During the July heatwave, I yielded to the badgering recommendation of a good friend and invited Cedric and Nick to join me in watching A Hidden Life. Sitting in the stifling heat in stunned silence after the film, we all agreed that it was a devastatingly beautiful work of art that would stay with us for the rest of our lives.
A Hidden Life takes its title from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: …for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. Eliot in turn derived the phrase from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians: Set your minds on the things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:2). Both Eliot and St Paul are saying that being a disciple of Christ is not merely about “being nice”; it ushers in a new life and transforms us, calling us to live not for fame or recognition, but for God. Encountering Christ and living in his light means that while we have a duty to share that light with others, we also live a ‘hidden life’ with him that is often contrary to the life that the world tells us we ought to live.
Without resorting to dialogue, Diehl conveys untapped reservoirs of doubt and torment over what his principles mean for his family. When, in the second half, Malick leans into the Christ parallels in the story, Diehl always keeps Franz human and grounded. Empire
The film follows the extraordinary choice made by Blessed Franz Jägerstätter as a result of this ‘hidden life’ with Christ. Franz was an Austrian farmer who worked the land in the small village of St Radegund to support his wife Franziska (or Fani) and their three daughters. When war broke out, Franz refused to swear allegiance to Hitler or fight for him, and as a result was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually executed. His family faced hardship without him, both because they had lost a husband and a father and because the villagers saw Franz as a traitor and refused to help his family. Scenes are cut between Franz’ imprisonment and Fani’s constant struggle on the farm, narrated by their letters to each other. Their love for God and each other is the burning link between Franz’ bleak, solitary cell and the sublimity of the mountainside farm in St Radegund. A question asked repeatedly throughout the film is, ‘what is the point of Franz’ refusal to fight?’ Brought up before various officials, Franz is repeatedly asked what he thinks he will achieve by objecting to the Nazi regime.
Every shot of the film is made of magic
Fani’s sister, who lives with them, asks how he can desert his duty to his family, who are left helpless without him, for the sake of his principles. One memorable exchange occurs near the end of the film, when Franz is talking to a judge who, like Pontius Pilate, seems to have the inkling that the man in his charge is in fact just and should be set free. The judge asks, ‘do you judge me?’, a question Christians are often asked. Franz replies that he does not, and explains humbly, ‘I don’t know everything. A man may do wrong, and he can’t get out of it to make his life clear. Maybe he’d like to go back, but he can’t. But I have this feeling inside me, that I can’t do what I believe is wrong. The judge asks, ‘Do you have a right to do this?’, to which Franz replies, ‘Do I have a right not to?’ The “results” in an earthly sense of Franz’ refusal to co-operate with evil are beside the point.
“Do you judge me?”
The right thing is the right thing; it is not necessarily helpful to think of what we will “achieve” by following our consciences, but simply to follow them. This radical choice is presented to us not always on the scale of the decision that Franz faces, but in the everyday fight within ourselves. As Eliot writes, faithfulness in things that seem, and often are, insignificant in a worldly sense, really does count for the flourishing of goodness in the world. Naturally, we were all in awe of this film, which was beautiful in every way possible. Every scene merited a closer look and immersed us in the Jägerstätter’s inner scenery.
But this is the filmmaker on sublime form, putting his artistry and obsessions at the service of something frighteningly relevant. Empire
The questions posed by this story are not comfortable ones, but they are necessary. Cedric and I were particularly moved by the love of husband and wife for each other, and their knowledge that their love for each other is a reflection of and a means to love God. Real love often looks more like crucifixion than a walk in a meadow, and A Hidden Life offers a stark reminder of the call to love, even unto death.
On the first weekend in May, Cedric, Nick and I visited The Wallace Collection to round off a
happy weekend in London. Like many museums in London, The Wallace Collection is free and
very much worth a visit. Once again, I had the delight of finally seeing in person many paintings
I had admired for years, although I was sad that Fragonard’s playful rococo masterpiece Les
hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, commonly known in English as The Swing, was in a separate
exhibition at the time of our visit. The sumptuous collection of paintings, sculptures, exquisite
porcelain and much more is set in the former townhouse of the Seymour family, and the rooms
are just as much art as the works held within them.
Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, Jean-Honoré Fragonard
One of the paintings that stood out to me on our visit to The Wallace Collection was an
enormous and striking depiction of Paolo and Francesca observed by Dante and Virgil, taken
from Dante’s Inferno. The painter, Ary Scheffer, painted several versions of the picture with
various titles, and the one held in The Wallace Collection is simply called Francesca da Rimini.
I had wanted to see this painting for years, having grown fond of Dante during my two years of
Italian at university. It depicts Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, the lovers who end up
in the second circle of Hell as Dante imagines it in his Inferno. This second out of nine circles is
reserved for the lustful. Francesca, both in real life and in Dante’s Inferno, was married to
Giovanni Malatesta but had an illicit relationship with his younger brother, Paolo. Giovanni was
filled with rage on discovering them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both. Without the
opportunity to go to confession before dying, they are cut off from God for eternity.
Paolo and Francesca – Ary Scheffer
Dante’s couple has inspired many other works of art, and artists have chosen different moments
in Paolo and Francesca’s affair. Many paintings show their first wild abandon to passion while
reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere:
‘We were reading one day for fun
How Lancelot was seized by love:
we were alone, but didn’t suspect.
Several times the book made us pale,
making us look in each other’s eyes,
But only once it became too much.
When we read of that adorable smile
And how the great lover kisses it,
This man, who’ll always be by me,
He kissed my mouth all quivering.
Both book and author were panders:
we didn’t read any more that day.’ (Inferno, V.III, ll. 127-138)
Scheffer, instead, has chosen the moment that Virgil shows Dante what has become of Paolo and
Francesca. Dante and his poet guide can be seen on the right of Scheffer’s painting, lingering in
the shadowy background. The chiaroscuro in the painting is ironic, given the moral overtones of
the poem and painting; Paolo and Francesca are milky white in contrast to the darkness of the
background. Francesca’s mouth is slack with sorrow, Paolo swoons as Francesca clings to him,
and they both bear stab wounds. Tangled in bedsheets, they are buffeted about by the wind, just
as they allowed themselves to be swept up by lust during their earthly lives; Dante describes
them as ‘like doves summoned by desire, [who] sweep across the sky on impulse, gliding
towards their happy nest’ (ll. 82-84).
I do not think the morality behind this painting’s story is the reason for my liking it and, indeed,
suggesting it. Its sensuality is infused with a delicate pathos, and its scale is impressive, too, like
the painting of Isabella and the Pot of Basil I discussed in a previous post. Scheffer’s painting
reminded me of my love of Dante, whose writing I have neglected for several years now. I highly
recommend London’s Wallace Collection, one of many (free!) gems in our great sprawling
capital, as I also recommend Dante’s Divine Comedy. Don’t be intimidated by its status as a
towering epic; Professor Steve Ellis’ translation (used in this post).
It is fitting that my first contribution to this blog combines two of my great passions in art – John Keats and the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – with a special moment that came about with the same ‘Wes Anderson magic’ that, for Cedric and me, has characterised the last six months of our lives.
On a chilly, bright March weekend, we visited Newcastle. I had never been so far north, and I was astonished by the city’s beauty. With an hour to spare, Cedric and I stumbled into the Laing Art Gallery. I was excited to see the painting under discussion printed on the outside wall of the gallery, so we had to go in for a peek. Being an avid Keatsian (in spite of my ongoing PhD in Keats studies) and a lover of Pre-Raphaelite art, I was dazzled by meeting this painting in person, as I had admired it for years on the cover of my Oxford World Classics Keats.
The painter responsible for this bizarre delight is William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. As their name suggests, the group of artists and their followers sought a return to the style of art that had flourished before Raphael. They favoured exquisite detail and vibrant colour over what they perceived to be the dull conventions of the day, and they often took inspiration from the Bible and works of literature for their striking pictures. I could write forever of their paintings, poetry, beliefs and eccentricity – you can expect many more posts recommending their work. Hunt took his subject here, as you may have guessed, from a poem by John Keats entitled Isabella, or The Pot of Basil. Keats adapted the story from a tale in Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of 100 tales by the celebrated Italian poet. The eponymous Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, an employee of her cruel brothers who had intended to marry her ‘to some high noble and his olive trees’. Her brothers learn of their love and murder Lorenzo, burying him in the woods. After Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream, Isabella digs up Lorenzo’s head and buries it in a pot of basil. In Hunt’s painting, we can see a visual depiction of Keats’s words:
And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.
The poem ends after her brothers steal the pot of basil from her, having deduced that it contains Lorenzo’s head and evidence of their crime, and Isabella dies ‘forlorn,/ Imploring for her basil to the last’.
Why do I like such a macabre painting and poem? Well, the painting’s sumptuousness is obvious, from the luscious basil leaves concealing their dark secret to the vibrant blanket laid over the prie-dieu that has become Isabella’s altar to Lorenzo. The poem is a fanciful tale, but nonetheless taps into relatable human emotions of grief, anger, distraction, and heartbreak and renders them beautifully.
On reading around the painting, I was touched to discover that Hunt begun the painting while in Florence with his wife, Fanny, who was pregnant. She died after giving birth, and Hunt immortalised her in Isabella’s features in a strange reversal of roles – Isabella’s features, those of Hunt’s wife, are hauntingly blank with grief, but perhaps Hunt was channelling some of his own grief here. The basil pot and the painting itself are curiously united, both being built and nourished by melancholy, both providing life in place of death. It was the idea of immortality through art that inspired some of Keats’s most famous poems, and although I believe in an immortality beyond plants that may wither and paintings that may burn, it is deeply human to seek life over death, even in the midst of sorrow.
So, if you find yourself in Newcastle, have a poke around the Laing. You will see this nearly 2m-high masterpiece, as well as a wall of teapots and teacups that delighted me almost as much.
Picture the scene: we are in the middle of Tours, we have just been amazed by the Museé du Compagnonnage and are famished. Our next stop on the helter skelter day trip we had planned was a delightful little Lebanese place called Le Byblos. The reader should note, it was around 5 degrees and raining at the time, so we three were quite keen to get inside a warm restaurant.
We chose a mezze menu comprising of 9 dishes which were a mixture of meat and vegetarian. The first course of mezze was cold, including baba ganoush, moussaka, houmous, stuffed vine leaves, a fattoush salad and flatbread. We were astonished throughout the meal by the variety and flavours offered. The baba ganoush was a particular triumph. This dish is comprised of roasted eggplant, eggplant, olive oil, lemon juice, various seasonings, and tahini. I (Charlotte) had never had moussaka cold before, and its rich, tangy sauce seemed to have been intensified by a long chilling time. The vine leaves were suffused with lemon and melted in the mouth despite being cold.
By the time the second set of dishes arrived, we were itching for more. This rather blurry photograph shows the first part of the hot mezze. The chicken was rather humorously taken from us to have an extra layer of seasoning added. I told the waiter the chicken was excellent by itself, to which he responded “Yes, I know it very well, but it would be better with more seasoning”. Reader, it was indeed better. This was the first chicken we had sunk our teeth into since giving up meat for Lent, hence you can imagine our salivating, then having our dish swiped from under our noses! The falafel, with 7 vegetables. including ground chickpeas and broad beans. Now, there is a stall at Birmingham Bullring Markets called Mr Falafel, who does excellent falafel. Charlotte has just reminded me that the Damascena falafel, too, was exquisite. However, the Byblos falafel was transcendental. Suffused with layers upon layers of flavour, it rendered us speechless.
Finally, we enjoyed two kinds of arayes, one with beef and one with cheese. The meat one comprised minced onions , seasonings, and fresh herbs. Arayes are grilled or pan-fried before serving. I found the cheese filling a bit thin but by this point we had eaten so much that we were grateful for the brief respite.
Charlotte would like to add that the mint tea she consumed was top quality.
On the way out of the restaurant, one is treated to a fabulous woven tapestry / rug with the Virgin Mary on it, which was most amusing.
Overall this was a staggering experience, shockingly economical and unexpectedly comical. Please, if you have the time and are in the region, do visit Le Byblos.