Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Praying on the tourist trail

One of my meetings was cancelled today so I had a bit of time once I got into London. I strolled up Whitehall, picking my way over the trailing cables and manoeuvring in and out of gaggles of tourists and journalists waiting for something to happen and into the National Gallery.

It was as ever a place of tranquility and calm. There were groups of primary age children crowded round a painting having it explained to them and a few others wondering between paintings, whispering to one another.

I spent a good deal of time looking at the two wonderful Piero Della Francesca paintings the gallery has in their own viewing space.

The better known of the two is the Baptism of Jesus, a painting of such stillness it is impossible not to stop and contemplate it. The figure of Jesus is serene and prayerful but captured leaning slightly towards the viewer, as if  inviting us to share his moment of commitment to John's movement. Above him a perfectly stationary dove waits to complete her descent on to God's Son. It's as if Piero has frozen the action and invited the viewers to come and linger over the scene: Jesus at the start of his public ministry - what does it hold for him, what does it mean for us?

To the right of it is his less well known nativity. The painting looks unfinished, yet the backdrop appears very similar to the one in the baptism painting, suggesting it's drawn from Piero's own home town where he did a lot of his work. The simplicity of the execution looks intentional on Piero's part. This is not the cluttered nativity so commonly found in the work of his contemporaries. It is a sparse scene: a simply dressed Mary kneels before her infant who reaches up to his mother. A choir of angels with lutes sing to him. Joseph and the shepherds chat in the background.

Again Piero captures a moment of stillness, contemplation and devotion. Mary prays while Jesus reaches up to her, a suggestion that the Son of God responds when we call. And yet Jesus is also 'calling,' wanting feeding, affection, the tender human touch of a mother.

These are works of genius, beautifully composed and executed. But they also appear to be works of deep faith inviting the viewer into the life of prayer that is at the heart of them. It's wonderful to be able to able to step out of the bustle of Trafalgar Square into this holy space.

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