Welcome to the new-look crammedwithheaven.org blog and website. If you have been here before, or if you are a follower and have wondered about the site’s inactivity, then I am happy to announce a new beginning.
Not only do we have a new and clearer appearance to the site, but the content has been revised and refocused. Most importantly, in its new era there will be regular blogs and an expanding fund of resources on some of the pages.
When I began the blog in 2011 I was on study leave in Italy and was reflecting on art and spirituality. You can still find my musings my Italian Journey page. Since then I have done a lot more painting and, I hope, a lot more praying. You can find some of my more recent art works through the GALLERY menu and there will still be a focus on the visual arts in this site. But I now want to both widen the range and sharpen the focus of crammedwithheaven.org.
The range of my musings will continue to embrace art and spirituality but will now also include poetry. In the spirit of a reflective practitioner, I want to both practise these things and reflect upon them. The static web pages will offer resources for worship, together with some of my paintings, poems and prayers. There will also be a small number of pages dedicated to the academic study of these creative areas and their relationship to praying and doing theology. The now-to-be-regular blogs will offer a mix of reflection, study and artistic creations of one kind or another. So:
PRAYER, PAINTING AND POETRY
– REFLECTIONS, STUDIES AND RESOURCES
I hope you find this new era of crammedwithheaven.org both interesting and useful. If you do then please tell a friend!
I had ordered it long before publication so I opened the book with relish and anticipation when it finally arrived. The old adage tells us that ‘Those who can’t, teach!’ I want to offer a variation: ‘Those who can’t, buy lot’s of how-to books instead’ and so spend their time reading about the activity rather than doing it and learning from their mistakes. Shelves full of books on how to pray compete with shelves of books on how to paint and draw!
Anyway, the book in question was Painting Light in Oils by Peter Wileman and Malcolm Allsop (Batsford 2011). Peter Wileman is currently president of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the book is stuffed full of his impressionistic, mainly landscape and people, paintings. He is a fine painter and has a lovely knack of using a narrow range of tones and colours to frame an area of bright light which sings (or zings) as a result.
In answer to the question ‘What shall I paint?’ he offers this observation:
Novice artists often feel that for a subject they must find something that is beautiful or dramatic in itself. The problem for many people is that they’re more experienced in taking a photograph than choosing a subject for painting. A photograph tends to be the classic ‘view’, whereas an interesting painting usually shows a much less obvious take on a location.
In fact, your subject may be completely mundane; it may just be a collection of interesting shapes, a certain light effect, or a pattern of colour and tones that has made you want to create a painting.
I write on the last day of my sabbatical study leave and I have been reviewing the last three months – both the long trip to Italy and the drawing, painting and reading I did both there and on my return. As I leaf through my sketch books, I seem to feel more satisfaction with the pen and ink studies than with the pen and watercolour paintings. This may of course have something to do with my relative (in)competence in each media. However, I think it’s more likely to do with subject matter.
The watercolours have tended to be less experimental and more concerned with grand views of well-known landmarks – like some of my photographs. The ink drawings tend to be on a smaller scale and capture some aspect of a street or building which has interested me. Pen, sketchpad and water-brush are, after all, more portable than the full watercolour kit and a drawing may only take ten or twenty minutes. As a result, the drawing is more responsive and less predictable. What oil painting I’ve managed since my return has also tended to be the grand view – and grand view in the middle of the day when I took the reference photographs rather than a well-known scene transformed by dramatic morning light or stormy weather.
Two things follow for me. First, a practical agenda. I must continue to paint from my travel sketches and photographs, but must look for those views which reflect my personal impressions and experiences rather than grand views – more chamber music than grand opera! I achieved this in some of my photographs, now I need to move to a stage of synthesis in my painting.
The second thing is more a line of reflection. Wileman’s comment, about the mundane and less obvious ‘take’, chimes with other thoughts and readings. Frederick Franck, in his The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation (Wildwood House 1973) presents drawing as a way of seeing which apprehends the reality of what is before us. He suggests that drawing is
a way of focusing attention until it turns into contemplation, and from there to the inexpressible fullness, where the split between the seer and what is seen is obliterated. Eye, heart, hand become one with what is seen and drawn, things are seen as they are – in their ‘isness’.
This was a road travelled by Thomas Merton who in the photography of his later years gave attention to very ordinary things but in a way which showed their extraordinary wonder. John Lane, in his The Spirit of Silence: Making Space for Creativity (Green Books 2006), writes,
The beginning of seeing lies with the rapt attention of unpretentious, everyday things; things ignored, mundane, unexceptional, commonplace; things lying about in rooms, things like the wrinkled sheets of an unmade bed, the refracted stems of a bunch of tulips in a glass pot, the rust on a sheet of corrugated iron, the pattern of porridge left at the bottom of an unwashed pan.
Giving attention is akin to prayer. It is relating to the world in such a way that the ‘I’ doesn’t get in the way of the ‘eye’. It is an openness to God’s world in its infinite richness and variety – not just the big picture, but the intricate detail – what we might call ‘the calligraphy of God’.
Each stage of my Italian journey was rich and rewarding. But I was glad I had planned to visit Assisi last of all. The visit to this place of pilgrimage was far more than I had anticipated, an experience which amply rewarded my preparation of reading a life of St Francis before I arrived in the Umbrian town.
There are so many memories of those places which are associated with Francis, either by his presence or by others commemorating his faithful discipleship.I found myself saving for my last day a return to the basilica of San Francesca. On my first day I come to the church as a pilgrim and spent time in the crypt which houses the tomb of Francis and viewing some of the works of art. The second time I visited the church I had downloaded a tour guide to the church on to my iPod and this made me go around slowly, thoughtfully and relatively comprehensively. But even this second time I kept being drawn back to a painting which had stopped me in my tracks on the first visit. There was strictly no photography in the church so this image is off the internet.
Situated in the left transept of the lower church, this is a representation of the deposition, the taking of Jesus’ body down from the cross, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti early in the fourteenth century. Art historians will tell you that it is significant because it is an example of those works which broke through the medieval conventions which had been influenced by Byzantine iconography. Instead of stylized images we have figures who interact with one another, a precursor of the humanism of the Renaissance.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But this work hit me between the eyes – or, rather, touched me at a deep level of common humanity and spiritual devotion. Look at the people who crowd around the dead body of Jesus. Their grief is not just the ending of their dreams, but the loss of someone they love more than they can say. Their grief is tactile, as they cling tenderly to what remains of their Friend and Master. In the foreground, in red, is Mary Magdalene, kissing the foot she had so recently anointed with oil and washed with her tears of repentance. Standing, in blue, is Mary the mother of Jesus gently caressing his cold cheek with her own, just as she may have done when he was a babe in arms. John, the beloved disciple, shares the weight of the corpse – but this is no mere burden to carry, but a beloved friend to be cared for. But the fresco is far more than ‘just’ a portrayal of human grief. It is a representation of human devotion and it drew me into its spiritual response to God’s love in Christ. Here are friends devoted to Jesus. They cradle him lovingly and respectfully. Their tactile affection invites us to respond to this Jesus not simply with the language of faith or the vocabulary of discipleship – but with a movement of the heart, with an adoration born of love and longing.
See from his head, his hands his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
New book reviews – just click on the books menu tab:
Michael Austin, Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination (Equinox 2005) go to Books >Austin Explorations
Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (1949) go to Books > Merton Seeds
It was a mealtime conversation in Rome while I was staying at the Venerable English College, the Venerabile. I was sat opposite a young priest from Malta who had come to Rome for further theological studies and was particularly interested in art history. He had just written an essay on art and the liturgy, and – well – the conversation flowed from there.
Somehow we got on to the subject of baptistries – it wasn’t me, honest! He commented on how most of the early ones were octagonal. Now we are talking about the fourth century onwards when baptism was still usually administered to adults professing their faith. Often the baptismal tank would be housed in a separate building in the grounds of the church and this building, as well as the tank, is referred to as a ‘baptistry’.
Anyway, back to shape. Often these buildings were square or octagonal with a circular dome above. It was a throw-away line from the young priest, muttered with something of the certainty of the young (or maybe the confidence of being a student of the Gregorian University in Rome): ‘Of course, these baptistries were eight-sided to symbolize the ‘eighth day’.’
Now another historical note: the ‘eighth day’ was a concept developed by early Christian writers and it means Sunday. The term focused the meaning of the move for worship on the seventh day to worship on the eighth day. Now I know that a fair number of us have sometimes wished there were eight days in a week, but I know and the early church knew that there are in fact only seven. It’s a kind of paradox or nonsense phrase.
Sunday is the Lord’s Day – the first day of the week – the day of resurrection. But the point is this – it is not just another day like the rest. Nor is it even just the first day of creation – it is the day of new creation when everything in heaven and on earth is changed because God has raised Christ from the dead. God’s future end, his eschaton, has broken into human and cosmic history and all the boundaries have been changed and expectations have been turned upside down.
The young priest didn’t need to make the connection for me. The symbolism was so rich. ‘When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world’ – ‘We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.’ In baptism we celebrate the life-giving, life-changing work of God who raised Jesus to life on the eighth day – the first day of a new world. And those just baptized clamber out of the water to walk in a new world, a world of the eighth day, living in the light of the resurrection.
All this is rich symbolism, great theology and inspiring sentiments. But… I wondered whether baptisteries were octagonal in order to express the eighth day – or because it was a nice shape which the architect thought would look good – or because an octagon is what you get when you put a dome on top of a square and do something artistic with the interior walls! Was it simply geometry or intentional symbolism? Or did the symbolism suggest itself once baptisteries had eight sides and someone made an imaginative leap?
This conversation was a month ago but it was brought to mind by another geometry-symbolism bit of mulling this week. Between Venice and Assisi I took a two-day detour via Ravenna, courtesy of the slow train from Bologna to Rimini. Ravenna was, for a time, the capital of the western part of the Roman empire, when it was being overrun by Goths and others. For a period it was rescued by the eastern part of the empire, based in Constantinople and in the fifth and sixth centuries a number of churches and, yes, baptisteries were built. The town boasts eight, UNESCO World Heritage sites – and on Tuesday I visited six, all within a mile of one another – and each with the most incredible mosaics.
St Vitale is one of the largest buildings and – yes – it’s octagonal. Here is a photo I took of the image of Christ in glory which faces the congregation from above the altar. It is incredible that it was made in 548 – nearly fifteen hundred years ago. The mosaics in Ravenna are stunning and are claimed to be ‘the best Byzantine mosaics outside Constantinople’ (Istanbul).
Back to my theme. In two of the church buildings I found domes decorated as starry heavens – blue background with gold stars and a central gold cross. I sat in one chapel and gazed at this beautiful image. As I looked I realized that all the stars were eight-pointed! Now I think I was brought up in the belief that stars had five points – if you know what I mean. Then I thought, well, that’s just four lines imposed on one another – how I would normally draw an asterisk – geometry again.
And then the geometry or the symbolism didn’t matter. For I was seeing not simply the stars but the cross. Here was the cosmic cross – the redemption of all things through Christ. Here was a claim about what kind of universe we inhabit – fallen, broken, but redeemed. Whether through geometry or intentional symbolism, here was an eighth-day realization that everything was different because of the cross and resurrection of Christ – all creation was to be seen in the light of the cross.
It is fitting that the heavens should rejoice:
and that the earth should be glad,
and that the whole world, both visible and invisible,
should keep the feast.
For Christ is risen, the everlasting joy.
Now all things are filled with light,
heaven, and earth, and all places under the earth.
All creation celebrates the resurrection of Christ.
Yesterday I visited four churches and a library – all on foot in the centre of Florence. Each contained great works of art by any measure of the word. The Medici Chapels contain those iconic tomb statures of Michelangelo – although he never finished the series, what we have are stunning.
The San Lorenzo church next door boasts two – yes two – pulpits by Donatello. It made me wonder whether there were any dialogical sermons in the fifteenth century. I don’t think so… However, any preacher would need a good head for heights as the only way up seems to have been my means of a ladder.
I particularly wanted to visit Santa Maria Novella to see one of the those paintings which were a turning pint of their era – in this case Masaccio’s portrayal of the Trinity. Here it was not so much spiritual death which attracted my attention as a sense of standing – yes – at a turning point.
There are two remarkable features of this painting – and we have to remember that it was painted about 1428. First is the striking use of linear perspective – that ‘trick’ of drawing lines in such a way as a two-dimensional surface has the appearance of being three-dimensional. Apart from the technical stuff to help the artist, this procedure actually means painting what you see rather than what is there. So we ‘see’ railway tracks converging – so when we draw them like that they appear far more realistic than if we draw two parallel lines on the page.
You paint what you see – not what you know – now there’s a thought for a future reflection! This approach to perspective was a discovery of the early Renaissance and although Masaccio was far from the first to use it, his Trinity is a stunning early example.
But this fresco is also significant because of the realism of the figures and especially the faces. This is a long way from Giotto, father of Renaissance painting, beautiful as his paintings are. Here is a different kind of perspective ‘trick’ from manipulating of lines. Now the shading of forms, where light models shape, gives them a three-dimensional body on a two-dimensional surface. This technical developement, coupled with Masaccio’s humanity, results in human faces full of emotion and character. I have to admit that God the Father seems to be rather lacking in emotion – but that probably reflects the theology of the time! An exploration of scripture leads us to many places where images of emotion – anger, compassion etc – are attributed to God. But whatever the theology of God, we can recognize living, feeling, responding human beings in this fifteenth century masterpiece.
I’ll leave the visit to the library for another day. These two images of Annigoni and Masaccio are taken off the web as neither church would allow photography, even without flash. However, when I passed the baptistery next to the Duomo and found that there wasn’t a queue, I seized the opportunity and went in to see the medieval mosaics which cover the domed ceiling (I couldn’t find a font let alone a baptistery – but that’s another story). The dome is covered with scenes portraying the Last Judgement – and some of pretty scary. But the eye is inevitably drawn to Christ enthroned on the judgement seat. It wasn’t easy to see some of the detail from the ground as the mosaic of Christ must be 40-50 feet up, but when I had taken my photographs and inspected them on the laptop I saw very clearly the scars of the nails on his hands and feet. The one who judges is the one who has laid down his life for the redemption of the world. Whatever our views or expectations of the judgement are we must hold on to this central affirmation and hope – the judge is the one who has washed disciple’s feet, lifted fallen sinners out of the dust and died for our salvation. Images and phrases tumble after one another – Here is love vast as the ocean – the lamb that was slain sits on the throne – but especially: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries… from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lines have often been quoted by writers on spirituality.They are an invitation to see in the world signs of God’s presence and glory.
Yet they carry a caution about eating blackberries which could be misunderstood. Such sentiments could be seen as a form of elitism. ‘I can see what you can’t see!’ We might even call it a form of aesthetic gnosticism if we wanted to coin some fancy language, suggesting that you have to be in the know, or part of a special group, in order to see the glory. The teaching of Jesus goes in quite a different direction:
Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’ (Luke 10.23f.)
This business of seeing is elusive – it is about having eyes open – about not being distracted by accumulating things – about seeing the world as gift – about a readiness to appreciate what we see (or hear) without immediately assuming it is for our gain – remember the story of Winnie the Pooh and the bees!
It’s not straightforward – but, then, simplicity often isn’t , because the labyrinthine workings of our hearts are not straightforward. But I hope my musings on this blog will be an invitation to see the glory – or be wanting to see the glory (which is a good start). I’ll muse on other themes as well, but I hope we can develop a conversation which encourages us to see better and see more consistently the glory of God.
One closing thought: it isn’t only in beauty that we see the glory of God (see Isaiah 53.2f.) but that’s a theme for another day…