until 1st November, 2020
This show was originally due to close on the 7th June. Thanks to covid-19 it will now close at the beginning of November. It is an unusually demanding show, not the typical parade of great masterpieces, rather it is a collection of paintings, prints and drawings from Rembrandt’s first ten years of production (1624-34). It shows the young artist steadily maturing and includes such masterworks as New York’s ‘Noble Slav’ and the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem.’ It also includes badly constructed, over-coloured, mixed-up, disproportioned pieces which prove how hard Rembrandt had to work to become ‘Rembrandt.’
In a way this tour of the artist’s studio over time is the nearest we can come to seeing Rembrandt at work. One actual visitor to his studio, Constantijn Huygens, Secretary to the stadtholder Frederick Henry, was influential in raising Rembrandt’s profile at The Hague which in turn led Rembrandt to move to Amsterdam from his native Leiden in 1631. Huygens’ notes of his visits to the studio (they are an appendix in the excellent catalogue) are not only some of the best contemporary criticism of the artist but also bring out important elements of his early work, notably his close artistic relationship with his fellow Leiden painter, Jan Lievens. The show brings together a number of treatments of the same subject by the two artists. And in the earliest of these Lievens is the better painter.
‘The anatomy lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp,’ Rembrandt’s breakthrough painting of 1632 is not in the show, but there are enough pictures of men in black with fantastic white ruffs, plus slightly wonky lateral perspective (a problem even for so fine a picture as the 1636 ‘Blinding of Samson’) to compensate. These pictures of the rich and powerful are a sign of the popularity of the artist which led to considerable wealth. In this show we see Rembrandt on the financial up, with fine clothes, a large studio, careful and business-like use of materials. It is sobering to compare this with the Rembrandt of the late great self-portraits when his popularity had waned (the unflattering portrayal of city notables in ‘The Nightwatch’ was the beginning of the end), his fortune had quite literally sunk, his wonderful collection of dressing-up clothes and props had been sold off and his business affairs put into the hands of his son Titus.
The appearance of the elements of what was to be that future for the man and for his work are what is most compelling about this show. The fancy dress and glittering props were not just part of Rembrandt’s love of drama and self-drama. They also provide the surfaces for the light and dark chiaroscuro effects which he learnt from his teacher Jacob van Swanenburg, and the subject matter for the virtuoso use of paint to project images of jewels, metalwork and fabric. These features are hallmarks of the mature style and give breathtaking pleasure in the Jeremiah and the Noble Slav (but look out also for the tissue of gold in Lievens’ ‘A Magus at his table’).
The love of drama is there also in the subject matter of the exhibits, above all the biblical scenes of which Rembrandt was such a master and over which he spent such care. It is easy to forget that Rembrandt’s parents were Catholic by birth and became Protestant, and that the Lieden of these years was ruled by persecuting anti-Remonstrant Calvinists. It is not clear in which Church Rembrandt’s allegiance lay. That ambiguity shows in his work which was often not elevated enough for Catholics and too sordid for Protestants, though, as the exhibition notes, his love of excretory scenes was popular outside the unco’ guid.
And it is the embrace of dirty, sagging, fleshy, aging humanity which is the great theme which emerges in this show. Whether it is a tormented Judas or the artist’s aged father and mother, whether it is the female nudes which lack the rebecundity of Rubens’ or the beggars to whom he gives his own face, there is no cruelty or malice in Rembrandt (compare his kind gaze to the coolness of Lucian Freud), but an acceptance of humanity as it is.
That humility or groundedness is shown above all in the self-portraits, a magnificent series of which he made throughout his whole career. The show begins with three of these, a hint that with Rembrandt it was a case of ‘in my beginning is my end,’ but what a beginning and what an end.
An American Pickle, Babyteeth and Pinocchio
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is one of the films attempting to draw audiences back to cinemas following their closure due to Covid-19. However, we have also seen the release of films including An American Pickle (Brandon Trost), Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy) and Pinocchio (Matteo Garrone). These films are rather contrasting in style but are comparable in their attempts to represent the diversity (an ongoing concern for the film industry) of society. An American Pickle portrays Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, a working-class Jewish labourer in rural Poland who emigrates to Brooklyn with his wife to start a better life for their soon to be born baby. Unfortunately, Herschel then falls into a large container of brine at the pickle factory where he works as a pest controller. No one seems concerned for his whereabouts and he is preserved in brine for the best part of a century until being discovered by some teenagers in modern day New York. When he awakes, he is greeted at the hospital by his great-grandson Ben (also played by Rogen) who dismisses his Jewish heritage in favour of a secular lifestyle. Initially Herschel is astonished that Ben refuses to pray for his deceased family when visiting the grave of his great-grandmother (Herschel’s wife) as this is incomprehensible coming from the religious society of his remote town in rural Poland. Pickle grapples with sometimes daring political satire against Jews which is made acceptable by the casting of Rogen who is himself of Jewish heritage. If this were not the case the satirical Jewish narrative would be highly controversial. Overall, the film incorporates diversity in a way that does not feel like “ticking boxes” but is inclusive and without offensive stereotyping. Herschel openly stares at an inter-racial couple as Ben informs him that in 21st Century Brooklyn this is perfectly normal. A further example of the film’s attempt to represent today’s society is including an inter-racial gay couple who are shown articulating themselves with “camp” gestures as they enquire about Herschel’s “artisan” pickles being both vegan and organic (unaware that they have been created from discarded cucumbers found in trashcans and glass jars found in the same waste). Whilst there is some irony and arguable stereotyping of young homosexual couples being vegan, this mostly comes across as humorously cliché. The diverse casting choices are highlighted by the characters’ speech in a way that is natural, normalized and in a fashion that does not see diversity as something that is alien, as has been done so in the past. Pinocchio tries to take the film back to its Italian roots in its new version by director Matteo Garonne of Italian mafia film Gomorrah (2008). Although filmed in the Italian language, for seemingly commercial distribution purposes, the cinema I attended for this screening of Pinocchio presented the film with English dubbing as opposed to being subtitled, which unfortunately detracts from fully engaging with the narrative. The fantastical narrative that is associated to the original text The Adventures of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi, 1883) (which according to Wikipedia is the most translated text outside of religious books) as well as the Disney picture, remains in this version. However, it is complicated whether the film is intended to be marketed at children or an adult audience of art cinephiles. The cast are predominately Italian actors, re-establishing this as a Tuscan tale, but I am afraid that the English dubbing does seem to detract from its ability to be explicitly Italian. Perhaps I am over critical to refer to the moment where Geppetto paints Pinocchio in white ‘flesh’ colour but despite the fairy tale like feature that Pinocchio is a puppet who becomes a boy, he is nevertheless a puppet at this specific moment. Since he is not Geppetto’s biological son there seems to be no reasoning for why Pinocchio needs to be assigned to an ethnic group and I question why this race must be white when he has been wooden for near ¾ of the film prior to this point. Earlier in the film in a heartfelt moment, young Pinocchio roasts his legs in the fireplace. Of course, in being wooden, he becomes ignited and soon his legs become stumps. Although it is right that his character be naturally frustrated by this inconvenience to his mobility, due to the fixation that Pinocchio is to become a boy it is problematic to present Pinocchio’s paranoia of being unable to walk. This is because following the fire incident Pinocchio has become physically disabled and therefore, we should be wary of how this scene implies that his lack of mobility needs correcting. Finally, the last film and the one I would recommend most out of the three is Murphy’s Babyteeth. Showing elements of “rebellious” Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird (2017) this film is about relationships and living life. Set in Australia Eliza Scanlen plays a school age only child who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The characters are varied and include both a pregnant woman (not often shown in film) and a homeless boy. Whilst Toby Wallace who plays the character of Moses (the homeless young adolescent drug addict) has not experienced homelessness himself, the casting of a relative newcomer as opposed to a Hollywood regular is particularly commendable for this role. I do not want to say too much about this film other than that it is beautifully executed on screen in both narrative and performance. Out of the three films that I have discussed, this is the one that best demonstrates what it means to cast well and portrays the most accurate representation of the people who live in society. Just several days ago the Oscars announced that only diverse films would be considered for best picture beginning in 2024. I hope that my short summaries of these recent cinema releases provide the reader with thoughts about the extent to which certain films are presenting diversity well, and not in a way that is simply “ticking a box”.
A Guide to Christian Art
T & T Clark, 284 pp
If you have ever been on a trip to an art gallery or a cathedral with a non-Christian friend or family member, you will recognise the sinking feeling that occurs when they turn to you and ask something like “Which saint is that?” or “Why has that rock got four streams coming out of it?” The subtext is: you’re a Christian, so you should know. At times like these, it would be helpful to have some reliable reference work to hand to save you the inevitable indignity of having to Google it on your phone. Unfortunately, such works tend to be unwieldy hardbacks with colour plates and thus not particularly convenient for a trip around the Tate.
Diane Apostolos-Cappodona’s A Guide to Christian Art, on the other hand, is a slim but dense volume which would fit easily into a bag or coat pocket for a day out. It is a scholarly yet accessible overview of the most popular (and some of the less frequently seen) symbols and motifs in Christian art of the medieval and early modern period, containing over 1,000 references. It also provides a handy summary of the lives of saints and the development of certain cults, drawing on various sources such as scripture, apocrypha, popular devotion and legend. It covers a diverse range of subjects including biblical and celestial figures, saints, animals, botanicals, colours and musical instruments. A significant proportion of the book, comprising the first main section, is dedicated to detailed explanation of the symbolism relating to Christ and the Blessed Virgin. One particularly interesting section provides an explanation of how certain pagan deities were assimilated into the iconographies of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and several Christian saints.
Inevitably, some of the entries cover pretty familiar ground, especially for Catholic Christians (you probably don’t need this book to tell you that the grey-haired man holding a bunch of keys is likely to be St Peter). Nonetheless, you will likely discover some facet of a particular cult or devotion that you didn’t already know about as a result of the wide range of source material which reflects the breadth of medieval thought. The section on objects and animals is a good example; in addition to scriptural sources, it is based on a series of medieval bestiaries such as the twelfth-century English illuminated Aberdeen Bestiary and Aristotle’s Historia Animalium. It helps make sense of some of those slightly odd medieval depictions of saints or biblical figures with unexpected animals. For example, did you know that the panther was symbolic of Christ because it slept for three days after a full meal? Or that the goldfinch was a symbol of the Passion because it feeds on thorns and thistles? Or that the tortoise represents chastity and reticence, especially when depicted in the hands of the Blessed Virgin or the Christ Child?
Slightly disappointingly, there are only a few coloured illustrations, focusing primarily on Christ and the Blessed Virgin. I would have welcomed more coloured photographs showing examples of some of the most significant symbols and motifs. However, this would have necessitated a larger, more cumbersome volume.
A Guide to Christian Art is a helpful and enlightening reference work which is probably of most value to a reader who does not already have a solid grounding in Scripture and the teachings of the Church. There are ample cues for further investigation and research, assisted by a helpful bibliography, together with a glossary and a timeline of church history.
In Concert Sing
A Mirfield Bedside Book
Bruce Carlin (Editor)
Mirfield Publications 2020 £8.50 ISBN 978-0-902834-51-4 166pp
Lockdown has brought many to the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield through being able to access online their five daily services. ‘In Concert Sing’ reminds us how inaccessible services used to be even for retreatants at the Community of the Resurrection (CR). ‘A return trip from the top floor of the Retreat House to the Transfiguration Chapel was about 650 steps, 500 to the Upper Church, giving a daily total of some 4,000 steps’. Editor Bruce Carlin assembles in this book articles and anecdotes about CR including Fr Guiver’s rationale for their re-ordered step-free Church, Fr Allan’s for plainchant, Fr Simmons on the Leeds Hostel and Bishop Sowerby on priestly formation at the CR associated College I trained at.
CR founder Bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932) is given considerable attention. The anthology includes the 1899 Daily Mail magazine article, which hangs in the CR cloister. The journalist was intrigued by Gore, his asceticism and how his preaching filled Westminster Abbey when he served as residential Canon. The sharing of his house with liturgist Walter Frere and bible scholar Richard Rackham launched CR in 1892. The article captures Gore’s clarity of thought in a punchline from the sermon there described: ‘There is only one reason for believing anything – that it is true; there is only one reason for disbelieving anything – that it is untrue’. For Gore, though seen in his day as ‘liberal Catholic’, the Church is the ‘primary instructor’ about truth. ‘He regarded the historical clauses of the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds as safeguarded from error by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and repudiated the claim of critics to interpret them symbolically rather than literally’. CR to this day preserves daily recitation of the creed at Evensong despite its removal in Common Worship, even if the genius of the Community is its wide umbrella over the Anglican variety of interpretation. Fr Grant recalls ‘when Harry Williams CR was [leading evensong] he stood to begin the Creed and said, ‘I believe in God.’ Firm full stop, and nothing more came from his lips!’
‘Mirfield Bedside Book’ supplements a recent book of CR obituaries and Alan Wilkinson’s authoritative Centenary History as a ‘gallimaufry’ of odds and ends about CR, trivial and profound including helpful basic facts about its members over 128 years. My own first connection with CR was hearing Bishop Trevor Huddleston preach in Pusey House. He alerted me to Africa and its needs, which he had so eloquently described in his prophetic book ‘Naught for your Comfort’. Fathers Harrison, Mercer and Stebbing paint a moving picture of CR’s historic and ongoing mission partnership with the Church in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The fruit of that mission which took in Fr Desmond Tutu as seminary assistant is evident. The anthology goes back to First World War service of CR brethren like Fr Northcott finding ‘he had not only to learn to use the bayonet, but also the ‘spirit of the bayonet’ – a fearsome, devilish thing, but the only way, I suppose, to make an effective combatant’ (Alan Wilkinson). On a lighter note my memories of MJK – Fr Martin Jarrett-Kerr – were kindled by Fr Grant’s recalling his ‘multi-tasking… sitting at the back during Chapter, darning his socks and writing a book review’. CR remains a spiritual resource for many not least online in lockdown.
The confident Christianity of the community is expressed in awesome accessible worship and outreach respectful of other faiths as exemplified in the reflection of the superior on spiritual dialogue with eastern religions further to his visit to Bhutan. Fr Gartside contrasts Buddhist and Christian spirituality applauding the emphasis on practice in the former and finds there a call to renew expectation of transformation of life being the outcome of faith. Such transformation, as Fr Gribben’s testimony earlier in the book exemplifies, has been and remains the business of the well-named Community of the Resurrection. The editor, Fr Carlin, is to be congratulated in gathering these varied fragments into a light as well as a deep read.
Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times
Hodder & Stoughton, 2020. RRP £20
Towards the end of Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Jonathan Sacks observes: ‘Morality matters. Decency, charity, compassion, integrity, faithfulness, courage, just being there for other people, matter to us… because we are human. These truths, undervalued for a generation, are the cultural climate change we now need. They are about to become vital again, and not a moment too soon.’ Written before the spectre of coronavirus loomed so large over the world and lockdown took hold of our daily lives, they are prophetic words. The other great convulsion of 2020, Black Lives Matter, has one premonitory mention, where he describes the movement’s co-founder as a ‘change-agent’. This new book is very much alive to what’s happening in our communities and societies today, seeking to take the temperature of any number of issues and problems with a consistent reminder of morality’s values and the difference they make.
Sacks holds solid Public Square credentials. Chief Rabbi from 1991 to 2013, he was created a life peer in 2009 and is one of the more reliably engaging contributors to Thought for the Day. In the autumn of 2018 he fronted a brilliant series for R4 called Morality in the 21st Century. This transatlantic book is both more and less than that. Less, because it moves away from the format where small groups of school students shared undefended views on contemporary social issues in a forum chaired by Sacks, with him then going on to interview key thinkers and commentators on the theme, returning to the students at the end, and guiding the listener throughout with experience and informed narrative. It is more because it builds on his Templeton Prize acceptance speech in 2016 when he raised concerns over ‘the outsourcing of morality’ and his Vancouver TED Talk the following year on ‘The Future You’ in which he argued for the strengthening of ‘us’.
The Morality series clearly helped shape this book; much of its wisdom and discovery is presented on these pages. ‘I don’t think I have ever enjoyed programme-making so much,’ he avows, and it is certainly worth looking up as a podcast. But he also admits the work is something of a lifelong quest. ‘The journey of which this book is the culmination began more than fifty years ago.’ Dedicated to his grandchildren, it is deeply personal in places, reflective at times, and proves a fascinating mix of memoir, theology, sociology, philosophy, moral reasoning, and treatise. Yet again, it is none of those but all of them. His dialectic approach means that newspaper columnists such as David Brooks on the New York Times are given equal weighting with De Tocqueville and Descartes. This can be frustrating for minds which like an argument to evolve with gradual, clear building blocks along a more academic track. But his style and approach are even-handed and courteous so that real voices emerge, surprising details bring clarity to an idea, and the whole is a pleasing, sometimes puzzling, countdown of where we are, how we might have got there, and what it might say for the future.
Five sections – The Solitary Self, Consequences: The Market and the State, Can we still reason together?, The return of public shaming, Being human, and The Way Forward – consider individualism, family breakdown, suicide, drugs, business ethics, consumerism, public trust, democracy, post-truth, identity politics, no-platforming, victimhood, vigilante justice, tribalism, and much more besides. Religion is presented as the regular origin and defender of morality, and that ‘a world without shared meanings is one in which it is easy to feel lost … The revolutionary shift from ‘we’ to ‘I’ means that everything that once consecrated the moral bonds binding us to one another – faith, creed, culture, custom and convention – no longer does so’. There is a lot to savour here, including a beautiful chapter on marriage. Anyone who has appreciated Sacks’s commentaries on the Hebrew Bible will enjoy his use of Scripture to make various points. Like other recent authors, he argues for the restoration of ‘Sabbath economics’ (a day off for rest and recreation, at least), and is careful not to compromise his small-c conservative free-market principles. He is good on the need to create wealth but also distribute it equally; ‘markets need morals and morals are not made by markets’. But his theory that the cult of the individual began with Luther’s nailing of the theses (‘I can do no other’) may not bear heavy scrutiny. Linking Protestantism with economics overlooks any discussion of the Industrial Revolution. Rights and responsibilities, with personal obligation, are considered more in the Enlightenment thought-mode and without reference to Augustine or Aquinas. Anti-Semitism is consistently cited although any mention of Girard’s scapegoat theory is curiously absent.
Ultimately, the strands of Jonathan Sacks’s life, career, intellectual training in moral philosophy, theology, pastoral experience, and prominent public position, all come together to give a thoughtful, calm and impassioned plea for the morality-need we all have: the ‘complex set of human ties that creates the environment of support, good feeling, resilience, trust that make up the matrix of a happy life.’ And it is more besides. What is needed to safeguard this, and prevent the foundations from being eroded further? What effect have the three great revolutions of the past 50 years had (sexual of the 1960s, economic of the 1980s, and tech of the 1990s)? There is a further question to add: will global lockdown be seen in years to come as the greatest of accidental moral experiments? Whatever 2020 might mean for our collective sense of self-understanding and moral identity, we shall need patriarchal voices such as Sacks who bring balance, compassion and faith to the forefront of our human dilemmas. This book asks vital questions; the answers will be even more important.