4 April–9 September
Admission £14, concessions available
LEONARDO DA VINCI: ANATOMIST
Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 4 May–7 October
Admission £9.25, concessions available
THESE SHOWS are the gruesome twosome of the summer’s exhibitions, though this was written before the Royal Academy’s seasonal blockbuster. They both feature dead bodies, real ones with Hirst, meticulously drawn ones with Da Vinci. And there the similarities end, though just like Leonardo’s Last Supper, Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – the shark in formaldehyde – began to decay soon after it was made.
Hirst is fascinated by death. Attempts have been made to suggest he follows the tradition of memento mori but he is not part of the tradition. He is a designer rather than a craftsman. His graphic work is famously poor. With Hirst it is the ideas and the wit which count rather than their execution. But ideas grow stale without good execution. You can see that if you wander through the galleries of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century church art in a provincial Italian museum. A similar wander through Hirst’s work shows how dull his ideas have become.
Yet it starts off well. For a short time when the exhibition began the 2007 diamond-encrusted skull, For the Love of God, was on in a separate display in Tate Modern’s Turbine Room. This was done with real razzmatazz – bouncers, a darkened room in the shape of a black cube and blazing bright lights on the skull itself. It was an artsy fairground horror show. No wonder Hirst has been one of the most financially successful artists ever. But salesmanship aside, the skull does make an impact. Yes, there’s one tooth missing.
Yes, it’s tacky and fragile like something from Claire’s Accessories. And yet there is a sense of the thinness of human life and the contrast between diamonds and death. Despite the title, though, it is not an especially religious work. Hirst was brought up Catholic but he is too canny to put off customers by saying how religion influences him – spirituality is good for business provided it doesn’t come with any credo.
The sense of the fragility of life is there in the best and earliest parts of the show. The shark (199 1) dominates the floor. Its visual effects are fun but close up rather than inspiring primal fear the skin looks as though it has been in the water too long. Yet the idea still works even if, like the shark, it has begun to show its teeth. Variations on the pickled shark include the cow and calf in the 1993 Mother and Child Divided which was the first of Hirst’s works of animals sliced in half. Here the title alludes to Christian art, though quite to what end is carefully ignored – an old modernist trick.
The version on show is a 2007 exhibition copy of the original. There is also the 1994 Away from the Flock, a sheep on its own is sad and moving.
Hirst’s other work is less interesting. The pills and pharmacies degenerate into bling for Hirst’s wealthy customers. The dot paintings may or may not have been done by his studio, which you might describe as a link with the past, though if they weren’t Hirsts you might not be interested in them – there are plenty of painters who have thought more deeply about dots and painted them more skilfully. And there are lots of dead – and some living – butterflies. In fact there are so many that the guide to the show might have carried the warning: ‘Lots of butterflies were killed in the making of this exhibition.’ The patterns made by the dead butterflies are like medieval church glass made to illustrate a hotchpotch of Eastern spiritual ideas. In this way the collages relate religion and death but for all the beauty of the dead butterflies and the care in their assemblage the idea doesn’t take off. The young artist’s interest in death hasn’t matured.
Leonardo Da Vinci was interested in life not death. His first anatomical drawings were made in the 1480s in the widely held belief that if he understood what lay beneath the skin he could paint or draw life better. A few years of experiments taught him otherwise and he left off drawing body parts. But his curiosity had been piqued and he returned to anatomy in the years 1510–11 when he worked on a scheme to make anatomical drawings of the whole human body. As usual he did not finish this grand enterprise and it was the more thorough if less interesting Andreas Van Wesel – Vesalius – who published the first major book of anatomy, De humani corporis fabrica, from 1543 onwards.
Vesalius used artists from Titian’s studio to illustrate his book and they did a good if not inspired job. By contrast, Leonardo’s fine drawings were lost to public view. His pupil Melzi was given them on his death. Later Charles II acquired them for the Royal Collection and they remained there almost unseen until the end of the nineteenth century.
So it was that the value of these drawings as pioneering works of anatomical investigation was lost and they are now famous only for the precision and delicacy of Leonardo’s depiction. The Royal Collection has most of Leonardo’s significant anatomical work; Vitruvian man is the one celebrated picture lacking. In this show the most familiar drawings are those of the child in the womb. They are a good example of Leonardo’s ingenuity in creating a diagram which conveys dimension and volume, and which is a clear and insightful picture of the subject. Leonardo is interested in what he sees.
He combines curiosity with a powerful intellect and careful looking. In one direction this led him almost to discover the circulation of the blood – he was held back by the same reverence for classical masters which led to disastrous experiments with paint mixtures – a century and more before Harvey. In another direction it led to marvels of bravura draughtsmanship, especially with skulls and heads.
It is at that point Leonardo and Hirst meet. And when it comes to skulls and life and ideas Leonardo is the great master. By contrast Hirst the canny modernist has made the most of his work – he sold off his dots and butterflies before the Crash and can now contemplate death as a celebrity of independent means.
HOLY MEN AND WOMEN
Of the Middle Ages and Beyond
Pope Benedict XVI
Ignatius Press, 160pp, hbk
978 1586176204, £10.99
SINCE MARCH 2006, Pope Benedict has used his weekly audiences to offer reflections and meditations on the lives of the Saints, beginning with the disciples themselves and progressing chronologically. A number of publishing houses have produced volumes of these short talks.
The best of these have been four handsome hardback volumes produced by Ignatius, of which this book is the most recent. It covers audiences from January 2010 to January 2011, and the saints discussed begin with St Francis of Assisi and end with St Thérèse of Lisieux. In between, many famous, and a few not so famous saints are considered. St Bonaventure and St Thomas Aquinas each merit three chapters – indicative of the Holy Father’s view that they are two of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time.
There are also fascinating insights into the lives and teaching and example of some less well known but intriguing saints and holy ones, such as Marguerite d’Oingt, St Matilda of Hackeborn and St Gertrude the Great. Indeed, the number of holy women featured here is one of the fascinating things about this book.
As usual, the Holy Father’s writing brims over with enthusiasm for his topic, deep admiration for the subjects of his discourses, and profound empathy for the joys and struggles of ordinary Christians everywhere today.
Fascinating as his pen-portraits of the saints are, in my opinion the two best chapters are the first and the last, in which Pope Benedict discusses the Mendicant Orders and ‘holiness’ respectively.
He sees in the Mendicant Orders – chief among them the Franciscans and Dominicans – the very essence of authentic reformers of the life of the Church and society; while their commitment to engaging with the medieval universities is a reminder that the Church also has a duty to engage with centres of learning in our own time, ‘so as to focus the light of the Gospel, with respect and conviction, on the fundamental questions that concern Man, his dignity, and his eternal destiny’.
The concluding chapter on holiness is, like so much of Benedict’s writing, both simple and profound. The lives of the saints are both an inspiration and a guide for us as we struggle to be holy as they were holy. And what are the fundamental ways of cultivating holiness: the encounter with Christ at the Sacrifice of the Mass each Sunday; contact with God at the beginning and end of each day; and following, in decisions, the signposts God has given us, such as the Ten Commandments, which are but examples of what Love is in particular circumstances.
Like its predecessors in the series, this book is a gem, and will be of immense value both as a tool for catechists and preachers, and as an aide to private devotion.
MINISTRY WITHOUT MADNESS
Gordon Oliver SPCK, 192pp, pbk
978 0281063642, £9.99
CANON GORDON Oliver is a vastly experienced priest who has ministered in parish, teaching and diocesan roles. This book looks at the way he has struggled to faithfully minister to people, both within the church fellowship and outside, without going ‘mad’.
He does this by telling stories about his experience, which will resonate with anyone who tries to exercise any kind of public ministry in today’s Church. For that reason it is an extremely helpful book for anyone who wants to reflect on their own ministry, especially if they are going through a bad patch!
His accounts of things that happened to him and others in their early days of being ordained certainly rang bells with me. I can remember the moment when it hit me that the reason I enjoy ironing and cleaning shoes is the satisfaction of seeing an ‘end product’ to these activities: a pile of freshly ironed clothes or a row of polished shoes, when so much of what you do in the world of ministry has no discernible outcome. Learning to live with the uncertainty of ‘casting your bread upon the waters’, never being sure what will happen to it, is an important part of not going mad!
The preface of this book is entitled ‘From Certainty to Confidence – by Way of Stories. In it Gordon Oliver reminds us that those who are called to public ministry are called to listen to other peoples’ stories as well as make sense of their own. He gives an honest account of how he had to lose his sense of certainty that he had all the answers in order to be vulnerable to other people, and how this led him to have confidence in the power of the risen Christ (still wounded but glorious) to sustain his ministry, and so lead to a new confidence – a confidence that no matter what he did God was able to use it for the furtherance of the Gospel.
He explores the pressures of living in an age where the ordained person does not have an automatic status in society and where his role is often a confused one and there are anxieties about overload and burnout. But he never descends to self-pity or defeatism. His
stories are accounts of learning
through his and other people’s
experiences. They are about
receiving ministry from the most
unexpected quarters as well as
finding that he had unknowingly
met someone else’s needs.
It is refreshing to find a book which faces squarely the fact
that there are times when we do ‘go mad’. We get ill like other people. We get discouraged. We can be exhausted. We can simply lose it’! Gordon Oliver has simple and encouraging advice about this. Not least he has honesty about how hard it is to admit that things have gone wrong in the very place where you should expect support and understanding – the Church! But, as always he illustrates this with examples of good pastoring and caring of people.
If you like, this book illustrates how we have to take on board that God uses grace not power to bring in his Kingdom. Any ministry that tries to ignore that basic fact is doomed to failure because the person exercising that ministry is in the end relying on his own strength and not that of the risen Christ, whose minister he is.
When I read the final chapter of this book which is entitled, ‘Called to be fools’, with its echoes of St Paul’s call to us to recall the ‘foolishness of the cross’, I was reminded of a friend of mine who has risen to a high position of ministry in the Church. He has had a slip of paper stuck to his shaving mirror since the day he was first ordained. It simply reads, ‘Who do you think you are?’ A good question to reflect on for anyone who dares to exercise ministry.
This book is full of examples of how to minister without succumbing to the various kinds of madness that strew the path of public life like elephant traps. The use of story to illustrate this makes it an easy and entertaining read, without for one moment losing the depth and wisdom of the author’s experience.
Buy it for yourself or your priest today!
PEWS, BENCHES AND CHAIRS
Church Seating in English Parish Churches from the Fourteenth Century to the Present
Edited by Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown
The Ecclesiological Society, 500pp, pbk
978 0946823178, £35
PEWS, BENCHES and Chairs is the title of a 500-page volume of essays published by the Ecclesiological Society and edited by Trevor Cooper and Sarah Brown. The title of the book might lead you
to believe that it is just an antiquarian study of church seating, but it is far from that. The intended purpose of the volume is to provide a neutral source of background information, which will help inform those who are involved in the ongoing debate on the reordering of congregational seating. The well-illustrated essays have been written by people from a wide range of disciplines including historians, art and architectural historians, architects and clergy.
There is within this volume a sensitive consideration of the present issues surrounding reordering and church seating, and the book presents a sympathetic understanding of the pastoral and liturgical demands of the contemporary church. In fact the starting point for the book is a consideration of the present context and of the needs of the contemporary church. Rather than making the case for a particular form of reordering and reseating, the volume discusses various options.
There are some helpful case studies of recent reseating projects, including complete reseating and adaptations of historic pews and benches. It is a delight to read a book that suggests other options than the increasingly ubiquitous ‘comfy chair’!
Part of the remit of this book is to provide an understanding of historic seating and the significance of what could be lost through injudicious reseating schemes. Three-quarters of the volume is therefore taken up by essays examining the development of congregational seating from the Middle Ages through to the nineteenth century.
The literature on historic church seating is really rather slim, particular when it comes to the Gothic Revival. Where this book particularly augments the existing literature, is in its focus on the purpose and rationale behind the development of seating.
All considered this is an extremely valuable addition to the very limited literature on this subject, one that successfully provides a framework for a balanced response to church seating. It recognizes both the historical value of church seating and also contemporary needs.
Given its size and scope, this is perhaps not a volume that will be easily digested by an incumbent and PCC, but it certainly will succeed in its intended purpose, to inform those who influence the ongoing debate on church reordering.
Reasonable Pathways through the Problems of Christian Beliefs and Ethics
O-Books, 210pp, pbk
978 1780990798, £9.99
WHAT IS the meaning of Adam and Eve today? Is freedom divisible, so we can pick and choose when we want it? How much of God was embodied in Jesus? Can all of Christ’s miracles be explained away today?
In sixty such questions former school chaplain John Morris engages attractively with a sceptical approach to Christian revelation. This revision of his bestselling 2005 edition has new material including sections on the pros and cons of atheism, the relationship of morality to religion, same-sex attraction and evolution.
An impressive range of commendations include praise from the BBC’s John Humphrys for a book that ‘doesn’t try to pretend…theology’s a science’. Morris is mindful indeed of the intellectual challenges and perplexities Christianity presents. As a good apologist he starts with searching questions and gives ‘yes, but’ type answers that are broadly in harmony with the faith of the Church through the ages. There is an underlying sympathy for those who cannot believe articles of Christian faith just on authority but need to see a reason.
The book contains some striking images: DNA for our spiritual growth with Christ towards God and neighbour, the resurrection likened to a big tree from which we can lop off less credible branches while not damaging the vital reality, Michelangelo as image of God’s ongoing creativity and the Big Bang in reverse for how life converged towards intelligence.
The writer woos sceptical readers with a reserve about divine intervention that sounds at times like a scriptural defence of God helping those who help themselves.
The book covers creed and ethics but has less to say about the Church, sacraments and Christian discipleship. It is absolutely clear about the divinity and work of Christ which is surely the root cause of the unalterable newness of the Christian creed.
WEALTH WITHOUT COST
Vol 1: White Alchemy in Economics
Vol 2: White Alchemy in Religion and the Arts
Barry Bracewell-Milnes University of
402pp & 369pp, hbk 978 09554642 and 978 0956071699, £35 each
THIS IS a good book. When I say ‘good’ I mean virtuous, and ‘virtuous’ because it is informed by the spirit of Christianity and by the traditions of Christian, and pagan, authors through the ages. This is not to say that I agree with all that the author says in the book or consider that he has come to definitive solutions to all that puzzles us in economics.
Bracewell-Milnes writes, ‘The thesis of this book is that economic and Christian and other worth can be created by the domination of matter by mind’. I understand this to mean that the value of any good or service is given to it by the way in which a potential purchaser perceives it. If he does not want it, it is of no value to him (though he may recognize that it may be of value to someone else).
The price he is willing to pay for it is an indication of its value or worth to him. That is, I would say, assuming that he has money to pay for it: he may be too poor to pay even for more pressing needs.
Some economic procedures, however, are so cheap that they can be regarded as giving value or wealth without significant cost, and this idea is explored and developed here. The example is given of the practice that has become increasingly noticeable of painting words and other symbols on roads rather than carrying out expensive remaking or repairs to the road surfaces.
This is said to improve road safety by managing traffic rather than roads and to have negligible cost. Of course it involves large consultancy charges and increasingly heavy costs for motorists in terms of repairs to their vehicles; and after all their present Road Fund Tax is supposed to be used in road maintenance without cost except to drivers.
Anyway I should have thought that the most obvious example of wealth without cost was the production of money itself, whose raw materials and production process are even more nearly cost-free than the example given. The procedure is indeed described.
The government (or the bank at the request of the government) simply ordains that so much money shall be ‘created’ out of nothing. It is issued as loan to the government and must subsequently be repaid through taxation at, of course, compound interest, which means that there must be more money in existence than there was to start with.
The consequence is that the national debt grows and goes on growing, since taxes are not (cannot be) sufficient to service the government’s borrowing. In the world of commerce loans are made by commercial banks, which are permitted to loan total amounts in excess of the capital that they actually hold (‘fractional reserve banking’). Whereas the citizen bears his share of the national debt, as a private borrower he shoulders a burden of individual or corporate indebtedness. As I see all this the question arises: is the government the government or are the banks the government? I have never heard of anything so crazy as anyone’s lending money to himself to be repaid at interest!
Bracewell-Milnes gives too little attention to this, and though I agree with much of what he says, supported by innumerable learned quotations which make the books most enjoyable to read, there are things in the Bible which deserve more attention than he has given them. One is the numerous prohibitions of usury – and our whole financial system is based on usury!
Another is the prophecy in Isaiah, ‘Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!’ (Isaiah 5.8).
Bracewell-Milnes describes such enclosures as a ‘tragedy’ caused by lack of management. I should describe them as a series of acts of unbiblical land-grabbing in defiance of Commandments and prophecy, but permitted by Acts of Parliament.
The first volume sets out an excellent case for a market economy and the removal of the dependency culture (neither achievable, the author points out, in a nation tied in to the EU, which is the spiritual successor to Soviet Communism). I should add that neither is very plausible in a nation ruled by party government helped out from time to time by that most seductive of government controls – the referendum.
The great aim is (quoting our largely disregarded Book of Common Prayer) ‘God’s service, which is perfect freedom’. The author is correct about this, as he is also in suggesting that the free market is an apt parallel with it; but he does not show how every man could have access to the free market. This makes it a great pity that he has not examined C.H. Douglas’s proposals, including that for a National Dividend.
There are things in the books which might be meant to shock. The repeated statement that ‘pushpin is as good as poetry’, is, I suppose, meant to suggest the difference between a subjective and an objective valuation. If not it is difficult to argue against except by old-fashioned common sense. Meant simply, the statement would rule out literary criticism, and the author is a literary critic, as he demonstrates in volume two.
Indeed the second volume, focusing on the arts, begins with a number of quotations of considerable importance as we try to live our lives not only in a disintegrating economy but also in a society coming apart at the seams through the abandonment of the Christian family. The quotations, which I commend to the careful attention of the reader, set the values of economics, spiritual life and the family life side by side.
They are all both striking and true, and especially I would say ‘Amen’ to the one by Ludwig von Mises: ‘All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row, and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another.’
This prompts me to a comparison with C.H. Douglas’s definition of freedom as ‘the power to choose or refuse one thing at a time’, and to wonder again at the author’s failure to take notice of Douglas’s work at a time when the domination of government over the individual removes this vital ingredient daily more and more from our lives, denying to far too many people the means to enter the free market and to make genuine choices.
These are good books, which unwaveringly avoid the use of politically correct language. With helpful glossary, bibliography and index, each volume makes ample provision for the most earnest of students (and not just students of economics); though their purchase by such a student will probably plunge him deeper than ever into debt!
THE FIVE WOUNDS
Sanctuary for the Sick,
Balm for the Wounded Spirit Ann Farmer
Gracewing, 114pp, pbk
978 0852447819, £6.99
Although some authors (such as C.S. Lewis) have thought it a mistake to dwell overmuch upon the physical horrors of the Crucifixion, while others (such as George Herbert) have drawn them out at some length, Ann Farmer uses this book to point out that it has very long been a part of Christian devotion and art to remind believers that the suffering of Our Lord for our redemption was suffering by a real man of almost indescribable torture. In particular she encourages the reader to see vividly in the mind’s eye the five wounds inflicted upon him in the Crucifixion itself – the wounds in hands, feet and side.
The well-chosen cover illustration (from The Man of Sorrows in the Arms of the Virgin by Hans Memling) goes further, depicting the instruments of the infliction of unbearable pain – the scourge, the hammer, the nails and so on.
It appears that the author has known, and still experiences much suffering. She mentions it briefly in the preface, and almost at the end of the book she seems to imply that she is in some sort of care home. She asks to be taken into the garden to feed the birds and, her wish being granted, she prays that there will actually be birds there for her. At once a flock of birds flies into the garden. She is not so simple-minded as to suppose that everyone will believe this to be a response to her prayer, but she herself feels it to be a confirmation of God’s merciful will at work in the world. In another part of the book she tells of an experience in hospital, in which she has made the acquaintance of another woman, who is to have an abortion (Farmer is a noted pro-life campaigner).
Having been taken to theatre and prepared for a gastric exploration, she is surprised to find herself back in the ward and to be told that the exploration could not be carried out because she repeatedly pulled out the tube. Then she found that the woman there for an abortion was no longer there. She wondered (yes, only wondered) whether the woman had decided against the abortion and gone home.
Could it be that we can suffer for one another, offering up to God our own sufferings for this or some other unknown purpose? After all we believe that Jesus suffered effectually for us on the cross. We are not simply stupid to believe not only the one but perhaps also the other, in at least partial explanation of our suffering. It is at least a contribution to the mysterious ‘problem of pain’.
Several of the healing miracles of Jesus are given clear and sensible expositions here, and the book concludes with a number of Catholic prayers, some traditional and some ad hoc. It is all edifying.
Finally, however, I find myself returning to the long introduction, which contains a moving account of what it is like to be ill in body or mind; or disabled, terminally ill, or so severely handicapped physically or mentally that it is difficult to resist the hints that you are somehow culpable for the trouble and inconvenience that you are causing to others – showing lack of character, or of faith, or of both; and hardly worth the bother and expense of treating. The law is not always on your side – you may legally refuse a particular treatment, the author says, but not legally demand one.
Depression, loss of self-respect, guilt, despair, a sense of isolation and a feeling of being victimized in having the condition in the first place may all ensue. I would add that constant pain is wearying. Several particular cases are described, some little known or by now largely forgotten; but we are reminded that it is our duty, our privilege, to remember that these are people, with God-given lives, to be loved, cared for and prayed for.
This important case is made very well, but there is still more to be considered. The author does not mention the highly controversial transplant campaign, especially as it concerns the harvesting of vital organs (those without which there is no life) based upon purpose-designed new definitions of death. It is said by little-heard or heeded specialists in this and other countries that these definitions are unsound.
Many, however, believe that just as new life is to be valued and protected from the moment of conception, so a dying life is still a human life until a doctor applying traditional criteria declares that it has ended. For instance, a recent paper by Dr D.W. Evans in the Catholic Medical Quarterly has argued that the concept of brain stem death is said to be unscientific and indeed false, and employed only for the sake of obtaining transplantable material before the patient really does die and his vital organs become unsuitable for the intended purpose.
To put this in Ann Farmer’s own words, the medical establishment appears to value quantity of life above life itself. Perhaps she will take upon herself the further Christian task of considering this deeply disturbing controversy. In the meantime, she has already worked heroically to produce this and other important books.
Dewi Hopkins ND