Michelangelo’s Pietà

Good Friday – 10th April 2020

The Pietà (‘the Pity’) in St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the greatest pieces of Christian art ever created. It is by Michelangelo Buonarroti, and is a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the dying Christ in her arms. It was commissioned in 1497 by Cardinal Jean Bilhères, the French Governor of Rome by appointment to the French King Charles VIII of France.

Michelangelo, who at the time was only in his mid-twenties, was incredibly demanding in his choice of raw materials, taking 9 months to choose the exact block of marble and have it transported from the quarries of Carrara to Rome. It then took him two years to create his masterpiece for the jubilee of 1500. Interestingly, it is the only one of his works that he ever signed, an act he later bitterly regretted. This Pietà was the first of four that he would create in his lifetime, but the only one he completely finished.

The commission was to create a life-sized sculpture. However, on looking carefully one can see that Christ is smaller than the Virgin. This was done to enable Mary to easily hold the body of her son, though it was also interpreted as recalling Jesus’ infancy. This difference in size is camouflaged by the rich drapery of Mary’s garments.

Despite being well-received and admired, the Pietà received some criticism for the youthful depiction of the Virgin Mary. It is said, however, that Michelangelo did this intentionally, stating when asked that, “Women who are pure in soul and body never grow old.”

The Pietà has a very unusual feature in that Christ has an extra tooth – a fifth incisor. This was also known as ‘the tooth of sin’, and in the works of other Renaissance artists it was a trait attributed to negative characteristics such as violence or lust. The Christ of the Pietà, however, was given an extra tooth because upon his death he took upon himself the sins of the world.

Richard Elliott

The Washing of Feet by Sieger Köder

Maundy Thursday 2020

Foot washing was commonplace in those days, either as a ritual act of cleansing – a religious act – or as a token of hospitality when someone entered a home, a need where the roads were dusty and sandals were worn. It was a very menial task, a lowly job given to the lowest of the servants and as Jesus takes off his outer clothing and wraps a towel around himself, he is adopting the role of a slave. The disciples have gathered in the Upper Room aware of mounting tension in Jerusalem and power struggles between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. They are concerned about Jesus’ actions overthrowing tables in the temple, indeed one of them is angry and confused, plotting his betrayal.

And Peter? Well Peter cannot bear the fact that the One who is the Messiah, the Anointed one, God Almighty, the powerful One, wants to wash his feet. But this washing of feet is in part symbolic of the sacrifice that Christ will make upon the cross and so Jesus tells Peter you need to be ‘washed’ by me. Peter needs to be embraced into the saving work of Christ upon the cross: he needs to have received the washing away of sin and Christ’s forgiveness. The disciples will not understand all of that now but when they look back, their hearts will be stirred and they will rejoice that they were ‘in’ from the beginning; that Jesus chose them to be a part of the greatest story ever told.

What do I see in this story in our present circumstances? Well let me first remind you of an Aesop fable, ‘The North Wind and the Sun’. I am reminded of this story as I think about Jesus our King, God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, being a slave to his followers in the Upper Room. In this story there is a competition between the north wind and the sun to decide which is the stronger of the two. The challenge was to make a passing traveller remove his cloak. However hard the north wind blew, the traveller only wrapped his cloak tighter to keep warm, but when the sun shone, the traveller was overcome with heat and soon took his cloak off.

In this time, restricted and hemmed in, we may feel that the strong north wind of Covid-19 or the consequences of staying in and feeling isolated, is a powerful force in our nation and communities. We may feel anxious, sad or overwhelmed by the threat that is looming. We may wonder about who is in control: where does power lie? In Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, and the death that he looks towards, we are asked to look deeper into things, deeper than maybe we have ever looked before, to see in Jesus a greater power that has and will overcome any other force that is trying to exert its hold on us today. Jesus showed that although he was identifying with the least in society, taking the place of a slave, he was demonstrating the greatest power, the power of God’s love.

It is a love that turns how we look at this world upside down. The powerful, the forceful and the bullies are put to the bottom of the pile and those generally looked at as being the bottom of the pile are raised up and valued. The usual pyramid-shape of power is transformed, some would say into one that is shaped into a body – into the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. The power that Jesus shows says that all have a place and all are equally loved. This body-shaped power – this body-shaped love – was shown by the actions of the Maker of the universe washing the disciples’ feet.

Just like Peter we may struggle to comprehend such love, such humility, such grace – but will understand more as we travel further into the Easter story. Then the power that we fear is surrendered and defeated at the cross. Jesus asks us: will we let Him wash our feet, will we respond to His power, the power of His love, the love that took Him to the cross and meant He gave up His life for us?

Maybe because we have had to do things in a new way this Holy Week, to pause a little longer, I have had the time to walk with Jesus a little more closely. And as I have sat with Him in the Upper Room and walked that road to Calvary, I have fallen in love with Him all over again. I can say a little more deeply that I adore Him, I worship Him. For with His love that is for me and each one of us, His grace, His compassion, He is worthy of my praise, and the power of His love overcomes all other powers.

Fiona Crocker

The Sistine Madonna

Holy Week – Wednesday 8th April 2020

I received this membership card when I joined Mothers’ Union in 1991. I have always treasured it as I love the painting, which reminds me of the immense inspiration and support I have received from being a member of MU.

Inspired by this year’s Lent blog, I was prompted to research the origins of this painting and found it to be part of Raphael’s ‘The Sistine Madonna’, which hangs in the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. It is also called the Madonna di San Sisto, and was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II as an altarpiece for the San Sisto Church.

In the complete painting the Madonna is holding the Christ Child, and both are flanked by Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara. She stands on clouds with two distinctive winged cherubs beneath her (you may recognise these ‘chocolate box cherubs’ as they are arguably more famous than the painting itself!). The worried and anxious faces of Jesus and Mary are the result of them gazing at the Crucifixion, with Jesus seeing his death and Mary witnessing the torture and death of her child. The painting is said to have a profound influence on many viewers, creating much debate on the question of art and religion.

The cropped image shown above was a feature of the MU membership card for many years from the mid-1960s; unfortunately, our new membership cards are far less beautiful! The cropped image also appeared on the MU badge from 1924, and features on numerous branch MU banners.

I hope current MU members continue to find prayerful support from belonging to this amazing worldwide organisation, which encourages women and families across the globe.

Mary Elliott

Church bells

Holy Week – Tuesday 7th April 2020

I spent most of my childhood in Worcester near to or in the Cathedral. It contains many beautiful works of art, but the Cathedral bells are particularly fine and their ringers are very skilful. They have 16 bells hung for change ringing, though 12 make up a major scale and the rest are incidentals, to allow scales in minor keys. They are the only church in the world to have a peal of ten bells in a harmonic minor key.

Here at St George (Upper Cam) we only have 6 bells (in a major key) and they are lovely bells too. We mark solemn occasions, like Good Friday, by muffling one side of the clappers, so that they have an echo. At Worcester Cathedral they muffle the clappers and ring in a minor key. Click the link to see the ringers in action.

Bells are a fantastic way to tell those that hear them that the church is alive. We can’t wait to allowed to ring them again.

Alex Reeves

Massacre of the Innocents

Holy Week – Monday 6th April 2020

There are various versions of the 16th-century painting, ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ by Dutch painters Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger. The version I first came across hangs at Upton House in Warwickshire.

It is a contemporary depiction of the (often overlooked) story of Herod’s order to kill all of Bethlehem’s baby boys after he hears of Jesus’ birth. Bruegel sets the scene a in Flemish village, with Spanish soldiers carrying out the brutal act. (The Netherlands were ruled by the Spanish before the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648).)

The painting is not a pleasant picture. I certainly wouldn’t want a copy hanging on my wall. It is very detailed and well composed, but at the centre of each group of figures one atrocity after another is being carried out. The terror and despair of the victims is clearly evident.So why did I pick this painting for this blog post? It is because it brings the biblical story to life so vividly, giving it a sense of immediacy and stirring up an emotional reaction. Having been brought up on the biblical stories, I think my familiarity with them, and the length of time between the events described and now, have dulled my emotional reaction to them. I accept the stories without really grasping the wonder of the miracles, the horror of the crucifixion or the joy of the resurrection. When I first saw this painting, it brought the biblical stories to life for me with an intensity that I had not encountered before.

Beth Amphlett

Jesus of the People

3rd April 2020

What would Jesus look like nowadays?  This was the question asked by the US magazine National Catholic Reporter, as they set an international competition to celebrate the year 2000.  Twenty years later I still find the winning picture challenging and somewhat troubling.

Most obviously I see this figure as being that of a woman, or at least androgynous.  We are accustomed to think of God’s Anointed, the Christ, as unambiguously male.  And yet . . . Ah, and yet I know that the English of our Creed misleads us when it says “and became man.” What the Fathers of the Church formulated was that he became anthropos,  human, a human being.  That was a remarkable insight and we are only just beginning to enter into that understanding.

And the figure is of a person of colour.  Not even with the familiar characteristics of a Middle Easterner, but someone “other.”  How racist am I?  When an official form categorises me as white Caucasian, do I see my acquiescence as making a racial claim, to a class I regard as the norm?

Wendy Beckett adjudged JESUS OF THE PEOPLE by Janet McKenzie to be the winner.  She wrote : “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus – dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence.”

Michael Farrell, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, said there may be more to this dark, indigenous Jesus than meets the eye.

“When the church was overwhelmingly a Western institution, we in the West made Jesus in our likeness. But now at last Christianity has spread to the ends of the earth as the founder once prayed it would,” Farrell said.

“Much of the church’s energy, and new vocations, have moved from Europe and the United States to the Third World, so perhaps this work of art is a preview of how Christianity will flourish, and what kind of divinity it will look up to, as the next millennium unfolds.”

Blessed is the one who is not scandalised in me.’ Matthew 11.6

Mary Wood

Light of the World (but not the one you expect)

2nd April 2020

I first came across the beautiful art of Hannah Dunnett at the bookshop in Gloucester Hospital. I was visiting my mum who had been taken ill while staying with us. One afternoon I discovered the lovely hospital gift shop and came out with some amazing cards and a CD. I looked up the artist of these highly unusual cards and found it was Hannah Dunnett. She has done a myriad of paintings which combine faith and creativity in what I think is a really original way: from a distance you just see the lovely artwork but as you get closer you see the words of scripture forming the shapes in the painting.

I particularly like this one, ‘Light of the World’. The title is the same as that famous older painting and my previous blog (26th March) talks about why this is special to me. The CD I bought on that day was ‘Build Your Kingdom Here’ by the Rend Collective as I was inspired by my eldest son’s love of their track ‘My Lighthouse’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reAlJKv7ptU. As well as the music I love the words:

In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea

In the silence, You won’t let go
In the questions, Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through You are the peace in my troubled sea

My lighthouse, my lighthouse
Shining in the darkness. I will follow You
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise
You will carry me safe to shore

Joe is finishing his 3rd year at Plymouth University, where as you may know there is a red and white striped lighthouse just like this one up on the Hoe. He sails regularly in and out of Plymouth Sound and I like to think of God bringing him safely back to shore each time he spots the lighthouse from out at sea.

Lynne Palmer

Mosaic, Almudena Cathedral

1st April 2020

In these very challenging times there have been various suggestions about creating your own “art gallery” at home, as we can no longer go out and visit one. The charity Art UK is giving access to a large online library of paintings from UK galleries to allow people to “curate” their own virtual exhibition.

This prompted me to review my own collection of art postcards which I have acquired over the years. I came across a postcard of a beautiful mosaic from a visit to the Almudena Cathedral (Santa María la Real de La Almudena) next to the royal palace in the centre of Madrid.

Plans to build a cathedral in Madrid dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena were discussed as early as the 16th century. Even though Spain built plenty of cathedrals in the new world during that century, Madrid’s cathedral was postponed and the construction of Almudena only began in 1879. It was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1993. The interior is modern and decorated in a variety of styles including “pop-art”.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel features this mosaic from the artist and theologian Father Marko Ivan Rupnik. He was born in Slovenia in 1954. Since September 1991 he has worked in Rome as Director of the Centro Aletti. He specialises in mosaic art, using irregular “tesserae” of different sizes and materials including granite, marble, enamel, and gold leaves. He is quoted as saying “The great difference is this: an art work can rouse wonder and admiration, but the art that enters the liturgical space must stir veneration.”

I have had a love for mosaics ever since being introduced to Roman mosaics at school through studying Latin. I hope you too will find this mosaic inspiring, with its beautiful colours and illuminated images.

Mary Robinson

God be in my head

God be in my head and in my understanding;
God be in my eyes and in my looking;
God be in my mouth and in my speaking;
God be in my heart and in my thinking;
God be at my end and at my departing.

31st March 2020

As a self-confessed Anglo Catholic I consider Lent as a time for reflection, prayer and for giving something up as means of trying to understand the turmoil that Christ went through for us and in preparation for the glorious Easter festival. Giving something up is not easy and perhaps some of us give something up that we find not that challenging. For those who follow this discipline I applaud and wish every success in reaching Easter successfully. But are we missing a trick?

To me Christ’s life on earth was one of positivity, faith, hope and forgiveness. The message to love God and one another was a constant theme of his ministry. He went into the wilderness to face his human frailty to confront the weakness of his human side. Being human and divine was always going to present challenges and Jesus faced them all in the time he spent in fasting, prayer and above all in temptation in the wilderness. Jesus with the help of God overcame his human weakness and through the love of God his divinity triumphed.

We are all presented with challenges throughout our lives and we must overcome them to survive. As Christians we rely on our Heavenly Father to help and guide us through. God loves us and he asks us to love our neighbours. The Coronavirus has presented us with such a challenge. In fact an enormous challenge, the like of which none of us have encountered before. In an effort to control and eventually overcome the virus we all are being asked to give up many things including our freedom of movement.

This means that many people including the elderly and those with underlying health issues are isolated from the community and subsequently many cannot venture out to fetch food or medicines. The NHS is stretched beyond belief and needs help. Come forward the volunteers following a request nationally for people to help. At the time of writing over 600,000 souls have volunteered, many putting themselves at risk by doing so. Churches and local groups are also working to alleviate hardships caused by the crisis

For me this is Lent in action. These volunteers and organisations are acting selflessly to help others in need. This is the heart of Christianity in action. This is God’s love being shown in people who care. Often we go through very difficult times where “an ounce of action is worth a ton of sympathy”. If all of us offered ourselves to others in kindness and action through Lent, and other times of the year as well, like the volunteers, we would please God and strengthen our own moral fortitude and Christian conviction. Pray God will give us the strength to play our part.

So how does all this relate to art? To me everything I have said can be seen in the hymn ‘God Be In my Head”. It is a prayer for life, it is a prayer for action through hearing, seeing and understanding and it is a prayer of hope and confidence for the future. It is the essence of life.

Ken Hitchings

The Man Who Planted Trees

30th March 2020

Trees are on the agenda these days, not least because of climate change. And trees can make their contribution to human wellbeing, sometimes with startling effect, as this gem of a narrative illustrates.

It tells of a solitary shepherd in early 20th century France. As Elzear Bouffier tended his flocks and led them over deserted areas, each day he planted 100 tree seeds such as beech mast. Each evening he would sort out his 100 seeds for the next day’s planting; of these some 30% would germinate and grow. The patient repetition of this self-appointed task is beautifully conveyed in the simple prose of the account. Over the years, his flock dwindled and he spent his days caring for his saplings, putting life on barren land. The trees drew water to these places, people began to find the areas to be inhabitable and indeed desirable and the silent valleys were filled with life and laughter.

This story, and alas! it is fiction, speaks so eloquently of Hope. It reminds me of God’s patient work in our lives, sowing good seed, and prepared for some to fail, some to bear fruit for life.

THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES was written by Jean Giono and intended as a free gift. The text is freely available online (en.wikisource.org or Google Giono trees free text) but the common English printed version is illustrated by beautiful woodcuts and is available from Amazon.

The story is so special, people ask “Is it true? Did it happen?” No, it is a work of fiction, and it didn’t happen but we cannot, dare not, say that it’s not true.

Mary Wood