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A Longer Light: Reflections for Ascension Week
Specially commissioned reflections art for a time of light and darkness by Dr Deborah Lewer, Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Glasgow. She is also a regular speaker, consultant, author and retreat leader in many church contexts, including at her home cathedral of St Mary’s in Glasgow.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647, oil on wood panel, 34 x 48cm, © National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Used with permission.
Each day this week we will explore a work of art. Along the way, we might recognize something of our own experience in this time of uncertainty and of fragile hope. Artists know the eloquence of contrasts, how the play of light and shade can make for great beauty, or for expression beyond words. Attending to them seems appropriate for our time of many stark contrasts – between safety and imperilment, enclosure and exposure, intimacy and loneliness, hope and fear.
This small painting by Rembrandt is the only nocturnal landscape painted by the great artist of light, shade and of real life. Within it, there is a young family fleeing danger, seeking refuge. The darkness of this night is the setting for an imagined moment – known as ‘the rest on the flight into Egypt’ – that is only indirectly implied in the gospel narratives (Matthew 2:14), but which inspired a rich tradition in medieval devotional literature and in centuries of art.
We step into the darkness with this little family. They are vulnerable, facing an unsure future as they gather together around the glow of the fire, with the tiny baby for whose sake all this is. It’s not the familiar hearth of home, but for now, it offers rest, warmth, light and protection. Fellow travellers are helping out, fetching, carrying, doing what they need to do to get through this night. The intimate little encampment contrasts with the looming shape of a high castle on the horizon with its candlelight in the windows – Herod’s palace, perhaps, seat of the power that cannot bear what this child might be.
Rembrandt’s painting is not just about the story. It’s also a study in landscape, and in different kinds of light: the cool, silvery moonlight filtering through the night clouds, and the warm flickering of fire, doubled in the water’s reflection. This darkness of nature and of their story will pass. A new light will dawn. The journey into Egypt will continue. The danger will persist, but it will be a new day and they will travel together, for the sake of what matters, taking it one day at a time.
To see this work or find out more online, go to the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.
For a longer reflection by Deborah Lewer on another painting relating to the infancy narratives in the gospels, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Adoration of the Kings (Epiphany), click here.
Francisco de Zurbarán, Christ and the Virgin in the House at Nazareth, c. 1640. Oil on canvas; 165 x 218.2 cm, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 1960.117 (CC)
A house in Nazareth. A mother and her young son, barely a teenager. It is a homely scene of domesticity. But it is also something wholly other. A prophecy. The boy, young and rosy, has pricked his finger on a wreath, a crown of thorns. He stops to look at the blood. An unseen disturbance rustles the pages of an open book. Look at the mother. How, with great delicacy, Zurbarán conveys her mute emotion. How much she knows. The tears sliding silently down her face. She pauses in the work of her sewing, this mother to this boy, whom she loves. She weeps without looking at what she sees – the future. In this dark space, where things are not quite ordinary, the present and eternity collide.
Zurbarán’s scene is an innovation, beyond the traditions of art or of scripture, but clearly intended for devotional use. His sparse, eloquent works were most often found in monastic settings in Spain. This one may have been made for the Carthusians, a particularly contemplative, enclosed order.
We can see in this painting a meeting of two orders of time. The Greeks had different words for them: chronos (ordinary, sequential time) and kairos (auspicious or appointed time). The painter’s imagination envisages where revelation breaks in to ordinary time in this house, in Nazareth. The golden light at the left is God’s light, beyond physics, suffused with cherubic little angels. In this light we see both the tiny wound of now, and the piercing of the future that this son will undergo, known in prophetic time. The mother, sitting below a window, sees and feels the loss that will come. The thimble she wears to protect her finger in her ordinary mending of cloth is a tiny echo of the other wounding foreshadowed here. She understands about symbolism. Once she had to offer two doves for her purification, after giving birth. They, and the flowers, are symbols of this sacrifice and more. Today has brought a new symbol. Her son, pricking his finger on a crown of thorns.
The late, great writer on art, politics and life, John Berger, once dedicated an essay (titled ‘A Household’) to this painting. In it, he remarked: “Zurbarán’s art of the interior suits our fear of the outside”. Berger was lamenting what he saw, almost thirty years ago, as our increasing preference for the private over public life. Perhaps now, when we inhabit so uncomfortably spaces both private and public, this painting might open new ways of thinking about our present moment and our shared lives. Perhaps, adjusting our view, we may be nudged to see them in a more expansive way, open to time’s longer light in the immediate pain of now. Zurbarán’s vision might remind us of God with us, in wounds now, and in sufferings to come, the purpose of which perhaps we may sense, but will never fully see in this life.
Two short videos discussing the painting’s symbolism in more detail can be accessed at: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/1960.117
Egon Altdorf, The Prodigal Son, 1948, woodcut, 31.5 x 21 cm. Private collection. Used with permission.
Today’s work is neither well known, nor is it spectacular. It is, however, a strikingly raw and poignant image, in light and dark, of the son who stands for us all and the father who stands for all. This Prodigal Son (who is known in German, perhaps more fittingly, as ‘the lost son’) is a woodcut, inked in simple black, printed on paper. It is by Egon Altdorf, a little-known German artist. He was young, at the very start of his career, and coming to terms with the aftermath of an era of vast brutality and devastation when he made it, in 1948.
Artists over the years have imagined in infinite ways the compelling parable of the son who squandered his inheritance and who, returning, met with unforeseen, unconditional love (Luke 15:11-32). Altdorf does something remarkable with the image. In his vision of this reunion, the roughly hewn bodies of this father and son are naked. Stripped of all detail, of the trappings of status, wealth, poverty or anything else in this world, the bare bodies speak of total vulnerability on both parts. There is anguish on both sides. The embrace is raw, and total. The son collapses into it, grasping at the tree for support, his other arm thrust out behind him, holding a last remnant of a former falsity. The father’s hands hold, support, and bless.
Altdorf includes a striking detail. His errant prodigal holds a dark, contorted mask, torn from his face, held away from his exposed body. In a 1967 essay, ‘Learning to Live’, Thomas Merton, the Trappist contemplative and peace activist once explained what he understood by the word “soul”. For Merton, it was “the mature personal identity, the creative fruit of an authentic and lucid search, the radical self that is found after other partial and exterior selves have been discarded as masks.” Thinking about Merton’s words and seeing Altdorf’s image, perhaps we can see this embrace for its radical authenticity and find in the ‘prodigal son’ not just the youthful wanderer, but a lifelong task of discarding what hides and hinders us from accepting unconditional love.
An exhibition and a complete catalogue of the art of Egon Altdorf (1922-2008), best known for his work on the post-war rebuilding of Wiesbaden’s synagogue, is currently in preparation by a range of scholars including art historians and theologians.
Thursday: Feast of the Ascension
Cornelia Parker, Cold, Dark Matter: An Exploded View, 1991, installation © Tate. Used with permission
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, and with it, the beginnings of the missional life of all Christ’s followers. The Ascension is momentous. Its traditions in the history of art, however, are sometimes less so. The words that tell of Jesus ‘ascending’ from resurrected life into heaven have led to countless images that it is hard not to find absurd: most commonly of a pair of feet disappearing into the clouds above a gaggle of astonished apostles.
So today we’ll look at a work that is not ‘about’ ascension, and yet might open up a new way of seeing its dynamic potential. In 1991, Cornelia Parker made a memorable installation, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View. She collected various everyday objects and put them in an ordinary garden shed. She then enlisted the help of the British Army to carry out a controlled explosion of the shed and its contents. The charred remains from the explosion were then raised, on fine wires in the gallery, into suspended animation. Finally, she lit the whole thing from inside with a single light bulb and so created, from the ordinary, an extraordinary play of light, shade and matter. “As the objects were suspended one by one”, the artist recalled, “they began to lose their aura of death.”
This matter is broken open. The violence of the explosion has made fragments of the old body. Transformed in the light, they are no longer earthbound, but every wounded shard plays its part in the light and shadow that makes this work.
Parker emphasizes the work’s subtitle: that it’s an ‘exploded view’. She drew inspiration from technical diagrams that explain how something works – a car engine, say – by ‘exploding’ it visually into its parts on the page. It is less a senseless scattering, and more a way to a lucid new knowledge of something never seen in such a way before. The exploded view brings new understanding. I think about how the apostles must have struggled, really struggled, to grasp with their rational minds what the ascension meant, what the resurrection meant, what it meant that Jesus of Nazareth is also one with God in all eternity. It must have exploded the nuts-and-bolts workings of their minds.
Much of what is homely and familiar to us has broken open recently. Cold Dark Matter might challenge us too, to think beyond and through entrenched images. But it needn’t be strange. What could be more prosaic than a garden shed? A place for tools, implements, the means to make repairs, or to till the garden. A place some people go for solace, inspiration. Unsullied glory is not of this world. But in changing light and dark, contrasts, the messiness of it all, we might see God undoing and re-doing creation, all the time. Perhaps, looking at this work and thinking about ascension, we can gain an exploded view of what it might mean for us beyond our habitual ways of seeing – feet, clouds or anything else.
With thanks to the University of Glasgow for support in licensing the image of this work and to the Tate and Cornelia Parker for permission.
To find out more about the making of Cold Dark Matter, to see details of the objects and to hear the artist discussing this work, go to:
Paul Klee, Garden Still Life / Flower Terrace, Watering Can and Bucket, 1910. Watercolour on paper, 13.9 x 13.4cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München
We are at the end of this week of reflecting on works of art for times of light and darkness. Today we’ll turn our attention to a modest little image. It’s not much more than a sketch, by the pioneering Swiss artist Paul Klee. It’s a scene so ordinary, so unremarkable that it barely warrants our attention. And yet there is beauty in its luminous simplicity and in its wayward washes of bleeding pigment. Perhaps, in these times, there is also relief in its quiet normality, like that many people have been newly finding in gardens, in working outdoors, or in the tiniest patches of urban green. It may help us recall the simple needs of the family fleeing to Egypt (Monday), the household work and domestic objects of that home in Nazareth (Tuesday), the rejection of false trappings by the lost son (Wednesday) and, of course, the garden shed of the Ascension … (yesterday).
In this little composition of light and shadow, there’s a sense of an artist sharing with us something ordinary that he’s noticed, that for him is worthy of attention, a kind of reverence, even. Through the translucence of watercolour, that least controllable and most indeterminate of media, the garden is full of the light of a sundrenched day. Look at the shadows. They are what tell us most about the objects, and give form to the implements of work – the watering can, the bucket. I doubt Klee saw or intended any theological significance in this simple still life in a landscape. But coming to it this week, it reminds me, just obliquely, of a collect from a beautiful Easter liturgy by Monica Furlong. It recalls the garden of Gethsemane and the tomb by which Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Christ for the gardener. There seems no better way to end, this day after Ascension, in this time of light and darkness, than with its prayer:
Jesus, who was lost and found in the garden,
Never to be lost again.
Stand by us in the darkness of our crucifixions,
As the women stood by you.
Die and rise with us in the suffering of the world.
Be reborn with us,
As love and hope and faith and endurance
Outlast cruelty and death.
To see this work and one of the best collections anywhere of art associated with German Expressionism, go to: https://www.lenbachhaus.de/en/discover/collection-online