Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sacred Flames

I am not particularly familiar with the Spanish artist Goya – but this is his “Lunatics in the Yard” – painted around 1793, and currently in the Meadows Museum, Dallas, Texas. Goya's yard is overwhelmingly stark, showing shackled inmates enclosed by high walls and a heavy stone arch. Inmates fight and grin idiotically or huddle in despair, all bathed in an oppressive grey and green light, guarded by a single man. The work stands as a horrifying and imaginary vision of loneliness, fear and social alienation - painted at a time when Goya was unwell, and suffering from increasing deafness, and possibly mental health issues. Goya must have felt awful to paint like this!


However, this painting has been the inspiration for contemporary artist Paul Benney, whose work “Speaking in Tongues” is currently on display in Leicester Cathedral. Christine and I went and looked at it on Monday. It is based on the verse in Acts 2 – And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.” We couldn’t take photos so these two images are from the Cathedral website


The subjects of the picture are all friends and contemporaries of the artist – depicted as the Apostles with Pentecostal flames hovering above them. The reflective resin surface allows the viewer to appear to be part of the group in an extraordinary and thought-provoking way. Benney’s depiction of light emanating from the head as an animation of the spirit has echoes in the imagery of many different religions such as The Mandoria in Asian art, The Pillar of Fire in Judaism, the Aureole in the sacred art of Ancient Greece, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. This is a particular fascination for Benney. [The Cathedral website gives full details of the tour – this artwork is going all round the country after June]Speaking-in-Tongues-section

What did we make of it? Well… we had an interesting chat with another lady about there being twelve Apostles [although Judas had gone, they’d just chosen Matthias to replace him] and the fact that only the twelve are depicted [I believe there were others there too, including women! see Acts 1;15&16]

We were struck by the ‘ordinariness’ of these guys “Which one is Peter? ” asked the other onlooker “And are those two James and John, do you think?” I said. We liked the way that some were casual [the guy in the hoodie – sadly not visible in the section shown above] and others smart [the one in glasses with suit and tie]  I have always had a mental picture of the flames on top of there heads – these seem to emanate from their foreheads. As Chris pointed out, they don’t exactly ‘sit’ upon them. I think what struck us most was the different ages of the men- from young to middle aged- why is it one assumes that the disciples were all thirty-somethings?

Having come home and checked up on the Goya piece, I can see the similarities- that lighter triangular section of canvas at the top, the use of shadows and dark tones, the different angles of faces and postures, and clever use of body language.

All the men looked …bemused, expectant, wondering…as I guess you would if such an amazing thing happened. The Verger said “It is amazing at night, when the Cathedral is dark – all you can see are the glowing flames.” Which seems appropriately profound – when the world seems dark, we look for the Light of God’s Spirit to illuminate us, and the Fire of His Power to inspire us.

Intriguingly, as we came back on the bus, I saw posters for the new film Divergent – these also have a flame on them


There appear to be two straplines – the first “One choice can transform you” and the second “What makes you different makes you dangerous” The apostles discovered that choosing to follow Jesus transformed them – and the rest of the world discovered the difference in these men after Pentecost. Beforehand  a scared bunch of people – afterwards a united, powerful, challenge as the church grew and spread.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm,why do we assume the apostles were all in their thirties? I'd never thought about that before.
    Jane x


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