John Ruskin, La Merveille, Mont St Michel, Normandy, 1848.
Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 26.5 x 25 cm
Source: Robert Hewison, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, 2000.
so-called ‘magical stela of Horus’ (a stela is a large tablet, usually made of stone) depicts the god Horus in the conventional Egyptian form for a youth: nude and wearing his hair in a side lock. He is portrayed here as Harpokrates, the Greek version of Horus-the-Child. The story told on this stela refers to the episode in Horus’ life when he grew up hiding from his evil uncle Seth in the marshes of the Nile delta. Protected by the magical powers of his mother, Isis, he was saved from a venomous animal’s mortal bite.
This slab shows the infant god as a conqueror of dangerous beasts. He is standing on a crocodile, holding a snake, a lion, a scorpion and a gazelle. These kinds of stelae were inscribed with magical spells and were thought to possess healing properties and used to protect people from dangerous animals. Water was poured over the stela to charge it with magic, the water was collected in the basin and the victim drank it.
This particular stela shows the popularity of ancient Egyptian gods even among people from elsewhere. It features a Phoenician inscription of the person who dedicated it – Paal-Astarte, son of Chemrebi, a man of Phoenician origin who believed in ancient Egyptian magic!
This stela is on display in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (19 May – 27 November 2016).
In a memorable scene from her memoir The Florist’s Daughter, Patricia Hampl describes what it was like, when she was a child, to watch her father arranging flowers:
He emerges from the walk-in cooler with an armload of flowers — tangerine roses and purple lisianthis, streaked cymbidium orchids, brassy gerbera daisies and little white stephanotis, lemon leaf, trailing sprengeri fern, branches of this, stems of that. He tosses the whole business on the big table, and stands in front of what looks like a garbage heap. An empty vase is set in front of him. He appears to ignore it. He just stands there, his pocketknife in his hand, but not moving, and not appearing to be thinking. He doesn’t touch the mess of flowers, doesn’t sort them. He just stares for a long vacant minute. He’s forgotten I’m sitting there.
Then, without warning, he turns into a whirlwind, Without pause, grabbing and cutting, placing and jabbing, he puts all the flowers into the vase, following some inner logic so that — as people always said of his work — it looks as if the flowers had met and agreed to position themselves in the only possible way they should be. He worked faster than anyone else in the shop, without apparent thought or planning. I could distinguish his arrangements — but they weren’t anything as artificial as an “arrangement” — from across the room from the dozens lined up on the delivery table for the truck drivers.
This is the art of arrangement: a discernment of the inner shapes and forms of things, followed by a self-effacement. So too with arrangement in all the arts.
Also universally true: that limited resources bring out the best, or worst, in an arranger. My friend Father Martin Johnson was a set designer in a previous life, and he commented to me once that a spare set was much more expensive to design than a busy one, because when the objects of our attention are few, every one of them has to be precisely right.
I am especially fascinated by musical arrangement, in which simple effects, when created by people who know what they’re doing, have extraordinary power. I could illustrate this point solely by reference to the work of Billy Strayhorn, who did more than almost anyone realizes to make the sound of Duke Ellington’s band, but let me instead take three examples from varied musical traditions.
Start with Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose choral settings are close to unparalleled. Listen to “Loch Lomond”:
Notice how in the third stanza and chorus he creates tremendous emotional power by the simple tactic of switching the roles of the lead tenor and the chorus: the rich weave of the choir in that verse is succeeded by the keening solo: “You take the high road….” And then in the closing notes the bass sinks down to notes we might expect in Rachmaninoff’s Vespers but that seem almost shockingly tragic in a performance of a Victorian imitation of a folk song.
The tragic element in Radka Toneff’s definitive version of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” — no one else should ever sing this song — is intensified by Toneff’s death, probably by her own hand, at age twenty-nine. But there is more than enough tragedy in her performance: I don’t know that I’ll ever quite get over the way she sings “The sky’s made of stone” in the last stanza.
Every note, every inflection, of her rendering of the song is masterful — but so too is the piano of Steve Dobrogosz, so spare that he can’t afford to put one foot wrong. And he doesn’t. The vocal and the piano walk the same tightrope, and do it with such apparent effortlessness that you can’t imagine the song being different in any way. It’s “not anything as artificial as an ‘arrangement’” — it’s just heartbreaking.
That’s too dark a note to end on, and anyway it’s time to turn to another genre. Here’s Bill Withers singing “Use Me” (apologies for the dopey video — close your eyes while listening, please):
In addition to Withers’ urgent vocal, we have acoustic guitar, bass, percussion, clavinet — that’s it. (Plus three skillfully-placed handclaps — listen for them.) Spare in a very different way, everything driven by that funky beat and the unforgettable clavinet riff — if you can call a sequence that long (alternately 12 and 15 notes) a riff. I call it a riff, and one of the best I’ve ever heard.
Obviously, this is a very different musical experience than the first two, but it has in common with them that uncanny perfection of limited resources arranged in such a way that you couldn’t add anything without compromising the power of the song. That’s the power of great arrangement, whether of flowers or objects on a stage set or musical instruments and notes: the power to make you think Don’t touch it — please don’t take anything away, and for God’s sake don’t add anything. It’s as if all these things have “agreed to position themselves in the only possible way they should be.”
I willingly accept the ascendancy of the object which the artist has conceived and which he lays before my eyes; I then abandon myself unreservedly to the emotion which in him and in me springs from a same beauty, from a same transcendental in which we communicate. But I refuse to accept the ascendancy of an art which contrives suggestive means by which to seduce my subconscious, I resist an emotion which the will of a man seeks to impose upon me. The artist must be as objective as the man of science, in the sense that he must think of the spectator only in order to present him with the beautiful, or the well-made, just as the man of science thinks of his listener only in order to present him with the true. The cathedral builders did not harbor any sort of thesis. They were, in Dulac’s fine phrase, “men unaware of themselves.” They neither wished to demonstrate the propriety of Christian dogma nor to suggest by some artifice a Christian emotion. They even thought a great deal less of making a beautiful work than of doing good work. They were men of Faith, and as they were, so they worked. Their work revealed the truth of God, but without doing it intentionally, and because of not doing it intentionally.
— Jacques Maritain, from Art and Scholasticism
January 10, 1946: The General Assembly of the United Nations met for the first time in Westminster Central Hall in London, England
The colors and illustrations featured in this map are pretty spectacular!
Map: MacDonald, Gill. The time and tide map of the United Nations. London: George Philip & Son, 1948.
There’s the Hinton St Mary Mosaic – an early Romano-British representation of Christ, with the Chi-Ro symbol monogrammed behind his head, clearly modelled in some ways on images of the sun god, indebted a bit to images of royal authority.
At the same time, this is someone wearing a very simple costume, and when you see something similar in mosaics of later on, very clearly dressed as a philosopher, a wandering teacher. The plain tunic around the shoulder and the unfashionable long hair and beard of philosopher or sage. [RW raises eyebrows. Audience laughter.]
The point being, when you go into one of the great basilicas of the late Roman empire and you see a mosaic of Christ enthroned at the far end, you’re looking at the place where the emperor would sit. And the emperor would be sitting there either dressed in his armour or in cloth of gold with a diadem around his head.
So you’re looking to the throne, but who’s on it? This rather curious and disreputable wandering teacher. So you have a bit of a paradox in visual form there. The person who holds the emperor’s authority in cosmic terms isn’t just another soldier or administrator in uniform, but a philosopher, a sage. So something’s being said there that is on the edge of paradox. It’s been suggested, quite credibly, that some of that tradition of representing Jesus borrows from the ways in which late Classical art used to depict Plato the philosopher or Homer the poet. So it’s a poet, a philosopher, it’s a wordsmith who’s sitting on the throne.
The effect of beauty, therefore, is good to the degree that, through its analogies, the goodness of created existence, the historical fall into unfreedom and disorder, and the possibility of regaining paradise through repentance and forgiveness, are recognized. Its effect is evil to the degree that beauty is taken, not as analogous to, but as identical with goodness, so that the artist regards himself or is regarded by others as God, the pleasure of beauty taken for the joy of Paradise, and the conclusion drawn that, since all is well in the work of art, all is well in history. But all is not well there.