the way we live now

Christopher Smith worries about the restlessness of living life through a lens

Whether we live in a city which attracts tourists or have been on holiday to the kind of places tourists visit, few of us can fail to have noticed the way that digital photography has changed not only the way people take photos, but also the way they behave when they visit places of interest. I recently fled to Spain for a bit of winter sun, and wondered at the way people marched around the great cathedrals of Seville and Cordoba bearing their cameras, their pads and their pods before them, some even carrying their devices on sticks, looking for their best shot rather than truly seeing the religious and architectural marvels around them. Some years ago, the American photographer Annie Leibovitz made an autobiographical film called Life through a Lens, but we are all photographers now.

Being the contrary so-and-so I am, the more people around me nap away, the less inclined I am to use my own camera. There is something rather liberating about leaving it behind and just looking. Once upon a time, of course, we went on holiday with a roll or two of film, and twenty-four or forty-eight clicks was our limit. The film cost money, and so did the developing, so we weren’t going to waste shots. Nowadays, we can shoot away at no expense. It is not uncommon to see people walking from picture to picture in a gallery, or object to object in a cathedral treasury or a museum, photographing every exhibit, as if doing so somehow authenticates the visit.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a number of readers listened to at least some in a series of programmes broadcast on Radio 4 in 2010 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. The objects were, and presumably all still are, to be found in the British Museum, and the presenter was the Museum’s Director, Neil McGregor, who must have derived enormous pleasure from picking the objects himself. Each episode was only fifteen minutes long, and took a single object, which, being on the radio, had to be carefully described. It took shape in the mind’s eye, rather than in a thousand lopsided snapshots.

When the inevitable book-of-the-series came out, I did a little tally, and was a bit disappointed to discover that only five of the hundred objects could be described as specifically Christian, but then a third of them predated the time of Christ anyway, beginning with a chopping tool that may have been two million years old, and decorative carvings from thousands of years BC. The first of the specifically Christian objects was the mosaic image of Christ from the fourth-century Roman villa at Hinton St Mary in Dorset, and the next a fourteenth-century Parisian reliquary for a thorn taken from the Crown of Thorns in that most giant of reliquaries, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

The third of the Christian objects was an icon, specifically, the icon called ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’, an icon within an icon, showing saints surrounding the icon of the Virgin and Child that represented the reintroduction of iconography in the mid-ninth-century Eastern Church after the iconoclastic destruction of the preceding hundred or so years. Iconoclasm probably had its origin in fear of the incursions by followers of a new and ruthless movement which rejected the very idea of the picturability of God. The new icon, dating from around 1350, was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stave off the final victory of the Muslims.

All three objects, then, are attempts to give the faithful a glimpse of heaven. All are born out of the Christian understanding, albeit rejected by the iconoclasts and later by the Protestants, that, since God himself had lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ, there could be no theological objection to depicting God and the saints in religious art. Indeed, the mural on the East wall of St Alban’s Holborn stands in that very tradition, offering us an interpretation of heaven, of God’s people in their various categories, worshipping God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And in the very centre we see the crowd of unnamed worshippers disappearing into the vanishing point.

St Augustine had a good deal to say about the life of the saints in heaven in his work City of God. If you work your way to the end, you are rewarded with his beautiful thoughts on the vision of God which will be seen by the saints in the world to come. ‘There we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end. For what is our end but to reach that kingdom which has no end?’ It’s a long way away from the restlessness of the tourist snapper, and a useful reminder to us of the promise of eternal rest.

For what will become of the thousands of photos taken by the hundreds of my fellow tourists in Andalusia? Precious little, I suspect. But the icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is still with us after nearly 700 years, and the Hinton St Mary mosaic after about 1600. And it’s not just pictures. Here is a quotation from Dom Gregory Dix that always moves me, which needs no further comment:

‘There is a little, ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: "Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much." Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem!’ ND

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