“Jesus wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel”
Who would you be happy to share a towel with?
There’s a lovely depiction of Peter in Ford Madox Brown’s painting, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet that shows him looking seriously shocked at the idea. The original viewers were also shocked – Jesus was originally shown half-naked, and his robe added later.
But towels are actually very useful. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for instance has a few things to say on the subject of towels…
"A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can wrap it round your head to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough. And any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with."
More seriously (I suppose): the towel is a central sign of what Christian life and ministry is all about. The deacon’s stole started life as a towel over a waiter’s shoulder. But the towel does not speak just to ordained ministers. It is a sign for all who bear name of Christ that they must always be becoming more like Christ, which means a close-up personal bending to, serving, sharing relationship with God, their fellow-Christians, and all God’s world
As Holy Week reaches its climax, there is no better time to engage with God on a serious spiritual journey. As we wash each others’ feet there is no better time to engage personally with each other. And as we open our doors and our hearts to the whole community at Easter we face the challenge to welcome them ‘just as they are’, washed, or not.
The Hungate Medieval Art project at St Peter Hungate, Princes Street, Norwich will be formally opened on 2 April 2009. Conceived in 2007 by Kate Weaver (formerly of the Churches Conservation Trust) and Fellows Paul Binski, Anthony Barnes, Jeremy Haselock and Carole Rawcliffe, this project was established with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Pilgrim Trust to use St Peter Hungate Church in Norwich as a centre for celebrating the remarkable medieval artefacts to be found in Norfolk’s churches. The opening exhibition focuses on Norfolk’s rich legacy of stained glass. The church will be open to the public 10am to 3pm on Thurs, Fri and Sat (and to pre-booked groups on other days). Admission costs £3 (£2.50 concessions), but is free on 4 April 2009.
This is Albertinelli’s painting of the Visitation. It’s fully life-size. When you turn the corner in the Uffizi and see it, you feel could walk in. And it’s all about touch and life. Mary and Elizabeth bend towards each other in care and joy, and invite us to look to one another in the same way.
It’s the antithesis of the stand-up-straight self-reliance that many of us were brought up to.
Elizabeth’s face is that of an older woman. Close up, it reminded me oddly of Gazza’s. God’s Spirit moves in unexpected places, and as if bending towards one another wasn’t already enough it seems we are called not censor the way in which we bend.
Albertinelli was certainly full of life and open to the everyday side of life, and it’s something of a miracle that he managed a masterpiece with such poise. Vasari said he was “a most restless person and carnal in the affairs of love and apt to the art of living, and, taking a dislike to the studies and brain-wracking necessary to painting, being also often stung by the tongues of other painters, as is their way, he resolved to give himself to a less laborious and more jovial profession, and so opened the most lovely hostelry outside the Porta San Gallo.”
I had the privilege of leading a quiet day for wives and husbands of the clergy in our diocese this last weekend. Our theme was ‘Taking Time’ – for God, Each other, and the World. We used Bible passages and artworks to open up the themes. The three talks are reproduced here. If you hold the cursor over the artwork links a small preview should open automatically.
A sermon preached at Buckden on 22nd February 2009
2Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
If you venture into the cloakroom of Bishop’s House in Ely, you’ll see what at first sight looks like a billiard table or dining table top propped against the wall. In fact, if you were to turn it round you’d see that it is a now-restored reproduction of Raphael’s famous painting of the Transfiguration, his last and perhaps greatest masterpiece, still incomplete when he died on his 37th birthday on Good Friday 1520.
The most remarkable thing about it, as Renaissance paintings of the Transfiguration go, is that it combines in one composition two scenes that stand adjacent in the gospel – the Transfiguration, and the attempted healing of the demoniac boy. By its very structure it is making a statement that the other-worldly, elevated, rapturous experience on the mountain top is inseparably connected with the very this-worldly, needy experience in the valley below.
It’s worth dwelling for a moment on how the painting works.
No, not my brother the Rt Revd Andrew Burnham, Bishop of Ebbsfleet, this time (you can find him at http://www.ebbsfleet.org.uk/) but a new 50 metre tall monumental statue to be built near Ebbsfleet International Station. The artist is Mark Wallinger, famous for the ‘Ecce Homo’ of Christ on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth (www.youtube.com/watch?v=i74ME692wx8). Wallinger’s later work has a strong religious sense (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Wallinger – NB especially his ‘Angel’ video) and the new giant horse seems set to rival Anthony Gormley’s famous ‘Angel of the North’. The whole way of how religious imagery is still live and kicking in today’s art is fascinating. ‘”It’s the imagery we’ve got” said one artist, so I don’t assume a narrow capital R agenda, but I do relish the way that art is still able to engage with the spiritual journey. Here are some links to follow up on the debate: