The Artist and His Letters

Royal Academy

23 January–18 April 2010 Admission £12, concessions £10

This is a good show, and it’s also a very popular show, so you might wish to put down New Directions and book your ticket now. The unique selling point is the letters, but like most USPs that’s a little misleading. Over seven hundred of Van Gogh’s letters are still with us. They are some of the most interesting of any major artist and reveal a man who is both brilliant and original.

The complete corpus in translation (Van Gogh wrote in Dutch and French) is in print and the letters in the exhibition can be seen on the web. What you see in the exhibition itself is the letters and alongside them the paintings and sketches which the letters refer to and sometimes illustrate. Polyglot ND readers might want to make the effort to read the letters, but in a large and crowded show you have to wonder whether it’s worth the struggle.

In fact the strength of the show is not really the letters but the paintings and drawings, which are excellent in both range and quality. There is only one set of sunflowers, and they’re deadheaded, but if you want to get an introduction to Van Gogh this is the show for you.

And it solved a niggle I have had for a long time. My own introduction to Van Gogh was via a Punch cartoon. It showed a man stopping his car next to a painter who is reproducing Van Gogh’s ‘Cypresses’ (one of which is on show at the Academy). In front of the painter in real life is a cypress looking like the Van Gogh painting. As the man in the car says, ‘I’ve never heard of nature following art.’ Vincent’s younger brother Theo made a similar sort of point and unfortunately the series of cypresses came to an end. But to those of us who have wondered how Van

Gogh got from nature to some of his paintings this show gives the answers.

People in his own day suggested Van Gogh painted as he did because of his mental health. The truth is that he painted as he did because he was Dutch. The first room has a powerful collection of early pictures. These agricultural landscapes and worn down peasants carry a very strong sense of Low Countries mud and rural poverty. It was the land which made Van Gogh. There are also artistic influences at work. Rembrandt, of course, and also Millet, especially with the figure of the Sower. But whereas the Catholic Millet can bring some optimism to the fields with pictures like the ‘Angelus’, Van Gogh, the son of the manse, is stuck fast in inherited Protestant gloom. His Sower is not the Almighty but a symbol of the everlasting round of life and death.

The rest of the exhibition shows Van Gogh’s attempts to escape his Northern heritage, first in Paris and later in the deep South around Arles. It is soon apparent that the less brown there is in his pictures, the better they are. Not that he ever does quite escape from the North. The sunniest Southern countryside is never romantic, its farms never picturesque, but functional and almost industrial. And the great weight of paint on the paintings – would he have been in financial straits if he’d used watercolours? – might almost be a residue of the heavy Northern soil.

Two keys unlocked the way for Van Gogh’s escape from the North. The first was colour. He studied carefully the colourists of the day, especially the Impressionists. He also looked back to Delacroix and his own compatriot Rubens. The result was that colour blazes out in pictures like the ‘Yellow House’ and ‘Fields of Corn.’ It is acidically present in the eau de nil of ‘A Bowl of Roses’ and ‘Two Crabs’. And it’s not just colour which Van Gogh does. The colours really get to the felt essence of a place in pictures like ‘Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles’.

The second key, and just as important, is Japonisme. Japanese art was briefly the rage in late nineteenth-century Paris and from it Van Gogh took bold contours, flat tones, unconventional perspectives and distorted patterns. In other words, many of the features which are so striking in his ‘Cypresses’. Van Gogh’s work isn’t the work of a madman, it’s the work of a man who has drunk deeply of Hokusai. So much of what looks odd in Van Gogh becomes quite clear when you think of the patterns you might find on a kimono. Even his orchards in bloom have affinities with the Japanese love of cherry blossom.

What is not Japanese is what Van Gogh reckoned, unusually for his time, as amongst his major work – portraiture. The psychological depth he achieves with his bright palate is extraordinary. On view there is one self-portrait and a number of others including those of the Arles postman, Joseph Roulin and his family. These pictures witness to a prodigious artist who is a brilliant colourist in love with paint and profoundly, perhaps excessively, humane. There is so much more to Van Gogh than sunflowers and his lopped off ear.

Owen Higgs


Channel 4

The Channel 4 series The Bible: A History is still going on. The BBC is currently facing flak over its religious policies, but, not being Auntie, Independent Television is presumably permitted more licence (forgive the ambiguity). Certain principles, however, apply to all media programmes: they must be likely to attract watchers or readers, they must broadly be what they say on the can, and under attack they must be able to plead ‘public interest’.

The first object tends to be achieved by having them fronted by celebs. In this case the celebs have been selected in a typical way: the journalist with Islamic connection, the feminist, the ex-terrorist, the politician – anyone whose devotion to a settled religion, and indeed the qualifications to deal with the subject, is highly questionable, but whose views might be of interest. Only the statutory blonde is missing, unless you count Ann Widdecombe, the meaning of whose presence was clear when the savage Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens were released on her with carte blanche to bite.

For our purposes, the important celeb was Bettany Hughes, a dark-haired and not unattractive feminist historian. This was a tremendously self-destructive programme, devoted to explaining that the Bible was essentially the story of heroic women through the ages. It had, I suppose, been the object of the planners that however unsuitable the celebs were, they would at least have the sense to consult the scholars who are the real experts on the Bible. This Ms Hughes duly did, and as it happened the experts were all female. They proved, according to the lady, that the Old Testament was dominated by such as Jael, who drove a nail into Sisera’s temple, and the wonderful Jezebel, the pattern of a Queen (yes, don’t tell me, I know).

Men, we heard, had been against their female superiors ever since they equated Woman with the Snake in Eden. This was apparently shown by the number of priestesses that were made to do the dirty religious jobs in biblical times. It did not seem to have occurred to her that that might have been one of the reasons why Jesus made his priests male.

Ms Hughes was on more difficult ground with the New Testament, but spiritedly defended Salome on the grounds that she was but a lass, and that there was no evidence that she was a strip dancer, any more than there was evidence that Mary Magdalene had at one time been really naughty. I was waiting for her assault on St Paul, who really did express unpopular views about women; but the lady had shot her bolt, and by saying very little made perhaps her only cogent point. There was an attempt to centre the Crucifixion and Resurrection on the ladies at the Cross and at the Tomb, but one would have welcomed something about, for example, the Noah family, Sarah, Delilah, the object of the Song of Solomon, and Mrs Pilate.

As for how Ms Hughes felt about women’s ordination, she really did not have to spell it out. To do her justice, she did not.

Paul Griffin


A History of the Church Union 1859–2009 Phillip Corbett & William Davage Tufton Books, 126pp, pbk

978 0 85191 328 5, £17.49

Ever since its foundation in 1859 The Church Union has been involved – and usually in the forefront – in every controversy of the Church of England up until today. Its success (and occasional defeats) are chronologically expounded in this book.

As the authors themselves admit in their preface, it would be an impossible task to try and repeat the detailed information contained in G. Bayfield Robert’s The History of the English Church Union 1859–1894; or emulate that classical genre of an Anglo- Catholic past: J.G. Lockhart’s Viscount Halifax. So selection and résumé had to be used.

This means that within Defend and Maintain certain periods and events are more fully explored than others. To have done justice to everyone, everywhere would have been an impractical task. (Perhaps someday, some scholar will plough through the legion of material at Pusey House and fill this void.) Because of this, the book is able to give interesting detail about the early days of the Union. It may seem rather quaint to read of the battles fought over the question of ‘the opening/closing of theatres during Holy Week’ or about continuous attempts to alter ‘The Divorce Act’; but these were the matters of the moment and could not be avoided or evaded.

Within this period it is exciting, once again, to read about Fr Mackonochie and the many years of litigation over Ritual questions. It reminds one that several of the modern battles were so similar and required equal energy and courage. What is sadly missing is an equal account of the middle period of the Union – especially the later interwar years and the late Forties & early Fifties. Here there has not yet been enough research on which to build. This means that events like the enthusiastic work of The Seven Year’s Association (with its romantic use of ‘Stations’ and ‘Station Masters’) – a groundswell which was to culminate in the 1941 Lambeth Conference but which was denied its chance because of the Second World War – can sadly be forgotten or overlooked.

Likewise, all the hard work that pioneered Unity talks – The Church Union’s scholarly periodical Faith & Order; the Pilgrimage Committee which was so progressive in its time; and the often hidden but scholarly work of The Church Union’s Theological Committee – using some of the best Anglo-Catholic theological brains of the time: Darwell Stone, Gregory Dix, Eric Mascall, Michael Demant et al. could so easily be overlooked. Likewise, because memories quickly fade, the work of a great General Secretary like Fr Harold Riley can sadly be given short account.

What does come through the whole history, though, are two very recurring themes: Liturgy and Holy Order. It is one of the incongruities of the Catholic Movement that at the moment when these two items seems to have reached their zenith, their denouement quickly followed.

For over 100 years, The Church Union was in the forefront – scholastically and politically – to try and achieve an official public liturgy of the Mass which was expressive of Catholic understanding, knowing that under the guise of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi it would transform the spiritual life of the Church of England. This Book excitingly recounts the early battles over the ‘Green’ book; an ‘Interim’ Rite; the 1928 Prayer Book and through Series I, II & III.

It reminds us how in the Eucharistic Rite of the Alternative Service Book, together with Lent, Holy Week & Easter, achieved by painstaking work by people like Canon Brian Brindley and the professional support of The Church Union ‘the most catholic rite since the Reformation’ was achieved. Then by a clever use of printing, a model of the new rite quickly became universal and normative throughout the Church. But, no sooner had this been achieved, then like the way the 1552 Prayer Book so quickly replaced the 1549 one (‘being made more fully perfect’?), nearly all the ground gained was lost in the dilution of Common Worship. This was, of course, because of the weakness and dilapidation of the Catholic Movement following the Ordination of Women Debate in 1992.

Defend and Maintain sensitively sets out the decade of exhausting work by The Church Union in trying to resist this Protestant Innovation. At times, the issue seemed to be in retreat and the genuine hope of Unity with the ‘Great Church of the West’ with Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982 perhaps bedazzled the faithful. With insights – some of which have never appeared in print before – the authors show how at the very moment when the Catholic Movement should have been fighting the Establishment, the Movement was weakened by becoming ‘too respectable’.

Here is one of the constant themes that permeates this history: When the Union was seen (and intentionally made itself) radical, and was ostracised by the Establishment, this were the very moments when it achieved most. When it became infatuated with being ‘respectable’ and enjoying the corridors of power, that was when its influence was weakened, if not destroyed.

The other theme – which still speaks vividly today – is that the Catholic Movement within the Church of England has always been divided: from the moment when the first President, The Hon Colin Lindsay and all the Executive Committee felt it necessary to submit to Rome, right through to the present time of Anglicanorum Coetibus, there have been those who believe and feel that Catholicism within the Church of England must never be an end in itself but must work for the Unity with the wider Catholic Church. Whilst others, from the Anglo-Catholic Congress Days till the present, think and speak as if somehow a divided and increasingly protestantised CofE is their permanent home.

This is a book which all serious Catholic Members of the Church of England should read – not least to be able to answer the question: which of these two schools of thought is the true one?

Fr Peter Geldard was General Secretary of The Church Union 1978–88


Processes of Change and Renewal in Christian Worship George Guiver

Canterbury Press, 257pp, pbk

978 1 85311 992 7, £21.99

If human beings are made for worship there is in principle no more important research thanthat which helps people find true worship. George Guiver writes as a monk whose life centres on corporate worship in the great Christian tradition. His magnum opus conducts an imaginative historical survey which admits complexity and resists different fundamentalisms.

Liturgical research has moved on from earlier tidinesses such as that of Dom Gregory Dix, who saw a fourfold shaping as the golden thread through history. If Guiver has any preferred theme, it is that of the communion of disciples with Jesus more than the sacrificial taking, blessing, breaking and sharing.

Vision upon Vision is literally that, an engagement of the reader with wave upon wave of the liturgical tide of the Holy Spirit as vision builds on vision in the shaping of Christian worship through the centuries. Guiver has a particular sympathy for drama in worship and counters those who suspect it. Even if the historical origin of stripping altars on Maundy Thursday derives from spring cleaning churches, its evident spiritual force links it to the core of what Christian worship is all about. God is other to us, and can and does use foolish-looking phenomena to waken our hearts. This stress on the holiness and otherness of God recurs throughout the book. Gaining a taste for these is, in one of Guiver’s telling images, like being trained up as a sniffer dog!

An enigmatic statement from Vatican II provides the frame of the book: ‘the liturgy is made up of immutable elements, divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change’. Guiver sets us thinking about the essential core of Christian worship, seen in obedience to tradition, and outward forms that speak to and draw from contemporary engagement. For worship to retain power and influence it needs custodians who hold it to the Christ of living tradition, and handlers who save it from clericalism and elite tendencies.

In such a partnership of the specialist and the popularist lies the recipe for worship that is both awesome and accessible. Guiver’s book is a resource that humbles the specialist – liturgical knowledge takes you only so far – and is a shot across the bows of the popularist. Christian worship is corporate, always has been and always will be. The worship in store for us ultimately is in the communion of saints where there will be no individualism.

Having read Vision upon Vision and welcomed its reminders, I feel my own parish is possibly in safer hands. The challenge as with any specialist book is to popularize its insights by, in this case, teaching that aids liturgical formation in our own local Christian community.

Fr John Twisleton, Rector of St Giles, Horsted Keynes


Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism

Nathan D. Mitchell

New York University Press, 325pp, hbk

978 0 8147 9591 0, $24.97

Kneeling in the Abbey Grounds in Walsingham, we bowed our heads as the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar. Being a guest at the Roman Catholic Dowry Pilgrimage, I was placed next to Cardinal Basil Hume. In the palms of his large hands, and hidden from public view, he held a rosary, gazing at the crucifix as though it were the Eucharistic host that we were worshipping at that same moment. A decade or so later, and since the Cardinal’s death, I feel able to mention this in print without invading the intimacy of his devotion. And a review of Nathan D. Mitchell’s The Mystery of the

Rosary: Marian Devotion and the Reinvention of Catholicism is perhaps an appropriate context in which to reveal that Walsingham memory.

Mitchell’s concern is essentially with how the rosary interprets, and at times becomes a substitute for, the formal liturgy of the Church. He takes us into some dangerous territory – Marian militia, extravagant visions, miraculous interventions – but rarely without serious questioning and relation to wider, objective points of reference.

Discussion of art is the strongest element in this study. The assessment of the work of Caravaggio and the Caracci offers a fascinating exploration of how the Council of Trent’s 1563 decree on sacred images was interpreted: art played a central part in its reforms. Similarly, the impact of imagination in the Ignatian exercises, and the missionary, social outreach of Philip Neri, demonstrated the profound effect of the visual and the material, and consequently the importance of the rosary among the seventeenth-century poor and unlettered.

An interesting comparison between reformation and counter-reformation interests opens up when Mitchell turns our attention to the control of piety and devotion. A suspicion of house-based religion existed on both sides, fuelled by concern that lay participation should be ‘doctrinally informed’. In this regard the tension between texts, officially sanctioned, and popular devotions, less easily regulated, caused anxiety that might resonate with contemporary concerns around liberation theology and what Fresh Expressions might be.

More tendentious is Mitchell’s assessment of the importance of the rosary for recusant Catholics in England and his foray into nineteenth-century Roman Catholicism in the United States. There is some creative thinking here, especially about what life was like for Elizabethan Catholics who were ‘church without churches’, a phrase that might also have contemporary resonance for some readers of New Directions.

This is also where the rosary’s substitutional relationship with the Eucharist – only in devotional terms – is made explicit. John Bucke’s 1589 Instructions urges its readers to say the rosary ‘attentively, distinctly and devoutly’. These three adverbs were used for describing how the priest was to say the dominical words ‘hoc est corpus meum’ (‘this is my body’) in the Eucharist, a connection perhaps made intuitively by Basil Hume.

Mitchell’s well-researched and imaginative book presents a challenge for how, in our own day, we bridge the gap between cerebral, official formularies, and the affective, informal devotion that, for some, connects more readily with life as it actually is. His explorations are selective, and at times connections seem tenuous. It is also a matter for regret that the publishers were unable to include more than one illustration. But these are minor criticisms of a very stimulating survey.

+ Martin Warner is the Bishop of Whitby


Edited by Miriam Frenkel and Yaacov Lev

Walter de Gruyter, 430pp, hbk

978 3 11 020946 4, €99.95

In the Roman Canon, we hear the priest pray the Father to receive these gifts ‘as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, the offerings of your priest Melchizedek’. It was with the rise of Christianity in the fourth century, and its inheritance of the social responsibilities of the Roman empire, that almsgiving first became definitively linked to the sacrifice of the Mass.

The Church, through its bishops and priests, sacralized and sacramentalized the giving of alms by the rich for the care of the poor. She not only gave an order and focus to personal charity, she gave a greater purpose to such offerings. She gave, as with the sacraments, an assurance that an individual earthly action would find its counterpart in heaven – treasure given up on earth, in this formal, sacrificial manner, would be transformed into treasure in heaven.

St Gregory spoke of the devout man, Deusdedit [Latin for ‘God has given’] who had a house built for him in heaven. The builders worked only one day a week, the same day that Deusdedit brought money to the priest to give to the poor. What the Church offered was the transformation of passing earthly gifts into eternal heavenly reward. By the ninth century, this formalizing of transfer and transformation had become fully established, and from then on, one might say, it degenerated into a more forensic and complex process.

The essay describing this development, by Eliana Magnani, has the advantage that it is written from a sociological rather than a theological perspective. It is heavy with an implied criticism of the scheming clergy, but carries all the more conviction because of this. This is one of sixteen essays on the forms and patterns of charity in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. A specialist collection, but fascinating in its sociological insights.