Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wildflowers or weeds?

Back in the 1970s I was studying for a degree in art history and music. One of the first projects that they set us involved a pack of rather poor prints of paintings through the ages. We had to criticise each painting, looking at technique, composition and meaning. This one really caught me out, probably because I'm not religious.

It's called "The Light of the World" and it was painted by Holman Hunt in 1853. It looked a bit familiar to me; perhaps from a children's edition of the New Testament or, more probably, because it was on every chapel and Sunday school wall when I was young, but I hadn't consciously taken it in.

I thought I had ticked all the boxes: It's a Pre-Raphaelite painting and the realistic detail and composition reflect that. I saw it as a Victorian Protestant take on the stylised gilded icons found in Eastern Orthodox churches. The drawing style reminded me of some of the Ladybird Books that  Charles Tunnicliffe illustrated. But what was it about?

Well, the title is a bit of a clue isn't it? "The Light of the World." Christ is personified as the "light in our darkness" and he's rather gentle looking, so I mentioned the words of the funeral hymn, "Lead, Kindly Light" (from "Abide with Me") to get extra points.

The bit of the painting that really caught my attention was the bottom left corner which was stuffed with wild flowers. I set about naming some of them and suggested that the light would make the flowers grow, or that flowers represented cheerfulness or simplicity..... I was wrong.

It turns out that those beautiful wild flowers, including bramble, ivy and wild carrot, represent our sins. They prevent the light from entering our lives because they block the door that Christ is knocking on. Well blow me down!

I recognised that I had missed the point, but now I was mad as hell at those self-righteous Victorians who turned wildflowers into weeds and gave them a bad image. I got a C minus.

To be honest, I let it go and haven't looked at it since, but this week I went into my local churchyard to look for birds and the picture came back to me.

Now that I look at it again, I like Hunt's painting a bit more because it's worth a second look. There is some good observation of nature in there, and but there are things that I hadn't noticed before; the apples for instance.

I'm guessing that the apples have three messages for us. There is the apple from the Garden of Eden that the serpent gave to Eve. It brought sin into the world. The apples have worms in them. so they are decaying, rotten apples. Or the worms themselves represent the sins. They remind us of our mortality too. The fallen apples represent the sins of laziness (sloth) and perhaps wastefulness (which is not one of the original seven deadly sins, but you might want to make it eight) because no-one has bothered to collect them up.

All of this reveals the obsessively pious public morality of a certain class of Victorians. Thank goodness we don't think like that today........or do we?

If Holman Hunt came with me to Brampton churchyard this week, he would have had to paint  a young lad, wearing ear protectors, steel toecaps and a bright yellow hi-viz jacket (that would have cheered up his palette at least) while wielding a noisy leaf blower in order to clear away the fallen leaves from the conker trees. A pall of smoke from his bonfire would hang over one side of the painting and there wouldn't be a weed in sight. There wouldn't be a stick or a conker on the ground either, let alone an apple. The modern Church of England must have well and truly got his message and taken it to heart.

Thankfully, the churchyard still has a few saving graces. The cemetery is kept tidy but it is surrounded by a fine arboretum of trees that include yews, cedars, holly bushes, oaks, limes, chestnuts, a redwood, laurels, elders ---- and many of them are festooned with ivy.

There are birds here too, attracted by the berries and spiders, and the worms that conduct their dark business among the graves. I saw nest-boxes for owls, robins and tits. A kestrel perched on a gable-end while four buzzards circled overhead. No doubt there are still bats in the belfry and pigeons in the loft.

I found a mixed group of tits feeding on insects among the gargoyles and tiles. They were moving steadily along the wall of the church but they constantly ducked back into cover among the bushes to avoid any predators that might be around. The shadow of sparrowhawk passed across the head-stone in front of me and they scattered. Five minutes later I found them in the yews where they were joined by a wren, a chaffinch and the bird I had come to see; a tiny goldcrest.

Footnote: The original painting hangs in Keble College Oxford. There is a bigger version in St Paul's in London and one in Manchester.

The guide-book says:

 There are two lights shown in the picture. The lantern is the light of conscience and the light around the head is the light of salvation with the door representing the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. There is no handle on the door, and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking for permission to enter. The bright light over the figure is the morning star, the dawn of the new day, and the autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life. The writing under the picture, which is rather hard to read, is taken from Revelation 3 'Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.'

You can buy your own copy or a postcard, in the souvenir shop at St Pauls. I suppose that's where the Vicar of Dibley got hers! (It's on the left in the clip above).