Spain and the Hispanic World:
Treasures from the Hispanic Society Museum and Library
Royal Academy, London,
until 10th April, 2023
This short exhibition opened at the end of January and will soon be over. Don’t waste the opportunity, book your ticket now.
Here’s why. The Hispanic Society of America holds (probably) the largest collection of Spanish and Latin American artefacts of any museum or library outside of Spain. The Society was founded by Archer M. Huntington (1870-1955) on the back of the fortune made by Collis P. Huntington from building railways. His mother Arabella had a great interest in culture and was probably behind two visits the family made to Europe when Huntington was young. It was on those visits that he fell in love with the museums he found in London and Paris. The Library and Museum he founded in New York in 1908 grew out of that love. It was also both part of a fashion sweeping the US and a pioneering experiment. This show is a tribute to Huntington’s love of Spain and his talent for creating a museum.
The Trustees of the Hispanic Society have generously loaned some of their finest items and they are to be enjoyed. This is not a show which sets out to present a theory about the sweep of thousands of years of Spanish history or just one segment of that history. Nor is it an inquisition into Spanish imperialism, though it should be noted that Huntington pursued the enlightened policy of only buying items which had already left Spain. It is simply a series of interesting and beautiful objects which make up a museum collection.
And the range of objects is huge. There are textiles such as the ‘Alhambra silk,’ a panel from Granada dating from ca. 1400. There are tin-glazed (cuerda seca) plates from a hundred years later – the wyvern in green and brown and blue and white should be enough to convert the visitor to naïf provincialism. There’s Mexican scenes from the life of Our Lady. And there’s maps.
And then there’s also a splendid series of fifteenth century doorknockers (yes, really) with Islamic and Viking motifs. And if that doesn’t convince the punters, there’s some excellent ecclesiastical gear – look at the dalmatic through a camera lens to appreciate the animation of the needlework saints.
Above all there’s the paintings. Huntington was a great collector of Joaquín Sorolla, and there’s some of the artist’s most famous works on show – ‘After the Bath,’ ‘Sea Idyll’ and ‘Louis Comfort Tiffany.’ There’s also sketches for Sorolla’s great depiction of Spain, the huge commission from Huntington which possibly killed him (and which is not short of touristy Spanish scenes).
There’s also works by contemporaries of Sorolla, though not by his biggest contemporary – Pablo Picasso. But the painterly highlights are from Golden Age of Spanish painting and from Goya. From the Golden Age there’s works by El Greco; not, in truth, either the artist’s or the Museum’s best, but interesting to the El Greco completist. There’s a splendid Zurbarán of St Emerentiana (St Agnes’ wet nurse, killed by a pagan mob and much loved in Spain). The fabrics are painted with skill and delight.
And there’s two major works by Velásquez. One is the instantly recognisable Count Olivares in typical thuggish statesman pose. The other, much smaller, is of a young girl, possibly the artist’s granddaughter, Inès Manuela. The artist kept this for himself and it is a genuinely lovely picture made up of loose brushwork and finely drawn detail.
Another painting kept by the artist in his studio is Goya’s ‘Black Duchess,’ María Cayetana de Silva, Duchess of Alba, painted in black (as opposed to the portrait Goya made of her in white). This is justly the most famous painting in the collection. It is also less obvious than it looks. The Duchess is dressed fashionably as a maja, a lower-class girl. She has rings engraved with her name and Goya’s. And she’s pointing to the ground where is written ‘sola Goya’. The suggestion is the Duchess was having an affair with Goya. But it maybe that this was wishful thinking by the artist (Goya was not above fudging the historical accuracy of some of his pictures). The Duchess was reckoned to be the most beautiful woman in Spain. She was said by some to be an airhead. Whatever the truth, Goya’s fantastic brushwork has done her – or his image of her – proud.
Patristic Perspectives on Luke’s Transfiguration
T & T Clark, Library of Biblical Studies, 2022
This book surveys the New Testament accounts of the Transfiguration of Jesus, with special attention, as the title makes clear, to Saint Luke’s version. It then seeks to survey the patristic discussion of the Transfiguration both in East and in West, again with special attention to what is written in, commenting on and drawing significance from Saint Luke’s version. Father Peter Anthony divides his discussion chronologically, taking the death of Tertullian as the dividing moment in the West and the death of Origen as the moment for the Greek East. And then, in what is perhaps its most obvious distinguishing feature compared to many other studies of patristic perspectives on biblical literature, he devotes a chapter to the earliest depictions of the Transfiguration and specifically the way in which they draw from Saint Luke’s version and also show how the artists and those who commissioned them understood what this gospel had to say.
As he argues, ‘Visual depiction of the Transfiguration allows new facets of its character as a visionary incident to be expressed’ (p. 151). He is surely right that our understanding of how people understood their Christian faith and salient moments in the work of salvation can learn from their art and architecture as well as from their words. And as he points out, the fact that these earliest depictions are found in church (almost inevitably) means that there is also a liturgical context to help us understand the depictions and what points they are trying to make.
Those who know him will not be surprised that one feature that immediately stands out from this book is Fr Peter’s skills as a linguist. His quotations from the Latin and Greek fathers he renders in his own translation and the bibliography ranges effortlessly through scholarship in German, French, and Italian. This is a major merit of the book. Those of us not so linguistically blessed (or perhaps hard-working) will be truly admiring and a little bit envious. It is important for there to be some people working in English church life and theology who are as at home in the major European languages as he is.
Whereas much biblical scholarship seeks to look back from the texts to ‘what actually happened,’ here the attention is rather more on looking forward from the texts to ‘what did subsequent Christians (and for this book particularly the patristic age) make of this.’ This second issue of ‘what was subsequently made of this’ is what the experts call reception history. As Fr Peter writes, ‘modern scholarship sees as its aim ascertaining the historical ‘origin of our story’’ (p. 3). Both no doubt are necessary, but there can be little doubt that this exercise in looking forward from the texts to their interpretation is a useful attempt to do a bit to redress an imbalance.
It does, I feel, still show its origin as a DPhil. thesis at Oxford, with what can at times seem overfull footnotes and a bibliography to match. That is because in a thesis you have to show not only that you have read all relevant material but that you have also read lots of other stuff just in case it was relevant to your subject matter! But they could perhaps have been pruned for the book, even if only to intimidate the reader a little less.
It has to be admitted that there are points at which (like most such theses) it is rather heavy going. That’s the nature of the beast. This is not a work to pick up if you want a little gentle devotional reading about the mystery of the Transfiguration. And although I am not sure I have a solution to offer, I do wonder whether Fr Peter might not have found an alternative to ploughing straight into the ‘the main theoretical contours of the approach’ in his first chapter.
And one concluding thought: Fr Peter comments on ‘the privileging of words over image in modernity, and of sight over hearing in antiquity’ (p. 10) and refers to Stephen Pattison, the writer on pastoral theology, on ‘modernity’s scepticism concerning the reliability and value of images, and exaltation of words as communicators of true meaning’ (p. 10). I am sure they are right about this privileging in academic, political and governmental life (in fact where the levers of power are), but I wonder how far this is true if you go away from those levers. Many people still prefer a good picture to lots of words: we say ‘I saw with my own eyes’ and ‘seeing is believing,’ and we all know how obsessed people can be with getting the right picture, be it at a wedding, a baptism, or a football match.
Meeting God in Matthew
SPCK Publishing, 2022
In her introduction to Matthew’s Gospel, Elaine Storkey, who describes herself as a ‘philosopher, sociologist and theologian’ (in that order), does an impressive job in drawing out key themes from the First Gospel and offering everyday application. Indeed, at the end of her introduction, she makes clear that her book is not a theological tome devoid of any faith in the Christ revealed in and through Matthew’s Gospel. Indeed, Storkey encourages the reader to have a Bible open alongside her book so that we can ‘receive’ in our hearts what Matthew says ‘through God’s Holy Spirit.’
Storkey’s book does not shy away from some of the vexed areas of academic debate regarding Matthew’s Gospel, such as questions of authorship and dating. She writes for a general readership, seeking to present scholarly debate in an accessible way. For more academically-minded folks, the coverage can perhaps feel a little cursory, though all can benefit from her clear presentation of issues that sometimes can attract more heat than light. In particular, the chart which comes in one of the appendices to her book helpfully presents the degree of commonality between the Synoptic Gospels which is at the centre of what is known as ‘the Synoptic problem.’ Storkey does not seek to argue for one particular theory over any other, something which would require much more space and depth than is possible, indeed desirable, for what is intended as an introductory volume.
Contemporary events feature in Storkey’s exploration of Matthew, such as the war in Ukraine and the QAnon conspiracy theory. Drawing heavily on theologians like Ronald Rolheiser, she seeks to relate Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry to the present day. In general, Storkey offers insightful reflections, culminating in the five questions she offers per chapter that can be used on one’s own or as part of a group for further study. Personally, I would have preferred the questions to have come at the end of each chapter rather than all together at the end of the book itself, so that connections could be more easily made between her enriching analysis and the areas she offers for discussion.
Though often thought-provoking in her writing, it was striking that Storkey did not make much reference to the connection between Matthew’s Gospel and the call on our lives as Christians which is to worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ. More could have been made of the plurality of figures who do exactly this according to Matthew, such as the Magi or the apostles after the Resurrection. There was a reference at one point to ‘Christian meditation’ but a deeper refection on this important area would have been more satisfying.
Moreover, for some reason, Storkey’s book did not touch on the Transfiguration of the Lord, an event which is of much significance not only to Matthew but also to Mark and Luke. The late Pope Emeritus spoke powerfully when he reminded us that we are only Christians if we encounter Christ. To leave out a key moment of encounter with Christ seemed a regrettable absence. Even in a book intended for a general readership, more space could have been given to explore the repeated references to Jesus being worshipped in Matthew. Alongside a revelatory moment of encounter like the Transfiguration, this theme is surely an important impetus to the desire to receive what God’s Holy Spirit says through Matthew: a central aim of this volume.
Having said that, Storkey offers many riches from the treasury of old and new. She has a great degree of insight into the First Gospel, which is presented clearly in this well-written introduction to the text. Whilst some might benefit from supplementing her book with other works, Storkey helps her reader, whether a newcomer to Matthew’s Gospel or an old-hand, to learn more about and grow closer towards the Emmanuel in our midst.
The Greatest Desire
Daily Readings with Walter Hilton
Kevin Goodrich OP
Darton, Longman & Todd, 2023 ISBN 9781913657963
‘It is commonly said that a soul shall see our Lord within all things, and within itself’ writes Walter Hilton. ‘It is true that our Lord is within all creatures, but not in the way that a kernel is hidden inside the shell of a nut, or as a little bodily thing is held inside another big one. But God is within all creatures as holding and keeping them in their being, through the power of his own blessed nature.’ This passage, resonant of his contemporary, Mother Julian of Norwich and the hazelnut of her First Revelation, captures an insight into God from Walter Hilton (1340 – 1396) from his work The Scale of Perfection. The compiler of these daily readings aims to serve his readers by bringing them closer to God whilst introducing them to Hilton. He lived and gave counsel during a remarkable 14th Century spiritual renaissance, witnessed to by Mother Julian, Richard Rolle and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
I was struck by Hilton’s assurance of salvation and his commending of that hope as a necessity for his readers. He sees it as pointless to pray or work as a Christian without this: ‘Steadfastly believe that you are ordained by our Lord to be saved as one of his chosen, by his mercy; and do not budge from this belief whatever you hear or see, whatever temptation you are in … The passion of Our Lord and this precious death are the ground of all the reforming of a person’s soul, without which it could never have been reformed to Christ’s likeness or come to the glory of heaven.’ Head knowledge of salvation is key but heart experience is important, though secondary: ‘As Jesus illuminates the reason through his blessed light he opens the inner eye of the soul, to see him and know him; not all at once, but little by little at different times… through an understanding which is strengthened and illuminated by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Although this sight may be only little and for a short time, it is so excellent and so strong that it draws to itself and ravishes the entire affection of the soul from the consideration and awareness of all earthly things, to rest in it forever if it could. And from this kind of seeing and knowing the soul grounds all its inward practices in all the affections, for then it fears God in man as truth, wonders at him as power, and loves him as goodness.’
Like Richard Rolle the writer speaks of sensing periodic warmth from God in the soul, similar to contemporary experiences which some people recall from baptism in the Holy Spirit or charismatic renewal, which helps make this book topical. Many who feel touched by God in this way drop away when their feelings become a distant memory. In this selection of spiritual readings there is good counsel about rooting Christian life in a grateful resolve of the will, the liturgical prayer of the Church, spiritual direction and the sacrament of confession whilst being open to experiencing God directly. ‘The soul does not see what God is, for no created being can do that in heaven or earth and the soul does not see God as he is, for that sight is only in the glory of heaven. But the soul sees that God is: an unchangeable being, a supreme power, supreme truth, supreme goodness, a blessed life, and an endless beatitude. This the soul sees through… the gift of the Holy Spirit.’
Another topical aspect is the encouragement of a variety in devotion with no ‘one size fits all’ beyond the need to be sure of Christ. ‘By whatever kind of prayer, meditation, or occupation you can have the greatest desire for Christ and the most feeling of him; by that occupation seek him and best find him.’ Then, one of many lovely images: ‘The more sticks are laid on the fire, the greater is the flame, and so the more varied the spiritual work that anyone has in mind for keeping his or her desire whole, the more ardent shall be their desire for God. Therefore notice carefully what spiritual work you best know how to do and what most helps you to keep whole this desire and do that.’
Love for God in Christ is countered by self-love about which Hilton has much insight as well as about how we counter it, inviting the Holy Spirit to turn the love within us outside of ourselves towards God and neighbour. ‘Beware of carnal desires and vain fears that rise out of your heart to hinder your desire for the love of God. Whatever it may be that they say, do not believe them, but keep on your way and desire only the love of Jesus. Always give this answer: I am nothing, I have nothing; I desire nothing, but the love of Jesus alone.’ Stating that desire day by day as an act of will such as in a morning offering is encouraged: ‘When you are about to pray, make your intention and your will at the beginning as complete and as pure toward God as you can, briefly in your mind, and then begin and do as you can. And however badly you are hindered from your first resolve… trust confidently in the mercy of our Lord that he will make it good and if you do so, all shall be well.’ The last phrase has a resonance with Mother Julian. Fr Kevin’s compilation rings true to her optimism.
The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse
Chosen and Introduced by Edward Short, with a Foreword by Dana Gioia
The Backwater Sermons
Canterbury Press, 2022
Psalms for the City
SPCK Publishing, 2022
‘Religious emotion,’ wrote Lord David Cecil in his introduction to the first Oxford Book of Christian Verse, published in 1940, ‘is the most sublime known to man.’ But, he went on, ‘though the great religious poets have been equal to any, they have been fewer in number than the great secular poets.’ This judgment was surprising in 1940 and remains so today, though it begs the question, what is ‘religious’ or ‘Christian’ poetry? Those terms certainly cannot be confined to poetry which is explicitly doctrinal, liturgical, mystical, or even overtly ‘spiritual.’ Cecil’s choice of texts in the 1940 book is not as limited as his own introduction might imply.
More than one contemporary poet of demonstrably Christian conviction has explicitly rejected the notion that there can or should be Christian poetry as a category thus defined. So Edward Short, the New York based Newman scholar (Newman and His Contemporaries, 2011) and his collaborator the poet and critic Dana Gioia, also an American, who provides the Foreword to The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse, wade into contested territory with this attractively produced and easy-to-read collection.
Gioia’s Foreword sets his useful exploration of the character of ‘Christian’ poetry, and of the relationship between poetry and theology, in the context of the Scriptures. Discussing the Magnificat, he suggests that ‘in the Gospel of Luke, when Mary announces the news of Christ to humanity, she speaks in poetry not prose. Why does the Virgin (and Luke) do something so preposterous when they could just speak plainly? Because they both know that ordinary language will not suffice. Prose cannot express the extent of Mary’s wonder, joy and gratitude. Plain statement will not evoke the unique miracle of God’s becoming man. The incarnation requires an ode, not an email.’
The contemporary liturgical language of both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church struggles to pass this test, but that is another story. Gioia has more confidence than Cecil in the Christian ethos of the poetry of England (and the great majority of the poets represented in the book are English, or American, rather than Scots, Welsh or Irish.) He writes, ‘If one compares the canon of English poetry to that of France or Germany – or even that of Italy after the age of Dante and Petrarch – its Christian character becomes striking … Christianity was not incidental to English poetry; the history of its Christian verse is also a history of its spiritual consciousness.’
The advantage of anthologies is their convenience. They are user-friendly, good for browsing, and a fruitful means of rehabilitating forgotten voices or promoting new ones. The problem with them, of course, is that every choice about what to include by definition also excludes, certainly in a collection of some 325 pages covering almost 1,400 years. Short, assisted by Gioia – both are Roman Catholics – cannot quite decide if this is a book of Christian verse or Catholic verse; as we come closer to the present day, the bias in favour of the latter becomes quite pronounced. It is very good to begin with Caedmon, with extracts from the Dream of the Rood, and from early medieval lyrics on Marian themes. Many of the poems one would immediately look for in a collection such as this are present: Donne, Herbert, Milton, Hopkins, T.S.Eliot are all well represented, to name but a few.
But there are eccentricities, and space is allocated with great generosity not only to Shakespeare (5 sonnets) but to Shelley and Edith Sitwell, who by differing criteria of quality and belief (or lack of it) might have a pretty weak claim to get in. Newman is, of course, included, but not Keble, nor Isaac Williams. Elizabeth Jennings gets a lot more space than Geoffrey Hill. There is no Spenser, no Herrick, no Thomas Ken, no Edwin Muir, no R.S. Thomas and, among living poets, no Michael Symmons Roberts and no Rowan Williams. Nevertheless Hilary Davies’ In the Fire-Frost Morning keeps the end up for something contemporary and English, an epiphany in Tottenham Marshes.
In his introduction to The Backwater Sermons, Jay Hulme describes himself has having spent most of his life feeling ‘too poor, too queer, too dodgy’ even to step inside churches and cathedrals. Hulme, who is transgender, came to faith just before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, and was baptised in October 2020, when social distancing and other restrictions were still very much in place, and just before churches were closed for a second time. The poems in this collection reflect Covid times, Hulme’s own journey, and the elusiveness, intimacy and mystery of God. There are lyrics here of often touching and arresting beauty – playful, witty and truthful. Sometimes the message (and the anger behind it) threatens to overwhelm the medium; the least successful poems are the more obviously didactic or campaigning. But when Hulme hits the target, the results are admirable: try Sketches from an English Summer 2020, or the poems inspired by Coventry cathedral; or, a personal favourite, An Angel in Baker Street Station.
Psalms for the City is another collection written out of the journey of conversion, and, in this case, the experience of breakdown and therapy. The poems are slight, but engaging. The relationship between the Word Incarnate and the word written is a recurring trope. The ‘big stories’ of the Scriptures, Old Testament and New, are transposed into the geography and topography of London: there will be added value for the reader who can place themselves in recollection into the locations chosen. Thirty Two Boroughs is clever if you have the sort of (usually, male) mind which likes making lists. The text is accompanied by vivid colour illustrations drawn by the author.
The Virgin Mary Confesses to Her Mother
by Malika Booker
The mother stood up and banged her fist
onto the table top. Plates leapt up, crashed
to crack, teapot spilled brown tea. Mary leapt
back to avoid the mother’s foot lunging
towards her in anger, till it kicked
the table foot, vex to break her too.
Something splintered that morning.
The barefaced cheek of her child, sitting
here with big belly, this daughter who had
been her sunrise. Her shoe possessed her
and her hand leapt over the table to clench
Mary’s short collar, yank her over the table.
She wanted to maim the baby out
of that belly. The mother could just hear
Miss Lee’s voice, bad mouthing she and she
child, talking this business to death.
Every time she said, not Joseph’s chile. Each
time she uttered virgin; not Joseph’s chile.
the mother would rage whose is it?
Each no nobody’s. Each time she refused
to say, the mother’s hand, hard slapped
her cheek till it swelled in retaliation.
© Malika Booker, 2022, first published in The Poetry
Review, vol. 112 no. 3, reproduced with permission of the poet and The Poetry Society
Malika Booker (b. 1970) is a poet and multi-disciplinary artist of Guyanese and Grenadian parentage. She is currently Creative Writing Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and her writing collective, Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, has had a major impact on the British Poetic landscape. Malika’s poetry collection Pepper Seed was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and her poem ‘The Little Miracles’ won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2020; she was also inaugural Poet in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
This poem deals with the aftermath of the Annunciation (25th March) and shocks in the way it recalls the initial, natural shock for Mary’s family. How many imagine St Anne this way? With simple, dramatic lines, Booker tells the story and in the second half her own cultural heritage comes through (she grew up in Guyana) to make the reader think anew about time and context. Almost monosyllabic, there is only one word in it over two syllables: the final word. It jumps from verb to verb and has clear signs of Christ: splintered, sunrise, to death, retaliation.