DARKNESS & LIGHT
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
Detail of the young Jesus holding a candle, from Saint Joseph the Carpenter
Georges de La Tour (c1642)
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Can anyone really know who they were as a child? I believe I was drawn towards the sacred from an early age, but do I actually remember this or simply imagine it? Either way, I seem always to have experienced a rising intensity of feeling as I encountered certain sights, sounds or smells - "atmospheres", as my mother would call them. These atmospheres had, and still have for me, the quality of a physical force. I don't doubt that the feelings really come from within, but they are triggered by specific events, objects or places and, most certainly, artworks - in any medium - that have a particular conviction and integrity.
The clearest and most trusted early memory I have of these surges of emotion come from when I was nine or ten. At the time, as well as playing cricket for England, alone in the back garden, I was a choir boy at the local parish church, in what felt to me, even then, like an uninspiring corner of south-east England. It was all I really knew, apart from the occasional trip up to London (forty long miles away) or adventures by the sea. I still recall the sting of humiliation from the time my teacher (the beloved Miss Lardner) asked where in the world can you find palm trees. When I quickly leapt in with the answer, "Torquay", the whole class burst out laughing. But that's where I had seen them. What did I know of Egypt or the Pacific Islands? Yet I did sense that there was a more exciting life to be lived elsewhere. More exciting even than Torquay. Almost anywhere.
That sense grew as I did.
I am the one on the right. I suspect that the picture was taken, a couple of years after my "epiphany".
The Church of St John the Evangelist, Woodley, Berkshire, is an unremarkable example of Victorian Gothic, pleasantly faced in flint and stone. I remember it as having an impressive spire, but I have learnt from recent visits that it actually has a modest bell tower, not impressive at all. And the entire church is, at least at first sight, only half the size I thought it was. But a walk around the building today reveals that it was dramatically expanded in the late 1980s, in response to a massive expansion in population. There are now three churches in Woodley, in three distinct parisihes, instead of just one.
When I joined the choir at St John's, aged seven, I think, one church was enough. But things were starting to change. Fast. Too fast. I soon came to see the church as a precious relic from the past, an emblem of an older order, in contrast with what I felt to be the gathering disorder around me. I had a strong sense that something valuable was being taken away from me, from all of us. I cannot think that I had any particular affection for whatever I knew of Victorian Britain, so I assume that I viewed the church as a haven, a source of stability. Home life wasn't great, with regular slapping and punching from my frustrated and often angry mum. She had been abandoned by my father when I was three. So, of course had I. Certainly the vicar became a much yearned for father figure in my life, but this other yearning was more generalised - out there in the world.
St John the Evangelist, Woodley, photographed on its completion in 1873. The trees and bushes that had established themselves by my time, along with the gravestones, gave the church a much moodier air. It was somewhere I could hide.
A Levittown development in the United States, in the late 1950s. The planning model used, and its impact on England, were essentiaLly the same.
Appropriately, given my view of its place in my life, the church was set slightly apart, surrounded by tall, dark trees and a walled graveyard. It was a place where you could keep secrets. Beyond though, stretching much farther than any eye could see, was an ever-expanding expanse of new housing estates, in various shades of brick and concrete. Even then, as a child untutored in town planning, I felt these developments were consuming the Thames Valley landscape like an apocalyptic plague of locusts. Replacing somewhere with nowhere. One neighbouring village, in this vast zone of "progress", was named Earley, after its previous association with sea eagles. But those magnificent creatures, among the largest flying birds in the British Isles, had been exterminated many centuries before by much earlier versions of "improvement". Now Early itself was becoming extinct. The same thing was happening to my own vanishing village. Woodley was originally named for a meadow surrounded by trees. Now almost all meadow and woodland were disappearing by the day. In compensation, we could boast that where we lived was an integral part of the largest housing development in Europe, with its promise of exciting new ways of living in a post-war, post-imperial and eventually post-industrial age. Naturally enough, this felt like no compensation at all
The political architect of this housing revolution was Harold Macmillan, as patrician a Tory politician as you would ever expect to bump into at the Athenaeum Club. He had a vision for economic, and even cultural, renewal that would help to equip Britain to invent the Swinging Sixties, the Mini car and the miniskirt. But was he the man to solve the nation's housing crisis with imagination and care? Not even he thought so. The Prime Minister of the early fifties, Winston Churchill gave Macmillian a job he had no aptitude for and no interest in, but no Tory MP with ambition could oppose the will of Britain's most beloved wartime hero.
The reluctant Housing minister wrote in his diary:
He asked me to “build the houses for the people.” What an assignment! I know nothing whatever about these matters, having spent 6 years now either on defence or foreign affairs. I had of course hoped to be Minister of Defence and said this frankly to Churchill. But he is determined to keep it in his own hands… Churchill says it is a gamble – make or mar my political career. But every humble home will bless my name, if I succeed. On the whole it seems impossible to refuse – but, oh dear, it is not my cup of tea…I really haven’t a clue how to set about the job.
Just the man then to carpet bomb the nation with dull, ugly, mass-produced houses and apartment buildings, and build little else to turn them into a community. He caused the creation of 300,000 new homes in one year, fast and cheap with little regard to what was being lost in terms of pre-established communities or, an unfashionable word at the time, the environment. Macmillan had all the access he could ever wish for, whether to stalk deer or enjoy his roses. People where I lived were having the "environment" stolen from us, as the price we must pay for a cultural revolution intended to replace bread and circuses with unfettered consumerism. Macmillan's slogan, when he eventually campaigned for the Prime Ministership, was: "You've Never Had it So Good". That, of course, depends on what you mean by good. Or whom you mean by You.
Only a couple of years before the Macmillan housing campaign started to reveal its effects I could walk to my primary school, in Earley, through dense oak woods and fields of cowslips - arriving with my feet drenched in dew. I didn't mind. One winter, when I was seven or so, I trudged back home through heavy snow, as the drifts started to get as high as I was. I was frightened, a bit, but that simply heightened the thrill of it all. In sunnier times, me and my mates would wriggle under barbed wire into a private woodland where we knew there was a gamekeeper with a gun. He might shoot us on sight, for trespassing on his boss's land. Worth the risk, we thought, especially when we saw the great crested grebes perform their extraordinary ritual dance in the middle of the lake ... a ritual so sublimely choreographed and performed that it might be compared to a human ritual with a sacred purpose.
Within a dozen years - after I had made my escape from my home, never to return for more than a day or two at a time - my mum would be living beside that lake. By then almost every tree that had surrounded the stretch of open water had been felled to make room for mum's new flat and the homes of many others. I never saw the grebe again.
You might reasonably call out now: "People have to live somewhere!" Of course they do. But at the cost of everything else? Without thought for the consequences - not only in terms of destroying healthy ecosystems and starting what would become an avalanche of extinction but also abandoning all thought of community and social cohesion - and totally ignoring concepts such as cultural and spiritual health. I know the planners of the time had documents to encourage them to think about these things but they were so often denied the means to turn those thoughts into action.
Even when I was a child, soon to become an adolescent, I knew that things were even worse in other parts of Britain, not so very far away, in Reading and Slough. In Woodley and Earley very few people were being crammed into what would become the high-rise slums of the age, turning the Corbusier dream of utopian modernity into a dystopian nightmare. But less than the worst can still be very bad. I never suffered the desperate conditions of the little fella in Ken Loache's film of a few year's later. Kes, in truthful black & white, was a profound commentary on the times I am describing. Its hero was a stringy boy who looks "starved" throughout the film - "starved" of food, but also warmth, kindness and love. The boy compensates for his physical and emotional deprivation, and lovelessness, by adopting a kestrel. He and the wild world become one, although the "civilised" world does its best to break up their life-saving relationship.
Nevertheless, I did feel the pangs of distress that would grow and grow as I did. I had a developing insight that the future being prepared for me by the politicians and planners, and by my passionless, almost lifeless, teachers at Forest Grammar, was not in anyone's interests - apart from the people making the money out of a desperately myopic idea of progress.
But back when I was 10, on one bleak and black night in February, I participated in a sacred ritual that transcended the dispiriting desecration of my surroundings. Precisely forty days after Christmas, I and my fellow choristers shared the privilege to sing in a unique nighttime service, Candlemas. Even the name sounded inviting. It was dedicated to the Presentation of the infant Jesus at the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, and to the Purification of his mother, the Virgin Mary. But it was not the religious significance of the ceremony that gripped me, it was drama of it. I was so engulfed by the occasion that its effect remains vivid within me, more than half a century later. It struck a flame in me than has never been extinguished.
[This is a marker for video of the great crested grebe mating dance]
The newborn Jesus with the Virgin Mary and St Anne
Georges de la Tour (1645 -1648)
Musee de Rennes
The appointed time for the service was unusually late. I like to think it was after midnight and that the snow was deep outside, with our only protection being the thick stone walls of the church and its overworked heating system. That is probably an exaggeration of my own making, but I can be certain it was well past my bedtime. Given the lateness and the unforgiving season, the church was surprisingly full. Everyone, it seemed, was expecting something special to happen.
The low hum of anticipatory conversation within the congregation was stilled when the church was cast into darkness. Then we - the vicar, the curate, the cross carrier, the censer holder and
the choir - slowly processed into the nave, with most of us carrying a candle that reached into the overwhelming gloom, somehow emphasising the darkness. I cannot remember what we were singing but I know it was not one of those turgid hymns we would offer up at a standard Evensong. It was heavenly music, from a distant time and place. Italy perhaps, or maybe Spain (hot countries elsewhere). And surely this must be what music sounded like in the Middle Ages, when just everything was a different. Not better but different.
We trebles surely sounded like birds, or even angels, soaring above the earthly voices of the tenors and basses. I knew I'd never lose this, a moment when my physical and (a word I find hard to write) spiritual being were in total harmony. Like the music we were making, I was in a state
MUSICAL LINK TO FOLLOW.
As I remember it, the progress of the procession, all around the church, was slow. We would stop every few yards for prayers and blessings. At some time in the service the theological purpose of what we were all participating in must have been revealed. This is from a Church of England order of service for Candlemas:
"Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people. As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified, as we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognized him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory. In this eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion."
Presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem
Taken from the Menologion of Basil II,
a ritual Calendar of the Orthodox Church
By the time I was nine or ten Biblical references such as these escaped my attention. I had already heard Bible stories, and prayers and sermons based upon them, too many times to sustain my interest. As for the implicit theology, it had always seemed as mysterious to me as maths, another of the many languages I would never properly learn. For me, the way to experience this ritual was not to reflect on something that may or may not have happened 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem. It was to be here, in this moment, in the flickering gloom, sharing the companionship of good friends (a communion, you could say), listening to and making extraordinary sounds and breathing in the addictive aroma of the incense, so mysterious, so seductive. At this church, Anglo-Catholic as it was, incense was used on the most special holy days, along with ancient anthems. And one memory I am sure I can rely on is standing beside Alan -the star of our modest choir- as he used his young tenor voice to make amazing patterns throughout the darkness. I hoped that one day I too would have a
voice just like his.
MUSICAL LINK TO FOLLOW.
Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (1623)
Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)
National Gallery, London
Today, at the opposite end of a fortunately blessed and long life, I have become fascinated by the Biblical narratives I used to be so bored by, and by their layered relationship with Christian ritual and belief. I have also become fascinated by the tortuous relationship between faith and fact. My point of access to these matters has often been historical paintings, sculpture and music. For me, all of them have the potential to become manifestations of the sacred, not simply through their content but because of their potential to concentrate our attention, our emotions and, if we believe we have one, our soul.
In his painting of the ceremonies at the Temple, the Italian artist Guercino creates an intimate, almost domestic scene, in a palatial setting. The person who commissioned the painting kept it in his bedroom - and when it was returned to the artist, in lieu of debt, Guercino placed the painting in his own bedroom.
You can see Mary with her new baby, her considerably older husband, Joseph, and the sacrificial doves they are obliged to bring to the Temple, if they cannot afford to bring a sacrificial lamb. You also see a young man. I take him to be Jesus's cousin John, later to be called John the Baptist. He stares in awe at the other senior citizen in the picture. This is Simeon, dressed as a high priest, who is declaring to the company that Jesus truly is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Chosen One, come to re-establish the Kingdom of David in the land of Israel. Simeon had previously experienced a vision that this moment would come to him before he died. His realisation that this tiny child before him was literally sent from Heaven meant that he could now be ready to die, in the most sublime state of grace.
The author of this account is St Luke. He and the other three authors of the Gospels wrote in Greek. The Greek word for Messiah is Christ. According to Luke, this Christ would also bring the Light of the World to the Gentiles, the people who were not Jews. When men as sturdy as St Paul put their strength behind the doctrine of this new Christian, universal faith, they reinforced the full implications of the Messiah's return: the Final Judgement, the division of the good from the evil, The End of Days.
According to the Bible, when John and his cousin became adults it was his destiny to spread the message throughout the land that Jesus was Christ the Saviour, and to baptise him in the River Jordan. This life mission would soon cost John his head on the whim of
a spoilt princess, the seductively wicked Salome, inappropriately loved by her father,
The narrative elements of the Old and New Testaments have gripped more people than any other stories, inspiring some of the most powerful and convincing art ever made, with little evidence that any of events described actually happened. But many of the Christian faithful take these stories as facts, as real as the events on the nightly news, minus the distortions of modern journalism. For believers, they are tales made more significant by the telling and retelling. They become guides to living a good and purposeful life.
Although the moral dimension of the stories, and most certainly their theological content, have escaped me, I am glad that I have absorbed these narratives. They are the closest thing I have to a shared mythological understanding of life, along with a set of rituals I can call my own. I am sad that - because the English education system has reflected shifts in priorities in the larger society - my own children cannot participate in this mythology and its rituals. This is a paradox within me that I'll explore later inthese reflections..
Luke is the only Gospel writer to give an account of the Christ's presentation at the Temple. It is clear that the purpose of this text is to proclaim that the infant is not any child but God in human form. To underline this world-changing revelation he introduces another witness, Anna the Prophetess She is also a character advanced in years and thus rich in wisdom. The Dutch master Rembrandt translated Anna into a terrifying presence, so terrifying that he chose to hide her face and turn her into a menacingly anonymous apparition. The thunderstruck expression on Simeon's face builds the tension, and keeps our own focus on the message that is being delivered. Mary's focus, we see, is entirely on her child.
Like his contemporary, Caravaggio, Rembrandt was an extraordinary dramatist, with penetrating psychological insight. Both artists used a restricted range of colours and a strong contrast between light and shade to energise their scenes. This technique of chiaroscuro, as the Italians call this technique, was to be borrowed three-hundred years later by the storytellers of cinema. It has become one of the tropes of the medium to imply menace in the darkness and revelation in the light.
At much the same time that Rembrandt was portraying this scene - and Guercino was doing the same - the translators of the King James Bible were creating printed version, in an English so magnificent it is as if the words were carved in stone. It is not easy to quickly grasp the meaning of passages from the King James Bible but the sounds of them echo around the brain like triumphant music.
2:25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the
Holy Ghost was upon him.
2:26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
2:27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
2:28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
2:29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
2:30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
2:31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
2:32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
2:33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.
2:34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is
set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall
be spoken against;
2:35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
2:36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
2:37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
2:38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
Luke, his translators and Rembrandt give an almost operatic account of the events at the Temple. If you believe that the birth of this child was one of the most significant moments in history, then the urge to dramatise the details seems almost essential. But the painter Andrea Mantegna does not agree. He is happy to rely on the bare facts, so he creates a line-up of the people who were there - minus the drama. His is a sublimely beautiful line-up, but it serves the purpose of a witness statement rather than a feast of emotion.
The Baptism of Christ
Piero della Francesca (after 1437)
National Gallery, London
Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1609-10)
National Gallery, London
Presentation at the Temple
Andrea Mantegna (c1455)
Everyone in this painting is staring out with extraordinary intensity, even the 40-day-old child. Yet Mantegna has managed to give us the sense that the intensity of each gaze is, at the same time, turned inward. Of all the many meanings you could place on this painting, one of them must surely be a set of questions: What are the implications of this child's birth ? What is my role in this drama? Only Mary seems to be resolved in her fate. She shows gracious acceptance. Jesus appears to be looking out towards a boundless distance, limitless responsibility. I won't attempt to decode the almost accusatory expression of Simeon or what appears to be the contained anger of Joseph, but the expressions on the two faces at the back are a mystery to me. Why do they seem so overwhelmed with sadness?
It is believed that the face on the right is a self-portrait of Mantegna, and on the left a portrait
of his recent bride, Nicolosia Bellini. This marriage had brought one of the most celebrated young artists in Italy from his home in Padua, to join the most successful artistic dynasty in Venice. His new brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, who was soon to paint a reworking Mantegna's Presentation.
If I were asked to propose a prime example of a sacred object, I would be happy to offer up Mantegna's painting as one. It is comparatively small, intimate in scale and content. It is without pomposity or fuss. And, most important of all, it is profoundly serious in purpose. It clearly is both true to itself and, in some way, about truth itself. But a mysterious truth, not to be briskly undersdtood. It is an enigma.
I acknowledge that none of the above are essential requirements of a sacred object. It is the way they come together, with such unity of purpose, that take them towards the transcendent. Giovanni Bellini addresses the same scene and produces a very different effect.
This is not a witness statement. It is a family portrait. Or rather a portrait of two families,1600 years apart. Mary, Joseph and their newborn son, attended by four members of the expanding Bellini dynasty: Giovanni Bellini on the extreme right, next to his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna. On the extreme left is Giovanni's mother, Anna, next to her daughter Nicolisia who, you may remember, is Andrea's wife. Now all this detail is based on speculation by various scholars. Further speculation proposes that the face of Joseph, who just happens to be at the centre of this line-up, is actually a portrait of Jacopo Bellini, the patriarch of the dynasty.
Speculation it may be but one thing convinces me that it is also true: the only gaze in this painting that is fully expressed and fully engaged is that of Giovanni Bellini. He looks out at us to say, aren't I the clever one? That may be unkind. If I had never seen the Mantegna Presentation, I would probably still think that this painting was a skilIful conceit by a major Venetian artist - one for the family, perhaps, even an expression of a bond to tie the family more tightly together. Sacred? Perhaps not.
As it happens, I have a particular fondness for the work of Giovanni Bellini. So I am going to indulge myself by showing you a painting of his on a similar theme to the one at the top of this sequence, which I show again below. That is by the French artist, Georges de la Tour, who specialised in exploring chiaroscuro to very different effect from Caravaggio. De la Tour invariably revealed the source of light, often a candle, to the extent that light itself becomes the central theme of his oeuvre.
Both artists portray the Penitent Mary Magdalene. She is a figure used by painters through history to deal with the question of sin and contrition - a central theme in Christianity. It is so important a theme that one of the early Popes, Gregory the Great, in 591, informed the world that Mary Magdalene was a sinner, an adulteress, a prostitute. He said that Jesus had cast seven devils from within her, that she washed his feet and then dried them with her own hair, stood at the cross when he was crucified, discovered the empty tomb and mistook the risen Christ for a gardener. According to modern scholarship, in the New Testament there are several different Marys, plus unnamed women, who do these things. Pope Gregory conflated them all into one woman, gave her a unifying name and washed her in sin.
This may be the beginning of the the virgin and the whore trope that reveals itself throughout Christian culture, or maybe that idea has been alive for a lot longer than that.