Style in the Age of Magnificence Victoria and Albert Museum Until 19 July 2009 Admission £11 (concessions available)
How ironic that the V & A should hold an exhibition dedicated to the Baroque just as we’ve come to realize we are in the worst recession since the Second World War. That’s the angle the critics have taken on this show, though as usual the story’s not quite so straightforward. Certainly ‘Baroque’ celebrates extravagant consumption. There are the forebears of the toys for rich boys which feature in the FT on Saturday. There is a menu of the sort Heston Blumenthal recreates for D-list TV celebs. But we do the Baroque Age a disservice if we too casually compare seventeenth- and eighteenth-century magnificence with today’s nouveau riche masters of the universe. Not even the wealthiest of today’s kleptocrats could spend ten years’ worth of a South American country’s silver production fitting up a royal chapel as did John V of Portugal. And you’d have to go to the Gulf States or China to see building works which begin to approach what Bernini did for St Peter’s, Rome.
At its best Baroque is stunningly extravagant and theatrical and very public. Recession may mean we don’t have the money to be magnificent ourselves, but, Puritans of whatever stripe excepted, Baroque has the ability to cheer us up. The costumes and parades and fireworks (no prizes for guessing whose music might provide the wallpaper for the exhibition) find their children in today’s CGI and Olympic ceremonies. And the exhibition’s films of eighteenth-century theatre show Baroque extravaganzas as the forerunners of Busby Berkeley and the other showmen of the Depression. Baroque provides the fun our Age of Austerity will need.
And yet Baroque also has a sense of conviction which commentators say the West has lost. Part of this conviction came from the delight in the West’s discovery of the Far East and the Americas. The Meissen exhibits provide excellent examples here, above all an ostrich egg cup with porcelain ostrich feet, neck and head – the beak clutching a lucky horseshoe – shows a craftsmanship and assured bad taste we might otherwise call Victorian.
But the real power of Baroque comes not from human curiosity or the delight in novelties. Baroque has power and conviction because it began as a global religious campaign. That explains Protestant
England’s slightly queasy relation with the form. And why there is no English religious Baroque on show – the native aristocracy preferred to spend on themselves what once they had spent on God. Tellingly, the most successful made for England work on show is a Bernini-esque bust of the deathbed convert Charles II. By contrast other countries adapted to the Baroque more easily. There is a lovely Philippines statue of Our Lady which shows how trade along with national and religious cross-currents might come together. It is an ivory statue made in the East for the European religious market. Mary is conventionally European, except her feet which are covered by her robe because the Chinese workman who fashioned her considered the naked foot to be erotic. The religious origins of Baroque also explain why the secular parts of this exhibition are less compelling than the three rooms of ‘sacred space’ – though could someone come up with a phrase to replace that tired and dreary cliche? These rooms begin with street theatre, a video of nighttime processions by confraternities in Seville during Holy Week 2008. Even in the cool of South Kensington, these feel sweaty and fervid. There are thousands of lighted candles, brethren in masks, surging crowds and the gaudy yet powerful image of Mary. The next room emphasizes the popular, earthy vigour of Baroque. Tiepolo’s ‘Immaculate Conception hangs here,
the most beautiful object in the exhibition. It is overshadowed by a large Our Lady of Sorrows reredos, made in Italy for use in Mexico. The reredos is not beautiful, but it gets to you.
The most spectacular exhibits, though, are furnishings from the Chapel of St John the Baptist in the Church of Sao Roque, paid for by John V of Portugal. Even a London or Brighton clergyman might be moved to envy at the workmanship and the abundance of gilt. The organizers of the exhibition have realized that these particular articles are a little outside the experience of most visitors, and most modern Catholics. They have arranged a short educational video which shows selected parts of the Mass celebrated according to the Tri-dentine rite in old vestments and enacted by a neighbouring clergyman (not from HTB). It is the most restrained video in the show.
This is not an exhibition of beautiful objects. It is an exhibition of an ideology and a style. The style may be just the kind of thing we will need to cheer us up in the coming years. The ideology, Wagnerian in its all-embracing demands, is more of a challenge.
The shop sells images of Our Lady of Lourdes which is an anachronism.
SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS; CONCERTANTE FOR PIANO (LEFT HAND) AND ORCHESTRA
Ashley Wass (piano), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, James Judd Naxos 8.570774, £6
Naxos continues its championship of the music of Sir Arnold Bax with this recording of two of his lesser-known works, both for piano and orchestra. That they will be unfamiliar to many listeners is due partly to the decline in interest in Baxs music after his death in 1953 and partly because even during the composers lifetime they were claimed as personal property by the pianist Harriet Cohen, who was unequal to some of the piano writing in the Variations. Also, though the Symphonic Variations (1916) is written on a large canvas and makes heavy demands on the soloist it is not quite a concerto, the piano and the orchestra sharing the honours, and this may deter soloists from tackling the piece. Yet it is one of Baxs most compelling scores, combining a firm grasp of structure with virile and muscular music, and richly repaying repeated listening.
The later Concertante (1950) was written specifically for Cohen, whose right hand had been injured in an accident. In restricting the piano part to the pianists left hand this work keeps company with concert pieces for the same combination by Prokofiev, Britten and (most notably) Ravel. It presented Bax with formidable problems, because in addition to constructing a piano part for a single hand he faced the additional difficulty that Harriet Cohens hands were small. He rose to the challenge superbly, though the music -which once again divides interest between the soloist and the orchestra, hence the title Concertante, rather than concerto -does not have the intensity of the earlier work. That said, it disarms criticism simply because of its many beauties.
The young pianist, Ashley Wass, who has already made outstanding recordings of Baxs solo piano music, tackles these works with enormous skill and sensitivity, undaunted by the most pianistically terrifying pages of the Symphonic Variations. However, the really remarkable feature of these recordings is the clarity which both he and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra bring to their playing. The blurred, thick washes of sound which too often have been allowed to spoil Baxs music for audiences find no place here. These are superbly focused performances, kept under firm control by conductor James Judd, which should challenge listeners and concert programmers once again to embrace Baxs highly individual musical world. Add to this some excellent and informative notes by Baxs biographer, Lewis Foreman, and you have a disk which should be a strong competitor for the Gramophone Awards.
Barry A. Orford
MOTHER OF GOD
A History of the Virgin Mary Miri Rubin
Allen Lane, hbk, 560pp 978 0 713 99818 4, £30
One of the glories of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England was the revived devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, not least in the re-establishment of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Devotion to Our Lady is part of the spiritual and intellectual furniture of Anglo-Catholics. Our Lady’s ubiquity in art and iconography, in the devotional life of Catholics, in the expression of our Christian faith seems the most natural thing in the world. Her accessibility to God is replicated in her accessibility to us. Her appearances, notably at Lourdes and Fatima, and our own dear Walsingham, makes our recourse to her even nearer and more intimate.
Yet we are also aware that the familiarity and those natural familial feelings that we have, almost unconsciously because it is so much part and parcel of the expression of our Catholic Faith, lie on only a few scriptural passages and references: the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Flight into Egypt, searching for Jesus, found disputing in the Temple, the wedding at Cana in Galilee, standing at the foot of the Cross, so imaginatively and movingly captured in several pietds as she cradles her dead Son in her arms and weeps the tears that only a mother can weep, and some few further references in the Acts of the Apostles, and those vivid, metaphorical descriptions in the Apocalypse. Few they may be, but they are telling and significant.
We salute her under a variety of titles, not least that of Queen of Heaven (Regina Coeli) in the Easter season just past. The poor and lowly maiden is elevated in our pantheon to regal glory. This is a dizzying trajectory and, however comfortable and commonplace and part of our doctrinal and devotional make-up it may seem to us, it remains a matter of fierce contention for non-Catholics. She divides feminists. There are those sisters who see her as powerful in intercession and maternal love, perhaps best exemplified in art by the stunning painting by Piero della Franc-esca where she stands four-square, solid, immoveable, her gaze steady, unflinching and perfectly composed, a tower of strength and purpose, wrapping and sheltering suffering humanity within her voluminous, tent-like cloak. It takes the breath away.
For others she represents, in crude terms, a submissive sell-out, seen in many simpering plaster statues. Marina Warners important and still suggestive study, Alone of AH her Sex, broke fresh ground, some thirty years ago now, placed Our Lady in a patriarchal context and saw her as exemplifying a subordinate role for women. This view has been modified, not least by Marina Warner herself, in subsequent years when more subtle, nuanced and powerful insights have been brought to bear.
Miri Rubin, an historian with a good pedigree, further contributes to this fruitful exploration of Our Lady in this compendious, deft and richly layered book. It is a rewarding cultural history of a world before the Enlightenment but viewed through that perspective. She traces Marys emergence from the sparse early record, through the patristic period into the effulgence of her ubiquitous iconography. Inevitably she is rooted initially in the domestic and familial and this made her particularly popular with those engaged in the everyday lot and lives as Christians. Here was someone who could understand and sympathize with the mundane and the ordinary. But that could not be the whole picture because Our Lady responded to the direct initiative of God in the most remarkable way, which required
and necessitated a theological explanation that, by its nature, removed her somewhat from the purely domestic sphere. Heightened imagery and the accrual of more potent titles meant that a more ethereal figure emerged, a more idealized representative figure emerged. But despite that, or because of that, she remains an immensely attractive figure.
Yet, here was a virgin and a mother who was Mother of God (Theotokos), Mother of the Child Jesus and that Child was God made human in Christ. We can see how Protestants may struggle here, as elsewhere. Of course, it remains remarkable how misunderstanding, misinterpretation and misrepresentation and myths, fuelled by ignorance, sometimes wilful ignorance, can arise, but it is even more surprising that they persist even after the most careful and sensitive explication. There are none so blind as those who will determinedly not see, nor so deaf as those who resolutely stop their ears.
This is not a book that is devotional in its intent but is rather a history of the growth and development of the Marian devotional nexus, not least in Our Lady’s significance beyond the walls of Christian belief. There are more references to Mary in the Koran than in the Christian Scriptures and those points of congruence should forge links rather than cause divisions, not least for Our Lady, Queen of Peace.
Although there is much detail, and much of it fresh and fascinating, there is also a story, a narrative drive that makes for a compelling and satisfying read. Not all of it makes for easy reading, however, because there are periods, chronicled here, where Our Lady is used as a weapon against the Jews and their persecution. As a medieval historian, Dr Rubin moves through her sources with assurance and skill. Her consideration of the Reformation and post-Reformation Mariol-ogy is more sketchy, inevitably so as it does
not form part of her intention or the remit of the book, and it is less rewarding. But, perhaps, that belongs to a devotional consideration and not to a history of the growth of that devotion and its cultural co-relatives which the book so admirably achieves. Ave Maria, plena gratias.
A SCIENCE OF GOD?
SPCK, 128pp, pbk
978 0 281 06150 1, £10.99
Reissues must necessarily be treated with suspicion, as no more than the publishers attempt to make money. This work by the Warden of Keble in 1966 is clearly intended as a contribution to the current debate about God and Darwinism. Despite my initial suspicion, I am immensely glad the reissue has brought this elegant work of philosophical theology to my attention.
We can feel caught off our guard by the ferocity and assertiveness of contemporary attacks on theism and Christianity, and we seem to be spending our time in a desperate attempt to try and catch up. If only we knew our own heritage better, we could rely rather more than we do upon the wisdom of the past.
This was the first encouragement this little book offered – the assurance that theology is a rich and powerful branch of human knowledge and inquiry. Farrer writes with a confidence that no modern writer could match: he knows his Christian culture, and he knows his audience knows it as well – they just need some
reminding. In this sense, he offers something that none of the many responses to Richard Dawkins could ever achieve, for the intellectual world has changed, and we do well not to forget the masters of the past – and 40 years ago is certainly the past.
The late Fifties early Sixties were the heyday of Oxford language philosophy -typified by two other Anglicans, Austin and Hare – with its homely, even banal resolution of simple everyday problems of meaning. Farrer speaks in this context, and much of his discussion (presented frequently in the form of a conversational debate) seems to our ears quaint and old-fashioned, as from a squeaky-voiced university don (which he was), but the patient desire to explain nevertheless shines through.
It is nearer the end, in the meat of the book, that Farrer’s brilliance is most apparent. The don transforms into a teacher of astonishing clarity. I use those terms deliberately, because it is this feeling of light and enlightenment that shines through his pellucid sentences – here is someone who has a grasp of the universe, whose intellect and explanation is of the measure of the subject he speaks of. Does that mean I understood what he said? No, the mysteries of creation are greater than my own little mind, even when described by a master; but I did not feel lost, only excited and lifted beyond myself (in a way that reductionist science could never offer).
Though I struggled with the logic, I nevertheless shared his vision of how God acts. This is what in another context he called ‘double causation’, and which here he explains in terms of the human will, when it accords with the will of God. It is a masterly understanding of God’s presence in his world, in a way that can be made entirely compatible with modern science. Indeed, Austin Farrer is probably more highly regarded among philosophers today than among theologians. He is certainly more carefully studied by them, for his profound grasp of the relationship between our free will and God’s presence in the world.
Dr Margaret Yee, in her foreword, suggests that Farrer was ‘well ahead of his time’. I believe he still is, but if his conclusion may still be difficult to grasp, his writing and his exposition is a delight. There is much encouragement here, and we do well to be encouraged that such wisdom is on ‘our side’, even when we do not fully understand it. Those who are with us are greater than those who are against.
BOOK NOTES: RECENT PAPERBACKS
Two books noticed in ND when first published and well received have been published in paperback. The Last Office: 1539 and the Dissolution of a Monastery by Geoffrey Moorhouse (Phoenix, £9.99) is the story of the dissolution of the monastic community at Durham which begins with a detailed and moving evocation of the singing of the last monastic office. The threnody of the passing of the Benedictine life in the most glorious building in England is painful. Geoffrey Moorhouse has based his study firmly in the sources and brings them to life. This is first-rate popular history.
Michael Burleigh’s magnificent and important survey of terrorism is also now available in a paperback edition. In Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (Harper Perennial, £9.99) his sweep is broad but the detail is no less compelling and provides a vivid insight into the ghastly perverted thinking that underpins terrorism through the last two hundred years. Where is there humanity? So narrow is their vision that they cannot see the ludicrous dislocation between the rhetoric of freedom, equality and fraternity and their brutal, senseless, counterproductive slaughter of their fellow men and women.
There can be no doubt of Professor Burleigh’s passionate scorn with which he chronicles these movements and these pathetic cadres, but he is a scrupulous historian who sets out what case there is for their several causes. He is particularly illuminating on recent terrorist atrocities and he makes this book essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand the times in which we live and the dangers which we face.
Dr David Starkey is the pre-eminent media don of our generation. He ranges widely beyond his academic home ground and can be found expressing forceful opinions to all and sundry and all over the place. Recently on Question Time he railed again the hapless Secretary for Innovations, Universities and Skills (what a ludicrous title: but what can we expect from a government that increasingly takes refuge in jargon rather than the English language?) whom he dismissed as a silly man.
As well as disparaging the Scots and the Welsh, he opined, with that iconoclastic expostulation that he has made his own, that England was better governed under the Tudors. The first volume of his biography of the ghastly Henry VIII (Henry, Harper Perennial, £8.99) is now out in paperback. There is no doubt that Dr Starkey writes fluently and interestingly, with sharp comment and sensible conjecture neatly interwoven. His presenting style on the Channel 4 series currently showing is rather more fierce and assertive. But is Henry VIII worth so much of his and our time?
He looms large in the popular imagination, but that is notoriously lazy and ill-informed. The story of an intelligent, sensitive, artistic young man turning into a bloated, cruel, arbitrary, selfish, vain monster is well enough known for Dr Starkey to turn his attention elsewhere.
Dr Starkey’s academic reputation was founded on a meticulous study of the Tudor court and how power was acquired and exercised. It is the history of the intrigues of a governing elite, of kings and queens, courtiers and nobles. There is little great sense of the life of a country in its vast teeming turmoil. And Starkey’s reformation history has little of the ecclesiastic or doctrinal about it. But he tells a good story about a hideous individual. The second volume may have more of the catastrophic failure of the man and the king.
Politicians have spent their retirement or their spare time writing historical biographies. Douglas Hurd has written a good biography of Robert Peel, and William Hague, a few years ago, wrote a really rather good account of William Pitt the Younger. Now his wife, Ffion Hague, has written a biography of David Lloyd George, now in paperback, The Pain and the Privilege: The Women in Lloyd George’s Life (Harper Perennial, £9.99). Lloyd George was a force of nature and strode across the political scene with brio and cunning. Although perennially popular in Wales, and this is not an unsympathetic portrait here, he was a philanderer on the grand scale. Yet he remained married for some fifty years and for thirty of these years he was ‘faithful’ to his mistress Frances Stevenson, whom he eventually married. Beyond that there were many other, more fleeting conquests. So not an entirely admirable character. But if there is a sympathetic case to be made, it is here. He never disguised from his wife and mistress his egocentricity. His wife was in no doubt of his overweening political ambition to which all was subject. Frances Stevenson was in no doubt that he would not divorce his wife as that would ruin his political career: the evidence of Charles Stewart Parnell and Sir Charles Dilke was unassailable. Not so now. If Ffion Hague is sympathetic and impressed with the force of his character, she also writes with immense sympathy and understanding about the women in his life and they emerge as significant characters and not a ciphers to the ‘goat’ that was David Lloyd George.