Saturday 23 October 2010

The Pope on the Pavement

When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United Kingdom in September, one of the most striking images was of him sitting side by side with the Archbishop of Canterbury, trading polite speeches, on the Cosmati Pavement of Westminster Abbey. That pavement is worthy of some attention, especially if, like me, you are interested in the symbolic meaning of geometrial forms and their role in the great cathedrals of Christendom. (The following notes are abridged from the official website description. But PLEASE WATCH this excellent documentary about the pavement. Bear in mind that the image I have chosen is just a detail.)

The pavement was laid down in 1268 by order of King Henry III who had started re-building St Edward the Confessor’s Abbey in the new Gothic style in 1245. The workmen came from Rome, with a man called Odoricus at their head. It is 24 feet 10 inches (7 metres 58 centimetres) square, with dimensions calculated in Roman feet, and consists of geometrical patterns built up from pieces of stone of different colours and sizes cut into a variety of shapes: triangles, squares, circles, rectangles and many others. The basic layout is a four-fold symmetry, but in detail the variations are endless. No two roundels are the same. Of the four "orbiting" roundels one is circular, one hexagonal, one heptagonal and one octagonal. The infill patterns are all different.

The inscriptions that accompanied the design, now damaged, read in part: "If the reader wisely considers all that is laid down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile" and "The spherical globe here shows the archetypal macrocosm."

The round stone at the centre contains colours representing the four elements. It is on this stone that every king or queen of England was crowned. [See also here.]

Thursday 7 October 2010

A dance of light

Following on from my previous post (The Sea, the Sea), it is worth noting that G.K. Chesterton had a very different and less sympathetic impression of Impressionism. To quote Fr Aidan Nichols' brilliant study, G.K. Chesterton, Theologian:
At the Slade Chesterton also acquired an extremely hostile attitude to the painterly mode called Impressionism, a hostility that not only later defined much of his attitude to art at large but was formative for the development of his realism in metaphysics. Consider his 1907 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. As Gabriel Syme, fleeing from the agents of Sunday, dives into a patch of woodland, the play of light and shade on the leaves causes him to muse:
Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sunsplashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing the modern people called Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
'The identification of Impressionism as a symptom of cultural and, especially, epistemological decadence also finds expression in, for example, his 1910 study of William Blake. Seeking to express how for Blake lucidity and decisiveness of outline were the chief desiderata in draftsmanship, Chesterton risks the anachronism of writing that “the thing he hated most in art was the thing which we now call Impressionism — the substitution of atmosphere for shape, the sacrifice of form to tint, the cloudland of the mere colorist.” 
I think Chesterton had a point - there are tendencies of that sort in Impressionism, although I see in several of the impressionists a very different spirit, and Claude Monet (one of whose pictures is reproduced above) I would even call a mystical realist, which is something very different from a sceptic. As for Blake, Chesterton's study of him will be the subject of a future post.