Of Light, Shadow, and Context

I recently read some of my poems at The Writer’s Studio monthly reading series at Cottage Bistro.

One was about an artwork the Artist and I stared at the longest out of all the art we saw on our Europe trip last fall: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, a Catholic church in Rome decorated in the ornate Baroque style.

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At the reading, I mentioned how we typically enjoyed the experience of seeing art in churches more than in museums and galleries for a couple reasons: 1) churches were often less crowded 2) there’s something significant about seeing art in the context it was made for.

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Take Caravaggio’s painting above. The Calling of Saint Matthew is one of three paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to make for a chapel, off to the left side of the nave, dedicated to the disciple. A dramatic swath of light cuts across the canvas, mimicking the way the natural light from the chapel falls on his painting—something Caravaggio was aware of as he was making the work.

Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow) got me noticing dramatic plays of light and shadow across the canvas of Rome.

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I’ve begun thinking about other artworks we saw in churches that wouldn’t be the same if we had seen them on the nondescript walls of a museum or gallery.

The photograph above shows a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s soaring four-columned bronze canopy (called a baldachin or, as Rick Steves refers to it, “God’s four-poster bed”) that sits above the altar and below the dome is one such example. As soon as you walk into the massive cathedral, there is so much height and width to feel lost in (it covers 6 acres!) But the relentlessly long nave acts like the shaft of light in Caravaggio’s painting, leading your eye to a focal point.

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This seven-story bronze canopy hovers over the Eucharist table, emphasizing the significance of this sacrament and enveloping it in a kind of “holy space” if you will. You get a sense of how big this sculpture is for it not to look dwarfed in the largest church in the world. The canopy connects the congregants gathering around its base to the dome above, lifting your eyes, as cathedrals brilliantly do, towards heaven. The bronze and gold also draw your eye to Bernini’s similarly coloured sculpture in the apse behind, enshrining the chair of St. Peter and the alabaster dove window that turns natural light into artificial rays of gold.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was a treasure chest of artworks and our favourite place for viewing art in Venice. The heroic-scale Titian painting behind the altar beckons you closer, the light flooding in from the windows amplifying the light of glory the Virgin is ascending to.

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Titled the Assumption of the Virgin, this artwork is infused with energy and motion. All gestures lead your eye up—from the earthbound apostles with reaching hands to the putti’s arms holding the cloud and to Mary’s raised arms. Notice how the colours do this too. Titian forms the base of a triangle out of the red-clothed apostles on the ground (Peter and John), with Mary in red as the apex, emphasizing her translation from earth to heaven.

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Photo by Didier Descouens from Wikipedia.

Even the shape of the painting, with its rounded top, mimics the choir-screen arch you see when standing in the centre of the nave. So much intentionality. I love this consideration between art and space and wish the experience of stepping into modern churches was as inspiring.

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What art have you seen that wouldn’t be the same in any other space? Maybe you’ve come across it in a church, or maybe it was in a gallery or museum. I’d love to hear!

Walking Munich’s Nazi Past

On a grassy lawn in Munich ripe with autumn’s freshness, I stood where the smell of ash and burnt paper once choked the air and learned about the courage of twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl.

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Ashamedly and shockingly, I had never met her in a classroom, never read her story in history books. It was at the end of a Third Reich walking tour that introduced me to her and the other members of the White Rose, a non-violent Nazi resistance group of students from the University of Munich.

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Our tour guide Tom, who led the provocative, information-packed three-hour walking tour without once referring to his notes, quoted 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who predicted:

Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.

He showed us a picture of Sophie, executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943, along with her older brother Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst, after being caught distributing pamphlets at the university.

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Her last words before heading to her death:

Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

A big question Sophie wrestled with (she studied biology and philosophy) was how to live in the face of a dictatorship? 

Her courage is echoed in Müncheners who took a back street (Viscardigasse) nicknamed Dodgers’ Ally to avoid saluting to Hitler when passing the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz that commemorated the death of Nazi soldiers during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The pedestrian-only street is marked with a meandering trail of bronze bricks to remember these small but significant acts by ordinary people.

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Dodgers’ Ally

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Tom said Munich hasn’t been as active in erecting monuments as the capital Berlin to remember its dark past as the hotbed of Naziism (Hitler even referred to Munich as “The Capital of the Movement”), but that it is making strides to change this.

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In recent years, a Third Reich documentation centre (above) was built on the site of the Brown House, the building that housed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party headquarters in the 1930s, and which was destroyed during the war. Nearby was the Führerbau that contained Hitler’s office, now the site of a music and theatre school. (If you look closely at the image below, you can see marks over the door on the top floor where a Nazi Eagle used to hang.)

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Near the Marienplatz we looked at a controversial plaque to German women and children mourning the loss of their husbands/fathers during WWII that raises the question, Were they victims or accomplices? And is the answer an easy either/or? No.

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Tom challenged our tour group: How would we live in the face of dictatorship? Would we capitulate or resist? And how can we judge others what we know from hindsight when we haven’t walked in their horrific shoes? As I wrote in my journal after the tour, “I think his point was that it takes a people to let something like Naziism take root—not just one man.”

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One German artist, since 1995, has created his own tradition of remembering. Wolfram Kastner burns a black circle into the Königsplatz lawn to commemorate the original Nazi book burning there on May 10, 1933. He says in this article written by Tony Sonneman:

There is so much systematic forgetting. I think it’s necessary to remember without covering history with grass.

Kastner also organizes a day-long “Reading Against Forgetting” event in the same spot where students, professors, actors, writers, politicians, and the public gather to read excerpts from the forbidden “nation-corrupting” books that were burnt, including those of Heinrich Heine.

The walking tour was a sobering experience, but one that impacted me most out of anything my husband and I did on our Europe trip.

This is an unsolicited post but I highly recommend the Sandemans Third Reich Tour  if you’re heading to Munich and want a deeper experience of the city. The cost is well worth what you learn and you don’t have to be a history buff to follow along.

Commonwealth: Coming Together after Breaking Apart

If ever there was a book to convince about why divorce isn’t great (in a non-didactic way), Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is it.

I don’t posit this as a main theme of the novel or want to reduce a masterpiece of storytelling down to this statement, but it is something that ran through my head while following the lives of ten characters over five decades (6 children, 4 parents), so I want to explore that lens a bit.

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The first chapter takes you into the house of a California couple, Fix and Beverly Keating, who are hosting a christening party for their second daughter Franny. It’s a long scene in which the omniscient narrator weaves in and out of multiple house guests, interactions, and seemingly unimportant observations that set the stage for the rest of the story. It is a kiss between Beverly and a surprise guest, Bert Cousins, that sparks an affair and leads to the eventual dissolution of both Beverly’s and Bert’s marriages.

The scene basically ends with the kiss though. The next chapter picks up with Fix as an old man going to the hospital with Franny for a cancer check-up. We understand Beverly and Fix divorced long ago, and yet the effects of their split and the blended Keating-Cousins children that result from Beverly and Bert’s marriage are very much the thread of this ambitious book. Patchett is concerned with inciting incidents and the long, complicated aftermath.

The two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, move with their mother and Bert to Virginia. Caroline makes no secret of being mad at her mother and wishes she could have stayed with her dad instead. Teresa keeps her four children (Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie) in California, but all six children come together in Virginia every summer when Bert gets his time with his kids, though ironically he never wants to spend any time with them. Beverly reflects on how all she ever wanted was her two daughters. Patchett’s decision to include the very real and mundane logistics of finding a chaperone for the four kids each summer on a cross-country flight is enough to make you feel sorry for everyone involved.

Sadness, blame, guilt, resignation, and regret all surface through this book, stemming from that one illicit kiss—that one action with a thousand consequences.

In a similar way of “like mother, like daughter,” Franny, as a twenty-something, gets involved with a famous author, Leon Posen, who’s married. Just like the opening scene of the christening party, Patchett vividly shows you that first encounter between Leon and Franny, and that scene is enough to fill-in-the-blanks about where their relationship goes. It goes into Franny recounting her family story to Leon who turns it into a bestseller and forces her family to revisit it all over. Again, an action with a thousand consequences.

Patchett primarily tells the story through the lives of the six children uneasily united in their disillusionment with their parents. The four parents get space too, but the bulk is the children’s stories told non-chronologically. There isn’t an obvious main character, but Franny would be it as Patchett spends more time on her and gives her the last word.

My only disappointment in reading the novel is that it wasn’t longer. I wasn’t ready to move on to what another child was up to in his/her adult life because I wanted to stay with the current character. An author who can create that desire in the reader has achieved something remarkable for a number of reasons:

  1. The reader doesn’t tend to stay with flat or perfect characters. Each of the children are recognizable but not clichés—in other words, human. They surprise you, especially their movement from childhood to adulthood, and they each have a good mix of likeable and unlikeable qualities.
  2. Patchett understands that certain siblings in large, blended families get overlooked, especially in childhood (e.g. Jeannette and Albie). By giving attention to all of them, Patchett shows each person is interesting, even if they’re not all “doing” interesting things.
  3. The reader can witness a tragic incident in all of their lives from multiple perspectives, highlighting the various ways guilt and grief manifest.

In closing, I want to revisit my opening statement about this book showing how messy and unattractive divorce is. The book also shows six children picking up the pieces of their parents’ decisions and finding their way through the brokenness together. If ever there was a book to convince about the benefit of having siblings, Commonwealth is it.

Franny gave her sister a tired smile. “Oh, my love,” she said. “What do the only children do?”

“We’ll never have to know,” Caroline said.

Salt Spring

On the weekend the Artist and I took a little getaway to Salt Spring Island. I had been as a child but had no memories of it so it was like going for the first time. The connotations I had in my mind though: hippies, arbutus trees, artist studios.

We saw a good share of all three plus a whole lot more, which I tried to reflect in the photos below. We loved our three and a half days there walking on trails, reading at the beach, eating artisan foods, going to the legendary Saturday Market, and driving till roads dead ended, stopping at artist studios and enjoying the overall quirkiness of the island. We were very thankful the weather cooperated. Could it be actual spring at last?

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Store sign in town

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Ruckle Provincial Park

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One of favourite flower photographs

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Trail in Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park leading to Daffodil Point

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Daffodil Point

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Daffodils were dead but the view was great!

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Very alive daffodils in front of a derelict house

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The Saturday Market was overwhelming with how many artisan foods I wanted to try (and buy)

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These egg stands are everywhere and operate by the honour system

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Speaking of eggs…

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Adorable kids at the Salt Spring Cheese Farm, where I tasted the best goat cheese of my life

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We were welcomed to the island with this basket of fabulous local goodies from our hosts!

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Earth Day poem

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Creative way to mark your property

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I’m not so keen on crabs but I like this photo (credit to my husband)

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St Paul’s Catholic Church, oldest church on the island (1878)

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These trees look like they’re holding a conference

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Going on a limb here

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Till next time, Salt Spring!

Finding the Silver Lining in Florence

Florence was our least favourite city visited on our European trip last fall. I say that reluctantly because of its fame and hey, it’s Europe and aren’t all European cities supposed to be charming? But when we divulged this opinion to other travellers near the end of our journey, it turns out we weren’t the only ones.

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View of Brunelleschi’s dome and the terracotta roofs from Giotto’s bell tower

After coming from the delightfully colourful Cinque Terre, we found Florence uniformly dull. Brown as far as the eye can see (except for those hills in the distance). And no green space. I suppose it also didn’t help that Paris was our introduction to Europe where patches of green abounded and the Seine was as animated as a grand boulevard. Hardly anyone walked along the Arno, and it seemed more like a ditch than a river in some places.

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Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River. I do love the light in this photograph though.

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Ground and building blend into each other at Pitti Palace. Also, where are the benches?

Negative comments aside, we did enjoy Florence for its art (and gelato). This is the place to see Renaissance art. I’ll highlight a few works we stared at for awhile.

Michelangelo’s Deposition (or Florentine Pietà)

Florence is a crowded mid-sized city. We noticed the tourists here more than anywhere else on our trip. So when we had almost ten minutes alone with this sculpture in the Duomo Cathedral Museum, it felt nothing short of miraculous. Depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross, Michelangelo’s figures encircle Jesus’ limp body slumping towards earth—the pained Virgin Mary on his left, a mysterious-looking figure above (believed to be Nicodemus), and a very dwarfed Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right. All four figures look a different direction, in their own worlds with grief, yet your eye tends to circle the group counter-clockwise, starting in the middle with Jesus’ serpentine form. The work is captivating in its gravity, how three figures struggle to support the weight of a dead body. Interesting to note is that Michelangelo is said to have carved his own features into the face of the hooded man. This was his final sculpture, and he never finished it.

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Duomo Cathedral formally launched the Renaissance in Italy. They were so popular he was commissioned to create this second set depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The originals are in the Duomo Cathedral Museum. We had great fun studying and guessing, along with another keen tourist, which story each panel depicted. I love how Ghiberti packed so many narrative details into the tiny frames, showing off the new technique of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi and employed by Masaccio. For example, look at the depth of the space in the bottom left panel, showing Isaac blessing his younger son Jacob.

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A replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the east doors of the Baptistery

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Ghiberti’s original two sets of bronze doors in the Duomo Cathedral Museum

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The Baptistery with Giotto’s Bell Tower on the right in the background

Michelangelo’s David

He’s situated like the bride at the end of a church aisle. I felt so much expectation walking towards him, and for good reason. Everything about this sculpture is big and invites a full walk-around: What’s that expression in his eyes? Is this before or after the battle with Goliath? How does that sling work? This masterpiece is the reason to go to the Accademia Gallery.

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

We saw many Annunciation paintings on our trip. This is one of my favourites because of its simplicity and how the artist, a Dominican friar, situated the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a vaulted space very similar to the architecture of the convent he lived in—San Marco. No gilded hall pregnant with symbols, just a bare room emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness. The figures mirror each other in terms of their folded hands and bent torsos, a posture of divine submission. In religious communities, artwork like this aimed to enhance a life of prayer and contemplation for the friars. There’s also something special about seeing artwork in the location it was made for (usually a church or in this case, a convent) and beats the walls of a museum almost anytime.

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This work is the first thing you notice when you enter the dormitory of San Marco

More artwork to come in another post. Have you been to Florence? How did it rank in your books?

Lady Bird: Flying Close to Home

When I was young and driven around in the backseat of my parents’ van, I would pick out different houses I wished I lived in. One was on the way to church, a green and white farmhouse big enough for my sister and I to share with our future hockey player husbands. The other was just down the street, a two-storey, brown-shingled house with large windows and a magnificent weeping willow draped over a pond. I imagined a spiral staircase inside. Growing up in a rancher that was in a perennial state of renovation and boasted one bathroom for five people, I think the novelty of different stories was fantasy enough.

Read the rest of this article on Converge.

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Photo courtesy of Scott Rudin Productions