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Weekend Contest: The Greatest Easter Art and Literature
Ricochet, you’ve very narrowly been spared. Our discussion of the framework nuclear deal with Iran led to a suggestion by our resident curmudgeon Ball Diamond Ball that I carefully re-consider the work of Saul Alinsky for insight. I was game, and I was even on the verge of opening our weekend literature contest to those who wished to spend it reading Alinsky and tracing his influence on the Obama Administration.
Then it occurred to me that this could not possibly be how anyone on Ricochet would wish to spend this weekend. (I know for sure I don’t.) Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but I suspect we would all prefer to spend it with a great work of art or literature more suitable to the Easter holiday.
So our weekend contest is now open. In fact, this weekend, we will hold two contests simultaneously.
Please submit your entry for the most beautiful work of literature in the English language inspired by Easter. This is an English literature contest, and open to Ricochet members of all faiths or none. Thus one rule: nothing in translation. Not even the Bible, I’m afraid. No Goethe, no Tolstoy, etc. But any Anglophone evocation of Easter–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, prose, from any period–is eligible.
The Ricochet Glory in Literature Badge will be assigned to the member who:
a) Nominates and cites the greatest English-language work of literature inspired by Easter; and
b) Makes the most effective case that this entry nominated is, indeed, the greatest work of literature in the English language inspired by Easter.
The Ricochet Glory in Art Badge awaits the Ricochet member who:
a) identifies the painting above;
b) and identifies the English-language essay that most famously describes it;
c) and makes the case that the author was correct;
d) or makes the case that the author was incorrect. In doing so, you must offer a better suggestion, and defend your case for it.
I wish everyone on Ricochet a glorious weekend of contemplating the beautiful, the sublime, and the inspired.
Published in Culture, General, Literature, Religion & Philosophy
Before I begin meditating on these two questions, may I say, THANK YOU. only at Ricochet, Holy Saturday thoughts to refresh the soul, rather than browbeat & politicize…
Meditating on these questions has already made me happier to be alive. This is one of those rare contests in which everyone who participates wins.
It is The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca. I think you are referring to Aldous Huxley’s essay, The Best Picture, from 1925. It is a beautiful painting, but I can’t agree with the essay. Huxley likes it because he thinks della Francesca was an admirable guy and because he regards the painting as hardly religious, just a celebration of man. Huxley was projecting his own preferences on the painting, methinks. As a religious person I much prefer the symbolism of Jesus triumphant while the soldiers sleep, unaware. The perspective is pretty interesting–the soldiers in the foreground don’t have much depth, but Jesus does with the landscape behind him. I like that symbolism too. The depth of Jesus’ teachings dwarf everything the soldiers represent.
An interesting side note–I learned in looking for the Huxley essay that the town of Borgo San Sepolcro was spared in WWII when British artillery officer Tony Clark defied orders and refused to shell the city. He had read Huxley’s essay, though he had never seen the painting.
Doesn’t fit the contest parameters at all, but the contest put me in mind of one of my favorite depictions of the Resurrection: Resurrection by Matthias Grünewald. Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar
I just realized that parts a) and b) of contest II are over. (I didn’t think this through: I wasn’t expecting anyone to answer that so quickly, but I should have). So you’ve won that part.
My apologies for the poor contest design. The contest for parts b) and c) remains open. (Fortunately, I can offer as many Ricochet Glory Badges as required. Also fortunately, the joy of this particular contest isn’t really in the winning of it.)
I noticed that– it was quite easy (with google) to find the artist & the Huxley essay, but my background/ understanding in the history & appreciation of art is so limited, therefore my ability to comment, that I entertained myself reading about the artist & the Huxley piece– which was about many things beside the picture… The picture is wonderful; I can’t help linking it with the poem “The Dream of the Rood” (which can’t be used in the contest, being in Anglo-Saxon), since both suggest or celebrate Christ the Victor, unsentimental, going forth to conquer His foes & lift up the weak.
Yes–exactly. All winners here. It was fun to read the Huxley essay He’s a fine writer and it captures not only a feel for travel in the period, but also the sort of thinking found in British intellectual circles in the period.
For Holy Saturday, here are paintings related to the crucifixion. On Easter Sunday, I’ll share some resurrection and glory pictures.
“Morning in the Riesengebirge” by Caspar David Friedrich — A representation of Christ’s isolation.
“Lamentation” by Peter Paul Rubens
“Pieta” by William Adolph Bouguereau
“Agnus Dei” by Francisco Zurbaran
Some cool painting by some cool guy
I nominate one of my favorite Donne poems for the literature contest.
A Hymn to God the Father
BY JOHN DONNE
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
This poem isn’t specifically about Easter as is his (also wonderful) poem, Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward. The title alone of that one makes it wonderful, but I prefer his Hymn.
I like how he acknowledges in the first stanza how thoroughly subject to sin he is, both the sins that he has borrowed from others and made his own and the ones he has dreamed up himself and cannot quite shed, though he deplores them. I love his play on his own name in using the word done. When thou has done–as in, I assume, God has gained him as a convert–thou hast not done. God has Donne but maybe not, because he has more sin. He can’t bring himself to abandon sin though he understands what sin is and that it is wrong. (Judging from some of his poetry about women, I’m guessing that was a sinne he could not quite abandon.)
In the second stanza, his sin becomes worse because he has not just borrowed sin from others, he has enticed others to sin. And even though he has managed at times to give up his sins, he has wallowed in them far longer than he has managed to control his propensity to sin–and no doubt helped others to wallow in the process. Again, he ends with the play on his name and in this way amplifies the sense of his own guilt and fears of the consequences of his sin.
It is interesting that in the last stanza he says he has a sin of fear. Why is fear a sin? Is fear something humans can control? Don’t we just feel fear when there is a reason to be afraid? Not necessarily in this case. Donne’s fear indicates a lack of faith related to his sin. He is afraid that when he dies, there will be no reward for him because of his sin. His final question is a rhetorical one to God. He asks God to “swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore”. It is rhetorical because God is eternal and worthy of complete trust. And so Donne can gain peace in the Easter message of Christ’s atonement; “And having done that, thou hast done; I fear no more.”
What Easter Art Contest would be complete without this?
Huxley lost me with this line:
This is the rubbish (untruth) told by modern man to himself. Human dignity has its very essence in religion, and in the West, specifically in Christianity with its roots deeply formed in Judaism. Without the meaning given by religion and transmissible from generation to generation, the human condition is nasty, brutish, and (metaphysically) truncated.
I’ve recently come to the realization that if “politics is downstream from culture,” “culture (or civilization) is downstream from religion.” Huxley badly misreads the meaning of the Resurrection.
Huxley lost me with this line:
Thanks– I missed that when I read it this morning. If humanism does not get its heart from the dignity of man stemming from his creation by God, in His image, then all it gives us is the confused & repellant secular humanism we drown in today…
As I recall from a literature course, Huxley was raised like science experiment in a household of agnostic Darwinists and was no believer himself — which is merely to say that he’s not the first person I’d look to for exegesis of Christianity’s supernatural themes in art. I appreciate the challenge, though.
Nick, that Resurrection painting makes Jesus look like a superhero.
Merina, thanks. John Donne is a great poet. It’s interesting that “The Flea” is the poem typically selected to represent him in literature classes. Perhaps that’s because its subject is so strange to modern ears, and it is used to represent the “Dark” era before the so-called Enlightenment.
I think I wrote this little poem using similar imagery shortly after reading that Donne poem as a teenager. It’s titled “Charity”:
In much the way a vampiric bug
may take its fill of life and leave
one less of blood yet same in strength,
Man may give of himself and grieve
no lack of kindness; for he remains
as full a self as a soul may stand,
yet the world is fed by his outstretched hand.
Lovely poem, Aaron. I like your use of something disgusting and with blood imagery (brings to mind the crucifixion, right?) to show what Christ, and adherence to his teachings, does.
I didn’t want to say anything that could be misinterpreted about a painting that brought one of our members pleasure on Easter weekend, but I too found that an–unconventional, perhaps?–depiction of Jesus. I’m open to it, but my first impression was puzzled, I confess.
I’d make an exception for Old English if you provided a glossary. Would anyone else object? (Old English is ours, I say. And besides, I want to know more.)
Sorry to raise hopes… I had only read it in translation (*not* a linguist), and just found it in the original, and it is completely incomprehensible to me…
I make the common mistake with poetry, I read it to myself rather than aloud, so I don’t experience it as was intended.
George Herbert strove not for greatness, perhaps, but accuracy:
In order for God to come to man as a man, that particular man’s story, including his resurrection, had to take place at a particular time in history. But Easter itself, the victory that shattered death and Hell, is for all time, and at all times. None are born too early or too late for that victory. It is eternal not merely in the sense of “unchanging”, but because it is ever-present. Hence the observation,
It is used because it is a subject so familiar to modern ears: it’s a seduction poem.
Just another entry in the unceasing series of lamewad excuses used to talk a gal into sex. Now, it’s John Donne, so of course it’s exceptionally well-done. But it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s saying, “According to our current anatomical theories, the fact that this flea has bitten both of us means we’ve already had sex. There’s no point in playing the proud virgin and denying me now, then. So spread.”
As such, it’s a topic very familiar to adolescents everywhere.
I know it’s translated from the Greek, but it’s still hard to beat Chrysostom’s Easter Homily.
For American literature the high brow tit-totters would probably vote for Billy Budd by Melville – the plebeians might vote for Ben Hur – the most popular work of fiction in America in the 19th century, I believe. D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. deMille both had profitable film versions of the story, and considering the drought of creativity in Hollywood we might see a version for a new generation in the next few years. Don’t know if this satisfies the requirements for the prize but we are a conservative web site run by a Hollywood mogul so commercial success should count for something.
Miss Claire, I find it difficult to take Huxley serious on this matter, but I do not know that anyone should. Pierro’s Resurrection is not the best picture, but it is a good picture. It shows us what we believe & requires that we ask whether we really believe it. Now, I do not know that my remarks below will make any sense to you, so let me take this chance to thank you for bringing this up–it has been a while since I have had cause to think about it.
The picture is riddled with difficulties that put us in an impossible situation, or something like that. I will not try to reconcile the contradictions for you any more than is necessary to see them. That, I think, is not wrong–pictures, after all, are surfaces, so looking at the obvious is the thing to do.
Christ looks you in the eye–he is looking at all of us, after all–yet we are looking up to the sleeping soldiers: We are no better, we are not more exalted. Yet Christ is looking down on us & his looking at us centers the picture. There are two centers; we’re somehow caught in-between them. The soldiers are attired in the way of medieval folk, not Romans–this is, of course, because that’s who would be viewing this painting. Yet the Christ shows us the cross & one of the soldiers bears the shield with the SPQR. The two centers are two worlds, which we understand politically in terms of soldiers & the Christ. Perhaps there is something to be said for this suggestion–that we see the Christ when the soldiers are asleep.
Jesus is caught up in this problematic position of ours. The trees behind seem to be changing, or at any rate are different–on one side, they are green, but on the other they are barren. Jesus is still one foot in the grave. We are waking up to this realization, but not the soldiers. Jesus is alive–the wound between the ribs has started bleeding again, as though it were not healed completely. Blood is life. Jesus is trying to put on a garment, to hide nudity–the hand that clasps the garment shows the wound of the crucifixion, then we notice the other limbs are similarly marked. This is what we are supposed to see. The Christ was killed, that is the meaning of divinity, suffering more than any man could suffer.
The face we see looking at us is neither happy nor sad. It is almost devoid of feeling, but it is serious. It is quiet–we are supposed to see the truth of the Christ’s teaching & promises. We can see no change effected by suffering & death–everything that came before has failed to deform or mutilate or twist the flesh. Do you think Jesus is ascending? Do you see Jesus rising on mortal feet?
It would seem everyone who sees this picture sees what no man did see–there was no one there to witness the Christ coming out of the tomb. The only people there to see it were sleeping. Nobody expected this to happen–in a sense, it is not a spectacle. It is not an event, exactly. We are shown something about ourselves in this way. But the story of the Resurrection we read in the Gospels forces us to imagine this moment–to see the moment of the rising out of the tomb. Jesus is not saying anything, not offering news or revelations or commands. Seeing Jesus is all we are offered–for Jesus to be there, for us to be in a position to see, a miracle must have happened. The possibility of this moment implies, but does not display divine powers. It is remarkable how close to us this scene is, how far behind the hills & the sky–there is no way not to see the body & the blood. Yet, I think it is reasonable to sleep at night, like the soldiers are doing. The world had to be told about this event which no one witnessed. I find it very easy to think I’m one of the people who did not witness it–would not have witnessed it–needed to hear it told. The painting seems to suggest a lot of viewers might be in this position, in this situation.
Despite my rather cynical take on “The Flea”, I, too, am fond of Donne. Perhaps the fact that he was a dirty old man in addition to being a great spiritual poet gives his musings on guilt and repentance extra poignancy.
The first of Donne’s poems to ever catch my attention was “Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness”. I was quite young at the time, and like most young people, found poetry directly relevant to my own experience the easiest to grasp. (We don’t lose this limitation as we age, I think, just gain experience that makes it easier to extrapolate to lives unlike our own.) One passage of that poem is quite relevant to Easter weekend:
That the bare, bloody, and forsaken crucifix of Good Friday is also the Tree of Life at the heart of Paradise, ever-fruitful, ever blossoming, and evergreen, is an old trope, but none the worse for being old – perhaps all the better for being old, since it’s part of a long and rich tradition.
In Semitic archaeology, the Tree of Life is a stylized date palm. Very different-looking from Moses’ burning bush, or the vine with us as the branches, or the mustard tree sprung from the smallest seed, or Aaron’s once-dead staff, now covered with almond blossoms, the “watchful blossoms” and the first sign of renewed life after winter. Despite the difficulties of constructing a concrete representation of a tree that is all these things and more, our imagination is nonetheless provoked to try.
There’s an English-language hymn called “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, which is used both at Christmas and Good Friday (a practice much less odd than it sounds in light of the Tree of Life imagery). The setting by Elizabeth Poston, an English composer, is a small gem. It would be odd, I think, to call her setting a great work, but it is a perfect one:
May I recommend an old painting as well?
This is a strange work–great artistry is put to work to conceal the terrible loss. Raphael is not showing us the deposed Christ, full of the gravity of his terrible death. Christ is so vulnerable here & this throws the party into a kind of chaos. The two men who carry him lean away from each other–they are not important personages, they have no halos, they are mere people, & Christ is a burden to them. One sees neither suffering in them nor any awareness of what they are doing. Mary Magdalene alone touches the body–holds the hand of Jesus. The gesture is not invasive, it is not imposing any familiarity–it is just there to try to deny what has happened. The limp body is all that is left of the greatest love known to man.
The Virgin Mary has fainted–it seems this is the reason for the painting; something happened of a sudden–are they so close to the cave where the entombment is to be done? The grieving mother is doubly separated from Jesus. She is now a burden, too. They cannot go on to what must be done. She cannot be consoled–she must be forced to go on with losing Jesus. She is not with us because Jesus is not with us anymore–the sacrifice concerns the Virgin more than anyone else except Jesus. Nicodim is the most ambiguous character–I am not sure he is supporting the limp body–I think he is looking at us. This may be our introduction to the scene on which we look from below.
Mary Magdalene seems to be trying to touch the divine face. She has not reached so far–her open mouth does not seem open to speak, the hand that holds the divine hand does not seem to be asking for an answer–there is something tender in her plaintive address–her body is turned to Jesus, trying not be left behind, to keep that hand in her hand. The Christ is not worshiped here. That is the surprise of this strange moment between very somber doings. What goes on here is this, the people who loved Jesus most have to watch the now lifeless body be moved–they are no longer in any way privileged, they are almost like us in their distance from God. They are denied now wisdom & love which may have been life itself for them. They must care now for this body, their love is now a tending that must go unanswered. That those who worshiped the Christ are so distant now shows that they have already learnt that somethings has changed. The deposed body has not been returned to them for entombment–they are only here because of Jesus, but Jesus is no longer with them. The Virgin Mary, in fainting, emphasizes this change, that all of them now have to tend to the lifeless body, all have to acknowledge the death in trying to ward off its consequences, to protect Jesus in death.
There is a tree right in the middle of the picture, I am not sure what that means. There is a dandelion by the painter’s signature–I think it is not hard to see what that dainty growth means. There are two men by the crosses–& clouds from the turmoil–apparently already talking about what had happened. One can spot a few other persons in the distance, perhaps of no importance.
I hew to the old opinion that Raphael was the greatest painter in the greatest age of painting. I am not sure I think this is his greatest achievement, but it shows a remarkable understatement–he wants to give us the capacity to be able not to lose our minds because of the suffering.
I’ll see that, and raise you adulterer Salvador Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus:
Dali’s genius: recognizing the short step from surrealism to transcendence.
What a wonderful post, and great comments. I did not know this painting, nor Huxley’s essay, but how interesting it all is. I’m not sure it’s the best picture ever, but de gustibus, etc etc., and perhaps Huxley’s first instinct on seeing it was the same as mine–that RF Delderfield was right after all, and God is, in fact, an Englishman.
I think the photo below doesn’t exactly comply with the contest rules (disqualify me if you must), but here’s five-day old Sprinkle–by name and by nature–doing her best (and a very good effort it is indeed), to infuse my living room with the spirit of Easter, 2015:
Here’s my contribution, which doesn’t entirely comport with the rules but which I’ll post anyway for your enjoyment: an icon of a *different*, prefiguring resurrection for Lazarus Saturday (which is today, the day before Palm Sunday, for many Orthodox). I wish those who commemorate it a blessed and joyous Easter tomorrow. :)
I am new to Ricochet – I took Claire up on invite. I am late in a previous conversation on her dismay with the Internet. I see it as a tool – people make it good or bad. Kind of like the issue with guns – guns don’t shoot people, people shoot people, or wealth isn’t the enemy, money can be used for good or greed. Responsibility and character can be found or lacking anywhere. She is right though – it is a sewer in many ways, but also a great resource. I write a little blog in my local town trying to do my part to counteract the dark side of the Internet. I mention Claire’s books in several posts – I’d like to share it here:
http://www.sweetteafl.com Wishing you all a wonderful weekend.
Midge, I adore the song Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. Thanks for posting this exceptionally beautiful rendition. My happiest travel memories involve English choirs and evensong.