The Crucifixion, by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano

Montorfano crocifissione 1497 con interventi di leonardo nei ritratti dei duchi

This is a favourite from when I lived in Milan. In 1495, the Duke of Milan decided to decorate the Refectory at the Dominican convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. He called in the two best artists in Milan to do it. Leonardo da Vinci took the top end, Donato took the opposite. Both artists decided to use the idea of trompe l’oeil.

Leonardo’s painting extends the refectory by three bays, and puts the Last Supper across it, where the top table of the Refectory would go. Donato, instead, imagined that the bottom wall was removed, and the diners could look back to Milan (the convent was then on a little hill outside the walls). And in between them and the city, he put the Crucifixion, with Milan standing in for Jerusalem and the Duke and his family as part of the crowd. It is quite an amazing experience and must have been for the diners, to be seated between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion as if you are present at them.

Donato used standard fresco technique, painting really quickly on wet plaster. His painting has stayed as vibrant and clear as when he painted it. Leonardo, being a genius, tried his own technique of continually applying new wet coats to individual areas so he could take his time. That didn’t work at all, and within a century of it being painted people were complaining that it was fading, dark with mould and hard to see. As they still do now. And it is in constant need of repair. So I’m giving the thumbs up to Donato’s poor relation, which nobody sees unless they go to ‘il Cenacolo”, and turn round.

A last reflection. In the Second World War, an Allied bomb hit the Refectory straight on. It took out all the middle of the building, leaving just a pile of rubble. With the two ends, with their frescoes, miraculously standing. We were that close to never being able to see either of them!

Chris Gidlow

Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Rachmaninoff

I first came across this piece of music aged around 8, having slipped into the back of a packed concert hall of an Arts & Music college just next to where I grew up. I was immediately blown away by the unbelievable beauty, incredible power, stunning virtuosity and what even then I thought as as music somehow divine. Although I would not say that I was thinking of God directly, I would describe that moment as a spiritual experience.

As I was learning the piano, for a subsequent birthday I was gifted two cassette tapes by my parents: one remarkably (and to my mind coincidentally) being Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor. I listened to that tape for hours, and carried the music with me in one form or another right through school, art college and beyond. It has always allowed me, like a form of meditation, to access another space beyond the physical here and now: yet it is also so deeply passionate and cathartic that one can feel a real bodily response to the music. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realised millions of other people also feel this way about the concerto!

As an artist, I am a strong believer that beauty, and the awe before beauty that the viewer/ listener experiences is a way to access the divine. As such, an artwork doesn’t necessarily have to have a “religious” theme to speak of the divine or allow those who believe to connect to God.

This is a link to the 2nd movement, my favourite, Adagio:
https://soundcloud.com/inarchic/rachmaninov-piano-concerto-no

Angel Zatorski

The Whole of the Moon

“I wandered out in the world for years
While you just stayed in your room
I saw the crescent
But you saw the whole of the moon”

The Waterboys, The Whole of the Moon

Staying at home during these dark days of the coronavirus lock-down I was reminded of these lines from an old song of the Waterboys. I had always found this song, and the whole This is the Sea album, quite spiritually uplifting.

Last week, in my ‘virtual’ Bible study over the internet we were reading the strange story of Elisha’s servant in II Kings 6. When they were surrounded at Dothan by the Syrians, who had come to capture the prophet, Elisha prays for his servant: “Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see” and then suddenly he saw the heavenly hosts of chariots of fire protecting them and outnumbering even the Syrians. “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.”

We pray that at these difficult times we may see the situation from God’s perspective – and be encouraged, knowing God’s unfailing love for us and those around us. Material, physical circumstances are obviously important but there is more to life. As with this song from the Waterboys what might appear to be a dusty valley could be Brigadoon.

“I saw the rain dirty valley
You saw Brigadoon
I saw the crescent
But you saw the whole of the moon”

So I would like to offer this song as part of our Lenten meditations on works of art that have given us some spiritual inspiration. Something to listen to while we stay in our rooms. Keep safe!

Mark Palframan

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
 

This poem,  Pied Beauty by  Gerard  Manley Hopkins, is well known and loved.   I want to take  two aspects of it that really help us to see God in different ways.

Firstly, let’s consider Hopkins’s delight and relish in the use of words; he was one of the finest of wordsmiths and if he didn’t find the word he was looking for, he made one up!  “Brinded”  for example is the archaic version of  brindled. And who else would have thought of using the word  “stipple”  (which I have just found out means the process of marking a surface with many small dots, a process  often used in painting)  and apply it to trout?   And it works.  We can see and enjoy our stippled trout swimming away.   Hopkins uses all our senses: we can practically smell the gorgeous roasted  chestnuts as they drop from the fire.

And then he goes into overdrive in the  sestet with  his list of antonyms as in “swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim”.  We can almost feel his enjoyment, his glee, his relish in the use of words, in the beauty of them. And he would be the first to  acknowledge that this luxuriant, febrile, fertile creativity is itself a wonderful gift from God, and a gift, which if well used, shows us something of the many faceted nature of  God.

Yet the second  aspect is apparent in  the last two lines when all the razzle dazzle stops, and we focus on the calm invariability of God’s goodness and truth,  on his mastery  and on his unchanging nature.  He is always there for us.  He is our father as well as the father of the  universe. It is as if Hopkins suddenly stops his engaging word play and turns around to come face to face with the eternal  and unchanging presence of God.    And the only possible reaction is to stop short  and to praise God.

Kate Price

‘Noli me tangere’ Fra Angelico

fra-angelico_noli-me-tangere

11th March 2020

Finding, knowing or being with God can at times be difficult. However, I believe that perhaps we do not sufficiently use our own senses to find or discover a presence which is more apparent than we want to accept.

We can find God or God can connect with us in many different ways. He is accessible if we are open to meet him. Elijah met God not in a great and strong wind, an earthquake or a fire, but in a still small voice. That small voice would have been almost imperceptible, almost silent, but it was very much present for Elijah.

We generally associate the Passion of Christ, God’s own Son, with the violence and noise of execution, but I wonder whether this was the case throughout all of the Passion. Christ’s voice is hardly heard and once he arrived at the Cross, a certain calm may well have descended on Golgotha, as the crowds turned their backs on Christ and the crucifixion. Christ’s voice became like the voice of his Father in heaven: quiet and almost imperceptible as he suffered his Passion.

This quietness undoubtedly continued to the tomb and the Garden of Gethsemane, which brings me to the fresco entitled Noli Me Tangere painted by Fra Angelico which is to be found in the monastery of San Marco, in Florence.

This fresco, which I have seen twice in the monastery, strikes me as one which says so much about the gentle and silent presence of God in the silence and emptiness of the tomb, the peacefulness of the garden, and the soothing and miraculous actions and words of Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen. The fresco is full of that still small voice that Elijah had recognised.

During Lent and through Easter, perhaps we should recognise the “still small voice of God” in the hustle and bustle of London and the hurly-burly of our own lives. If we do, then will we not have discovered a trusted and loving companion at our side: someone who has promised always to be with us?

Howard Redgwell

Mikhail Vrubel

Veronica pic 1

10th March 2020

This Lenten season can be difficult for those with anxiety or those whose temptation is to self-criticize. As someone who struggles with these feelings, the painting that first came to mind for my contribution to the Lent blog was “The Demon Seated” by Mikhail Vrubel (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Vrubel). Vrubel’s masterpiece depicts the Demon from the famous Romantic poem by Lermontov: a lonely, tortured soul. The painting shows a seated, half naked figure whose ethereal face and melancholy pose are in contrast with his powerful body and clasped hands.

Veronica pic 2

Vrubel’s second full colour piece on the subject, “The Demon Downcast” (1902) was famously altered when the artist could not stop working on the painting, even as it stood on display. Critics claimed the eyes and face were ruined by his inability to stop seeking perfection.

This reminds me of God’s message for me during Lent—that picking at yourself and tearing your accomplishments apart out of fear, anxiety, or shame DOES NOT represent what Lent is all about. Lent is a time for self reflection, but not an excuse to wallow in one’s shortcomings. We cannot always see ourselves for the masterpieces we are, but God does. Standing back from these paintings one sees representations of lost love, a figure yearning for purity, and rich floral motifs—but Vrubel mainly saw his mistakes. We may look at ourselves this same way, but religion and God should not be our tools to do so. These paintings remind me to forgive myself and accept my imperfections as part of God’s plan.

Veronica Wilson

Mozart’s ‘Laudate Dominum’

Monday 9th March 2020

In the Peter Shaffer play (and then film) Amadeus, Mozart’s rival, the composer Salieri, talks enviously about Mozart’s music being ‘the voice of God’. Like many others who have enjoyed Mozart’s music down the years, I can see exactly what he meant. Albert Einstein (unsurprisingly!) described the feeling better than I can: ‘Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it – that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.’ Certainly there is something about the simplicity, the joy and the beauty of so much that Mozart wrote that speaks to me of the transcendent and lifts me into the presence of God.

Mozart is my favourite composer and I could have chosen so many pieces to post with this blog – music from the operas (many of which have strong Christian themes of fall, redemption and forgiveness); the astonishing Requiem; some of the symphonies and the piano music – but in the end I decided on the Laudate Dominum. This setting of the shortest of the psalms, Psalm 117, has an ethereal quality about it – first in the violins and then in a soaring soprano solo before the melody is gently echoed by the choir. It is simple and yet perfect – one can’t imagine a note being changed. It seems to me to express something of the beauty of God and of his love in creation, something that we reach towards but glimpse perhaps only occasionally. As listeners we cannot help being drawn in to ‘praise God, all you nations’ as we hear this wonderful piece.

Sophia Acland

Bach’s St Matthew Passion

Friday 6th March 2020

I was sitting on stage in the choir for a performance of St Matthew Passion in Barcelona. I have sung this piece many times since a child and the opening bars of the great double-choir, double-orchestra weaving and winding the beginning of the great story never fail to make my stomach feel hollow and tears start to prick at my eyes. I love this piece in all its enormous range and unwieldy size, the slow pace of the unfolding and the depth of emotion evoked and explored.

For some reason, on this particular occasion, in the opulent Palau de Musica, the scene of the Last Supper, where Jesus breaks the bread and passes round the wine, asking everyone gathered to share the basic stuff of life in memory of him, suddenly had a special atmosphere. I wasn’t just listening to the scene being described, I was there. The actions and the ramifications of their observance down the centuries had a vast timelessness and an eternal and immediate call.

Adey Grummet

 

Discworld

Tim Aldred blog pic

Thursday 5th March 2020

The Discworld novels of the late Sir Terry Pratchett may not seem like an obvious choice for this series. He is hilariously scathing about religion – for example, writing that the Great God Om “was handily silent, thereby enabling his priests to interpret his wishes how they chose”. Amazingly, Om’s wishes rarely translated into instructions like “Feed the poor” … but more along the lines of “You need a splendid residence”. His critique takes aim at the religious mindset which excuses inaction in the face of suffering, or worse, as a rationalisation of violent prejudice (“they were engaged in religion. You could tell by the knives”).

Meanwhile, the heroes of his works instinctively rally to the cause of the outcast and oppressed. Curmudgeonly Sam Vimes overcomes his own prejudice to allow despised species to join the ranks of his City Watch. We see Vimes’ feelings for goblins, for example, move over time from revulsion to friendship and trust.

“Magic” deserves a word. It acts as an elemental force in the Discworld, controllable like electricity, with two forms of practitioner owning the tools to wield it. First, the wizards of the Unseen University. At their fingertips – literally – lies phenomenal power, sufficient to reshape the world, through force if need be. But for the most part their use of it is either selfish, designed to win control, or is studied as academic abstraction, without connection to society.

It is clearly the witches that Pratchett wants us to emulate. Although capable of powerful magic, they are nervous of using it. Selfish use of magic, we find, quickly leads to trouble. Witches regularly visit each other, less from friendship, and more for mutual accountability, to protect against “cackling”. The main job of a witch, it seems, it more about clipping the toenails of housebound old men, delivering babies, tending to the dying, like a kind of vet, district nurse, and village social worker rolled into one. Staying grounded like this, they develop clear sight of right and wrong, and a sure-footed familiarity with the borderlands of life and death. Indeed, the person of Death, to Pratchett fans, has become an almost friendly face – arriving inconveniently, but not to be feared.

Tiffany Aching, the heroine of the Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last ever book, exemplifies this vocation of service. Victory in her struggle (against a kingdom of malicious fairies) will require her to hold with all her being to goodness and justice. It is this, rather than magic, that reshapes the world around her. And then, Sir Terry writes, as the book reaches its climax, “Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself…”

Tim Aldred

‘Genesis’ by Joe Sheerin

Make more cats said Mrs God
Not toads rats spiders snakes.
Make more swans not vultures
Hawks buzzards eagles kites
But come in for your tea first.

At the bottom of Eden in a potting shed
He quickly kneaded a clay cat and swan
Blew on them and shut the door tight.

They ate ambrosia and honey from gold
Plates. Afterwards he helped with the washing up.

Finding a white neck speckled with blood
And a cat badly winged and given up
For dead she asked, is this your idea of a joke?

He went quiet and distant
The way gods do and wondered if they
Would ever make a go of it, she
Being such a perfectionist.

 

4th March 2020

I kind of like this poem because it talks of the imperfection of creation. God created free will, and free will does not always manifest itself in a good way. He gave volition to individuals from the humblest of beings to the species considered to occupy the top slot, humanity. Mrs God asks God to make more gentle, beautiful creatures.  We would all like to deal with gentle, beautiful creatures of our own kind but the reality is that we are often disappointed and get hurt.

God in his wisdom gave us the wit, the free will, to adapt and fall in with the mystery of life as best we can. This can manifest in many ways, one being tribal protectionism which often serves to stand in the way of good relations. Keeping God in our sight can be a trusted staff when needed as in the advice in Psalm 16:8:

I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

In the case of the cat and the swan, out of the sight of God they turn upon each other, doing themselves mortal harm. When we lose sight of God, his spiritual wisdom, we too can turn upon each other. The harm we do is not always mortal, but it can cut like a knife to our very soul. Looking to the Lord in our daily lives helps us deal better with our fellow humans.

Looking to God in Lent, and throughout our daily lives, keeping God on our side, is a way to strengthen our responses when challenged, to respond in more positive ways that do not lead to conflict. Perfection may not be achieved but resolution may mean we can all sit down and have ambrosia and honey for tea.

David Risley