After a week filled with uncertainty and travel changes (our trip to Israel became a getaway to London after half of our tour was cancelled because of the political situation), a lot of walking in the rain and a “hop across the pond” as they say in merry old England, I am back at home unpacking the treasures from my just completed trip and pondering some of the sights and sounds of the last week. While there was so much that was memorable, the event two events I just can’t stop thinking about are my visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral and my visit to the Tate Britain.
Both visits involved the viewing of one of my favorite schools of artistic creation — that of the Pre-Raphaelites. I love everything from the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood — the poetry, the music based on the poetry and, most of all, the painting. And I know, I have been told that my love of this particular school of painting doesn’t exactly classify my taste in the visual arts as sophisticated and avant-garde. But, I like what I like.
Interestingly, now that I have had a chance to view the beautifully curated exhibition at the Tate, I have a better understanding of my obsession. The Pre-Raphaelites, like the near contemporary German artists known as the Nazarenes, were great painters of subjects relating to faith and a life of faith.
I always thought that it was the color that drew me, the color and the bright white light that seems to infuse all the color (a technique achieved by the application of an additional layer of white luminous paint to an already white canvas before the addition of color and form, something that I learned at the exhibition), but now I know that it was also the spirit of the work and the spirit of the artists.
Many of the most moving works were by William Holman Hunt: The Light of the World, of which there is a small version and a larger version that actually hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral, The Awaking Conscience, a companion piece to Light of the World, and my personal favorite, The Shadow of Death.
When you enter the gallery where The Shadow of Death hangs, it immediately grabs your attention — it takes the entire wall in front of you and serves as the focal point of that part of the exhibition, labelled “Salvation”. And at first, I didn’t really know what I was looking at: the face of Jesus expresses such joy, and it looks as if he is dancing. But as you examine the work carefully, you see that in fact you are looking at a pre-figuring of the Crucifixion. And then, when you understand that the kneeling figure in the foreground is in fact Mary, the mother of Jesus, it all falls into place — his joy, her panic. The detail is amazing — Hunt apparently made an extensive pilgrimage to the Holy Land to research the look and feel of what he would create in this painting. He worked on this painting for three years. In its day, the painting was a popular success and a critical failure. But judging by the crowds standing before it last Saturday, the power of that canvas lives on for those of us who can see it.
So like faith, isn’t it? Some see it so strongly, others think that it is caused by a gland in our brains. But I am grateful that artists like Hunt still struggle to find a way to communicate the unknowable. And for a minute, standing in front of that painting, I knew.