Contemplation & Fury

That must have been something..." the elderly lady said, shuddering, to her companion, while she was gazing at a print depicting the Iconoclastic Fury in Antwerp anno 1566. Statues were being pulled down from pillars, stained glass windows smashed, loot was carried out of the church and people with sticks ominously roamed the streets. (1)

"Divine Interiors" the exhibition was called. The violent opening print formed a stark reminder of iconoclastic trauma but was followed by a host of more contemplative paintings of church interiors, some showing a bare abstract space, others fully staffed. All equally fascinating, soothing, enchanting.

Some of these painted church interiors are mesmerizing by the sheer spatial rhythm of perspective, stern & pure. Others enchant by the magical suggestion of light & atmosphere. And, also, many of these paintings move today’s individualist spectators in an unexpected way: by conveying a sense of self-evident community - people at home in their church, strolling, chatting, worshipping, children playing, dogs roaming about. 

Art history teaches that the depiction of church interiors was a Protestant invention: praising the sober abstraction of empty church interiors. But then  again, lavishly decorated church interiors could showcase the glories of the counter-reformation – so Catholics quickly adopted the genre too.

Historians also found that in reality the churches in the Low Countries only recovered slowly from the religious unrest. For many years after the re-Catholization churches were often still dilapidated, shambling structures, a far cry from the elegant interiors depicted on these paintings.

So how many of these paintings are make-belief, idealisation and propaganda? And which is Protestant propaganda, which Catholic propaganda? Ambiguities abound. The painters’ allegiances are not always clear.  
And what is the role of sheer technical virtuosity – l’art pour l'art without meaning or message, enjoyed purely as visual experience? And how many of these paintings were simply commercially inspired, specimens of a serial production of pictures as “Souvenirs of Antwerp” for out-of-towners.
Propaganda, empty virtuosity, serial souvenirs .... and yet, there we are, we visitors from a secular age: intently gazing, deeply moved, enthralled, awed perhaps by a glimpse of transcendence? 

We stand there, we imagine being in that space, sensing the light, gauging distances, roused by spatial & musical harmonies.    

Yes, there’s music, too, in many of these paintings – singers singing, variations, perhaps,  on that first  dazzling church interior by Van Eyck, with its singing angels, its vision of luminous grace.

Beyond any aged theologies, beyond any past partisan propaganda or commercial motivation – more than 4 centuries later these paintings of church interiors (2) can still move, evoking (and perhaps satisfying?) human longings for transcendence.

Art shan’t ever save the world, but at least it can capture and represent deep human sensitivities & longings. Beleaguered as we are, we may tell ourselves . “It still will keep a bower quiet for us”(Keats).

But then again, “how dare such a terrible planet have art at all?” (Murdoch)

Furious notes

(1) “History isn't only what we inherit, safe and sound after the fact; it is also what we ourselves are obliged to endure." Cynthia Ozick sternly admonished. Sipping my morning tea, tapping the smartphone, the news hit instantly:”more than 80 people killed in Nice”. Innocents slaughtered on a boulevard by the sea. By a sadist who was inspired & emboldened by a fascist religious fundamentalism that has spread like a cancer throughout Europe, throughout the world. But let's seek solace all the same in divine interiors, in contemplative spaces. Let's cherish, at least for a moment, the illusion of transcendent beauty and peace which  churches offerso gracefully

(2) Even for non-believers in the west, churches retain this aura of grace. A sheltered space where one can contemplate the architectural harmonies, bask in the filtered light, find relief in the illusion of a timeless meditation. Usually there are not that many faithful around – though, always, a few elderly parishioners are busy watering the flowers, sweeping the dust. A few older people may be sitting there, too, silently praying. I always then feel a vague regret, and wonder who is to be pitied – those elderly parishioners who have witnessed the decline of the Christian faith in our countries; or we, the stray visitors. 

Now it appears that even those frail elderly people can inspire hate. Yet another couple of those savage sadists (self-proclaimed soldiers of that fascist ideology which has fast become the scourge of our time) burst into a village church, attacked the handful of elderly faithful and slit the throat of the 85 year old priest.

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