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Posts Tagged ‘Jacob’s ladder’

I was at Compton Verney recently to see a fascinating exhibition entitled Flight and the Artistic Imagination. It brought together all sorts of images and objects, many of them religious, about the almost universal human desire to fly. Part of the interest was seeing how different strands of mythology and culture could be woven together so unexpectedly.

The central theme of the first room, of course, was Icarus.

Son of Daedalus who dared to fly too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax. Daedalus had been imprisoned by King Minos of Crete within the walls of his own invention, the Labyrinth. But the great craftsman’s genius would not suffer captivity. He made two pairs of wings by adhering feathers to a wooden frame with wax. Giving one pair to his son, he cautioned him that flying too near the sun would cause the wax to melt. But Icarus became ecstatic with the ability to fly and forgot his father’s warning. The feathers came loose and Icarus plunged to his death in the sea.

But taking up a whole wall in the same room was Zurbaran’s Levitation of St Francis (I can’t find a copyright free image unfortunately), with St Francis in ecstasy, gazing up to heaven, flying through the sky, with nothing to frame him except the clouds.

At the same time as the exhibition explored the hugely important science of ballooning, and various artistic and cartographic responses to the first experiences of aircraft flight, it also looked at the biblical subject of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis 28, which reached to heaven and on which the angels of God ascended and descended.

So the various themes were eclectic, but there was a thought-provoking and unforced unity about the whole exhibition: our desire to fly, to escape from our earthly confines, to gain a more expansive vision, to pierce not just the clouds but the heavens. It was a beautiful way of reflecting on the search for transcendence.

Really it should have ended, at the scientific level, with the Hubble telescope, which has allowed us to see through the heavens of our own galaxy and to look beyond into the vastness of the universe – without satisfying the hunger to see still further beyond.

And at the spiritual level the best crowning image would have been not St Francis levitating, but the Ascension of Jesus or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when human nature was lifted up and taken through the veil into heaven itself. There are so many great artistic representations of feet seen from below – I’m thinking for example of the Slipper Chapel in Walsingham.

I’ve always enjoyed the Icarus story. My main project for O-level art at school (yes, I am old enough to remember O-levels) was developing a screen print of an Icarus figure leaping from the end of a pier and falling into the sea below. Designing the engineering of the pier structure gave me great delight – I love piers. And the mixture of hope and tragedy appealed to me. Maybe tragedy isn’t the right word; I think my image managed to convey the idea that it was better for Icarus to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. I took him as a heroic rather than a foolish figure; not just disregarding his father’s warnings, but truly believing that the wax might hold – and that it would be worth it.

It’s an argument for prayer for those who have no faith: it’s better to try, knowing that in theory it might be possible, even if you don’t yet have the personal experience or the objective evidence to prove it for yourself. The tragedy would be not taking the opportunity, not taking the risk. You wouldn’t crash to the ground, like Icarus; you’d just find yourself sitting comfortably in the same seat – maybe more enlightened, maybe more curious, maybe still puzzled, or perhaps completely anticlimaxed. But what is there to lose? I know, it’s not that simple…

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Jack's Beanstalk

I forgot to blog about the Kingdom of Ife exhibition at the British Museum, and I’ve just found out that it closes on 4 July. So you have a few days to go.

This is the exhibition that includes those remarkable brass heads from 14th and 15th century West Africa. They are stately and serene, but still highly personal. William Bascom, an American anthropologist who was involved in the finds, wrote: “Little that Italy or Greece or Egypt ever produced could be finer, and the appeal of their beauty is immediate and universal”

Less powerful, but equally interesting, were two terracotta chameleons about 4 inches long, each perched on a stone. Chameleons had a mythical status in Ife culture, and the captions retold the Ife creation myth (I’m summarising):

Olodumare, the supreme god who inhabited the sky, sent the god Orishanla to create the world and humankind. He got drunk on palm wine and fell asleep, so his younger brother Oduduwa took over the job.

Oduduwa climbed down an iron chain that had been hung from the sky to the watery land below. He carried from the sky above a snail-shell full of soil, a five-toed chicken, and a chameleon. He emptied out the soil, and the dry land was formed by the chicken kicking the soil around as he searched for food. The chameleon tested the land to see if it was firm. And then Orishanla (now sober) created human beings, while Oduduwa formed the rest of the living world. Oduduwa is described as the progenitor of the Yoruba race.

I love creation stories. But this one excited me so much because it reminded me of Jack and the Beanstalk. This beautiful image of the world above being united to our own world by some kind of cord. Either let down from above, like the chain; or grown up from below, like the beanstalk. The Tower of Babel. Jacob’s ladder. The Cross. Human desire stretching up; and God – perhaps – reaching down. Although for Jack the world above the clouds was not particularly heavenly.

It was always one of my favourite children’s stories. And even the comic version done for TV by the Goodies seemed magical to me. I must find a modern children’s book to see how it is being depicted today.

Here is the British Museum plug for the exhibition. It’s well worth catching:

This major exhibition presents exquisite examples of brass, copper, stone and terracotta sculpture from West Africa.

The Kingdom of Ife (pronounced ee-feh) was a powerful, cosmopolitan and wealthy city-state in West Africa (in what is now modern south-west Nigeria). 

Ife flourished as a political, spiritual, cultural and economic centre in the 12th–15th centuries AD, and was an influential hub of local and long-distance trade networks.

The exhibition features superb pieces of Ife sculpture, drawn almost entirely from the magnificent collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria.

The artists of Ife developed a refined and highly naturalistic sculptural tradition in stone, terracotta, brass and copper to create a style unlike anything in Africa at the time. The technical sophistication of the casting process is matched by the artworks’ enduring beauty.

The human figures portray a wide cross-section of Ife society and include images of youth and old age, health and disease, suffering and serenity.

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