OF THINGS TO COME
27 May–16 October 2010
DEVOTION BY DESIGN
Italian Altarpieces before 1500 National Gallery
6 July–2 October 2010
THESE TWO shows have a welcome feature in common – they are both free. And they both have excellent guides, the Saatchi’s a pamphlet for £1, and the National’s a short film of the sort and quality the Gallery provides for all its main shows. At this point the similarities begin to run out.
The National is a show which the parish might go to. The art is all religious. It is not too long. And there are enough illustrations of liturgical practice for Father to point out how they fall short of modern advances – be it your modern is 1970 or 1870. The show also tries to create a sense of being in church – cue plainsong and dark lighting, fake altars and a couple of candles, and notices about sacred space. No cliché is left unturned but at least the attendants aren’t dressed in cowls. So you might expect the worst. Don’t be put off. By taking these altarpieces from their accustomed, antiseptic gallery settings it is possible to see them with clearer eyes. The results can be a little unnerving.
First of all there is the gold. There is a lot of gold leaf on these paintings. Gold provides a simple and effective background but more interesting is the way gold is used in works like Zanobi Strozzi’s Annunciation. Here the gold is well preserved and it is part of the actual figures. Gabriel’s wings glitter like the peacocks down the road at the V&A’s ‘Cult of Beauty’ show. Gold aside, the more you look at it, the stranger this work appears. That may be due to the ferocious cleaning, but the vertiginous perspective combines with an almost contemporary architecture to divide and articulate the picture. Greys echo the Sainsbury Wing’s own Post-Modernism; the bright red of garden walls contrasts in almost Asian fashion with the formal gardens; the ground over which the archangel hovers is like nougat. And even allowing for the slightly surprising message she’s receiving, Our Lady does look a little slack-jawed.
The oddness of paintings like this shows the pre-classical side of the works on display. Crivelli’s Madonna of the Swallow of 1490 is a case in point. In the panels at the bottom there is a very sharp -jawed Catherine of Alexandria and St Sebastian positively dances as the arrows strike home. The figures in the main panel are all frowning, except Jesus who doesn’t look too happy either, while great lumps of fruit and vegetables bulge from out of marble steps and lintels. The drapery is exquisite, if stiff, and St Jerome has a charming, comic dwarf lion. It’s a useful exercise with these paintings to describe what you see and discover just how strange they are.
The final room explores some of the technical difficulties in determining what is an altarpiece and why our understanding of genre affects how we come to these works. This makes the show closer to the Saatchi than we might have thought. Chances are we have expectations of what an altarpiece is and if it’s in the National Gallery we’ll take that as a seal of quality, even if we don’t much see the point of the work in question. Those sorts of expectation are just as prescriptive and, in their own way, just as blinding, as what we might think new sculpture is. We know in advance that what we will get at the Saatchi is weird and incomprehensible, though since it is produced by our fellow human beings, albeit art students, there is no reason why it should be incomprehensible.
The title of the Saatchi show, as befits its owner’s trade, is a little hyped up. This selection is not the most cutting edge sculpture around, and the style is dated. The excellent guide is a help for those unsure of what their eyes see, and what their eyes see is often dull. Just as when an idea loses the shock of the new and becomes uninteresting – that is why the resolution of detective stories is often a disappointment, and St Luke reckons the spiritual weakness of the Athenians was that they were always chasing novelties – so many of these works have no depth beyond their original conceit. It is the fundamental flaw behind conceptual art. That doesn’t take away from the ingenuity and spatial awareness of the works on show, but it does confine them to fifteen minutes of fame.
Still, there is much here to entertain the family. Richard Wilson’s 20:50 on permanent display will intrigue children of all ages – if Top Gear did art this is what it would do, though without the reflections on space and perception. Dirk Skreber’s untitled cars might actually come from the Top Gear studio, though they are avowed memento mori in the way The Stig isn’t. Then there’s Martin Honert’s Riesen. These show how you can trust to first impressions. Seen for the first time you might think these are two giants stepped out of Rheingold. And the text confirms they are indeed a child’s mythic memory of two German ‘giants.’ By contrast you might/should think Sterling Ruby’s large, urban and edgy Headless Dick looks camp bad boy in a Village People-John Galliano sort of a way. The guide confirms this with references to bodybuilders, maximum security prisons, graffiti … yawn. But just when you thought the whole exhibition was too mediocre to carry on with there is Folkert de Jong’s The Dance. This takes figures from Rembrandt’s Night Watch and colonialist heroes from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, moulds them in polyurethane, adds pink arms and sets them in a mad dance. It looks better than it reads, though the accompanying suggestion that this is a comment on the destructive nature of capitalism is rather undermined by their presence in a gallery funded by advertising revenue – as usual the money men have the last laugh (though see Revelation 18.11 ff).
SUNDAY WORSHIP FROM THE WALSINGHAM
Alive with the Vision! BBC Radio 4
Sunday 7 August, 8.10am
THE WALSINGHAM Youth Pilgrimage is undoubtedly a wonderful event. It is, however, an event of contrasts: on the one hand there is the joy and wonder of the worship, and on the other (for some of us), there is the less exciting thought of camping, queues for the shower and the inevitable rain and mud. And yet for those of us not lucky enough to be at the pilgrimage this year there will have been a sense of missing out – the Youth Pilgrimage experience gets into the blood stream and a year off from it seems a terrible thing.
It was with great expectation and joy therefore that I tuned in to listen to Sunday Worship from the Shrine featuring much of the Youth Pilgrimage experience (minus the mud and the tents), including music from the band CJM. To have some of the Walsingham experience broadcast into people’s homes is a wonderful thing, especially in this 950th anniversary year. The music was beautifully played by CJM and spoke greatly of the yearning of humanity for God and the need to join with Mary in saying ‘yes’ to God. Were I to have had one request it would have been that some of the favourite, high-energy songs from the Youth Pilgrimage might have been sung. In particular for me ‘I want to see Jesus lifted high’ speaks passionately of the work we have to do for the conversion of England. Having said that, the beautifully sung ‘Hail Mary’ is very moving and cannot help remind one of seeing young people knelt in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament praying the mysteries of the rosary, as happened in an all-night vigil last year. It was indeed good also to think that people around the country would be listening to the Pilgrim Hymn and indeed of people learning the history of the Shrine.
Much of the Youth Pilgrimage experience is due to the involvement of young people in the liturgy. They share in the readings from the Bible, they lead the intercessions and serve. All of these elements were present in the broadcast. To hear youngsters involved in both the proclamation of Scripture and in prayer sends an important message to our worshipping communities. What is also clear from the broadcast as from the Youth Pilgrimage is that good liturgy takes time to be developed. It needs to be thought through from the readings to the prayers through to the hymns and songs. The Youth Pilgrimage is an inspiring event and this broadcast allowed many people who may never be able to see 800 teenagers processing in silence to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, or to see the joy and vitality of their worship at the Mass, to have some small share in the wonder of the event nonetheless.
The final words must go to one of the youngsters who gave their testimonies during the broadcast. ‘I came here last year for the first time and I went to Benediction. I was in tears, I think it was kneeling in candlelight with loads of other people in front of the Blessed Sacrament, there were tinkles on the back of my neck. Walsingham inflames my heart.’ Walsingham is home for so many of us: may it always be a place where our faith is inflamed, and may we be kept alive with the Vision.
Contemplation and Political Action Mario I. Aguilar
SPCK, 162pp, pbk
978 0281060580, £14.99
TENSION IS always a double-edged sword. When harnessed and dealt with maturely it can be the source of much creative energy, a dialectical productivity the result of which may often be surprising and refreshing. When allowed to fester and develop unchecked however, tension can be a negative force, leading simply to strife and conflict.
This is true of society and societies in general; it is often particularly true of religious communities, where forceful personalities are compelled to rub against each other in an enclosed space over a prolonged period of time, often with widely diverging ideas about the very nature of community life itself. In some places and at some times this has led to some wonderful outpourings of the Holy Spirit.
What is even more intriguing is where such tension exists not only within one community, but within one individual within one community. Thomas Merton was, famously, one such person. As its subtitle suggests, this book seeks to explore the consequences in Merton’s case of the tension within him between Cistercian hermit and Christian political activist.
I have an immediate reservation about this; namely the fact that nothing in what I have written above about tension is new, and that as Aguilar himself points out, there is no shortage of books on Merton’s life and work. Although Aguilar is good at emphasizing the contrasts inherent within Thomas Merton, I am not convinced that there is enough here to warrant a new book on the subject. The theme Aguilar sets himself with his subtitle reaches its denouement in the last two chapters, which discuss
Merton’s dealings with Latin America (which he never visited) and Asia (which he did) respectively. But it takes a long time to get there, and the rest of the book feels unsure as to whether it is a simple biography or a more specifically analytical work.
Another problem here is the fact that Merton’s vocation and commitment as a Cistercian of the Strict Observance meant that although his political influence was wide-ranging and widespread (and Aguilar is go o d on this), his political action was necessarily limited.
Aguilar struggles with this limitation several times, as when discussing his involvement in the anti-Vietnam peace movement of the Sixties. ‘Merton had not reached [the] stage of being considered an enemy of the state before his death, but certainly he was of the opinion that not every war was just, simply because the state executive said so.
Would he ever have reached the condition of state enemy? I don’t think so.’ This hardly needs saying. Similarly, Aguilar repeatedly warns against making ‘a sharp distinction between the contemplative calling and the active calling within the Christian life.’ Again, he is not wrong, but it is not a mistake which I think many readers of this book are likely to make. Perhaps I am assuming too much familiarity with the Christian life amongst the readership of the book: but if that is the case, then there is not enough basic material on Merton’s life and the Cistercian order here.
There is some good material in this book (despite the occasional lapse into tabloid-ese: ‘It was only his death that would stop his earthly journey … a death in Thailand that even Merton the all-knowing could not have predicted’), but ultimately it suffers from an unresolved tension of its own: is it a basic introduction to Thomas Merton, or an in-depth analysis of certain aspects of his life and legacy?
A FIRE IN WALSINGHAM
At Saint Mary and All Saints Church, Little Walsingham on 14th July 1961 Graham Howard
Additional Curates Society, 40pp, pbk Available from ACS and various locations in Walsingham
978 0956884206, £5
THE YEAR 2011 marks not only the 950th anniversary of Lady Richeldis’ vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but also the 50th anniversary of the fire which almost completely destroyed the parish church.
This attractive book tells the story of the fire, its aftermath and the rebuilding of the church through old photographs, newspaper cuttings and the personal reminiscences of a range of Walsingham folk who witnessed some or all of the devastation and reconstruction that followed.
Much of the material was found in three box files stored away in the Vicarage. Graham Howard, the Shrine’s photographer, has done a splendid job of sorting through this mountain of material to produce a book which is as
attractive to look at as it is to read. For people like me who love to study old photographs, the high-quality images included here will be the highlight of the book: they begin with postcards and other images of the Church as it was before the fire, then progress through the fire itself and the ruins that were left behind.
A picture of Mass being said in the ruins is particularly poignant. Finally, the photos move triumphantly (as every Christian story must) towards Resurrection: the restoration and, on Saturday 8 August 1964, re-consecration of St Mary’s. Extracts from contemporary newspaper reports lend further atmosphere, whilst also giving useful background information to the story told primarily by the pictures.
I had not known, for example, that the same night had witnessed serious vandalism in the parish church at nearby Dereham, which led many people to suspect arson at St Mary’s and a link between the two events. The personal reminiscences are poignant and (at times) amusing: the fact that the fire sorted out the death watch beetle once and for all is a case in point!
The book finishes with some information about the beautiful organ and the fine church bells (including an atmospheric photo of the Rt Revd C.L.P. Bishop solemnly censing the new treble bell at its baptism in 1988!) and some photos of the church as it stands today.
This is a very fine book which deserves a place on the shelves of all those who love Walsingham and its parish church.
THE GREAT PARTNERSHIP
God, Science and the Search for Meaning
Hodder & Stoughton, 370pp, hbk
978 0340995242, £17.99
IT TAKES a great mind to reset the at times wearisome debate between science and
religion. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ magnum opus achieves this in a book that points primarily to the future of the human race while incidentally shedding light on the nature of science and religion and how they can get more into partnership.
His prime thesis builds from the widely recognized division of the brain into left and right, analytic and synthetic. This illuminates the separate processes of science, which takes things apart to see how they work, and religion, which puts things together to see what they mean. That insight is harnessed to the conviction that, just as a healthy brain requires the balance of analysis and synthesis, so a right-minded world requires the coming together of science and religion.
Quoting Einstein – ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’ – Sacks tackles both irrationally based religion and the overstepping arrogance of some scientists, appealing for a new alliance of believers and sceptics for the good of humanity. For the sake of our children and their children it is imperative we build the stable families and communities essential to political, economic and environmental sustainability. Religious people have no monopoly on morality, contrary to the views of a minority of religious zealots. Rather, through the humility essential to their vision, people of faith should be ready partners with people of goodwill of all faiths or none in building a healthier world.
The Great Partnership is a deep book, passionate, detailed and yet returning from different routes to the simple and compelling thesis of its title. It is eloquent about what society loses when it turns its back on God: the sense of human dignity, a strategy for the common good, the morality of obligation and responsibility, respect for marriage and parenthood and something of the meaningfulness of life.
Sacks identifies and engages with three main contemporary challenges to faith communities: Darwin, the problem of evil and bad religion. He identifies literal funda-mentalism, the tendency to move from text to application without interpretation, as a major threat to the health of religion alongside dualistic and messianic tendencies, the misuse of power by religion and its unreadiness to compromise with other world views. This tendency is also found among contemporary atheists.
The book ends with a brilliant ‘Letter to a Scientific Atheist’ that admits the limits of any knowledge of God while affirming the need for ‘sacred discontent’ if there is to be real impetus to get the world from where it is to where it ought to be. There is some impatience with Richard Dawkins’ definition of faith as the refusal to ask questions. Sacks sets this definition alongside those of Planck, Einstein and Nietzsche who define faith as the very determination to press on asking questions. This, he points out, is not so far from the spirit of Abraham, father of faith, who pressed on to an unknown destination.
From a Christian vantage point the book appears lacking in its engagement with divine intervention and the revelation of the resurrection. The Chief Rabbi seems critical of an implied Christian otherworldliness. For all of this his book will go on my shelf as the best response yet to The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins.
It has the advantage of being a gracious and easily readable book that stretches both mind and heart and one that most helpfully deals with the God questions in parenthesis. The discussion about God comes as part of a wider examination of issues that are as real for atheists as they are for theists because they seem vital for the future of the world. Those questions about building stable communities and a sustainable global environment will not go away.
ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
Reflections on Recent Developments
Edited by Stephen Cavanaugh
Ignatius, 270pp, pbk
978 1586174996, £12.99
THIS IS an American book, and so offers an American perspective on living out the Anglican patrimony within the Roman Church. It shares the experience of the Anglican Use Roman Catholic parishes in the USA as a basis for considering the purpose and possibilities of the Ordinariate(s). What relevance it has to the English situation is not clear, but it is certainly interesting, if only to show how differently things are viewed on the other side of the Atlantic.
For example, the 2003 Book of Divine Worship, which is the prayer book of the Anglican Use parishes, set up by John Paul II, is discussed with great seriousness by Professor Feulner of the University of Vienna.
It is true he keeps pointing out thet there is need for further study and more work to be done. But the idea that this curious amalgam of American Episcopalian revisions romanticized reconstruction is a serious work of the long-term liturgy would be hard to sell in this country. Maybe we are snobs, and maybe we have missed something, but it does show how wide the cultural gap is, even among (ex-) Anglo-Catholics.
Although this book has only just been published, the English contributions, from such as Fr Aidan Nichols, Fr John Hunwicke and Fr Peter Geldard, are all taken from before the announcement of the Ordinariate. This actually makes Fr Hunwicke’s predictions yet more strikingly prescient and telling; but on the whole the general themes are now seen in a different light in this country.
In other words, this is a fascinating book, almost because of its irrelevance to the English scene. If nothing else, it offers a vivid sense of just how different Episcopalian and Church of England Anglo-Catholics are, and have been for many years.
If there is to be any prospect of a worldwide Anglican Ordinariate, or any practical expression beyond a mere commonwealth of national ordinariates, then the issues suggested in this book will have to be addressed. Sooner rather than later.
THE BLACKWELL COMPANION TO CHRISTIAN ETHICS
Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells
Wiley-Blackwell, 590pp, hbk
978 1 4443 3134 9, £110
OUT OF the 41 essays, I began with ‘The public presence of the mentally disabled’ by Brian Brock, in which he recounts a number of incidents out and about with his son Adam. In vivid and painful detail, he describes what it is like to look after a demanding little boy, how others react, and some of the extraordinary situations that can develop almost out of nowhere. The escalation of a minor accident by a swimming pool, explained in sociological terms, makes you fear ever to go out of the door with a child ‘with mental disabilities’.
He then analyses the moral implications of what this all means in equally painful detail. An unexpected piece, but one that I finished a little wiser than I began. I was grateful for his honesty and the care of his reasoning. Not all were as successful; a similar piece on racial discrimination offered plenty of guilt but not much more.
Only after reading a random selection did I then turn to the beginning and read the introductory explanations of what these pieces are saying and why. In a sentence, they are setting a whole range of moral dilemmas and areas of debate within the context of Christian worship, not in a touchy-feely manner, but under intense academic scrutiny.
Put like that, it sounds almost pretentious in its ambitions, and as a non-academic I recoiled from the overall masterplan – only to be excited again when I turned back to the actual, practical solutions in the individual articles.
There is a piece by Frederick Bauerschmidt, ‘Being baptized: bodies and abortion’. Here he wonders what light the actual forms of the baptism service might throw upon the strident and polarized discussion of abortion. Then, as a layman, he goes through the full Roman Catholic baptism service for an infant describing what each action – touching, anointing, washing, clothing, and so on – signifies, what it tells us about the Christian understanding of the body and the embodied person. Brilliant!
I cannot wait to go to another baptism, and watch the ritual with new eyes. Did it help with the problem of abortion? Not directly perhaps, but it offered a richness the debate needs. This is inventive Christian thinking: his language may have been quite technical, but the grounding in actual shared ritual made it easy to understand.
This is a second edition – working, it seems, on the success of the first – and the range of topics is impressive. £110 is not cheap, but you do get 3lb of hefty hardback. There is a Kindle version of the first edition at a fifth of the price. But then there is something about a book that encourages serendipity. Pick it up, flick through the pages, start reading an article for no better reason than your eye lighted upon an interesting paragraph. Its being there makes a source of ideas and interest.
Electronic text is so much less interactive; I wonder how it works for this type of collection.
The mix is fascinating, and the overall purpose at times stimulates new ideas and at others seems a little forced. The article on marriage, for example, was an excellent overview of current conflicts and changes, but with surprisingly little relation to worship for all that it is itself a sacrament. Whereas the article after it, on social structure and the sharing of the peace, was the exact opposite; it plunged straight into worship and a dazzling confusion of crypto-Marxist analysis. The marriage article was useful; the peace piece was irrelevant; but both were exciting.
THE ICONIC JESUS
Sister Wendy Beckett St Pauls, 184pp, hbk
978 0854398126, £19.95
HELPING PEOPLE learn the story of Jesus is all the more important now the sphere of Christian education is so much reduced. For committed Christians also there is an ongoing task to enter that story more fully.
The Iconic Jesus presents that story in 42 pictures and associated commentaries. The beautifully reproduced icons have a particular force of communication since they draw on up to 1500 years of spiritual wisdom in the way they depict the events. The iconographers paint under a spiritual discipline which forbids self-expression other than in obedience to age-old Christian traditions for representing the incidents in question.
The author Sister Wendy Beckett has assembled the story of Jesus in icons with a commentary text that invites contemplation of the Saviour through this visual medium. It is a gracious invitation to marry with the spiritual discipline of the iconographers and be ‘taken out of our own world as we contemplate, and (be) drawn into this holy world, where God is free to love us as He desires’. Sister Wendy, who makes very occasional appearances on television as an art critic, lives as a contemplative nun within the grounds of a Carmelite Monastery so the book is enriched by its drawing on her day-by-day work of prayer.
John Twisleton ND