Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Searching for a Triumph

Happy New Year, lovely Reader, and I hope you had a splendid Christmas and that awkward 'middle bit' as well.  Hasn't it been wet, and didn't we all get nice presents?  Well, that's the pleasantries over with, lets get miserable.

Christmas is the nice festival in the Christian calendar, you know, the one where no-one dies or gets nailed to anything, that sort of thing.  Or that's what I thought...

Anno Domini Edwin Long
I almost used this picture in Blogvent but then thought that it shows a post-Christmas moment, rather than the pre-Christmas or 'manger action' that I like to have as my posts.  This is the Flight to Egypt (isn't that a Bony M album?  Hang on, that's Night Flight to Venus. Carry on.), the bit after the wise men have accidentally tipped off Herod that he's not really King and it all goes a bit wrong.  On that matter, can I just question exactly how 'wise' those so-called 'wise men' were?  Even I know that Herod was mad as a bag of frogs, so don't tell him anything, in fact give him a wide berth.  I think the shepherds showed far more common sense. Even the donkey showed more sense than the Wise Men.  I digress, but really...

Massacre of the Innocents Joseph Noel Paton
What happened afterwards?  Herod, not known for his restraint, decided to have every child under two years old killed in Bethlehem.  Well, that's just put the mockers on any Christmas jollity you may well have been hanging on to.  How did I end up on this cheery train of thought?  Firstly, there was this psychotropic monstrosity...

Triumph of the Innocents William Holman Hunt
Good Lord, this is one that catches the eye, isn't it?  It reminds me of the horrific Evian babies, as the oddly not-very-like-babies babies glow and dance around the fleeing holy family, with some bubbles.  It is possibly one of the weirdest pictures of the nineteenth century, apart from the other odd-kiddie-fest that is May Morning.  Scratch that, May Morning is much stranger, but Triumph of the Innocents is easily the second strangest picture of the entire Victorian period.  What made me look again at this picture was not the odd babies, the glowing, the hallucinating colours, not even the out-and-out peculiar expression on everyone's faces.  It was the title, the notion that somehow the horror of the whole situation, the desperation, the narrow escape and slaughter of children could somehow be construed as a 'triumph'.

Massacre of the Innocents Leon Cogniet
Horrible stuff indeed, and labelled as 'massacre'.  I find the Cogneit picture especially chilling, as if we are trying to hide with the desperate looking woman who is clutching her child.  In no way can you find these pictures uplifting or cheering, but Holman Hunt saw a triumph in it all.  Rather than showing the horror of Bethlehem, torn apart by Herod's soldiers, he showed the fleeing family, taking the spirits of the little children with them in a sort of celebration, a certainty that nothing can stop the power of Jesus.

But what of those little glowing babies?

Well, Paton had no fear in showing the death of the children, but somehow I find this less moving than the Cogniet image of the mother hiding, looking to us with a mixture of terror, anger, hope, madness and a whole bag of other things as she listens to the peers of her baby being slaughtered en mass.  It is her connection to us in that second that makes the moment real, as if we were there.  Are we hiding, are we hunting?  It is a terrible, terrifying place to be, made all the more awful by the look that joins us.

In this vein, we have The Coventry Carol, dating from the 16th century...

Many thanks to the gorgeous Mediaeval Baebes for their rendition.

 While appearing to have very little to do with the Victorian period, the only manuscript copy of this haunting song was burnt in 1875.  It is sung a cappella traditionally and it comes from a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, performed in Coventry (hence the name).  When I was singing along to this in the car in December, without paying much mind of what I was singing, I was struck by the lyrics, the heartbreak and the horror during what is meant to be a jolly season of snow and holy babies cropping up in sheds.  In some ways, it is unsurprising that this 500 year old song is not one commonly belted out by primary school children (although Herod did crop up in the nativity at Lily-Rose's school this year, together with a little boy who obviously wanted to be Herod and would have done the job himself, as he stole a sword off one of the soldiers in a desperate bid for power - actually quite exciting), but I think we do Christianity a disservice to ignore this rather horrific incident among all the 'deep and crisp and even'-ness that goes on.  Like all the instances of bitter among the sweet that we covered in Blogvent, this is a crowning example of how seemingly you don't get something amazing without sacrifice.  We tend to think of Christmas as a chance to reward ourselves with lots of lovely pressies and that's it, but if the Massacre of the Innocents tells us anything it's that great things are bloody victories.  Yes, it might ultimately be a triumph, but there are times when it feels like anything but.

On that utterly miserable note I ought to get some sleep, 2013 looks like it will be filled with some damn hard work...


  1. I personally think they were like all the smart people I know... kind of focussed on their particular area of interest. My dear sweetheart has played chess for almost 50 years and he loses all manner of sense when the game is mentioned, shows on a television show or meets a fellow chessplayer. I think those Wise Men were staring at the star and lost all common sense. "I thought you had the map!.. no I thought you had it.." that sort of thing.
    Happy New Year and thanks for being so entertaining and enlightening (without losing your perspective).

  2. Happy New Year Nancy, and thank you for your comments. Indeed, we should give the wise men the benefit of the doubt as they did have frankincense if not common sense...

  3. Your info is interesting to read! The massacre of the Innocent I find riveting -true not uplifting. But that whole event was gruesome! About the glowing babies - do you mean the halo around their head?
    Your post is particularly interesting to me, since I posted last few weeks my own version of the flight to Egypt (artnotesfromJesh(at)blogspot) - in an impressionistic mixed with something else -way. Good to meet you:)

  4. Hi Kirsty et al, I see that our merry band is creeping up to a maginificent 300 soon! Happy New Year!
    It's very true that this vile crime is very much overlooked in the story of Christianity, along with the fact that those "civilised" Romans in fact crucified many people.
    I was very pleased to get to know the Long picture when I went to the Russell Cotes for your lecture on Fanny, and I loved the fact that the image included the statue of Isis and Horus, the origin of the Mother and Child iconography. I wonder if Long know what he was doing there, as it renders the Christian version less unique, just as Jesus sharing a birthday with Mithras ...
    The Cogniet version is very cinematic.
    As for Holman Hunt's hallucinogenic extravanganza, I have always instictively disliked it with a vengeance, those weird little babies with six-packs,so it was very interesting to come face to face with it at the Tate. Although I still dislike it I had to recognise the masterly way it was painted. And all was forgiven when I saw the equally hallucinogenic but wonderful Lady of Shallot. I'm going up for the day to see the show again so about this time tomorrow will be standing in front of both of them, will sit in front of the Lady for a while, that picture's been one of the main draws bewitching me back to Millbank.

  5. Thank you both for your comments, and yes, we are approaching 300 followers, at which point I shall try and take over the world.

    The babies glow, even more than HH's normal levels of colour. He has a special talent to make colours leap from the canvas which is far beyond the effect of the white backing. Possibly as a consequence his works do not make good reproductions, you do need to see the original to appreciate them. The Lady of Shalott has to be the highlight of the Tate exhibition because she is just so beautiful. When I rule the world, I shall have it in my office...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx