Once again, I am in the debt of my darling Charlotte for convincing me, in spectacular fashion, to let go of my reticence vis a vis Pre-Raphaelite art. This painting depicts an important moment in the Gospel of Luke. It is also the fifth of the Joyous Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. In the passage, quoted below, Mary and Joseph are on their return from Jerusalem, after celebrating Passover, when they notice Jesus is missing. They turn back to Jerusalem and find Him in the Temple, in discussion with teachers and doctors. This is an important passage in the Gospels as it sheds light on Jesus’ youth, and indeed is the only passage which mentions this hidden period of the saviour’s life.
As Charlotte wrote in her splendid post on Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by the very same artist:
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.
The passage from the Gospel of Luke is below:
The Boy Jesus in the Temple.
41 Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. 42 And when Jesus was twelve years old, they made the journey as usual for the feast. 43 When the days of the feast were over and they set off for home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents were not aware of this. 44 Assuming that he was somewhere in the group of travelers, they journeyed for a day. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends, 45 but when they failed to find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, where he was sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers. 48 When they saw him, they were astonished, and his mother said to him: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” 49 Jesus said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not comprehend what he said to them. 51 Jesus Grows in Wisdom and Grace. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he was obedient to them. His mother pondered all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in age and in grace with God and men.
This painting is turbulently mind blowing. There is such a wealth of sumptuous beauty that I do not know where to direct my gaze. Jesus is the centre piece of my life and this painting, so I suppose I should begin there. Dressed in regal blue, and with faint glow behind his head, he is the subject of the audience’s rapt attention. His face is spotless and free from anguish, in sharp contrast to Mary, his mother, who must have been worried sick. Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, is not best pleased. I imagine this painting was depicting the moment after Jesus said to his father “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s work?”. Note the capitalisation of the F. Jesus is reminding St Joseph that he is is not Jesus’ Father in heaven. Joseph’s consternation at this reprimand is visible in the painting.
Moving on, then, to the background of the temple. The gold and colourful jewels, and the lattice patterns are rendered with such delicate care that one is left breathless. Holman Hunt was focussed on creating ethnographically accurate pieces of art. The doctors and rabbis are modelled after local people in the Middle East, where Holman Hunt travelled. As well as studying the local people, he studied ancient Judaic customs and rituals. Their expressions in the painting, varying between consternation and fascination, capture the panoply of reaction they must have had to the child Jesus. The colours, the details and the thoughtfulness which has gone into this piece is overwhelming.
I believe Holman Hunt will have been familiar with, and taken inspiration from, Bernardino Luini’s Christ Among the Doctors, pictured below. The below captures with similar masterfulness, the varied reaction to the child Jesus’ questioning and conversation with men supposedly older and wiser than He.
Bernardino Luini – Christ Among the Doctors
[The] Religious art of Hunt is a unique piece of creation, and represent[s] a great opportunity to understand the idea of morality in the Pre-Raphaelite era and the ambition of the whole movement in delivering of their message. The Bunget
Like my beautiful Charlotte, I could talk endlessly about this painting. Indeed I hope to have it framed somewhere in my home so I can admire it endlessly. But alas, I will stop here. More Pre-Raphaelite art to come!
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.
Today is the second Sunday of Easter, known as Low Sunday. The Gospel reading at Mass is St Thomas doubting the resurrected Jesus in in fact the risen Lord. I have included the reading below (emphasis added). I did a post on The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Rubens, which so moved me at the Rijksmuseum. This other masterwork was accomplished by Caravaggio. It is now in the Sanssouci Picture Gallery, in Potsdam, Germany.
Gospel John 20:19-31
In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you’, and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. ‘As the Father sent me, so am I sending you.’
After saying this he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, ‘We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ Eight days later the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them.
The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you’ he said. Then he spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him: ‘You believe because you can see me. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.
This 1602 painting is unquestionably a masterpiece. The risen Christ, whom we acclaim and celebrate in this Easter time, appears to St Thomas and asks him to put his hand in Jesus’ side in order to believe that he has indeed been raised form the dead. In so doing, Christ has defeated death, not only for himself but for all of the faithful. This is truly the cornerstone of the Christian faith so it was important that the artist did this moment justice. I believe he did.
You can see that St Thomas is the central figure in this painting. His strained belief can be seen by the wrinkles in his forehead. Behind him are most likely St Peter and St John the Evangelist. The lack of halo on Christ’s head emphasises his corporeal form. The Rubens painting of the same scene showed a faint glow behind Christ’s head but no halo.
There is heavy chiaroscuro throughout the painting, increasing the drama of the scene. Jesus is depicted brightly, as though the shadow is cast by light emanating from him. All of the fabric is rendered beautifully and the painting has a generally quite striking aspect. This is indeed very moving for me. Modern Christians, of course, have not seen the risen Christ. I do count myself among the number who are blessed for not seeing, and yet believing. I hope this painting helped viewers throughout the last 420 years to feel similarly moved and compelled.
I am writing on Good Friday. I was looking through my Rosary booklet, which my wonderful Charlotte provided to me when we started dating, just confirm that I had the right mystery to pray (Sorrowful Mysteries, of course). In so doing, I came across a painting by Sassoferrato which struck me.
Giovan Battista Salvi known, from his town of origin in the Marche, as Sassoferrato, shows the Madonna seated on the clouds with her feet resting on the half moon. She embraces the Child Jesus who holds in his hands a rosary that ends in a rose. Heads of cherubs rise from the clouds. The image confirms the stylistic elements that characterize his vast production of subjects of a religious nature: images of a solid formal layout with brilliant and almost enamelled colours.
This painting is strikingly clear in its composition. The colours are vivid, the way the Virgin Mary is holding onto Jesus, with such tenderness, must move even the most ardent atheist. The adoration with which the cherubs are looking at the pair is rendered beautifully. The half moon upon which she is seated is brilliant white. The rosary has become my favourite prayer and to see Jesus holding onto it, with it ending in a splendid rose, warms me. Rosary comes from the Latin rosarium, meaning “garland of roses.” The fragrance released from the beads while praying was said the please God and reinforce, therefore, one’s sincerity in prayer.
This piece also struck me because when Charlotte and I were in France for a recent holiday, we saw a painting by the same artist. We were visiting the chapel in Chenonceau and Charlotte, with her always-keen eye for religious art, spotted The Virgin with a Blue Veil on the left wall. We both spent a few minutes enjoying it and marvelling at how a painting so old could retain such vibrancy of composition and pigmentation.
Both Sassoferrato paintings struck Charlotte and I. I am glad to be able to share them with you.
Donne’s The Flea is quite remarkable. It is a long winded and metaphysical request from Donne, to his potential suitor, to go to bed with him. Have a read of it below and see what you think:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.
Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, nay more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that, self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.
Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph’st, and say’st that thou
Find’st not thy self, nor me the weaker now;
’Tis true; then learn how false, fears be:
Just so much honor, when thou yield’st to me,
Will waste, as this flea’s death took life from thee.
Well, what a poem! The first stanza sets the scene, a flea has bitten both Donne and his lady friend. A flea has bitten both him and her. Their blood intermingles in the flea, therefore, why should this young lady not compromise her virtue and give in to Donne’s desires? This is the essential thrust of the poem. The blood is mingling without any effort on the part of the flea, without any courtship or wooing. The reader is bemoaning why the same cannot be said of him and his prospective lover. It is, however, ironic to me that the writer touts the maidenhead of the woman he is trying to woo, while at the same time seeking to compromise it.
The second stanza speaks to the newly sacred nature of the flea. As it has mingled the blood of the writer and his suitor, it has now assumed the role of the beloved’s marital bed. To kill it would be a travesty in view of this. Though their parents disagree, though even she disagrees, Donne has decided that they are betrothed via Fr. Flea. The flea represents itself, the poet and his lover. To kill it would be to commit triple murder, which Donne reminds his suitor is forbidden by their faith.
Finally, the last stanza. The lover has killed the flea and the writer is piling onto her. He is saying that she has lost no honour by killing the flea, therefore she should not lose any honour by yielding to his wishes. The silliness of this is evident to us the modern reader. However, this last stanza is interesting in showing the force of his pursuit of this poor woman.
Overall, I think this is a funny poem which tackles the interesting subject of the lover’s pursuit. Donne has inadvertently shown man’s pursuit of woman in this incomplete, pre-marital, way is nonsensical. Charlotte and I discussed this and she concluded that Donne is satirising man’s pursuit of the physical. Donne is using this poem to express his acknowledgment and disdain of putting bodily satisfaction over spiritual fulfilment, and does so exquisitely.
Hello and good greeting. I have decided to downsize my five favourite feature to three favourites on account of increasing time commitments not enabling me to listen to as many albums as I should like. Here are three which stuck out to me this month.
J. J. Cale – Naturally (1974)
This is by all accounts an excellent cover. A racoon in a nice red coat with a top hat and tails is quaint and delightful.
Michael Jackson – Thriller (1982)
An iconic cover by anyone’s rating system. Michael, leaning backwards, looking aloof in a dazzling white suit. The tiger is a bit off putting with our modern easily horrified glasses and clutched pearls on. However, reading an excellent article about this cover, I found out that the photographer, Dick Zimmerman, lent Michael his suit for the shoot after not liking the options available in the wardrobe department. An amazing cover which captured a unique moment in music history.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (1978)
Finally, feast your eyes upon the exquisite cover of Jeff Wayne’s 1978 masterpiece. Charlotte and I listened to this album on a 178km stretch of highway in France, heading to Calais. This was a particular highlight of the trip for me. I was so glad to be able to share this album with my darling. The cover shows the Thunderchild’s valiant heart being melted by one of the Martian tripods, a dramatic moment in the album.
I shall see you again for the March edition of X Favourites.