views, reviews and previews
Royal Academy of Arts
15 September–9 December 2012Admission £14, concessions available
THIS ISa show like no other. It’s not curated to present a new theory or an overlooked artist. Instead it has been got up at short notice to provide a selection of beautiful works in bronze. Beauty is not a category of modern art or of many exhibitions. Beauty is the main and only point of this one.
It opens with a coup, the Dancing Satyr recovered from the sea in 1998 by Sicilian fishermen. The satyr is six foot high, cast in bronze with alabaster eyes, and is a Greek work from the fourth century before Christ. The arms and left leg are missing. The figure must have stood on that lost left leg because the right is stretched behind at a right angle. Expressive movement is created by the flung back head and the musculature of the torso which is given dynamism by the line articulating the divide separating left from right. The work is to be seen in the round and is particularly callipygous. It is a fine example of the sinuous strength of bronze and equal to anything made in the next 2,400 years.
The rest of the 150 plus exhibits are shown across nine rooms, one of which explains how bronze is made, while the others are divided by subject matter. This makes for the occasional grinding of visual gears as the Modern is placed besides the Ancient or Renaissance, usually to the disadvantage of the Modern. The most surprising of these comparisons is between Matisse’s four monolithic female backs and a small relief by Donatello, Lament over the Dead Christ. The Matisses are iconic works and his most thought through sculptures. On their own and in the right light they have real presence. Here they are slightly squashed by the space. The Donatello is easy to see. It is tightly compact, the weeping women almost hysterical, their bodies at angles to the vertical, withdrawn but internally grieving Beloved Disciple. Even allowing for the setting, the suspicion is that Donatello did much more with the medium than Matisse, a suspicion reinforced by two other works. The first of these is Ghiberti’s tomb for Fra Leonardo Dati from Santa Maria Novella in Florence. This is a sumptuous slab for a friar. It is just as simple in its way as the Matisse, but it is genuine – it does not try to be archaic. That point is made again by Barbara Hepworth’s Carved Form (Trevalyn) which is set beside the Celtic Battersea Shield. The shield covering is more ornate and perhaps less primitive than the Hepworth tries to be, but the problem with the Hepworth is that seen in context with ancient work, her primitivism is a sophisticated modern pastiche. The musical equivalent would be The Rite of Spring: shocking to civilized audiences and created with considerable musical and dance expertise, but some distance in fact from primitive human sacrifice on the Russian steppe.
In the company of genuinely ancient work Hepworth and Matisse cannot pull off convincing archaism. Other moderns also look lightweight. Picasso’s Baboon and Young is amusing and clever but not much more. It suggests he was not able to work up any feeling for the animal. A few feet away the fourth-century Greek Horse’s Head does give us the animal and in a way which shows how cartoonish Picasso is.
Anish Kapoor of Olympics fame gives us another way in which modern artists in this show have less ambition and less feeling for their material. His recent Untitled is a purely modernist machined bronze dish, bright, shiny and monochrome. Compared to the interest which Giambologna creates with the depth and subtle variations of colour, Kapoor’s work is sterile.
But then Giambologna is a great sculptor. His Mercury of 1580 is a work of an artist at the height of his powers. It is about two foot tall and is both strong and delicate. There is power and force in the upward momentum of the god. And where a modern sculptor would give us nothing but power and force, stripping the work to its dynamic essentials, as Boccioni does with his Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, the beautiful and varied patina of this idealized figure are part of an altogether richer experience.
Another experience the show provides is the chance to see works which are often reproduced in books. The Chimera of Arezzo and the Trundholm Chariot of the Sun both look good in real life. Then, for those who like them, there are lots of animals including Hubert Gerhard’s Pug and Giambologna’s Turkey, an extraordinarily feathery creature though not one I care for, cooked or in bronze.
The last room contains heads – African bronzes, of course, but these rather pale besides two European personalities. From Thrace and the same period as the Dancing Satyr, the head of King Seuthes III is that of a strong and forceful and dangerous man. Like Ozymandias, most of his statue is gone, but the highly realistic features leave no doubt about this ruler of men. He takes second place in the triumph of the will stakes to Catherine de’Medici. Lit with theatrical effect Germain Pilon’s highly accomplished bust gives us the woman who organized the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Bronze was well chosen to do her justice.
HAVING RETURNEDfrom the Forward in Faith National Assembly fired up with the need to preach about, and pray for, more vocations in the church, I thought that the Sunday Gospel about the call of the Rich Young Man called to give up all and follow the Lord seemed rather a gift.
Now, I don't know about you, but I have rather been addicted toThe Great British Bake Off, and rather wondered what I would watch after the final. When a priest friend of mine told me there was a new series on BBC1 Wales called Vicar Academy my interest was aroused.
A new television series shows how the Church in Wales is training a new breed of clergy for the 21st century. Vicar Academy follows the progress of new recruits at St Michael's theological college in Cardiff. So says the BBC website. But sadly, almost everything about the programme from beginning to end raised my hackles. To begin with there was the constant referring to the students as `vicars'; and they we are constantly advertised as the stars of the show. I hadn't realized we were called to be stars.
Has residential training changed so much? I could almost feel a Dowager Lady Grantham moment coming on when they said that they went home for the weekend. I am sure we would have exclaimed, `What is a weekend?' I am sure that many of the good and faithful priests who trained at what was a decidedly monastic and catholic college were tearing their hair out at the superficiality of the attitude of some of the people shown.
I am prepared to accept that with its anti-church bias the BBC used a lot of judicious editing, but have we sunk so low that it all seems to be a great joke? `Dedication, determination and... drinking? It's not the regular view of the ministry, but watching ordinand Roz Forbes talk about rugby, men and boozing, viewers could be forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled onto a documentary on an altogether different lifestyle'— so says Wales Online. Where is the dedication to prayer and common life? Maybe we will see it in subsequent episodes, if I can bring myself to watch — but I am not going to hold my breath!
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
This is a lovely CD: a greatest hits album in all but name, which would be a fine Christmas present for all with a love of choral music. Having said that, a number of things distinguish this from more mundane offerings in the ‘greatest hits’ genre: the qualityof the recording and the bright, vivid, confident sound produced by The Sixteen; but also the depth and breadth of their repertoire, which is reflected here and ensures that there is something for everyone on this disc: over a dozen composers, from twelve European countries and spanning some six hundred years, are represented here. Many similar albums might begin, as this one does, with Handel’s ‘Dixit Dominus’, and go on to include Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’ and the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Faure’s Requiem; but how many would go on to include lesser known works by Buxtehude, Heinrich Schutz and Antonio Teixeira? Some of these lesser known pieces are among the highlights of this disc, yet such is The Sixteen’s dexterity that the familiar ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ from Brahms’ German Requiem, presented here using the unusual scoring for piano duet, which sounds both simple and yet haunting, was for me another highlight, which made me sit up and appreciate the music all the more. Indeed, I was moved to dig out my recordings of Brahms’ Ein Deutsc~es Requiem and listen to them afresh. Similarly, the lively performance of Poulenc’s ‘Judas, Mercator pessimus’, a text for Maundy Thursday, sent me back to the shelves to listen again to more from this most innovative of religious composers. The fact that this piece, previously unknown to me, is followed by the familiar rising introduction to Faure’s ‘Agnus Dei’ merely highlights – in the very best sense – the chocolate-box selection of treats old and new which are offered here. Similarly, the richness of the sacred choral tradition through the centuries is wonderfully expressed in the fact that one of the most modern of the pieces included here – the ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Benedictus’ from Frank Martin’s Mass forouble Choir – is also one of the most timeless.
As one might expect, these are not new recordings, but extracts from existing albums. That this disc is intended as an introduction to the work of The Sixteen is made clear by the fact that these other recordings are listed in the accompanying booklet. Texts and translations for this CD are not, but they can be found online. Brief but informative cover notes give basic information about the works included here, and the men who wrote them.
It is surely a tributeto The Sixteen, and to their founder and conductor Harry Christophers, that they continue to pioneer new and exciting work, through both their live performances across the country and innovative recordings, while also offering collections such as Great European Choral Works, which help to ensure that the very best of the treasury of European sacred music is opened up in an accessible way for many people to enjoy. A treat.
COMPANIONS ON THE BETHLEHEM ROAD
Daily Readings and Reflections for the Advent Journey
Bible Reading Fellowship, 184pp, pbk
978 0857460653, £7.99
WHEN CHRISTIANSin the early Church thought about the coming of the Saviour at Christmas they naturally linked it to the expectation of the second coming of the Lord at the end of time. When the season of Advent developed in the Western Church the themes of the two advents were selected for Bible readings appointed for the liturgy. At first the joyful expectation of Christmas dominated but gradually the season acquired a Lenten sombreness as the dread expectation of the coming of Jesus as Judge came to be emphasized.
So it is that at the beginning of Advent the Church reflects on the Second Coming of Christ and the four last things: heaven, hell, death and judgement. Then as we get nearer to Christmas we turn to subjects that are concerned with the birth of the Saviour: John the Baptist, the Forerunner; and the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.
This book of daily readings and reflections is concerned with all these themes. It covers the period from the eve of Advent Sunday to the feast of the Epiphany, from 1 December to 6 January. Commemorations of saints in the Church of England Calendar are also noted. On the seven days before Christmas Eve the messages of the wonderful Great O Antiphons, appointed to be used with the Magnificat at daily Evensong, are heard.
Advent without Christmas is like an engagement without a wedding, so it is good that the daily meditations continue into the Christmas season. A succession of great festivals follow Christmas day, perhaps to give us cause for feasting: St Stephen, St John the beloved disciple, the Holy Innocents, the naming of Jesus. Our journey to Bethlehem ends with the arrival of the Magi. All these festivals are given appropriate attention and we are stimulated to think about the themes they evoke.
Rachel Boulding is Deputy Editor of the Church Times and a regular contributor to New Daylight Bible reading notes. Each day in her Advent Journey begins with a Bible passage, followed by two pages or so of reflections. The author draws helpfully on spiritual insights from poems by Eliot, Herbert, Tennyson, Auden and others. She provides indices of poems and authors. The book ends with some questions for reflection for use by individuals or in group discussion. Those who follow this journey to Bethlehem will find their Advent and Christmas greatly blessed.
I BELIEVE IN ONE GOD
The Creed ExplainedBenedict XVI
St Pauls, 159pp, pbk
978 0854398409 , £9.99
‘GOD HASshown himself. In person. And now the way to him is open. The novelty of the Christian message does not consist in an idea but in a fact: God has revealed himself.’ In these words Pope Benedict summarizes Christianity. With the start of the Year of Faith St Pauls Publishing has produced this explanation of the Creed, which includes such succinct nuggets alongside much more convoluted thinking. German into English is always challenging reading but this volume repays the effort. It has the love of God at its centre, a love that seeks unification and vitalization through Christ’s self-gift that builds a network of Eucharistic communities prophetic of God’s coming kingdom.
In affirming God’s creation the Christian Creed affirms ‘from God’s perspective, the heart of the man who responds to him is greater and more important than the whole immense material cosmos’. Jesus is the ‘exegete’ of God bringing his definitive revelation. The Petrine ministry is ‘at the service of this primacy of Jesus Christ, the one Lord, at the service of his kingdom...of love’. When Jesus meets us he does not rest content there but draws us into his great project of unification. The risen Lord ‘is able not only to pass through closed doors...he can pass through the interior door separating the ‘I’ from the ‘you’... (as) with Paul: ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Gal. 2.20) ...his closed ‘I’ was opened. Now he lives in communion with Jesus Christ, in the great ‘I’ of believers who have become.. .‘one in Christ’ (Gal. 3.28)’. Pope Benedict draws heavily on the New Testament to underline the unity of Christians as the prime manifestation of the truth of their creed.
Unification comes at a price. ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced’. As we do so we gain from Jesus’ capacity ‘to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from Jesus’ perspective. His friend is my friend. Going beyond exterior appearances, I perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love, of concern’. The Pope reflects much on the paradox of the command to love the invisible God and how generous concern for our neighbours is best evidence of that love in us. Christianity is ‘a difficult climb’ as we seek illumination of our blind ego and head towards the Light of Lights.
I Believe in One God has poetic warmth and depth about it despite being somewhat heavy in its text. The Eucharist as hing in the Church, every institution and ministry...is ‘included’ under the Virgin’s mantle, within the grace-filled horizon of her ‘yes’ to God’s will’. ‘The Church, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and alive in the succession of the Apostles’.
Benedict’s explanation of the Creed has infectious conviction about it. His book provides inspirational and I would say novel thoughts on the age-old formulas and will be a great asset to preachers. His writing illustrates how the apostolic mandate to hand on what has been received from the past can be vitalizing and unifying. As he says, ‘the purpose of all offices and ministries is basically that ‘we all become one in faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, and form that perfect man who is Christ come to full stature’, so that the Body of Christ may grow and build ‘itself up in love’ (Eph 4.13, 16)..
A Spirituality for the Two Halves of LifeRichard Rohr
SPCK, 240pp, pbk
978 0281068913, £10.99
When I went to train for the priesthood at King’s College, London in 1966, I had been out of the world of learning for three years. After taking my A-levels, I left school and worked as a press officer in Whitehall. Learning the dark arts of dealing with the media proved to be very useful when I found myself as, first, a parish priest, then a sector minister and finally Dean of Wakefield!
However, I can still remember the real difficulties I had in my first months at King’s in getting back into the way of reading the set books and writing the required essays. Frankly, my mind had lost the sharpness that preparing for examinations had given it at school.
The reason I am telling you this, gentle reader, is because I honestly worried at that time, that I might be a bit thick, as the words on the pages of some of the theological tomes we were asked to read simply seemed to refuse to lodge in my brain and intellect!
That feeling returned to me when I started to try to read Fr Richard Rohr’s new book. The theme of the book is that life for most of us falls into two halves. During the first half we naturally put a lot of time and energy into discovering our identities – who we are. We do this through the choices we make, the abilities we develop and the successes we achieve. The second half of our lives is the latter part, when we have to deal with failures, loss of control, disappointments, and the like. In other words we can seem to spend the first half of our lives ‘falling upward’, and the second half ‘falling down’.
Fr Rohr’s thesis is that in fact ‘falling down’ can lead us to a more profound ‘falling upward’. We can do this by taking the heartbreaks and disappointments of our lives and letting them lead us into the liberation that comes from accepting our human vulnerability and dependence on God. As someone else said, ‘breakdowns can become breakthroughs’.
At one level this is a restatement of the central Christian tenet that it is through our taking the passion and death of Jesus as our pattern of life, rather than relying on our own works, that we partake of the Resurrection. However, Fr Rohr draws on a huge variety of sacred religious texts, great thinkers, poetry and human myths, to fill out this core theme. For those of us who are in the second halves of our lives this book helps us to explore ageing as a valuable gift. He helps us see that as we grow older, we are being awakened to deep, simple and mysterious truths we simply could not see when we were younger because of the searching for our identity that filled our lives. Fr Rohr invites us to see the value of our own experience of ageing as a way God moves us from doing to being, from achieving to appreciating, from planning to trusting. He explores how ‘dying yet we live’. At a time when we seem to be diminishing in our activity, status and energy, he shows us how we can expand and grow in every part of our lives.
Richard Rohr is valued and respected by many for his spiritual insights and the depth and breadth of his knowledge which draws from a huge variety of religious and cultural insights. Unfortunately, this is where my problem with reading this book began. His writing style tends to long sentences. Within those sentences his thought processes are often convoluted and complex. It may be that I am more dense than I like to think I am, but I struggled to benefit from Fr Rohr’s huge experience and knowledge, even when I really wanted to engage with what I believe is a very valuable and exciting central theme to his work.
Nevertheless, if you do pick up this book or are given it as a gift, do persevere with it. Fr Rohr puts, for example, Jung and Pope John Paul, and ancient myths and sacred texts, in interesting and thought provoking juxtapositions, that will give you much to ponder on as you work out for yourself, how to ‘fall upward’.
THESE OUR PRAYERS
A Selection of Traditional Prayers Compiled by Raymond Chapman
978 00953566877, £9.60
ONE OFthe joys of this little book is the introduction by its compiler. As befits the beginning of a volume of traditional prayers, the introduction does not contain innovative or radical teaching, but it sets out traditional ideas and concepts in a clear, concise and memorable way. First of all, what is tradition? ‘It is a ‘handing on’ from one generation to the next, as a baton is handed on in a relay race, passed over in succession but never changing its substance’. Thus the prayers included here are ‘based on sound doctrine, showing the distinctive qualities oftheir writers and of successive ages, but not departing from what Christians have believed and the Church has taught’. Then there is the matter of language. ‘The religious register of English is based on the usage of formal prose of the middle to late sixteenth century’, as most clearly delineated in the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible. As trendy vicars (and theological college principals) need frequently to be reminded, this prose was already passing from everyday use by the time the Authorised Version was printed in 1611: this was ‘language chosen and preserved for a special purpose’ (a methodology which has been reintroduced into modern church life with the new translation of the Roman Missal). As the introduction states, ‘nothing is more dated than the colloquial usage of a few decades ago’. Give heed to me, ye purveyors of 1980s worship songs!
Finally, there is a brief but equally useful description of how the prayers are collated in this volume which develops into a discussion of different types of prayer – thanksgiving, penitence, supplication – and the nature of worship. The latter ‘needs focus, but not compartments’, and this is reflected in the layout of this book.
What of the prayers themselves? The majority are by Anglicans, but most other major denominations are also represented here. John Wesley, Blessed John Henry Newman, St Thomas More, and Metropolitan Philaret are good examples, and there are also some prayers from Orthodox liturgies. Prayers by St Augustine, Alcuin of York, and St Ignatius Loyola are examples of much older prayers which are rendered here in their traditional – and in most cases very familiar – English translations. Dr Pusey, Canon Liddon and Bishop King are all included. John Keble is a notable omission; Eric Milner-White is another. But it would be churlish to quibble with the composition of what is a handsomely produced, as well as immensely helpful, book of prayers.
Like many such primers, the prayers are arranged into sections (such as ‘Intercessions’) and then sub-sections (such as ‘Suffering’, ‘All people’, and ‘Holy Catholic Church’). These are usefully and clearly laid out on the contents page. There are also prayers for the Christian Year, home and daily life, the life of faith, and personal devotions. So some of the prayers were written to be used publicly, and others in private, personal prayer. But as the compiler states in his introduction, ‘in every prayer, the whole church is praying’. This book is valuable precisely because it will make it easier for individuals to participate in the prayer of the Church universal across space and time.
Daily Readings from Thomas Merton
Edited by Fiona Gardner DLT, 176pp, pbk
978 0232528831, £10.99
THOSE EXPERT in condensing their thoughts into 140-character Tweets will appreciate Fiona Gardner’s ‘retweeting’ of succinct Merton nuggets for daily consumption. Whether you tweet or not, having more of Merton’s wisdom, with his gift for condensing thinking , relayed in 50- to 200-word paragraphs through the painstaking efforts of the Thomas Merton Society chair is a blessing.
Reviewing such a volume is a lengthy process as you get stuck as Merton hits your mind or spirit and you get out of your allotted time frame! ‘People have a mania for organisation and complication, trying to draw up detailed programmes for everything all the time, and they forget to just live’ was a quotation that hit me.
So did repeated reference to the transformative power of love. ‘Love has an infinite power, and its power, once released, can in an instant destroy and swallow up all hatred, all evil, all injustice, all that is diabolical. That is the meaning of Calvary’. More prosaic: ‘let’s keep praying that we will all get lost in His love. And this may help us bring more love into a world that needs it’.
In her preface the editor notes how Merton himself practised and commended slow, savouring spiritual reading that allows us to open ourselves to experiential encounter with God. Less is more, which is why the small paragraphs are particularly valuable as a springboard for meditation.
Images resonant of Merton’s colourful past were particularly striking. ‘We are like a bunch of drunken men at the last end of a long stupid party falling over the furniture in the twilight of dawn. I hope it is dawn’. Or the gramophone: ‘to be in the sort of place where God wants one: that is certainly a marvellous thing. As soon as you get set in your groove, boy do things happen!’ On his past formal religion: ‘I think that part of the problem is that Anglicanism assumes a great deal and takes a lot for granted: first of all that you are able to do most of it on your own, so to speak. The Roman Catholic Church goes to the other extreme and tries to push you into everything and do it all for you, including your own thinking’.
That last quotation is ironic since the later Merton was, to use his image, a very ‘adult’ Roman Catholic. His critical loyalty to the major Christian denomination is, though, part of the dynamic of his thought since the underlying confidence he has in the Church with all its shortfalls surely facilitates his creativity. If he could laugh at the Church he could also laugh at himself and the whole world, as in this concluding taster of Fiona Gardner’s Precious Thoughts: ‘It is certainly a wonderful thing to wake up suddenly in the solitude of the woods and look up at the sky and see the utter nonsense of everything, including all the solemn stuff given out by professional asses about the spiritual life: and simply to burst out laughing, and laugh and laugh, with the sky and the trees because God is not in words, and not in systems, and not in liturgical movements, and not in ‘contemplation’ with a big C, or in asceticism or in anything like that, not even in the apostolate. Certainly not in books. I can go on writing them, for all that, but one might as well make paper airplanes out of the whole lot’. Don’t do it!
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