Friday, 26 August 2011

A Tale of Two Paintings

One summer, two countries, two paintings.  

The first, Piero della Francesca’s La Resurrezione, hangs in (or rather, is painted on an interior wall of) what is now the civic museum in Sansepolcro, in that little corner of Tuscany that ought to be Umbria.  The painting was executed around 1460.  In it, the risen Christ stands rigidly erect and solemnly triumphant, his left foot lifted on to his own sarcophagus, a Crusader flag of victory held in his right hand and planted firmly on the ground before him.  Four Roman soldiers – one of whom may be an image of Piero himself – sleep on at his feet, unaware that the world has just changed forever in their very presence.  Behind the figure of Christ is a rugged landscape in which, to his right, it is winter; to his left, it is summer. Aldous Huxley thought it the most beautiful painting in the world.  Indeed, it is said that Huxley’s admiration for it restrained the Allies from bombarding Sansepolcro during the Second World War.  A large print of it has hung in the vicarage of our north London parish for some years following an earlier visit, so it’s an old friend. 

The second is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, shown as a Spanish exhibit at the World Fair in Paris in 1937.  It was painted as a response to the bombing of Guernica in the Basque country, by German and Italian warplanes that same year during the Spanish Civil War.  It now hangs in the wonderful but confusing Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.  It is a vast, monochrome depiction of chaos and agony.  It is said that a particular focus of the painting is the gaping wound in the side of the dying horse at the centre.  My eye is drawn rather to the extraordinary figure on the far right, trapped by fire from above and below, hands stretched up in utter terror, head flung back impossibly far, crying out to heaven.  Under the horse is a dead soldier, a flower growing out of his shattered sword, and a stigma on his open palm.  Suffering and death are everywhere.  The huge canvas is now said to be fragile, and it is not possible to get closer than a few meters to it before an alarm sounds.   It’s the only exhibit in the museum you’re not allowed to photograph; so I bought a bookmark of it.

There are no doubt some who see beauty in Guernica; but it is the beauty of Good Friday.  The flower growing out of the sword is no doubt a symbol of hope; but there is no warmth or comfort here.  This is a beauty that perhaps cannot quite be admired, only felt and appreciated from our vantage point of knowing that the horror passed, as all horror must.  For the time being, darkness covers the earth.  Back in Sansepolcro, it’s early on the third day.  Very early.  Even Mary Magdalene has not yet arrived.  The soldiers are asleep.  The hysteria and disbelief will follow soon enough; but for now, no-one knows about the risen Lord except you and Him.  Staring at you steadily and solemnly, his Passion behind him but visible in the wound in his side and in the grimness of his gaze.

No summer without winter, no joy without pain, no life without death.  No Resurrezione without Guernica.

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