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FRA ANGELICO TO LEONARDO

Italian Renaissance Drawings British Museum

22 April–25 July 2010

Admission £12; concessions £10

To enter the exhibition space of the British Museum is to be impressed with the tristitia rerum. Once in the magnificently vaulted Reading Room you might have found Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at work on the latest Sherlock Holmes or the young Jacob Richter (otherwise V.I. Lenin) plotting the downfall of smoking in public places – today there are crowds earnestly listening to walkmans as they stumble between the exhibits marked for their attention. But at least ‘Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings’ is the kind of exhibition which does honour to the Reading Room’s past.

The show is taken from the two finest collections of Renaissance drawings in the world, the Museum’s own collection and that of the Uffizi. Through representative examples of work by many of the greatest artists of the time it traces developments in drawing style and technique over 120 years or so from 1400.

This was a period when drawing became cheaper. Preparatory drawings were more frequent than in the fourteenth century and some at least were passed around between artists. In this show some of the drawings are set beside the paintings or photos of the paintings for which they were studies. The most splendid of these is a small Saint George Killing the Dragon by Raphael. And the painting, generously loaned by the Louvre, is upstaged by the Uffizis preparatory drawing. The drawing has a life and sense of space and violence which the more decorative painting has entirely lost. The graphite shows, if not the artist’s real self, at least a more liberated self than the paint does. The same goes for Lippo’s Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Here in the drawing we look down on a group of saints as if they were actors on a stage. The final painting presents them square on, as in so many altarpieces, and is less interesting.

The Lippo drawing is an example of another of the show’s features. As in the days when libraries posted a notice above the works of Saint Augustine which read, ‘Whoever says he has read all these is a liar,’ so this exhibition needs a notice which says, ‘Whoever claims to have heard of all these artists is also a liar.’ The sheer number of artists is overwhelming. Not only are there Raphaels and Da Vincis and Michelangelos (a representative selection of early drawings), there are Spinellis, Barbaris, Vivarinis, Pintorrichios, Boltraffios, and so on.

It is easy to get lost or simply drown in the quantity of minutely detailed work, even though the spacious hanging is exemplary. Perhaps the best way to take the exhibition is just to look at what catches the eye – see if you can spot without cheating the early watercolour sketch for the first purely landscape painting by a European artist.

Another way is to pick on a famous name and then look at what’s going on around him. So, amongst the names there’s Pisanello with a typical fashion plate set of a courtier. His exaggerated and sinister sensibility is underlined by the drawing next door which shows corpses on a gibbet in differing stages of decay.

Then there’s a couple of oriental drawings by Gentile Bellini, probably posed rather than drawn directly from the bazaars of Istanbul. And yet these meticulously inked and cross-hatched pictures have real life and attain the twin Renaissance goals of truth and the ideal. These drawings must have had some impact in their day because at least one of them was borrowed by another artist, Pintoricchio, for his Martyrdom of St Sebastian. They are perhaps the best examples on show of how carefulness need not exclude immediacy.

By contrast Leonardo’s doodles of a boy holding a cat, and the cat trying to escape, have precisely the kind of Florentine rapidity and immediacy which have become the hallmark of good taste. Leonardo is placed close to his master, Verrochio, whose downcast head of a woman becomes a leitmotiv for the second half of the show. The image and the style – the chiaroscuro, the fantastic braiding, the blending of colour, the emphasis on the face combined with the smudging of other details – are all later worked up by Lorenzo di Credi, Perugino and Leonardo himself, and then borrowed from by Raphael for his ever blander beauties, until they reach their final form in Titian’s study for the National Gallery’s La Schaviona.

Anyone who wondered why that painting of a plump and rather plain woman in standard pose might matter should look at the sketch Titian did in preparation. The drawing is alive with a still plump but now frankly erotic young woman. It is sensual in a way which the painting couldn’t be and is the most beautiful exhibit on show.

More high-minded visitors might prefer to analyse the impact of perspective or how the sculptured folds move away from being hanging drapery to become a dramatic indication of what lies behind them. They might trace how smudging began to balance elaborate cross-hatching. Or ponder why silver point lost out – it was too inflexible except in the hands of a master and silver pencils were valuable and stolen by impoverished artists from their richer colleagues.

Concurrent with this exhibition in the front courtyard the Museum continues its series of gardens from around the world with a South African garden.

Owen Higgs

ANTHONY CARO

Upright Sculpture

Annely Juda Fine Art

23 Dering Street, W1S 1AW 14 April–2 July 2010

Admission free

Sir Anthony Caro is often called ‘the world’s greatest living sculptor,’ a title he enjoys without taking too seriously. He also has the reputation of being one of the nicest men in British art, and to hear him in conversation confirms this. Now aged eighty-six, he has recently finished one of the most important commissions of church sculpture in modern times – the renovation and embellishment of the Chapel of Light at Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Bourbourg, completed in 2008 after the best part of a decade’s work.

The chapel had been in bad repair after it was struck by a burning plane in the Second World War. Caro renovated the chapel with sculptures based on the creation story and a wonderful font reached through concentrically rising circles. Bourbourg is just south of Dunkirk and well worth a visit for ND readers with an appetite for the Pas-deCalais.

Readers with a more cosmopolitan taste might prefer to go along to Hedge Fund Alley and the Annely Juda gallery to see some of the forty-three works which Caro has made since he finished the Chapel of Light. Caro works primarily in steel but also wood, brass, cast iron and even stone. Some of his work is painted monochrome, some is rusted. The rapid production of the works in the current show has been facilitated by the use of a fork-lift truck. C a r o’ s breakthrough pieces of the Sixties were primarily abstract and linear. But he is not a fossilized modernist. His work has developed to be more humane, and this exhibition confirms his turn to the upright and the figurative. The works are not as flat or pictorial as the Bourborg sculptures which had to fit into niches and are in relationship with their architectural setting. These are rounded totems. They stand in their own right.

And this is how they should be looked at. It is a part of Caro’s method that he has tried to remove the association between the objects he used for his sculpture and their day-to-day use. The sculpture stands for what it is. If we wanted to be ponderous about it, we might say we should open our eyes to look at what Caro and his materials give, in the way some people pray when they open up their heart and mind to what God gives.

But Caro does not make that kind of claim for himself. Despite that immense Chapel of Light commission he is not a religious man – not even in a ‘very real sense’ – and his work deserves to be enjoyed for what it is. Which is often fun, and slightly quirky in the manner of that epic television series The Clangers. But there is no amateurishness about this work. Caro is no Heath Robinson. Under his direction, form and space and the relationship between form and space are gripping and become physically tangible. If you take time to soak up these works it becomes possible to get a feel for those forms which Caro tries to release from within his sculpture (perhaps in another life he was a Platonist). Then you can leave for the shops of Bond Street with the eye sharpened and the heart renewed.

The show is free, and that is very good value for some of the most alive work in London today. The catalogue is finely printed. It has an illuminating interview with Caro where, not for the first time, the tortured questions of a well-intentioned critic contrast with the answers of a great artist to reveal a modest, sensible and perceptive man. Highly recommended. 

Owen Higgs

 

CHRISTIANITY AND JERUSALEM

Studies in Modern Theology and Politics in the Holy Land Anthony O’Mahony et al Gracewing, 326 pp, pbk

978 0 85244 646 1, £20

Our common perception of the troubled Holy Land as being inhabited by three groups of people with quite defined faiths, cultures and political objectives – Jews, Arabs and a smaller number of Christians – is quickly put aside in this book as an easy but gross misperception. The manifold divisions and alignments are described in bewildering but fascinating detail, as all representing distinctive, dangerous and perhaps irreconcilable perceptions. Could it be the case, as some believe, that no solution is humanly achievable: that only prayer can avail?

The book is a symposium of articles by church leaders, academic theologians and priests, mostly in the Middle East but also in Western institutions, English parishes and (one) in the Chaplaincy of Norwegian Defence. Some of the writing might cause reader-difficulties by the occasional foreign-ness of idiom and specialist jargon: also by the absence of a glossary and maps and, I regret to have to point out, a large number of misprints.

Jews in Israel are, to a perhaps surprising extent, non-religious. The rest vary from an unassertive acceptance of the religion; through a strong sense of their roots as the Chosen people, which links them to religious and political Zionism, come into their own in 1948 and expanding in 1976 and since; to the ultra-orthodox who deny that there should have been an Israeli State established largely by force acting for (or as) God.

Palestinian Arabs are not all Moslems of various sorts, but in any case are and have been the inhabitants of the Holy Land for centuries, in co-existence with other ethnic groups and with Palestinian Arab Christians. This last group comprises many different churches; and, as is well known, the three major monotheistic religions have a deep devotion to many shrines and religious places, access to which they will not suffer to be denied. ‘Access’ does not mean just tourist access with Israeli guides, but the continuance of religious occupation and associated domestic life in the various communities.

How, it might be asked, does modern theology bear upon all this? Not altogether happily; though the contributors to the book see in it a way, given goodwill, to a peaceful settlement of the Holy Land at large and Jerusalem in particular.

We are told that it is now ‘generally agreed’ by historical and textual critics as well as theologians that the first books of the Bible have no basis in history – not even the stories of Moses and the patriarchs – but present simply a foundation myth. This agreement is shared by the wisest minds of all three Abrahamic faiths, though not willingly accepted by all the faithful. If it were so accepted, fundamentalism and extremism might become less prevalent and inter-faith dialogue more practicable. Indeed there is said to be a tolerant and tentative reaching out even now, but it is not discerned widely because of the strident voices and violent acts of those who have attached to themselves the more aggressive nationalisms of these ancient myths and an often biased understanding of subsequent history (to which a lengthy section is devoted). So packed with matter is the book that it is impossible adequately to reproduce its analyses, but I shall attempt a few points. Contextual theology might be thought to give a lead towards resolution of conflict; yet the teaching that the earlier books of the Bible contain foundation myths has made no visible impact upon Israeli ‘imperialism’ (as not I but the authors call it). Contextual theology applied to the ‘historical books’ leads to a description of the Persian emperor Cyrus as ‘enlightened’ in returning many lsraelites to Jerusalem to re-establish the city with its temple and walls and as a homeland; yet, as I understand the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the former instituted a policy of ethnic cleansing, and the latter drove out local tribes by force, rebuilding the wall sword in hand.

The concept of liberation theology is applied now to the Palestinians, who have mounted two armed rebellions (intifadas) against the Israelis, who have, in their turn, retaliated indiscriminately with bombing and shelling of Palestinian villages, and even against the homes of Christian Arabs for whom armed resistance, and particularly terrorism, are anathema. In spite of all this discouragement – and taking note of such strange things as that the Pope in his 1999 pilgrimage found that Christian leaders could not even agree to say the Lord’s Prayer together – the writers still find grounds for hope. This is either a wonderful example or an instance of cock-eyed optimism. I cannot decide which, but it will be a good thing to be striving for peace when our Lord comes again. If this involves trying to work out and apply, as is suggested at painstaking length, a detailed plan for an autonomous city state in Old Jerusalem and guaranteed access to Holy Places, even at some considerable distance from the city we should support the venture with our prayers.

That I have offered criticisms here and there should be seen as a token that I have found this a most informative and stimulating book. Two sections seem to me to be moving in the extreme. One is the account of Kenneth Cragg’s difficult but rewarding, even poetic theology ex infra and in kenosis: taking up a lowly position and emptying oneself of self-concern. This, I believe, is the reverse of the self-esteem admired in another part of the book in the case of Ezra and Nehemiah. I wonder what a history of that episode would have been like written by those who were compelled to put away their wives or those who were forcibly driven off after occupying the land during the Exile.

The other section is the final chapter, in which the (first Palestinian) Latin Patriarch makes an impassioned and entirely rational appeal for all parties to come together to seek peace, allowing religious communities to fulfil their duty and right to offer hospitality to their co-religionists and others and to live their lives under the sovereignty of God.

Dewi Hopkins

JESUS OUR PRIEST

A Christian Approach to the Priesthood of Christ Gerald O’Collins SJ & Michael Keenan Jones OUP, 311pp, hbk

978 0 19 957645 6, £25

This is a well-researched book on an important subject. Readers might be familiar with Professor O’Collins’ earlier books on the doctrine of salvation, and on Christology. This addresses a more narrowly defined topic, but employs the same method: scriptural, patristic, historical and systematic.

The biblical chapters set the scene well. Man is a priestly animal; the patriarchs build altars, and so, before them, does Noah. Melchizedeck, priest of God Most High, enjoys intimate contact with the deity. The Letter to the Hebrews (continuing the Melchizedeck theme) is the key text in the New Testament; but it is not the only one which counts in shaping our understanding of the priesthood of Christ. The synoptics teach us that Jesus’ public ministry forms an essential part of the exercise of his priesthood. The Last Supper (being a sacrificial meal) implies priestly activity on the part of Jesus.

The Fourth Gospel points out (implicitly rather than explicitly) the priestly nature of the mission of the Word made Flesh: the One who ‘consecrates himself’ for the sake of his disciples, his friends. For St Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, Christ is the means of expiation, the hilastērion, or mercy seat; but every bit as important is the fact that those who  are united with Christ by faith and baptism are made into a priestly people, living sacrifices to God. The same idea of the priestly people is found in 1 Peter and, finally, in the Book of Revelation, in which priestly language is applied to the faithful ‘who have been made fit, even on earth, to join in the heavenly liturgy of praise and worship offered to God and the Lamb.’

The sections on Fathers of the early Church – Clement and Ignatius, Origen, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Augustine – are clear and helpful, if not especially startling. But the authors really get into their stride with an excellent account of Aquinas’ approach. Intriguingly, while – sacramentally and liturgically – Thomas’ thinking has the priesthood of Christ at its centre, it is seldom alluded to directly. But Thomas insists that all sacraments are derived from, and dependent on, the Cross of Christ: hence the centrality of the concept of Christ’s priesthood.

In terms of shedding light on a seldom-studied and under-appreciated epoch in the history of Christianity (at least in contemporary Anglican circles), it is in their chapter on Trent and the French School that the authors deliver the best work in the book – a chapter which alone would makes its purchase worthwhile. The France of the Sun King proved an exceptionally fertile nursery for the reforming activity of priestly leaders who sought the renewal of the clergy, and the leaders of these movements for reform – Bérulle, Condren, Olier, Eudes and others – all had something important to say about Christ the High Priest.

For Bérulle, renewal of the ministerial priesthood depends on an ever closer conformity to Christ’s own priestly vocation. Christ is the ‘infinite adorer’ (of God the Father), ever ready to ‘render service and infinite love:’ so too the priest is to commit himself to the service of Christ the High Priest.

Christ’s priesthood is effective because he is the mediator, in his own body, of the union of divinity with humanity; a ministry of mediation which begins not simply at the moment of his earthly birth, but which is effective in the ‘temple’ of Mary’s womb. He writes, ‘The heart of the Virgin is the first altar on which Jesus offered his heart, body and spirit as a host of perpetual praise... his first sacrifice, making the first and perpetual oblation of himself, through which...we are all made holy.’

Like Bérulle, Olier understands the priestly self-offering of Christ to begin secretly in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, only to be made public at Candlemass, his Presentation in the Temple. From incarnation, through passion, death, resurrection and return to glory at the Ascension, it is Christ’s priestly character to adore, to sacrifice and to be utterly orientated towards the Father: and this interior disposition is available to be shared, is open for participation, by all the faithful.

After this compelling treatment of the French school, the last quarter of the book feels rushed and descends into the formulaic; a pity. And despite hints (given especially on the Chapter on Newman), O’Collins and Jones fail to offer us much by way of explanation as to how the priesthood of Christ is perpetuated via the sacrifice of the Mass, offered at the hands of the ministerial priesthood. Perhaps that is the subject of another book altogether. But despite this rather disappointing conclusion, this is a thoroughly commendable volume, a sustained, accessible and near-comprehensive treatment of a theologically, liturgically and devotionally rich and multi-textured theme.

Jonathan Baker ND

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