res miranda

Gosh, it’s been a long time since we’ve had a good blog discussion.  The comments on the last post on the Easby Nativity are wonderful — and I still haven’t thought through half of them.  Kelvin seems to be leaning towards an essay on the influence of Eastern thought on Marian iconography.  Rosemary is exploring the economic situation of the holy family and the scarcity of donkeys.  Meanwhile Ruth keeps us grounded.

Inevitably, the essay I had in mind was about the incarnation and eucharistic theology (when is it not?).  The detail that fascinates me most in the mural is the hint of writing that threatens to cover the scene.  Other, now absent, writing did more damage to the Annunciation, and I wonder if the Reformers who whitewashed the murals used extra-nasty wash on the Marian scenes to try to ensure her demise.  Thankfully Mary is too tenacious for that, and we love her for it.

So, I find that these pictures help me understand the pain and turmoil of the Reformation in a way I never really have.  I’m no good at history, and care little whether something is in English or Latin, so the word-driven conflicts feel remote to me.  But when I stand in front of the Easby murals and think of them being blotted out and then covered with heavy words, I sense the anger of the masses who must have wanted their plucky Mary and weary Joseph back.

I wonder, too, how the paintings effected the congregation’s experience of the eucharist.  If every time you take bread and wine, the Christ child is smiling down at you from his ox-warmed crib, do you experience the paradox of Word made flesh, bread made flesh, flesh made Word more deeply?  Does it lead to a gentler, more hospitable Christianity than if you break bread and wine under the ominous Gothic script of The Law?  For me it would.

And for all that one might criticize the hierarchies of the Mediaeval church, I think there is something much more open-ended in telling the story of salvation through pictures instead of words.  Pictures tug at our hearts.  Quotations tell us that someone thinks they know just which bit of God’s word we most need to hear.

So, in the Curriculum of Wonder?  Well, this picture would keep us busy for a long time.  With younger children, we’d spend a few weeks with it at least (looking, naming what we saw, asking questions, learning songs, drawing pictures, imagining how it felt to see them covered over, trying to understand why someone would think it was right to do that, wondering how we can cope with people who upset us deeply).  With older teens, it might take a term, or a year.  I can imagine people picking a detail and trying to make sense of it; learning the history, exploring other images, talking with people about their sense of the nativity or the eucharist or the use of pictures in worship today.  And it seems to me that this is how we think now anyway — following links, exploring chains of ideas, letting something catch our eye and seeing where it leads us.   And then the teaching comes in trying to help each person put all the pieces together: to find some sort of cohesion and meaning in the midst of all the possibilities of wonder.  Teaching probably isn’t the right word.  It’s more ‘focusing’ — holding someone still long enough that they have time and space to think, and not letting them off the hook till they do.

Each panel of the mural tells a different story — it offers a different, overlapping curriculum.  I’m about to post them all up on Life and Light.  And today I give thanks for the vision of the artists who first pictured the smiling Christ-child, the brave Mary, the star-struck shepherds, and the insistent angels.  I am glad they got in quick with their water-colours before the plaster dried, and thus left us with visions of the glory of God that endured the worst of churchy conflicts and self-righteous violence.

5 thoughts on “res miranda”

  1. For no consideration on God’s good green earth would I ever have covered these pictures, but I know why they did it.

    They were overwhelmed by a sense of the holiness of God – that to him and him alone should glory be given. Mary? Not God! Why look to her when, suddenly, they could pray Jesus’ own prayer in their own language, and God Father? When they even called their own Father ‘Sir’, and had used to call their priest the same. They were dazzled by their ability to read -something their fathers and mothers could not do. THEY could read the words on the wall- oh yes! Easy peasy they could -you want them to show you? They were astonished that books, which had been so valuable they had to be chained up had now become so cheap that even their little family could afford one. They could hardly believe that whereas before they had to be told everything they had to believe,now they were given a book and allowed to make out the stories for themselves. And what astonishment was in it. Their, in their very own language, the one they pretty much spoke, were astonishing things- the Prodigal Son, the rules for life, a love-song to God.Then there was the joy of knowing that what they were doing was a new exciting thing. This was a new,truer way of worship, and very shortly they would all be back to doing JUST what the apostles themselves had done. Why, it would be like being with those who had actually SEEN Jesus. So so close to him. What a blessing!

  2. As always, you are persuasive. But I’ll bet some of them missed the pictures anyway. I’m still thinking about this in relation to Lydia’s post yesterday — why I feel those black words on the wall at Easby are heavy, instead of the contrast which allows for ‘white fire.’ Too many thought, too ill formed. And they are bumping up against thoughts of the Guardian article on the way books get inside us.

    None of that will emerge as a blog post today, so let us hope something more straightforward comes to mind.

  3. I am sure many of them felt utterly desolate as all beauty moved form churches – all I seek to do is to put forward what those with the pot of whitewash felt. I seek to see and to feel for both sides.

    It is the ‘Thou shalt not’ which inspires Blake’s ‘Thou shalt not’ is writ on the door. (Chapel of Love) To so many, for so many years, Christianity has seemed that. Yet the churches with the Ten Commandments up everywhere, are also the churches where George Herberts served, taking off their coats to push carters out of trouble.

  4. For me, teaching also involves helping others think logically, think of proportion (something iconoclasts usually fail to do) ad think of the other point of view. Daily Mail attitudes seem to me to spring form a failure in those three.

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