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.

turning point

The best exam question I was ever asked came at Christmas in my sixth form year.  It was in a British Studies class: in interdisciplinary History and Literature class, team taught by two of the best teachers I have ever had. It was my first three hour exam:  an hour for literature, an hour for history, and an hour for… well, that’s the bit I want to tell you about.

The third hour was a free for all.  In the last minutes of the second hour, the teachers began placing postcards face down on our desk.  The postcards had something to do with the curriculum, and it was our task to figure out and write about what.  That was all.  ‘Please write for one hour in reference to your postcard and the things you have learned this term.’

Mine was of a boar snuffling around the base of a tree.  At least I think it was a boar.  It might have been a pig, but it was hard to tell. It was richly coloured and glinting, from some illuminated manuscript or other.  Quite lovely, in its way, but a bit alarming as an exam question.

I paused briefly to panic, and watched as every illuminated boar-related though flit through my mind.

  • truffles
  • manuscript
  • monasteries
  • scribes, literacy
  • court
  • hunting
  • poverty and riches
  • Grendel
    (no, I don’t know why either, but it works like that sometimes)
  • Boar’s Head Carol
  • Boar hunting >> dangerous >> knights>> chivalry
  • heir to the throne, risk
  • oh help, I need to write an essay about a boar?
  • England and France
  • Aquitaine
  • The Lion in Winter
    No, wait.  That’s a different course.
  • Oh help.
  • Bestiaries

Anyway, you get the idea.  There is actually more than enough there to write for an hour.  You just need to sort it into clusters and wax lyrical.  I took a deep breath, and wrote frantically till the time was up.

And then I panicked all through the holidays because I really hadn’t a clue as to what they had wanted or whether I had given it to them.

Thankfully, I had.  It was a turning point for me:  the first moment my terribly divergent mind was given free reign and deemed worthy.  It was fun.  And, I confess, all the more so because most of my classmates — who were usually smarter and faster and more clever than I– had not coped with the postcards at all and suddenly, my essay was offered up as the model.

I was reminded of that exam as I looked at the wall paintings in Easby recently.  Easby is best know for the Abbey ruins, and the Turner painting thereof.  But what I didn’t realise for years was that the real treasure of Easby is in the parish church.   There, unguarded and unprotected, are a set of wall paintings dating from  c. 1250 which tell the story of salvation.

They are captivating and beautiful, and I will say more about them later in relation to my nascent thoughts on wonder. But for now, I just want to show you my favourite and ask you to consider in in the spirit of the British Studies exam.