Friday, 11 December 2009

Juxtapositions and Paradoxes

My son says my blog is TLDR - 'too long didn't read.' So I shall try to be more succinct.

These are impressions gained on a visit to the National Gallery on Wednesday:

The Sacred Made Real: visceral Spanish sculpture and art with a good accompanying audioguide, including theological reflections from James Hanvey SJ, and a specially commissioned piece of music by Stephen Hough.This exhibition would probably be more suited for Lent than Advent, and yet when London is ablaze with festive lights, it's a poignant and challenging reminder that human stories begin and end in vulnerability. The room on death is a space for deep reflection and has a piece of music on the audioguide which helps such contemplation. There is a bust of a grieving Madonna which communicates such stoic dignity and grief it just holds the gaze for long minutes of wonder. And in another gallery the sculpture of Mary Magdalene with her rush matting robe carved in wood is a work of genius and an optical illusion which surpasses even Anish Kapoor at his best.

Then out into the bright night of Trafalgar Square, with climate change campaigners camped around the fountains and singing Christmas carols, and queues around the block to get into the carol service in St. Martin's in the Field, and round the corner an anti-nuclear weapons demonstration.

I went home thinking what a species we are - we human beings. So creative and so destructive, and in the intertwining of both those dimensions we somehow must create a world and a story worth living. A theology that says that this deserves a man being flogged and tortured to death in order to placate God is obscene beyond words, but a theology that invites us to look at that wounded and dying body and his grieving mother and to be drawn into the divine participation in the muddle and the mess, the tender joy and the devastating sorrow of what we are, comforts me. These works of art were made for that purpose, although it was clear from some of the comments that modern audiences are a little bewildered as to how to respond. The Madonna squirting breast milk into St. Bernard's mouth sends out a rather different message from whatever cryptic messages are communicated by the baubles and glitter of the Christmas streets.  And resist if you can the temptation to bend down to get a glimpse under the loin cloth of the flagellated Christ who - the audioguide says - was modelled on  a hero of classical sculpture complete with genitalia.

I arrived home to discover a programme on Russian icons on television, which made me think there is a God after all!

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