The Old and the New, Religion or Art by Jeannine Cook

Every time you step into a museum, something new and fascinating swims into your consciousness. The magic happened again yesterday as I was in the most interesting British Museum exhibition, Sunken Cities, Egypt's Lost Worlds. Presenting amazing artifacts recovered from on-going underwater archeological work in the re-located sunken ports of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus at the mouth of the Nile, the exhibition tells of the new insights into life in Egypt during the last four hundred years or so BC.

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Christmastime Beauty by Jeannine Cook

As a small child growing up in East Africa, on the Equator, Christmas caused me considerable perplexity because all the traditional Yule time images were of snow clad lands, twinkling lights, tall fir trees clad in decorations. None of that was believable really because the tropical world was brilliant, un-winterlike and generally very different. Churches were distant, friends as well, and the family was obliged to follow Nature's dictates and care for the farm and its needs, even on Christmas Day.

Nonetheless, I learned early of the great beauty that is generated and connected to Christmas, no matter where one is in the globe. Whether one is very religious or not makes no difference to the special feeling to Christmas, because of the beauty of music, art and every other form of creativity connected to the celebration of these days of festivity. When the only sources of patronage, and thus livelihood, were the Church or very rich people, artists and musicians were able to work, creating wondrous works that have endured down the centuries and enriched all our lives. Much of this heritage was also created in and for the remarkable churches, basilicas and cathedrals that we all cherish today. A remarkable synthesis that enriches the Western world even today... as one sees especially at Christmastime.

King's College Chapel, Back Court, Cambridge

King's College Chapel, Back Court, Cambridge

Think of the ethereal voices of the choristers singing in King's College Chapel in Cambridge (at right) for the Christmas Eve service. Or Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio which was first performed in St. Nicholas' Church in Leipzig in 1734. While the music fills our ears, often around us in these churches, the stained glass windows accompany in their glory and the statues in the chapels are graceful and evocative. Imagine listening to a Christmas concert as you are sitting in Sainte Chapelle, in Paris' Ile de la Cité , with these stained glass windows glowing above one's head,

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Even small pieces are powerful reminders of the beauty we all inherit, such as Lucca della Robbia's glazed terracotta Nativity Scene, created in 1460.

Nativity, Lucca della Robbia, glazed terracotta,1460, (Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington_)

Nativity, Lucca della Robbia, glazed terracotta,1460, (Image courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington_)

There are so many wondrous paintings that depict the Nativity, the Holy Family, the Virgin and Child and related subjects that everyone is spoiled for choice. It is fun to scroll through the troves of these images now so easily available on the Web, and suddenly, one chances on something totally unfamiliar and captivating.

Guercino  (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) , early 1630s, red chalk,   Madonna and Child with an escaped goldfinch (in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art).

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) , early 1630s, red chalk,  Madonna and Child with an escaped goldfinch(in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art).

One could go on and on celebrating Christmas with the extraordinary diversity of beauty previous generations have left us. Even in times of tawdry Christmas commercialism, it is easy to step away from it and lose oneself in wonderful creations. The Web makes this beauty even more accessible to everyone - what a Christmas gift.

Merry Christmas to everyone who reads these lines. May your lives be filled with beauty!

Art that alludes to the Sacred by Jeannine Cook

Ephraim Rubenstein, a wonderful artist and fellow silverpoint artist, has just sent me the announcement for his forthcoming solo exhibition at the George Billis Gallery on West 26th Street in New York. Entitled Temples and Cathedrals, it is a show of large-scale mixed drawing media depictions of European Gothic cathedrals and massive Greek temple ruins. It will certainly be a dramatic and impressive array of drawings.

What I found interesting were Ephraim's concepts behind this body of work. In both the pagan temples and the cathedrals, he evokes the "magisterial quality of these sacred spaces". Scale, architecture, play of light are all devices used in sacred structures to impress and convey a sense of the presence of the divine. There can be few of us who have not been silenced in awe at the sight of the mighty harmony of soaring Gothic arches or the dazzling glory of huge rose windows enclosed by lacy stone. Similarly, Greek temples, no matter how shattered by time and man's depredations, evoke the centrality and the power of the gods in man's daily life by the extraordinary elegance and drama of columns, friezes, pediments.

Selinunte I  (mixed media, 38×50), Ephraim Rubenstein  (Image courtesy of Artists Network)

Selinunte I (mixed media, 38×50), Ephraim Rubenstein  (Image courtesy of Artists Network)

Cathedral VII  (mixed media, 38×50), Ephraim Rubenstein, (Image courtesy of Artists Network)

Cathedral VII (mixed media, 38×50), Ephraim Rubenstein, (Image courtesy of Artists Network)

By playing these very different types of structures off each other in his dramatic monochrome renderings of temples and cathedrals, Ephraim reminds us of man's perpetual quest for the sacred. As he points in his press release about the exhibition, the metamorphosis of man's religious beliefs, from paganism to Christianity, is echoed even in the stones of the different sacred structures. Many of the cathedrals were built with stones taken from earlier temples. Another form of Sic transit.

Knowing how beautiful Ephraim Rubenstein's art is, I am certain that this will be an exhibition well worth visiting if you are in Manhattan.

The Pope and his invocation of "beauty" by Jeannine Cook

I am sure that a considerable number of members of the general art community around the world must have read with interest about the Pope's invitation to artists to a gathering at the Sistine Chapel this past 21st Nov. Whatever one's thoughts about such a invitation, the mere fact that one could sit, peacefully, and look at Michelangelo's ceiling in its brilliantly coloured restoration would make the invitation worth accepting, I suspect. About 250 artists of all disciplines did accept, apparently - from Placido Domingo to Santiago Calatrava and Zaha Hadid.

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel

Since the Pope and the Vatican have quite a lot of fence-mending to do with the art world, in many ways, this was an interesting development. (Check out Edward Winkleman's comments too on the Pope's speech.) Whilst the Pope's announcement that the Vatican will participate in the 2011 Venice Biennale is a clear signal of involvement in the contemporary art scene, his speech seemed to dwell more on "beauty" and its potential pathway to the "transcendent". In some ways, his words resonate when he said, "In a world lacking in hope, with increasing signs of aggression and despair, there is an ever greater need for a return to spirituality in art."

Benedict XVI also said, "What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation - if not beauty?" Moreover, "the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful."

Wonderful words, hard to define really, let alone put into practice. Especially when the Pope also talked of "the beauty thrust on us is (too often) illusory and deceitful. It imprisons man within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy." Frankly, that is a passage that leaves me wondering who defines the Vatican's version of beauty. I don't know enough of present Vatican cultural politics. Does anyone else who is reading this ?

Nonetheless, I find it refreshing to see such a figure as the Pope talking of beauty and its central role in life, spiritually and culturally. Not so very long ago, particularly in the United States, the word, "beauty" was very much out of fashion in the art world. We are all impoverished when beauty, in its many, many forms and versions, is not part of our daily lives.