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.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Yellow-shirt-and-red-rucksack blues

This is nothing if not a sectarian event. It is organised by Catholics, for Catholics to do Catholic things in a Catholic country. An alleged 1.5m young people from all over the world have squashed themselves together in the searing heat of a Madrid August - to see the Pope, to party, and simply to be together. Non-Catholics can also come ("everyone is welcome") but it would hard for them not feel excluded at a very basic level: this is a family get-together, a gathering of the clan. It's about belonging. I have seen little groups of yellow T-shirted, red-rucksacked teenagers from as far away as Japan, Indonesia and Madagascar, as well as large contingents from the Latin heartlands of South America and southern Europe, parading the streets waving national flags, singing, whooping, and occasionally attending the services and other events laid on for them. They bed down on the floors of church halls and other institutions to which they cannot return until nightfall, so they hang around the city all day, blocking pavements and doorways, lolling on kerbsides; sometimes marching, sometimes singing, always noisy.

If this were London, locals would be seriously irritated by the inconvenience of hosting so many religious teenyboppers with very little money to spend. They subsist on food vouchers for which they pay €6.50, and which they can exchange for €4.50 worth of food at participating outlets (guess who gets the other €2? El Papa! Viva! Viva!) Bar-owners and restaurateurs have been told they must allow their toilets to be used by them on request, even if they're not patrons. Roads are closed. The shops in the city centre - including the iconic El Corte Ingles department store chain - are bursting with moist and raucous youngsters not spending any money. And the noise! Yet Madrilenos seem to take it in their stride - although not perhaps out of any particular love or respect for the Church. "In Madrid, we care more about football than religion" our local bar-manager tells us. But surely you want to see the Pope? "Most of us would only stand in the street if we heard we might see Bruce Willis". The locals present in the bar last night did not look away from the TV screen as the spectacle of a huge crucifix, borne by city dignitaries, accompanied by acolytes and thurifers, and escorted by police, passed by in the street yards from where they sat. Yet they are not impatient or intolerant. "In truth, we feel a bit sorry for them" he says of the young pilgrims. Indeed many of them are far from home; but perhaps also away from less permissive environments than that enjoyed by most London teenagers. It may be stinking hot, they may be uncomfortable. But they are free and happy. Most of all, they belong.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday 11 August 2011

Original Sin?

Journalist, ex-PR guru, ex-Lambeth spin doctor, priest and dear friend George Pitcher offered Theresa May some advice via Twitter on Tuesday. Stop calling the rioting mindless, he suggested, and ask why it's happening.  Well, no doubt Mrs May has since been asking herself - and perhaps others - that question; and they may well have been asking it of her in return.  Indeed, we are all asking it of each other, and none of us seems to have a convincing answer.  We have a need to explain it or account for it, and we can't. And there's a lurking fear that, even if we could, we probably wouldn't be able to do anything about it.

Yet we seem to have successfully identified what the riots are not about.  First, the fatal shooting by police of Mark Duggan was undoubtedly the flashpoint, but most commentators (including his partner) believe that it is not the reason.  Secondly, it's agreed that they are not about political protest in the sense that this has hitherto been understood.  There are indeed looming spending cuts (as there are almost everywhere) and some other controversial policies, but there is no poll tax factor, no focus - anyway there is no evidence that these often very young people are seriously politically motivated.  They do not seem to be about race in any serious sense.  They are not about anything.  They are pure "criminality" to quote the current buzz-word.  In other words, it is just badness - what used to be called Original Sin.

In his pastoral letter following a visit to Tottenham and Enfield, my Rt Revd & Rt Hon boss, the Bishop of London, says of the culprits that "they seem to lack the restraint and the moral compass which comes from clear teaching about right and wrong communicated through nourishing relationships. The background to the riots is family breakdown and the absence of strong and positive role models." I am reminded of a recent conversation with a young black man about a school in north London, not 100 miles from Tottenham, many of whose pupils come from very much the sort of background which Bishop Richard describes.  The teaching staff, he told me, are pretty uniformly anti-Coalition; but praised David Cameron to the rafters for his reported view that fathers who run out on their families should be ‘stigmatised’ in the same way as drink-drivers.  They too believe that the absence of [male] role models is behind much of the trouble that afflicts the teenage boys whom they teach.  (Interestingly, they also say that, when they are at school, these young people at least have boundaries.  It's when they are not - particularly during school holidays - that the staff are most fearful of things getting out of control.  I had not considered this until then.  It now seems positively prophetic.)

But if it's true that family breakdown is the underlying cause - how likely are we to be able to do anything about it? How do you go about changing social patterns over which you have no direct control? How do you encourage goodness and discourage badness?  Through a system of reward and punishment?  By exhortation?  I don't know, and apparently I'm in good company.  At the risk of sounding like a revivalist preacher (and that doesn't characterise me, frankly) I merely ask: what is the remedy for Original Sin?