, shows Goya gaudily dressed in the shadows while the picture itself is flooded with creamy colour. It’s an odd picture, though no odder than one with his doctor towards the end of his life which is unexpectedly tender.
Many of Goya’s greatest paintings – greatest in design and freedom of paint and in tortured imaginative daring – are not portraits. Paintings such as The Colossus, or The Shootings of May 3rd 1808, or Saturn devouring his Sons are much more powerful than his pictures of aristos and royals. Looking at his very good imitation of a Gainsborough swagger portrait The Count of Fernán Núñez, you would not expect The Disasters of War, one of the greatest ever series of etchings and depictions of war. So this show doesn’t give us Goya full on; but it does give a very good selection of some of his finest portraits. These are very clear-sighted in a way that Manet would pick up on, and later Lucian Freud.
To return to the comparison with Rembrandt: in many of these pictures Goya does not have the Dutchman’s virtuosity and feel for composition. Above all, he lacks Rembrandt’s warmth. The portraits are powerfully observed; but there is often a hint of the surgical about them, and the sketch of his friend Juan Fernández de Rojas on his death bed suggests as much. And then there is the great red-and-black painting of the Duchess of Alba. That portrait was so daring for a society picture that it stayed in Goya’s studio. But for all the impact of its design – and the painterly verve in the depiction of her lace, and the courtier’s skill in hiding what looks like a wonky nose – Goya doesn’t give us the woman whose every hair was said to be erotically charged.
It is no surprise that Goya influenced Picasso, another great painter for whom it is hard to feel affection. Still, as the 1805 portrait of the Marchioness of Santa Cruz shows, he could do a very good belly-button swelling under the chiffon.
Journeying towards the Nativity
Gracewing, 108pp, pbk
978 0852448755, £6.99
As I write, in the middle of October, posters for the Christmas fair have just appeared in my parish church. I first spotted Christmas cards on the supermarket shelves at the end of September this year. Advent calendars are ten-a-penny, emblazoned with everything from Peppa Pig to Doctor Who through the entire cast of Frozen. I recently saw a beautifully made wooden ‘Advent train’, consisting of a loco driven (somewhat incongruously) by Father Christmas, and a number of carriages containing doors out of which sweets and other goodies peeped suggestively and temptingly. All very jolly; and all completely devoid of the meaning of Advent.
That is why you should buy this book. It is, effectively, an Advent calendar with words instead of chocolate. It contains twenty-four ‘stations’ (beginning on 1 December, irrespective of the date of Advent Sunday), and takes the reader on a journey through salvation history as a way of preparing for the coming of the Saviour on Christmas Day. It starts, appropriately enough, with ‘In the beginning was the Word’, and then works its way more or less chronologically through Creation, the Fall, the Covenants of the Old Testament, the foretelling of the Messiah and the ministry of St John the Baptist, the vital roles of Our Lady and St Joseph, and the birth narratives. It concludes on Christmas Eve with the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds.
Each ‘station’ begins with a short scriptural passage. This is followed by a meditation in the form of a ‘personal and enquiring prayer to the Heavenly Father’, bracketed at the beginning and the end by the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. The meditations, if read carefully and prayerfully, contain much wisdom and spiritual guidance. They are solidly biblical in foundation, although occasionally other sources are used as well – including the beautiful story in the non-canonical Protoevangelium of James of the world standing still for a second to herald the birth of Christ. It is a beautiful way of describing the indescribable.
After the meditation, each ‘station’ continues with a passage from traditional Advent material – office hymns, the Advent Prose, the ‘O’ antiphons, and so on. Each day’s offering finishes with the Hail Mary and the Glory Be. Everything is written out in full, so the book, slender though it is, stands alone as a complete Advent resource. The author has chosen well from the deep riches of the Church’s Advent tradition, and has produced an admirable Advent guide.
Advent Joy is attractively presented, not expensive to buy, and would make for an excellent Advent devotion – or a truly Christian gift for somebody wishing to recover the real meaning of this most beautiful liturgical season.
WHEN SILENCE SPEAKS
The Spiritual way of the Carthusian Order
DLT, 224pp, pbk
978 0232532029, £12.99
Donald Allchin’s seminal work on the revival of the religious life in the Church of England was entitled The Silent Rebellion. His point was that ‘by their religious profession they [the members of the new communities] brought into the open that silent rebellion against the tyranny of evil and the conventions of this world to which every Christian is pledged by his baptism’. Since Allchin’s book was published in 1958, the tyranny of evil has not subsided to any significant extent, and the conventions of the world have not become any noticeably less opposed to the doctrines of the Christian Church. In a world (and a Church) that is increasingly filled with noise, much of it meaningless (just as most of the noise in a swimming pool comes from the shallow end, to paraphrase W. H. Vanstone), intentional silence is as much of a rebellion today as it ever has been.
All of which is to say that there is a clear value to the exploration of silence, and several authors, poets, and songwriters have explored precisely that topic in recent years and decades. And yet like so many things, it is easy to make silence sentimental, or to detach it from any specifically Christian meaning or significance. The 2006 film Into Great Silence – acknowledged and referred to here – was successful precisely because it tapped into a general (and perhaps romantic) longing to know more about silence and to experience it; whilst at the same time presenting with integrity the life and worship of a religious community utterly grounded in the practice of silence.
Silence is vital to most forms of monasticism in one way or another, but it is in particular an integral part of the life of the Carthusians. In this beautiful book – translated from the original Dutch – Tim Peeters, a priest of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, achieves in one volume both a practical guide to the history, life, and customs of the Carthusian order; and a work of spiritual guidance that will be of value to many.
Peeters is keen to rebut the claim that the Carthusian way of life is ‘useless’. Quite the reverse: for the few who are so called, it is the only sure way of finding unity with God; and by their apparently useless life, devoid of any notions of utilitarianism – even in the service of the Church – the Carthusians offer a reminder to the rest of the Church of the value of contemplation. The modern world’s ‘tremendous need for immediacy and efficiency leaves almost no space for tasting spiritual and transcendent realities’, says Dom Marcellin Theeuwes, sometime Prior-General of the Carthusians. So the Carthusians dedicated their entire lives precisely to this quest for the spiritual and the transcendent. Unlike other religious orders, they do not run parishes or other institutions, and each monastery aims to be self-sufficient as far as possible.
Having said that, the order does continue to make the famous drink Chartreuse, and Peeters tells us that the profit from this business is enough to ‘provide for the sustenance of the entire Carthusian order, both male and female branches’. Snippets of practical information alongside deep spiritual wisdom are one of the charming things about this book! In addition, Peeters, and the Carthusians he quotes, have a fine eye for the memorable line. Thus, monks in general and Carthusians in particular are to be understood as à kind of firehouse on the edge’. Monks are like candles – they burn brightly for Christ. And the Carthusians ‘waste [their] lives because [they] love Jesus. But anyone who has fallen in love, knows that real love can lead to the biggest follies’.
That the Carthusian quest for the transcendent is not an easy or comfortable one is made abundantly clear by the testimony of a number of Carthusians interviewed by the author, and by the details of daily Carthusian life that he provides. The regime is sparse and austere. A life of extensive solitude can be difficult, even dangerous for those who are not genuinely called to it. Yet at the same time, the fact that each monk is provided with a four-roomed cell in which to work, eat, sleep, and pray means that within the strict confines of the monastic life – shaped and moulded by the recitation of the Divine Office and celebration of Mass – each Carthusian monk has rather more freedom to order his life and work in accordance with his interests and his gifts than is the case in many other religious communities. Finding freedom in ways very different to those understood by the world is a vital part of the silent rebellion which the religious life entails.
As we have already seen, silence lies at the heart of this rebellion. But what is silence? Silence is not merely the absence of noise. It is, first and foremost, the state in which one can truly listen to God: hence the seeking after the solitude of the desert which saw the very beginnings of monasticism, and the understanding of the desert as the supreme place of encounter with God which continues to run through the Carthusian life. Silence is à language that is nourished in solitude’, says an anonymous Carthusian in the preface to this book. Other writers go further, describing the solitude of the Carthusian cell as àn ear-splitting silence’, and the Carthusian life in its totality as à storm in silence’.
It is clear that such a life is not easy, and that few are called to it; and although spread across the world, the Carthusian order is tiny in relation to most other religious orders. And yet as one author quoted here puts it, ‘the contemplative life is a true and specific charisma within the Church. In the way of all other charismas, it contributes to Christ’s mission of redemption of all creation. Only the one who remains faithful to his own charisma bears the fruits the people need.’
When Silence Speaks is an excellent guide to the Carthusian order for those who would wish to know more about it. But its value goes beyond that. Silence speaks to us all, and we all need to cultivate the disciplines of listening and contemplation. Those of us who are not called to the Carthusian way of life still have much to learn from it. Buy this book, and take in the sound of silence.
MERCY WITHIN MERCY
Georges and Pauline Vanier and the Search for God
Mary Frances Coady
DLT, 156pp, pbk
978 0232531893, £9.99
‘Have you had sight of me, […] my child? Mercy within mercy within mercy.’ This sentence on God from Thomas Merton is the heading for a deep, thoughtful reminder of a Christian rule of life told through the fascinating biography of Jean Vanier’s parents. The title counters the tendency of some of us to ‘think of God as if he were in a chronic state of irritation with us’. Acceptance of God’s merciful love, transformation in, and radiance of it are seen as pivotal to Georges and Pauline Vanier, their lives, their family, and their work that spanned the 20th century. The spiritual depth of the book is enhanced by its fascinating history of the period during which Georges served as Governor-General of Canada and Pauline founded the Vanier Institute of the Family. She ended her days serving with Jean in the L’Arche community for the mentally disabled.
What I found so powerful about the book was its breathing with the two lungs of prayer and social action. From early days Georges and Pauline adopted a rule of daily Eucharist and 30 minutes’ prayer, and regular spiritual direction. It is the letters that survive from directors, and their Trappist son Benedict, that make the book so rich. There are few books on how to live profoundly whilst engaged in social activism, let alone a chronicle of faith at work among folk prominent in the life of the world: they were personally involved with Churchill and others in the international tumults of their day. The later letters of Benedict to Pauline, as she adjusts to L’Arche, are particularly rich. I end with one of his lovely counsels: ‘A very practical way (and good for all of us!): deliberately, once a day (twice if you can) be total acceuil, “acceptance”, “presence” to someone else. I mean a deliberate effort to follow whoever it is in unconditional acceptance and attention. It is a good “exercise”, “practice”, because we tend so to bend towards ourselves’.
MORE MUSINGS FROM MAULDEN
St Matthew Publishing, 218pp, pbk
978 1901546545, £10
Richard Farquharson, a paralegal who also runs a website for the Community of the Resurrection, lives in Maulden, a village in Bedfordshire some forty miles north of London. This is his second collection of previously unpublished essays and articles. His interests are wide-ranging and varied, and include churches, monasteries, English landscapes, and the beauty of nature. All receive attention in this attractively produced book, which comes complete with good quality photographs of the places, buildings and (occasionally) people the author has visited. The book is also shaped to some extent by the changing seasons of the Church’s year.
Farquharson visits Pusey House in Oxford and admires the chapel, the library, the quadrangle and the tangible atmosphere of ‘piety and learning’. Walking along the North Yorkshire coast he stops to admire nature’s beauty, and finds evidence that many have done so before him: a large plaque in a wall, bearing words from Psalm 121: ‘My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth’. He returns to Mirfield and enjoys being a student for a week and climbing the College tower. He recounts his annual pilgrimage to Walsingham, and notices (as I have done on many occasions) the peace and stillness that descends on the place on a Sunday afternoon when most of the pilgrims have departed. He writes about flora, and food, and Candlemas, and the arrival of a new incumbent at his parish church. He visits Derbyshire, Kent, London, and Little Gidding.
More Musings from Maulden is informative and readable, thankful for the beauty of the world, and aware of the greatness of God’s goodness. A very useful appendix gives the web addresses of many of the places and institutions he visits. The book is a gentle and undemanding stroll along the byways of its author’s hobbies and journeys. It is clear from his writing that Farquharson is not a traditionalist, but he nonetheless values much about the buildings, institutions, and life of the Church of England that readers of New Directions will also find important. I enjoyed much of what he has to say, and the photographs help to make this an attractive little book in every sense.