Sunday, January 29, 2012

Holy Fools

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
The Sleeping Fool 
Oil on canvas
support: 298 x 400 mm frame: 435 x 534 x 70 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
Fool with a Flower 1944
Lithograph on paper
image: 167 x 292 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
The Joy of the Fool 
Roneo print on paper
image: 308 x 206 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
Fool Carrying a Child 
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery 

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
The Fool: A Head
Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, Suffolk

Cecil Collins 1908-1989 
Fool Carrying a Child 
Etching on paper
image: 220 x 152 mm
Tate Britain, London

Cecil Collins 1908-1989,  the British artist, was highlighted by The Rt Revd Lord Harries in his Gresham Lecture entitled Christian Faith and Modern Art: Distinctive Individual Visions

The Fool is a recurring image in  Collins` work It is an innocent figure that, although having no place in modern society, has the vision which is necessary to find fulfilment and eventual reward.

In his essay The Vision of the Fool (1947), Collins wrote that the Fool was the  "‘Saint, the artist, the poet’. 

He said that "‘modern society has succeeded very well in rendering poetic imagination, Art, and Religion, the three magical representatives of life, an heresy; and the living symbol of that heresy is the Fool. The Fool is the poetic imagination of life, as inexplicable as the essence of life itself’ 

He went on :
"'The saint, the artist, and the poet are all one in the Fool, in him they live, in him the poetic imagination of life lives."
“The Fool is the poetic imagination of life, as inexplicable as the essence of life itself. This poetic life, born in all human beings, lives in them while they are children, but it is killed in them when they grow up by the abstract mechanization of contemporary society.” 

As Lord Herries pointed out:
"Not surprisingly Collins was drawn to the teaching of Jesus that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must become as little children with their openness and capacity for simple wonder at the world around us"

The idea of The Holy Fool is an ancient one in the history of Christianity. But in the old concept perhaps the idea of humility is paramount. As well as a desire to see reality and not artifice. And not forgetting humour and joy. 

In The Imperial Church (300-451), The Beginnings of Monasticism in Diarmaid MacCulloch Christianity :The First Three Thousand Years page 150 we read:

"One Syrian word for monk is abila, 'mourner'.  
One of the many Christian spiritual writers who sought to borrow respectability for his works by placing them under the name of the much-honoured Ephrem the Syrian maintained that Jesus had cried but never laughed, and so 'laughter is the beginning of the destruction of the soul'.  
Nevertheless, it was in this same Syrian setting in the fifth century that there evolved a particular form of sacred self-ridicule or critique of society's conventions: the tradition of the Holy Fool. 
It was a specialized form of denying the world. Behind its Syrian origins lurked a Greek archetype from before the coming of Christianity: Diogenes of Sinope 
The first well-known reviver of Diogenes's deliberate attempt to flout all convention was Simeon, who came to be known in Syrian as Salus ('foolish'). Simeon outdid Diogenes in active rudeness: when he arrived in the city of Emesa (now Homs in Syria), he dragged a dead dog around, threw nuts at women during church services and gleefully rushed naked into the women's section of the city bathhouse ('as if for the glory of God', his biographer optimistically commented).  
Not unnaturally he caused considerable offence, then somewhat illogically himself took offence at a group of girls who mocked him, miraculously leaving a number of them permanently cross-eyed.  
His affectionate chronicler a century later was Leontius, a Cypriot bishop. Bishops are not normally associated with antisocial behaviour; perhaps Leontius was writing in the same satirical spirit as Dean Swift. Certainly Diogenes 'the dog' lurked in some of Leontius's literary allusions - not least in the dead dog hanging from Simeon's belt 
The Holy Fool was destined to have a long history in the Orthodox tradition (although for some reason the Serbs never took to him). His extrovert craziness is an interesting counterpoint or safety valve to the ethos of prayerful silence and traditional solemnity which is so much part of Orthodox identity. Not all Orthodox theologians have been very comfortable with that contrast. 45 

(Footnote 45 See D. Krueger, Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius's Life and the Late Antique City (Berkeley and London, 1996), esp. 41, 43-4, 90-103. See also A. Ivanov, Holy Fools in Byzantium and Beyond (Oxford, 2006), esp. on Orthodox disapproval, at 2, and on Simeon in the bathhouse, at 115, and on Serbian silence, at 252-3.)

And we should not forget the great joker: Saint Philip  Neri  (July 21, 1515 – May 25, 1595)