Friday, August 27, 2010

A Portrait of a Writer

Domenichino 1581 - 1641
Oil on canvas 259 x 199.4 cm
On loan from a private collection
The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery in London is presently exhibiting one of the finest Baroque paintings still in private hands by the Italian Baroque master Domenico Zampieri – known as Domenichino (1581-1641)

The painting had been destined for sale overseas. However, its export was deferred by the United Kingdom Government in the hope that funds could be found to keep the painting in the UK.

Fortunately, a private collector came forward to buy the painting, making provision for its regular public display. The painting will be on loan to the National Gallery from May 2010 until November 2011.

The painting is of a first century non-fiction historical writer from the Middle East, possibly in what is now modern Israel. He is primarily known for a number of non-fiction works. He is a rather shadowy figure as precise details as to his life and death are not exactly known.

HIs work is mystical and many regard his historical accuracy as somewhat doubtful

His works have been translated into most languages and his works have never been out of print.

And who is the author ?

The work is of course a painting of Saint John the Evangelist painted in the late 1620s

Why the reticence about identifyiing the painting ?

In the today`s Guardian Maggi Dawn posed the question: What is the point of Christian arts?

In her essay she made a number of important points. One important point was emphasised.

In this post-Christian age where the knowledge of Christianity is positively discouraged, are the British in danger of diminishing or throwing away their culture ? Are such works as the painting by Domenichino (above) comprehensible or capable of being fully appreciated except to a small minority ?

In a few decades what will the captions underneath such paintings as Domenichino`s be like ? Will Museums and others be able to assume any Biblical knowledge on the part of their viewers ?

How does one explain who St John the Evangelist was ? Or any other subjects of religious paintings or paintings with a religious theme ?

Already there is evidence that there is a significant lack of knowledge of Christianity in the population.

Does this mean that we are already in a period of cultural decline with all that that entails for a civilised life in this country ? Are the Vandals and the Goths now going to be the majority ?

Here is what she said:

"Early last year in a Guardian interview Andrew Motion, then poet laureate, lamented the increasing level of biblical illiteracy he found among his students.

Reading literature, he said, "…requires you to know things about the Fall, who some of the people in the Bible are, ideas of sinfulness and virtue. It's also essential for Tennyson, Browning and Arnold, and needs to be there in the background of the modernist period." He called for teaching of the Bible to be included in general education, not for religious reasons, but because "…it's an essential piece of cultural luggage."

I couldn't agree more. Without knowing Genesis you miss many of the undercurrents to Chaucer, Milton and Dante, say nothing of modern writers like Steinbeck and T S Eliot; and without the gospels a good slice of Shakespeare is torn from its roots. "Measure for Measure" makes us think of Shakespeare; his audience would have thought of Jesus.

Last year I went to two large exhibitions of Van Gogh's paintings, each of which included several of Van Gogh's paintings of "the Sower" – a subject he returned to a number of times. The galleries had provided many good notes, showing the influence of other painters he had followed, how he had developed the theme over time, and how his use of colour changed between the paintings. Yet nowhere was there any comment on the fact that, as can be seen from Van Gogh's letters, an important inspiration was the parable of the sower, which he spent much time contemplating, and regarded as a metaphor for his own work.

Van Gogh's work is evidence of the fact that good art goes beyond merely illustrating or re-telling an old story; it creates a dialogue with its sources, taking an old established idea and giving it a new twist.

I recently studied various poems, paintings and sculptures of the Annunciation, a story originally told in Luke's gospel. Many medieval depictions of the annunciation show Mary's meek submission to the will of God, but more recent works subtly shift her role so that she is seen as a woman empowered to choose her own destiny.

Both Noel Rowe's Magnificat and Edwin Muir's Annunciation suggest that God doesn't hold (or hold on to) all the cards but takes the highly risky and self-effacing strategy of placing the destiny of the world into the hands of an unknown peasant girl. This is the glory of art – to overturn the well-worn tracks of unchallenged ideas and make us see the world through new eyes.

There is a "cultural cringe" about Christianity at present; in a post-Christian age many people want to distance themselves from a religion they no longer wish to be associated with. The place of religion in public life needs to continue to be negotiated, but it would be a mistake, in my view, to let such discussion extend to cutting ourselves adrift from layer upon layer of understanding of our cultural heritage."