Love, Desire, Death
National Gallery until 14th June, 2020

New Directions reviews exhibitions which are open for the whole month of the issue in which the review is published. This exhibition was suspended three days after its opening and may not open again before we go to print. So, here’s what you probably missed. And if it opens again – do go. 

There are just seven pictures in the show. They occupy one medium-sized room in the National Gallery. Before you come to the room there is a tunnel of stygian darkness, flanked by a room for the obligatory film about the show. Amongst the talking heads Professor Beard gives the impression that Titian’s greatness lies in the way he anticipates the ideological concerns of Beard, M. Titian’s greatness is so much more, as is apparent when the visitor emerges out of the pre-packaged darkness into the room which blazes with colour. The brightest blues have turned brown over time, but the room is the acme of Venetian colour.

The paintings were made between 1544 and 1566 for Philip II of Spain. One, ‘The Death of Actaeon,’ was in Titian’s studio at the painter’s death. It is possibly unfinished and may include painting by this workshop. It is the one painting which was not sent to Philip. The others are brought together in one room for the first time in over three hundred years.

Titian called the paintings ‘poesie,’ poetic pictures of scenes from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses.’ The pictures show maidens abducted and seduced by Jupiter in disguise, unfortunates who got on the wrong side of the goddess Diana (Actaeon twice and Callisto), Adonis leaving his lover Venus, and a very naked Persephone being rescued by Perseus from a sea monster.

The first of the works to be completed was the ‘Venus and Adonis.’ Titian’s contemporaries marvelled at the lifelike way Venus’ fleshy bottom squashes up on their couch. Today it can be hard for us who are used to Titian’s innovations to appreciate such artistic fecundity.

Or the depiction of cellulite and rosy female flesh. Tastes change and even if Titian’s nudes are not as ‘big-boned’ as Rubens’ (and Rubens’ contemporaries thought Rubens went too far) they are much more robust than today’s mannequins (compare and contrast how the Bond films unwittingly chart the rise of the skinny model over the last half century ). That, combined with what for some people will be unfamiliar subject matter and the complexity of some of Titian’s designs, means that it may take a while to adjust to his vision. Once that adjustment has taken place the rewards are immense.

First, there is that colour. Then there is the development of painterly skills. Over the time it took to make these painting Titian’s brushwork becomes more fluid, his colours more sensuous, his construction more interesting. And so the atmosphere created by these seven paintings in a small space is compelling, almost intoxicating. There are fluttering hangings and much female flesh. Some of the flesh, e.g., Persephone, is very obvious and presumably erotic for those whose culture was less saturated by nudity than our own.

Finally, we are drawn in by the question of what is going on. Ovid was a poet whose work self-consciously changed in meaning like the myths he retold. Titian takes moments from those myths which he seems to charge with both the charm of the past and the sudden and cruel reversals of fate of the near future. Some critics are very confident about pinning down Titian as a sex mad artist working with Venetian prostitutes. Apart from the lack of solid evidence that Titian was sex mad – he was no Picasso or Freud – the point of these paintings is not Venetian naughtiness. The paintings are poetry in paint. Their meaning is neither fixed nor obvious. They are metamorphoses.

To take two of the finest on show. The ‘Diana and Actaeon’ shows the huntsman stumbling across Diana and her nymphs taking a bathe. The look on Diana’s face we might reckon is one of fury and dangerous anger. But her nymphs react in different ways, one peeping round a column may be giving the hunky hunstman the glad eye. But we can’t be sure.

‘The Rape of Europa’ (recte abduction) is also ambiguous. It’s the last of the pictures sent to Philip. What does Europa feel as she holds onto to the rearing bull. And what does the look of the bull mean? Because that bull is not a cheery Colman’s mustard type. Its eyes are not human – surely they are the eyes are of a sinister, cruel god.

What would Philip II have seen here? The Most Catholic King and the political leader of the Counter-Reformation loved hunting and women and he built the monastic palace of El Escorial – Titian catered to the whole man. And Titian himself, who some claim set in motion the secularising of Western art with these paintings, left as his memorial the wonderful and tender ‘Entombment.’ These figures and these paintings are real because they do not fit into our neat, charmless contemporary assumptions. They are poetry and they are painting and so they are refreshment for the soul.        

  Owen Higgs


NOTRE-DAME: The Soul of France

Agnès Porier

Oneworld 211pp 

ISBN 9781 78607788 £16.99

A little over a year ago, many of us watched with horror, disbelief and dismay as fire engulfed Notre-Dame de Paris. That so much was rescued and so much saved by the fire service and the Cathedral staff was a miracle. The re-building continues, with a touch of Gallic controversy. Here Agnès Porier sets the iconic church in its historical, religious, cultural and national context. At the centre of the city and at the heart of the nation, even in an agnostic, irreligious, godless age, it exerts a continuing totemic significance and hold on the imagination for many beyond denominational demography.

These scenes may have been specifically Gallic. Would any of our religious buildings evoke quite such a national and international emotional reaction? Perhaps the loss of fine buildings may be regretted but not for their spiritual representative qualities. St Paul’s is a remarkable architectural achievement and remains significant on the London skyline despite the proliferation of monstrous constructions. Yet, I would not repine unduly were it lost. It has never had much spiritual significance; nothing beguiling nor mysterious about it. I would, however, mourn the loss of St Mary’s, Bourne Street and All Saints’ Margaret Street for their numinous architectural transcendence. And, of course, Pusey House Chapel.

Ninian Comper beautified Temple Moore’s last masterpiece with a golden ciborium and east window. In his influential essay, “Of the Atmosphere of a church,” he wrote that “the atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice”, to enter a church “is to leave all strife, all disputes of the manner of church government and doctrine outside.”

What Notre-Dame is to Paris and to France, parish churches are, mutatis mutandis, to many. Now they are closed. That has been accepted, given the exigencies of the time, albeit reluctantly. Government restrictions permit clergy to walk to and from their places of worship. However, the English Primates have gone the “extra mile” and denied access for prayer or celebration of the sacraments. Why, is not at all clear from the flaccid defence of the indefensible. Going the extra mile would be priests going into their churches to offer Christ’s sacrifice. Going the extra mile would be taking the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and dying. Cholera did not stop Dr Pusey. But the response of the national church to a national crisis was to shut-up shop. A decision from which the Church of England may never recover, and deservedly so.

Bureaucratic timidity, side-stepping legal restraints and arrogant self-righteousness triumphed, seemingly. The Diocese of London was more sensitive and alert to the need for a sacred space, for, at least, a glimpse at the transcendent, and recognised their importance as more than the mere buildings of Cantuar’s glib disparaging locution. Those priests who had direct access to their churches from clergy accommodation could say Offices, prayers and celebrate Mass, either live-streamed or recorded for later broadcast. This policy suffered from good sense and was reversed. Was there pressure? Was it resisted? Why the capitulation?  

It was an unfortunate surrender to misrepresentation and misreporting. It punished the innocent rather than confronting and correcting the guilty. That there are relatively few priests in the diocese who have such access is a reason to encourage them and support them. It will be perceived, rightly, as a craven and abject surrender to a kind of mob-mentality.

Another absurdity. In Hampstead, the Vicar of Christ Church may not walk the fifty or so yards to his church, unlock it, lock it once inside, offer Mass on Sunday, live-streamed, lock up and walk back. He can walk past his church twice a day, if necessary, to shop and go to a pharmacy, and jog past once taking his exercise.

The current crisis has exposed the Church of England to a challenging test and it has failed, or it has been failed by its leaders: simply not up to the job. This book, with Notre-Dame at is core, makes an important, salutary, albeit tangential, contribution to that debate. It is a reproach and a rebuke.

William Davage 

The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate 2020

The third book in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy has been one of the most eagerly anticipated publishing events since the last Harry Potter book. A journalist who went to interview Mantel ahead of the novel’s publication was even asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, despite the fact that the subject matter of the novel is part of one of the most famous stories in English history.  Like its two predecessors Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, you don’t read The Mirror and the Light to find out ‘what happens’, although Mantel’s meticulous research introduces sub-plots and minor characters whose fates are likely to be unknown even to Reformation history enthusiasts. But there is no twist; we all know what happened to Thomas Cromwell.

This novel, like its two companions, is stylistically exceptional. The trilogy has been compared to one of Holbein’s portraits, but a more apt comparison might be with one of Holbein’s charcoal sketches. A few lines, deftly placed, feel more real than all the pomp and costume of previous representations of the mid-Tudor court and strike true in almost every respect, with very few wrong notes. 

A theme throughout the trilogy is the reliability of competing narratives in a world where there are no trustworthy sources of information. Stories are passed across England, gaining credence as they are repeated, making their way from Cheapside and Southwark into the palaces of kings; in other words, sixteenth-century fake news.  Mantel plays with these competing realities, interweaving myth and memory, allowing the narrative to become more or less opaque as the drama of Cromwell’s life unfolds. On occasion we are thrown back to scenes which we thought were over and done with, only to find out that some new element had existed all along, unknown to us – a sensation familiar to most historical researchers.  

This novel starts in May 1536, by which time fervent Catholics are becoming thin on the ground.  Saints Thomas More and John Fisher have been executed the year before, and Catherine of Aragon is dead.  Henry VIII has not yet been excommunicated, and it is thought possible that England might be returned to Rome now that the sticking point of Anne Boleyn and her offspring has been removed.  Now that his “Great Matter” is accomplished, Henry turns fickle. 

Thus, in an age commonly thought of as driven by ideology, Mantel’s characters are pragmatists standing on shifting sands. No one wishes to die for a point of principle which might be redundant in three months’ time. Even Princess Mary, who stakes her soul, her conscience and her right to the throne on her fidelity to Rome, is persuaded into formally accepting Henry as head of the Church, assured (by Cromwell, who else?) that the Pope will forgive such an act if it is performed under duress.

The remaining Catholic characters consist mainly of the ‘old guard’ nobility who have no further use for Cromwell after his successful engineering of the fall of Anne Boleyn, and see his promotion to Lord Privy Seal as an insult to their rank.  They are generally depicted (not without basis) as cold-eyed realists who hope that Henry’s tangles with the Pope might fatally undermine his rule, leaving the way clear for a resurgence of the Plantagenet kings.  Cromwell meets a new challenge in the form of Cardinal Reginald Pole, himself a Plantagenet descendant and ready to play the long game.

But no one is godless. One of the trilogy’s stamps of authenticity is the way faith and religion form the characters’ worldview. There is hardly a conversation in the book that does not involve God in some way. Cromwell’s own religious beliefs, and his ideological reasons for the political changes he supervises, are explored in more detail here than in the previous two novels.  Mantel’s characters are more subtle and complex than any previous depictions. For the most part, they have jobs to do. They are ambassadors and privy councillors, clerks and ladies of the bedchamber; they have to work together. Rather than pitting them against each other in the well-worn battles of faction and patronage, Mantel explores their relationships as colleagues and competitors in an institution they can never leave: the Tudor court. 

Cromwell is the ultimate pragmatist. His greatest skill is as a man of business; whether he is cutting a deal with the Imperial Ambassador or dissolving the monasteries, he leaves everyone else for dust. But, occasionally, he is too good to be true. Cromwell never does, or even thinks, anything distasteful. No matter how trying the circumstances, he remains eminently reasonable and humane, only making veiled threats as a last resort. His dealings with women are consistently respectful, and he has a startling comprehension of their interior lives. While he enjoys the status and riches he has attained as Lord Privy Seal, he never appears to do anything purely for his own ends. It seems rather unlikely, but it at least makes an interesting change from the inevitable depiction of Thomas Cromwell as the archetypal ‘bad councillor’, by turns craven and manipulative. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the novels is Mantel’s depiction of a perfect politician in his element, listening, dealing, advising and placating, until the political forces he has set in motion finally overwhelm him.

Lois Day 

The City is my Monastery

A contemporary rule of life

Richard Carter

Canterbury Press 2019 £14.82 (Kindle)


This book is not about cities and monasteries but a jargon free workbook on finding God here and now, wherever you are. I will re-read it, simply because it says the same thing over and over again in a beautiful way, and it is a truth I need to hear and act on. Richard Carter feels the same need: ‘Somehow in the struggles and suffering of our lives we have to rediscover the heart of flesh. Not the victim heart; not ‘Did I get what I wanted?’ or ‘Did I win or take for me?’ – but ‘Did I love well, did I live fully, was I fully alive to others, did I live with integrity and truth, did I see, hear, care? Was it a life worth living? How then shall I live today?’

The author’s base at St Martin’s off Trafalgar Square is extraordinary. Many might see that church as liberal in a reduced undemanding sense. But here the author relates a Christo-centric place, looking to inclusion through the demands of holy love. He commends prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, says the Jesus Prayer, encourages spiritual direction and contemplative prayer. And he seeks convey a passion for Christ in the needy set before us day by day. Carter’s sense of God in nature grew from time with the Melanesian brotherhood in the tropics. That time was signed by the Cross when some of his brothers were killed in tribal conflict. These experiences, and harshness about living as a priest in central London, are not paraded but made background to accessible writing in prose and poetry aimed at conveying how best to live close to God and people, including yourself. 

Here is a taster prose poemon staying at loving and caring when full of doubt: ‘In the place of longing, a dried-up heart. In the place of beauty, your own tired reflection in the mirror. In place of God, nothing. Did you love me? Or did I imagine it? We are removed, detached from human interaction. Our anxiety is for the process. We screen ourselves behind screens. We talk of the poor but not to them. We are the poor. They have moved carers into offices to write endless emails. Ministry in measurables. Love with an invoice. Relationships in an agenda. Quantifiable concern. Creation in plastic. No time to gaze upon the mystery. The earth covered the moon tonight with its shadow. I saw a large tennis ball looking down on our world. Out there in the dusky sky. The moon hanging. In silence and space. Waiting, as I wait. For the shadow to peel back. So that the light will come back again. From the thin slice of the moon’s crescent. To the white gold of the full moon. I stay watching and waiting’.

The sub-title of the book, ‘a contemporary rule of life’ is related to that of St Martin’s Nazareth Community structured around ‘being with God and with one another: with silence, service, scripture, sacrament, sharing, sabbath and staying with’ which provide seven chapter headings. ‘If we are to be the disciples of Christ, we also need a Nazareth time: the time to let the seed that Christ sows find good soil and grow in us… [as Charles de Foucauld says] “Jesus, a monastery like your house at Nazareth, in which to live hidden as you did when you came among us.”… Contemplation on the streets, that is our task – a fusion of the two greatest commandments: ‘Love God with all your heart, soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” I found the jumping from outlining this discipleship frame to instancing vivid matter of fact social engagement and then gathering things into prayer compelling. It drew me into a readable, plausible narrative in which I could see myself. Succinct books on a Christian rule of life balancing invitation and demand are rare. Richard Carter’s humility and confidence in Christ is inviting. Through his stories he beckons us to see God in all circumstances of our life. I will be re-reading this book as a rare God-send.

John Twisleton 

The Joy of God

Sister Mary David Totah

Bloomsbury 2019

We are reminded in the ‘Joy of God’ that there is a ‘raw bitterness and cruelty’ in the depths of an authentic Catholic spirituality. The final section of the book records the death narrative of Sr Mary David, it is a journey familiar in the tradition; S. Bernadette and S. Therese walked this pathway. This narrative of pain and weakness, the ‘victory’ of the cancer that resists all medication, is at one with the totality of the self-offering that constitutes the regulative norm of the writings of Sr Mary David. Death entertained and all with Mary’s laughter.

An American-Palestinian Catholic, an academic with a Cambridge doctorate, a calligrapher and Novice-Mistress with a sense of fun and direct prose style that takes no prisoners, Sr Mary David speaks from her own self-emptying to enable others to attempt the spiritual journey with no half-measures. Hers was a life of acceptance and surrender. The spiritual notes that constitute the majority of the book are directions in the way of being God-centred. They are culled post-mortem from instruction given to her novices, spiritual conferences, short notes of encouragement and lectures. She speaks of the roughness of the spiritual life and the physicality of the text reflects this truth: rough, not shaped, constructed from what lay to hand after her death. 

There is a tendency to over-value the work of the beloved new dead, to hear a voice that truly only spoke to friends as one that will have real value to an unknown future. This is not the case here. Sr Mary David (‘Micky’ to friends) has a clear and authentic voice from the tradition speaking in a grammar of contemporary accessibility. 

Running throughout is a theme of acceptance, a finding of God and the will of God in the hard, the unexpected and the unwanted. On her memorial card she requested a line from the writings of the Carmelite, St Elizabeth of the Trinity, ‘Gratitude is the law of my heart’. Her message of acceptance and the affirmation of even difficult encounters are based on the curative qualities of nobility, rationality and the realisation that sometimes ‘things just are’. We are called, she instructs, (and her teaching to her Novices are instructions), to patience, acceptance of hardship and fidelity to the traditional spiritual disciplines.

Sr Mary David is seeking to teach professionals, but her professionals are the Novices of her community, God’s beloved little ones, and they are simply you and me. Her taught spirituality is essentially demotic, examples come from tablecloths and cashmere jumpers, she is seeking to teach the eternal in and for the everyday and the end of it all is joy in God. The acceptance, the obedience and the adherence to the traditional spiritual tradition have only one purpose in her teaching and counsel, the true freedom of receiving the love of God. One of her frequent references is to S. Therese of the Child Jesus, her empty hands and their simplicity. Her open heart and its devotion provide a shape for all Sr. Mary David wishes to teach.

Her lesson is an eloquent and accessible introduction to a daily demotic mysticism, an every-day mysticism of Amazon deliveries and Dyson vacuums, Catholic life-in-ordinary. The Little Flower, S. Therese, who seems to inspire much of it will laugh with joy.

Trevor Jones

The Joy of God is the Priest Administrator’s book of the year at Walsingham, and is available from the Shrine Shop:

Jessica Bayon (age 7) and Maicie Harrison (age 8) review… 

Heaven’s Big Secret – 

The Easter Story

Karen Langtree

SPCK: ISBN-13 9780281077304

The Holy Week & Easter story as a voyage of discovery for two little angels who fly down from Heaven to discover what’s going, and are assisted by numerous animals along the way.

Jessica: This is the story that Jesus died on the cross, with what happened before and afterwards. The pictures are really colourful and professional. It’s lots of fun because we go through the story with these two little angels. I would say it’s a really nice way to learn about Jesus and the Bible. It’s definitely a good story.

Maicie: The story was really good and helped me to learn about Jesus. It tells you that bad people came and killed him, and when the angels went to look in the tomb he was gone. I liked all the different characters such as the donkey, the mice, the angels. And I think it helped to represent Jesus and what he did. Also, the story is told through the angels instead of them asking the big angels what everything is about. And some of the words which describe actions, like grumble, rumble, scrumble, mumble are fun.

Extraordinary women of the Bible

Michelle Sloan

SPCK: ISBN-13 9780281081233

Tells the stories of ‘incredible women’ of the Bible, including Deborah judge, Lydia the businesswoman, Prisca who made tents, and Rahab who protected her family. Colourful illustrations and fun facts help to anchor each character in their context.

Maicie: This was really interesting and I learnt about extraordinary women from it. The boys in my school say girls are no good at football and my fiends ask me for tips on how to be a really good footballer. But this book helps me explain to my friends that they don’t have to be good footballers, just be yourself. That’s what these women show, and they were impressive. If they were alive now they would be really famous. It’s a good mix of colours in the pictures and lots of hard words too. I like the way they mix it up with speech bubbles and boxes. This book helps with PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) at school because it’s about how women can help the world and make changes.

Jessica: I liked learning about women in this book because some were really nice, helping others and making them safe. Everybody needs somebody to help and have a home. So getting to know these extraordinary women, they give us tips and ideas; some of them were very talented. The pictures are really cool. You can learn and read but also have fun — it’s quite a long book though.

It will surely help us with our RE, because we find out about God through them and their lives, and our PSHE too.