Tag Archives: Art

2 February: The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

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The Nunc Dimittis Canticle is recited every night in the Catholic Church; in Anglican churches, such as Canterbury Cathedral, it is sung during Vespers. It is originally the Song of Simeon; the old man was overcome with joy and peace when he met the little scrap of humanity that was ‘the Salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.’

That was the easy bit when I was asked to play Simeon in a mystery play at Canterbury Cathedral three years ago. My grandson was already too big for the part but the doll we borrowed did not steal the scene. I could concentrate on the Baby, the Father -and then Mary.

It is a massive shift of key as the prophetic revelation finds utterance, and yet we know it is true: a sword will pierce her heart – indeed there is a tradition of the seven sorrows of Mary. I had to come down from my great joy in an instant and look into Mary’s eyes with an overwhelming compassion that was neither mine, nor yet Simeon’s, but the Father’s.

Thirty years after the Presentation that compassion would be brought to practical life by John.

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This window from Saint Mary’s in Rye, Sussex shows Mary, almost blind with grief, following her adoptive son by the hand. She turns her back on the apple tree of temptation and stumbles trustingly towards the Vine.

The empty Cross is a point of light against the night sky: sorrow will be replaced by joy, overturning the order of Simeon’s vision. This is a John’s Gospel window. We also see the Great Bear in the stars. If a star told of his coming, this constellation points to the North Star by which we can find our way to him.

I am the way.

Anyone who wants to follow me must take up their cross daily and follow me.

 

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December 9: The Visual Commentary on Scripture

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The Visual Commentary on Scripture
gathers a company of artists
with whom to encounter the Bible

I have passed the link to the Visual Commentary on Scripture to a few friends; they love it, as do I, even though it is only just up and running after years of preparation.

Professor Ben Quash, the Director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College London has gathered a company of theologians and art historians, to bring the insights of artists to preachers, teachers and anyone interested in the Bible either as the Word of God or as a subject for academic study. I am told that eventually the whole of the Bible, including the Apocrypha, will be covered.

The company of artists includes twenty-first century painters as well as old masters, and mediæval illuminators. More from without the Western European tradition would be welcome, but it is hoped that as the project gets known, other cultures will be better represented. That said, the contributors have searched wide and far for images – three to a text – to act as a springboard for reflection both directly on the Scripture passage but also on the images and the philosophy and theology underlying them.

I will let the site speak for itself. Go to https://thevcs.org/ and start exploring!

Please note that pictures on the VCS site are copyright, but the Ascension above was taken by Maurice Billingsley at Saint Bartholomew’s, Richard’s Castle and belongs to the Agnellus Mirror website – a selection of daily reflections on Scripture, prayer and the Christian life with a Franciscan flavour.

MMB

 

 

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November 10: Remembering

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I came across this little Staffordshire souvenir figure under a church war memorial last November. A hundred years on, it’s difficult to understand who would design such an ornament, or who would have bought it. As boys I remember us getting more run-of-the-mill designs for my mother’s collection, but we once gave her a Great War tank model, not thinking of the loss of life and all the human suffering it represented.

But what does this figure represent, other than a present from Bishop’s Stortford? Is the soldier a killer or a victim? Brave or resigned, or hoping for a ‘Blighty’ wound to get himself sent home for a month or two? Did it remind its first owner of a loved one lost? And how did it feel to see it if you were a returned front-line soldier, after the War? Pure white was not very often seen amid Flanders mud.

Caught in that moment when he goes Over The Top to kill or be killed: how do we bring this to God? This is not man-for-man fighting – the machine gun that may get him will be many yards away, and unless it comes to bayonets he won’t see the one he kills.

Perhaps it is fitting to put him down, as the parishioners did, in front of the Cross on the War Memorial; without a word, with the poppies around him.

What can we say? With our current weaponry we have no right to feel morally superior. Piloting deadly drones from hundreds of miles away or threatening to press the red button; or indeed having others do so in our name: lives on ‘our side’ are not at risk as those going over the top were.

Father forgive us for we do not want to know what we do.

 

 

 

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November 2: Passion Flowers.

 

 

 

Our Victorian forebears were rather taken with the language of flowers and could semaphore their feelings through a careful choice of blooms in a posy. Hence the pansy, or pensée in French, signalled, ‘you are in my thoughts.’

Mrs T and I visited Chartham village with Abel. After he had played on the roundabouts at the village green, we wandered into the churchyard for lunch under the trees.

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Our Victorian forebears, if they could afford it, erected finely carved stones over their loved-one’s graves. Without much effort at all we found these three carved with passionflowers which represent the saving death of Jesus. There are ten petals for the ten apostles who did not deny him – leaving out Peter and Judas. There are five stamens representing the five wounds; three stigma for the nails, and the fringe of filaments around the flower stands for the crown of thorns.

All this suffering somehow mirrored in a beautiful flower. And by carving this flower over their dear ones’ graves, the three families were proclaiming belief that the dead would rise again with Christ. A good thought and prayer for November and All Souls.

When you see a passionflower let it remind you that Jesus is real, his death was real, as indeed will ours be – but so, too, will our rising. And when you see a passionflower on a gravestone, send us a picture to put in the blog!

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 WT

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October 19: from skating minister to anti-slavery campaigner: Robert Walker.

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Almost closing time at the National Gallery of Scotland, and I hadn’t seen the Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch. I could not come back across the border without paying my respects. It was all I could do to stand upright, last time I tried skating. The attendants showed us where to look, and I was not disappointed.

Yesterday afternoon I was looking for some papers my mother had lent me, when I found an article about this picture, so decided to write about it. When I went to download the picture, I changed my mind.   Robert Walker   was not just a long-serving minister and expert skater, he was an early anti-slavery campaigner, helping pave the way for William Wilberforce. And yesterday was Anti-Slavery Day.

The Church of Scotland is rightly proud of the prophetic  Robert Walker . Follow the link to find out more. This picture is an Icon of a Saint as well as being iconic in the modern sense!

Image: Public Domain from Wikipedia

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October 18. Truth telling XII: Dying to Tell the Story.

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It was decades since I had been in Dublin, and even last month I was only passing through, but as my friend led me through Dublin Castle Gardens I noticed this bust and went back to look. Veronica Guerin should not be forgotten.

A career in accountancy gave Veronica Guerin the forensic skills to investigate how Irish drug barons operated, including their money laundering schemes.

Once their crimes were brought into the open by her well researched articles, the gangs set out to frighten her with threats of violence against her and her son. They even had her shot in the leg, but she continued her investigations.

On 26 June 1996 she was shot dead at a red traffic light by two men on a motor cycle. She left a husband and young son. She had prepared a paper entitled ‘Dying to Tell the Story: Journalists at Risk’ to be delivered at a conference in London two days later.

A martyr for the truth, and by no means the last.

Let us pray for all who risk their lives for the truth; the truth that will set us free. And pray for the gift to be not afraid when faced with moments of truth in our own lives.

MMB

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26 August: Behind these doors …

 

On January 23 I shared a picture of a garage door, the entrancing entrance to the Westminster diocesan archive in London. The archive is soon to be renovated, and sadly for the romantic researcher, the deceptive door will be no more. But really it is good news, as the new entrance will be on the flat without thresholds and steps.

Here is an archive that was built from underground up to be accessible. This is the British Library, home to the eighth century Lindisfarne Gospels as well as every book published in Britain in modern times, and much more besides, including hard to find works on Africa and those working there in the first half of last century, my reason for going there.

Under the courtyard are shelves where curators go to find the books readers request. In the courtyard is Sir Isaac Newton, based on a drawing by William Blake by the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. Blake was not over impressed by Newton, who he felt turned his back on beauty to measure and record facts, reducing creation to what can be proved and tested. Not altogether fair on Newton, but the statue celebrates both men, and both streams of thought.

In the background can be seen the mid 19th century romantic brickwork of Saint Pancras railway station, my usual arrival point in London. The Library is in the same brick, though in a completely different style. On this site was once the goods (freight) depot for the Midland Railway, built in the same red brick. The crimson on the ventilators evokes the Midland Railway livery.

The goods that leave this spot today are ideas, not physical supplies for shops and trades. This is one of the most important buildings in the world, free to use for research, free to go in and see the displays of rare books. The Harry Potter exhibition was to be paid for and there were at least four parties of school children going in or out as I ate my sandwiches; I think one group had stayed too long eating their lunch as I heard their teacher complaining, ‘And now you’re wasting my time.’ I was off to the Underground, and that deceptive door!

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19 August. Telling the Truth X: Thanks to dedicated librarians.

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I could and should thank many librarians for their help in my research, including those in Canterbury and Folkestone who sourced books from elsewhere in Kent or other libraries in England. The small fee for interlibrary loans avoids my spending a couple of hours on trains to the British Library, and I can usually take the books home.

University libraries especially have scanned out-of-copyright works on the web. One such book Action this day by Archbishop Spellman, mentioned a Jesuit, Francis Anderson, as a connection of my subject Arthur Hughes MAfr, Internuncio to Egypt.

More search on the web led me to the Jesuit Archive in St Louis, where they hold letters from Hughes to Anderson, revealing something of himself. I know this because the good people there, Ann and Jeff, scanned them and emailed them to me.

No human can ever know or express the whole truth about anything, but we can help each other to come to a closer understanding. The paths of all genuine seekers after truth converge – scientist, historian, artist, philosopher, theologian. And the focal point of our searching is Truth itself.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.

MMB

photo from Jesuit Archives website.

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28 July: The Beating Heart of Strasbourg

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The Cathedral is a heart

The Cathedral is a heart.

The tower is a bud.

Have you counted the steps

that lead to the platform?

Every night they become more and more numerous.

They grow.

The tower turns turns

and turns about itself.

It turns, it grows,

it dances with its saints

and the saints dance with their hearts.
Will it fly away with the angels,

the tower of Strasbourg Cathedral?

Strasbourg Cathedral is a swallow.

The swallows

believe in the angels amid the clouds.

The swallows don’t believe in ladders

to climb in the air.

They let themselves fall into the air

into the air interwoven

with the blue of infinity.

Strasbourg Cathedral is a swallow.

She lets herself fall into the winged sky

into the air of the angels.

 

I don’t claim to know what the sculptor Jean Arp meant by this poem; it is a poem that he let fly away once written. I did see an interview where he spoke about the saints on Strasbourg Cathedral. ‘We cannot surpass the work of the old masters’, he said of the cathedral dominating his home town. I read it as a love song.

Mediæval Cathedrals are well-loved. One expression of this is the continuing schedules of works to preserve these treasures, Canterbury always has scaffolding somewhere about its sides. We were not tempted to launch into the air from the roof platform at Strasbourg, but to have built the place so high was an act of faith by the architects, a duc in alto, putting out into the depths of space.

We should imitate Our Lord at his temptations in not taking irresponsible risks to impress the devil in us or in other people, but we should also trust him to hold us safe as we fly, ever in danger of falling, ever seeking the infinite blue of heaven.

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Congratulations to Naomi!

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Naomi Billingsley, who writes for Agnellus Mirror sometimes as NAIB, has just had her book published. We haven’t yet had time to read it properly but thought we’d tell you about it at once, in case it sells out before you get chance to buy it.

Our friendly Jehovah’s Witnesses often point out to me what they see as ‘design’ in Creation. My reply has always been to say, yes, but designer is just too inadequate a word. It conjures up a drawing board and ruler  and compasses, whereas Blake, according to Naomi, sees God as an artist, a being bursting with loving imagination.

WT.

Here follows the review on the publisher’s website:

William Blake (1757-1827) is considered one of the most singular and brilliant talents that England has ever produced. Celebrated now for the originality of his thinking, painting and verse, he shocked contemporaries by rejecting all forms of organized worship even while adhering to the truth of the Bible.

But how did he come to equate Christianity with art? How did he use images and paint to express those radical and prophetic ideas about religion which he came in time to believe? And why did he conceive of Christ himself as an artist: in fact, as the artist, par excellence?

These are among the questions which Naomi Billingsley explores in her subtle and wide-ranging new study in art, religion and the history of ideas. Suggesting that Blake expresses through his representations of Jesus a truly distinctive theology of art, and offering detailed readings of Blake’s paintings and biblical commentary, she argues that her subject thought of Christ as an artist-archetype. Blake’s is thus a distinctively ‘Romantic’ vision of art in which both the artist and his saviour fundamentally change the way that the world is perceived.

From King’s College London, where Naomi completed her MA:

Naomi Billingsley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester. Her research is at the intersection of the histories of Christianity and art in Britain, especially in the Romantic period. Her current project ‘The Formation and Reception of the Macklin Bible’ examines an important illustrated Bible, published between 1791 and 1800.

Naomi completed her PhD at the University of Manchester (2012-2015) on the figure of Christ in William Blake’s pictorial works. She was then Bishop Otter Scholar for Theology and the Arts in the Diocese of Chichester, and taught Art History at Birkbeck, University of London.

Naomi is a graduate of the MA in Christianity and the Arts (2011) and holds a BA in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Cambridge (Magdalene, 2010). 

The Visionary Art of William Blake: Christianity, Romanticism and the Pictorial Imagination
Naomi Billingsley

I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2018.

 

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