Saturday, 21 May 2016

A sermon at the start of Oxfordshire ArtWeeks

St Matthew's, 8th May 2016

This sermon was initially intended as a contribution to ‘Oxfordshire ArtWeeks’ which began yesterday and lasts until the 30th May. St Matthew’s normally holds an exhibition during ArtWeeks but isn’t doing so this year.   St Luke’s however is putting on an exhibition and so is St Elbe’s School.  And the holding of ArtWeeks events throughout the city over the next three weeks provides a good opportunity to reflect upon art and its meaning for us as Christians.   I should say that I am not really qualified to talk about art at all.   I am not an artist: I am a scientist with a bit of an interest in art, so this sermon is just my personal take on some pictures that I like but more importantly find spiritually nourishing.   I should also say that in this sermon I have drawn heavily on two books: How to Believe by John Cottingham and Painting the Word by John Drury.

I find the four main pictures that I am going to show you spiritually nourishing much in the same way as I find some passages in scripture, some liturgy, some sermons, some books, spiritually nourishing.   We take it for granted that the written and spoken word is helpful in our spiritual life.  Indeed in most services there are a lot of words of different types, readings from the Bible, sermons about those readings, prayers, etc.   And we are also used to music as being an important part of our worship in the form of hymns and songs and sometimes musical items without words.   But art, too, has always played some part in the Christian life if only in the form of stained glass windows, pictures and sculpture that we find when entering our churches

The underlying assumption behind this sermons is that art can both challenge and console us with the good news of God’s involvement in the world in the same way as words.   And in this sermon I want to suggest that some art which is not obviously ‘Christian’ can challenge and console us with the gospel just as much as that art which obviously has a Christian intention behind it.  

Now we feel most comfortable about bringing art into church when it is distinctively Christian.   The most distinctively Christian art is art which in some way or other represents the words to be found in the Bible.   So in this church we have a picture of our patron saint - St Matthew - in our one stained-glass window over there.   And here, behind me, a copy of a picture painted by Rembrandt of an event in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son [*].   And you’ll probably all know by now that we are planning on hanging a new stained glass cross, from the central beam of the church – a cross made by X who worships here.   It’s a cross rather than a star or a circle, because Jesus was crucified on a cross.  

Today I am only going to be taking about painting rather than some of the other visual arts such as sculpture and architecture, and there is a lot that might be said about this picture, but instead I’d like to talk about this picture: [*] Antonello da Messina’s Christ Crucified as a clear example of Christian art.

I think the impact of this little panel – 17 inches by 10 – comes from the emptiness which surrounds
the pale and exhausted body of Jesus.   It is not a completely realistic paining of course.   Even less realistic than Rembrandt’s picture of the Prodigal Son.   Virtually all artists – when representing scenes from the Bible – present those scenes against a background that they and their audience are familiar with – in this case Southern Italy in around 1500.   And they tend to clothe the people they are representing in contemporary clothes.   Of course this is no mistake.   Antonello would have been aware that people in different countries and at different times in history wear different clothes.

But Antonello’s most obvious distortion of reality is to make the cross much taller than it probably was and of necessity dictated.   This was a way of depicting what Jesus says of his impending death in John’s Gospel: ‘And, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ echoing Isiah’s prophecy: ‘See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high’.

By raising him into the heavens painters gave Jesus’ suffering a certain transcendental monumentality but Antonello refuses the further step, taken by so many more famous painters, of rending Christ’s body as beautiful.  Here Jesus’ arms are emaciated, his head hangs low, and his legs taper down to the nailed feet without any interesting curves. [*]

Antonello also resists the temptation of having Mary and John standing on either side of the cross in attitudes of devout and wondering pathos.  Here are two people for whom it has all been too much and too long, so they sit, slumped on the bare ground.  John has the aspect and posture of someone who has gazed for a long time at his dying master for some sign of grace and meaning.  His raised head and hand pose the question: why?  Mary no longer asks why: she has given up on questions.  She is just consumed by grief without hope.

From beyond the hill three women approach [*].  They are probably the three Marys: Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Mary the wife of Cleopas who according to Mark were looking on.   But even further away there is a fortified harbour to a town, part of which can be seen on the left [*].   The people at this port are worth looking at for a moment.  Some are out in little boats, some congregate round the gateway to the harbour as is usual for gateways.   A mounted party is returning to town.   They are quite unconcerned with the tragedy in the foreground.  As WH Auden says in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:
               About suffering they were never wrong           
               The Old Masters: how well they understood
               Its human position, how it takes place
               While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

[*] If we look into this painting, rather than just at it, how well we find it illustrates the events of Good Friday with their apparent annihilation of meaning, hopes and coherences

As I said at the beginning of this sermon it is not just art that just depicts the events recorded in the Bible that is spiritually nourishing.   Christian artists, over the years, have explored the connection between Biblical stories and their lives as they experience them in much the same way as preachers of sermons often end by talking about what the passage means for the way we lead our lives today.

This is as if Antonello were to bring his background – of people going about their everyday lives - into the foreground and to move the biblical story into the background.   And here is a painting – by the Spanish artist Velazquez that does just that [*].  Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary painted in 1618.  That long-winded title is needed to cover the two related scenes depicted.   The cooking in the foreground is apparently going on at the same time as what can be seen through the serving hatch: a scene from the story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus goes to stay with his friends Mary and Martha.
This is entitled

You’ll remember that in that story Martha complains to Jesus that her sister Mary has been sitting at Jesus feet listening to him leaving her, Martha, to do all the household chores by herself.   [*] In Velasquez’ paining we see Jesus rebuking Martha (standing on the right) emphasised by the gesture of his raised left hand.   It fends off Martha and protects Mary.   In Luke’s gospel Jesus is recorded as saying ‘Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is a need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.’   Velazquez does not need to paint these words.   If we are familiar with the story we can hear Jesus saying them.   Many people down the years have been challenged by what Jesus says here and its emphasis on the importance of the contemplative life as opposed to the active life.

Velazquez treatment of the story is rather sketchy   He hasn’t taken much care over the figures of Jesus, Mary and Martha and you can’t really see what they are thinking.   He is much more concerned about the scene in the foreground, but what is going here is clearly related to the biblical scene in the background [*].
Jesus’s raised hand is echoed by the raised hand of the old woman on the left and the crooked index finger of that hand points to what is being said in the room beyond.   Speech is implied here but what is being said?   Well we can see that the young servant girl – making a meal in just the same way as Martha had been doing earlier – is clearly upset by what has just been said to her.   It seems clear that the old woman has said something similar to what Jesus has just been saying to Martha: that cooking and so forth is the lesser part – the part of life which is least important.

In Velazquez’ time the life of a serving girl was harsh.   The choices for her in 17th Century Spain were few.   She is facing a lifetime of Martha’s hard work in the knowledge that it is not the ‘better part’.   Velazquez is clearly sympathetic to her plight and by taking her side in this picture seems to be on uneasy terms with his text: ‘Mary has chosen the better part.’   Though perhaps this is not the end of the matter.   Velazquez also appears not unsympathetic to the older woman seemingly passing on Jesus’ words to the younger women – as if, in the end she, in her more mature years, has come to terms with them.   Here is, if you like, a visual, rather than spoken sermon, on that text that many still find challenging. 

One further comment on this painting: the compassion in Velazquez’ treatment of the two women in the foreground of this painting is clear.   His sympathy for the younger women in particular is obvious and it’s as if he is saying that what primarily matters is what this women is feeling here and now and that the scriptures, like the Sabbath, were ‘made for man’ and not man for the scriptures.  That the human and material world to which the Bible addresses itself so continuously and urgently is as important as the words of the text.  

And in this connection we might note the sea-bass in the bottom right of the picture [*].   Never before had sea-bass been painted like these.   They are the fishiest of fish.   To take them in with the eye is to know exactly what they would feel and smell like.  To use a theological expression they are almost made incarnate. 

And in doing so they seem, to me, to comment on the great mystery of The Incarnation: how could it be that the man sketchily portrayed in the background of this painting was also God who made these fish.  Art – even when it ‘merely’ depicts the material world can speak of God as we can feel when we look at a sunset or at the stars.   Gerard Manley Hopkins says in his poem As kingfishers catch fire:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Now art that is explicitly Christian might seem to be a thing of the past, but there have been painters of Biblical scenes throughout all ages up to the present day and we might look at one of those.   But instead I want to turn to two pictures of what on the face of it might seem to have little to do with Biblical texts.   The first is a picture of a gardener called Vallier sitting in his garden and painted by Cezanne - which might be viewed as merely a picture of an old man unless we look at it more carefully [*].

Gardens, of course, figure quite extensively in the Bible even if somewhat ‘under the radar’.  In the book of Genesis human beings – in the shape of Adam and Eve - are created to live in a garden – the Garden of Eden – and are driven out of that garden when they disobey God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.   And in the Gospel of John it is specifically mentioned that the tomb where Jesus is buried is located in a garden and that Mary, when the risen Jesus first appears to her, mistakes him for the gardener.   This is surely not just a co-incidence.

Gardens have always, it seems, had a deeper significance than is perhaps generally recognised.   One reason for this is that they are neither entirely natural nor entirely under human control.   They are neither the untamed wilderness nor the carefully controlled environments of our homes where, by virtue of walls, a roof, doors, windows and modern day devices such as central-heating and refrigerators, we protect ourselves from the wind, rain, cold and heat.   

The garden is not just there to supply our basic needs for food and clothes: those parts of our world are called farms.   Gardens - with their paths, their pools, their trees, flowers and fruit– are also for our delight not just our good.  They are perhaps even for our spiritual nourishment – in a similar fashion to art.   To quote the Victorian poet Dorothy Frances Gurney. ‘One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’

The reason for this special feature of gardens is that they are so self-evidently (at least to Christians) a gift which evokes not just feelings of enjoyment but also of gratitude.   We know, that however much we work we have put into our gardens: planting, weeding and in my case strimming, the final result is not, at its heart, down to us.

The British philosopher David Cooper – in his book A Philosophy of Gardens – points out that the whole concept of a garden implies a kind of unity or intimate co-dependence between human beings and the natural world.    For this reason I think many painters have been drawn to the garden as a subject for their art because art, at its best, is also one of co-dependence - in this case co-dependence between the artist and his or her materials and subject matter.  Perhaps the most famous garden paintings are those by Monet of his garden at Giverny.   Here is one example.  [*]

But this paining – fantastically well executed and beautiful as it is – does not particularly illustrate the inter-dependence between the gardener and nature.  There is little suggestion of the relationship between the garden and of the natural world here: you cannot even see the sky.   Cezanne in his paintings of gardens frequently contrasts the garden with the world beyond.   Here is one such example: [*] his painting of the garden of his family home Jas de Bouffan at Aix.  This is the garden in winter with the trees leafless.  Beyond you can see the country side.   In this picture Cézanne seeks to evoke the atmosphere of the garden: it’s not merely (or even particularly) the beauty of the garden that he is seeking to portray.   

In one of Cezanne’s last pictures, that of his garden at Les Lauves [*] – the garden in which his gardener Valiier worked - the garden has been reduced to a strip of green in the foreground, a wall, some countryside in the background and the sky as if to investigate the concept of a garden and not merely to portray a particular one.

But Cezanne’s picture of Vallier best illustrates the deeper significance of gardens and gardening.  Here the gardener sits in the garden by a wall in summer in the shade of a tree.  He is clearly at one with his garden as he seems to merge with it.  Here is the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s poem about this painting:
     The thoughtfully serene, the urgent
     stillness of the form of the old gardener,
     Vallier, who tends the inconspicuous on the Chemin des Lauves,

     In the late work of the painter the twofoldness
     of what is present and is presence has become
     one, ‘realised’ and overcome at the same time,
     transformed into a mystery filled identity

Heidegger’s point is the rather simple one but important nevertheless that there is a fundamental rightness and therefore serenity in the gardener caring for living things in response to their needs and demands.   Putting it this ways already implies a spiritual dimension to gardening if only because virtues such as discipline, humility and hope are needed to bring that co-dependence between the gardener and his or her garden to fruition in flower and harvest.   That makes it appropriate to call gardening a kind of spiritual activity and by extension many another activity which we call work.  
Neither Cooper nor Heidegger and possibly not even Cezanne would see this co-dependence between human life and the natural world – epitomised by the garden - as also necessitating a co-dependence between humans and God but we Christians might.

The final picture I want to look as a painting entitled View of Osterbro from Dosseringen by the nineteenth century Danish artist Christen Kobke.   Its subject matter has seemingly even less relation to Christian symbolism than pictures of gardeners and gardens.  And although lakes and boats do feature quite a lot in the Biblical stories I think it would be stretching it to argue that Kobke has those lakes and boats consciously in mind.

A calm sense of the benignity of the world is captured in this painting.   It depicts a weekend outing of an ordinary family as they relax on their small sailing dingy moored near Copenhagen.  The mood of the painting is finely evoked by the Alain de Boton and John Armstrong in their book Art as Therapy:

The light in the picture is tremendously meaningful, even though it is difficult to say what the meaning is.  One wants to point at the picture and say ‘When the light is like this, I feel like that.’ Kobke has created an image that is in love with nothing happening. The child hangs over the rails, the man in a top hat looks on while his friend makes some adjustment to the bottom of the furled sail.  The women say something to one another. Life is going on, but there is no drama, no expectation of an outcome, no sense of getting anywhere.  Rather than being a condition of boredom or frustration, though, it feels exactly right.   It is tranquil but not tired.  It is immensely peaceful but not inert.   In a strange way, the picture is filled with a sense of delight in existence expressed quietly.

Art is clearly capable of expressing such simple delight in existence – as perhaps we have already seen in the case of Velazquez’ fish.   But, as John Cottingham points out, there is surely something more at issue here, which De Botton and Armstrong’s discussion skirts around but does not quite bring out.   Is what is conveyed by the painting merely a sense of calm repose, or is there (as the phrases ‘tremendously meaningful’ and ‘exactly right’ perhaps hint at) a deeper tranquillity, a sense of being at one with the rest of creation?  If it is the latter, then the feeling evoked is something akin to what has been called ‘ontological rootedness’ a conviction that we are somehow secure ‘at home’ in the world or in other words that God is with us

Of course this feeling that we are ‘at home’ in the world, that God is with us, does not mean that we have some sort of immunity from trouble as any sort of reading the Bible teaches us and as illustrated in the many pictures of suffering, including that by Antonello, we looked at, at the beginning of this sermon.

Nevertheless this painting perhaps provides some sort of antidote to the loss of meaning depicted in Antonello’s picture.  Here I think is a picture of resurrection and of hope without being obviously so.