Margaret Laird on Renaissance, Resurrection and the celebration of Life

The Great Forty Days of Easter provide us with ample opportunity to ponder upon what is meant by ‘Life’ in this context. The Prayer Book Collect for Easter Day explains that through the Resurrection, Christ overcame death ‘and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life’, which is helpful but still not quite as explicit as we would like. It is to St Paul that we must turn for a fuller explanation. He rarely speaks of the Resurrection without linking it to our present condition, and to the way in which the risen Christ changes not only our outlook on life beyond the grave but also to the way in which we view and lead our lives here and now, as part of what he describes as ‘God’s new creation’. This requires us, the Apostle explains ‘to glorify God’ in our bodies. Christ through the Incarnation experienced every aspect of our humanity, thus demonstrating anew the sacredness of life from conception to death. Through his death and resurrection, he also provided the means whereby all might have the opportunity to share in that risen life, and to follow his example by striving to reflect God’s glory in our own lives.

The recent exhibition at the Royal Academy Illuminating the Renaissance demonstrated that the illuminators of those superb manuscripts viewed the whole of creation, especially that of human life against this theological background. They portrayed not only scenes from the Old Testament, the main events in the life of Christ and in the lives of the saints but also their own reflections and ideas about human life, even of life both before birth and life after death. Some manuscripts contained moral guidance for the rich and influential patrons who commissioned them. Often too the exquisite borders of the miniatures depicted flowers, insects and animals reflecting the craftsman’s genuine appreciation of and delight in the work of God’s creation.

The Last Judgement was a common theme, which naturally helped to concentrate the minds of those who used these superb Books of Hours and other manuscripts in their devotions. For example, Simon of Marmion, who was one of the most important Flemish illuminators, produced a whole series of paintings portraying how the soul of an errant Knight, Tondal, who suffered a seizure at dinner, is led while unconscious by an angel through hell and purgatory. In a visionary experience he is shown the fate of various groups of people. ‘The bad but not very bad’ stand in niches in temporary discomfort, while ‘the good but not very good’ are nourished by a fountain. In other visions Tondal sees how the gluttonous are punished, how the unchaste priests and nuns suffer in torment and in contrast how a happy crowd of the faithfully married are given shelter in a tent. The martyrs and the pure sitting in comfortable choir stalls sing praises and give glory to God. As a result of this Tondal’s soul is transformed and on his recovery he vows to lead a better life. These illustrations would have acted as a solemn warning to those who had access to them.

The life of the Blessed Virgin was a favourite subject of the illuminators especially ‘The Annunciation’. This scene enabled them and the users of the manuscript to reflect upon the fact that Christ began his incarnate life in the womb. This concept was often strengthened by illustrations of ‘The Visitation’ when the newly pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, who was already six months into her own pregnancy and whose ‘babe [John the Baptist] leapt in the womb.’ Although at that time little was known about the development of a child before birth, there is no doubt that the lives of the unborn were greatly respected.

One of the most charming of the exhibits, titled The Creation of the human soul made a deeply theological point about the unborn child. This was that he or she, even from the moment of conception, was made in the image of God. How does the illuminator manage to do this? He depicts a young couple, neatly tucked up under a fur rug in the marital bed. In the left hand corner of the illustration, the three persons of the Holy Trinity are painted, as if in discussion. This is true to Genesis 1.26 (as the artist understood it). That verse states ‘Let us make man in our own image.’ The decision having been made, and with the hands of God the Father and God the Son raised in blessing, a fully formed child is sent towards the marriage bed, making clearly visible for contemplation the belief that ‘man is made in God’s image.’

Thus, life was sacred from the moment of conception. The death bed scene and the care of the dying was another theme commonly given prominence in these manuscripts. Death was treated with reverence and was seen as a moment to be treasured for which prayerful preparation was made and after which a vigil was solemnly kept. The illuminators stress its significance in their miniatures. The dying are surrounded by groups of family, priests, monks and nuns wrapt in prayer, who fully accept that the moment of death is in God’s hands. In an age when ‘living wills’, demands for euthanasia and neglect of the dying and the elderly – even in hospitals – are becoming ever more frequent, there is much to be learnt from these illuminations of the Renaissance period. They highlight issues which need to be addressed in the twenty-first century.

In 2004, on October 10th there will be an opportunity for us to reaffirm the sanctity of life, and to celebrate every aspect of God’s creation at a March and Rally in Westminster culminating at an ecumenical service in Trafalgar Square. The event will have an urgent and vital message to proclaim. It will call upon people of all faiths or none to ‘Choose Life’ in an age when the concept of life as sacred is being seriously threatened by an increasing number of abortions and growing demand for euthanasia.

Last year’s rally was a colourful and joyous family occasion enlivened by music, dancing, singing and decorated floats. With the support of a large number of eminent patrons, it was a ‘Celebration of Life’, especially human life.

This year’s event will follow a similar pattern and promises to be even more impressive. It already has the patronage of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and forty other Church of England Bishops as well as that of Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops of the Catholic Church, of leaders of other Christian denominations and of the Chief Rabbi and representatives of the Muslim community. The patronage list also contains the names of many other influential and distinguished men and women from Parliament, from the medical and legal world as well as from other professions. It is hoped that encouraged by this support, Forward in Faith parishes will be well represented at this Rally and that the readers of New Directions will be amongst those who not only ‘Choose Life’ but come to celebrate it.

Margaret Laird is an observer on the Forward in Faith Council and was formerly the Third Estates Commissioner