Under the Sistine Umbrella

The umbrella is an unlikely symbol. But, whether neatly rolled and accompanied by a bowler hat and sombre sub-fusc, or gorgeous, yellow and befringed above the head of the Son of Heaven as he made his way along the dragon pavement toward the Hall of Heavenly Harmony, the umbrella has had meaning in many cultures. It came, then, as no surprise when, in an unsolicited catalogue of ill-considered trifles which dropped through my letter box, it was an umbrella which demanded my attention.

The catalogue itself was a symptom of the times – one of those `museum’ productions which cascade from the Sunday papers and which seem to have established a market all of their own. I am not in a position to say for certain whether resin-cast replicas of the mummy case of Tutankamun grace the coffee tables of Sidcup in any numbers, or whether electrotype earrings, based on originals in portraits by Vandyck, glint seductively above the fish knives of Godalming; but the chances are that they do. Museum catalogues, whether from the V&A, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York or Past Times, are big business. They clearly cater to some need, albeit one not previously identified.

The umbrella which came to my attention was the very epitome of the sort of merchandise such catalogues contain. Modest on the exterior, in a dull beige with a simple bentwood handle, its interior lining was resplendent with a full colour reproduction from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (itself resplendent from a recent clean-up at the expense of a Japanese television company).

There is, I suggest, something almost heroic about the Sistine Umbrella, beside which other atrocities, the pocket handkerchiefs printed with Van Gogh’s irises, the table cloths of Monet’s Giverny, the neck-ties with excerpts from the Hereford Mappa Mundi and the Magna Carta, pale into insignificance. It is not merely the dignity of the artist which is affronted by such degradation (though that is poignant enough when you consider that Michaelangelo, as Vasari tells us, lived a life dedicated to the pursuit of the `sublime’). It is the whole intellectual life of the Renaissance, of whose noble endeavour to reconcile the classical and the biblical the iconography of that ceiling is a prime example, which is devalued. And, of course, the Christian religion itself.

But that is the way things are and no one, it seems, is consumed with embarrassment at it. It is a mere commonplace these days to blow

one’s nose on the emotional outpouring of a tormented genius, throw a perfect summer afternoon in 1889 repeatedly into the washing machine, and shelter from the storm under the Creation of Adam (for all the world oblivious to the overwhelming Last Judgement which is the climax of the same composition). If there is a definition of barbarism this is it.

But barbarism, as they say, is ‘where we are at’. A mindless cultural relativism has rendered everything inconsequential because it has turned all things into consumables. In striving after the sublime, Michaelangelo sought to portray eternal truths in enduring human images. But there remain in our day neither the truths nor the images. Religion in a self-consciously pluralist society has ceased, for most people, to be true. We teach our children in their schools about the religions of other cultures, not because we value those religions in themselves, but because they are useful in neutralizing the absolute claims of Christianity in our own. Nor, in the torrential cinematograph of contemporary existence, is any image enduring. A starving child, an opening flower, a granite pharaoh; they can all be reproduced at will, in various colourways, and used indiscriminately to sell anything from life assurance to a Big Mac.

In a world where the past has become wallpaper to the present nothing is sacred. A State Church, with all its obligations to provide rites of passage for the society in which it is set, is bound to be painfully conscious of that fact. Under the Sistine Umbrella, I Cor 13 becomes no more than an elegant prelude to the divorce court, Matt 28: 18-20 an excuse for the conspicuous consumption of bottled beer and Southern Comfort, and the solemn words of the funeral rite a mere interlude between `It’s my life’ and `I did it my way’, rendered fortissimo by Bassey and Sinatra on the indifferent sound system of the local crem.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.


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