Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Da Vinci's Madonna & Child with St. Anne, and Bach's St. Anne Prelude & Fugue

Today is the feast day of St. Anne, and what better way to celebrate than through art!  To commemorate the day, I am posting the masterpieces of two of the most prominent names in both the art world and at large: Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Sebastian Bach!

Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci presents portrays in the sketch below the Blessed Mother and the Infant Christ Child alongside St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin. This detail is part of a larger sketch which also portrays the infant St. John the Baptist. For this reason, I find it rather odd that the other woman is designated as St. Anne rather than St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John. But perhaps there is a significant detail I am missing that reveals her to be St. Anne, or perhaps da Vinci himself designated her as St. Anne to avoid the confusion of future generations.

Detail of Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the Young St. John by Leonardo da Vinci
This second piece of art is Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, also known as the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue. The title of St. Anne comes from the melody of the same name, which appears as the fugue subject -- the principal melody upon which the piece is built -- in the second movement of this baroque masterpiece. The first movement consists of three parts and is meant to reflect the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Of course, in my opinion, listening to "Our Holy Father Bach" (in the words of French Romantic organist Charles-Marie Widor) is a perfect way to celebrate any occasion, but today especially he seems appropriate!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quotes from Brideshead Revisited

I just finished Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and thought I would celebrate by sharing a few quotes. Each quote describes something about one of the characters in the story. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! I've put the quotes in italics. Below each quote are some reflections I've had while reading, which you can skip if you don't like spoilers.

Sebastian Flyte:
...its a rather pleasant change when all your life you've had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself. Only of course it has to be someone pretty hopeless to need looking after by me.” 

I found it rather intriguing to find these words coming from Sebastian: Sebastian, the Oxford student who drinks too much and used to carry around a teddy-bear; Sebastian who despises his mother and his family. Yet, it may be an instance of the masculine tendency towards providing. Men like to have the answers. They want able to provide for their wives, girlfriends, and/or families. Sebastian didn't have the opportunity to really experience this until he'd fled his family and met Kurt.
Another interesting point I found was where Sebastian finally settles down: living half-in, half-out of an abbey. When I first read the title of Book II, "A Twitch Upon the Thread," I had a difficult time wrapping my head around it. However, as the story progressed, I realized that it was just as fitting as the first title. The title comes from one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. Cordelia speaks of it at the end of Book I. Fr. Brown says that he has his subject on a hook so that the man might go to the farthest corner of the earth, yet Fr. Brown can bring him back with "a twitch upon the thread." The same can be said of the fallen away members of the Flyte family, such as Sebastian. Sebastian remarked in Book I about how difficult it was to be Catholic. Charles dismisses it as nonsense, to which Sebastian responds, "Is it? I wish it it were." After Sebastian has disappeared, Cordelia confides to Charles,"I used to think Sebastian had [a vocation] and hated it--but I don't know now." He may have been running away from a vocation, and has finally stopped. This is all speculation on my part. But whether or not he actually had a vocation, he couldn't run away from his faith, either. He had his wild days, but eventually he came back.

Diana Quick as Julia Flyte
and Charles Keating as Rex Mottram in BBC's adaption
Julia about Rex Mottram:
He wasn't a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole.

Rex Mottram is quite a character, albeit an unattractive one. Julia met and married Rex in the hopes of finding happiness and prestige with him. At first, Rex intended to become Catholic in order that their marriage might be recognized by the Church. However, once the Flyte family discovers that he was previously divorced and his ex-wife is still living, marriage within the Catholic Church becomes impossible. Once he realizes that becoming Catholic isn't going to bring him a life with Julia, he drops it completely. Against the wishes of her Catholic family, Julia decides to reject her faith for life with Rex.  However, life with him doesn't turn out the way she thought it would. Soon after their marriage, Julia finds out that Rex has been continuing an affair with another woman, whom he had been seeing during their courtship. (This sent up warning flags for me, but apparently it didn't for Julia). When Julia confronts him about it, he is unable to see why she is so upset. I'm not sure how on earth a man could become practically devoid of feeling, but it certainly seems to have happened in the case of Rex Mottram. I believe he has a very small soul locked away in an iron safe located in his big toe.

Julia Flyte:
I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. ... Or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won't quite despair of me in the end.”

Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder
Julia is rather similar to Sebastian in that she, also has had her wild days. Both she and Sebastian know that they are living in sin. Julia rejected her faith in pursuit of happiness when she married Rex in spite of his previous divorce. When life with Rex doesn't turn out the way she had hoped, she runs away to America. When she takes up with Charles, both have been disillusioned by their first love and by their ambition. Julia wants to marry Charles, but something is holding her back.  In her lifestyle she denies her faith, but in her heart she can't. At one point she undergoes a bout of hysterics over her sinful lifestyle. As I read her monologue, she seems to have an excessive focus on sin. It appears that she doesn't believe that God will forgive her, so there is no use asking for His mercy. There seems to be no turning back. However, both her faith and Charles' faith are tested when Lord Marchmain comes home to Brideshead to die. It is at the moment of death that the real drama is acted. It all comes down to what one believes.  Life. Death. The fall from grace. The possibility of redemption. Julia realizes through the example of her father, another fallen away Catholic, that redemption is possible. If so, Julia realizes that there may be hope even for her. A twitch upon the thread... The final quote is from my favorite scene in the book. I won't say any more, lest I spoil the ending for you.

Charles Ryder:
Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Brideshead Revisited: Catholic with a Universal Appeal

This summer a group of friends and I have been reading British author Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Each week we have a new reading assignment and then we'll discuss it amongst ourselves on a blog we set up just for the occasion. 

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
served as the location for filming Brideshead
 in both the miniseries and the 2009 adaption.

In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Brideshead Revisited consists of a series of memories of British commander Charles Ryder, which are triggered by his battalion's encampment at a large abandoned estate known as Brideshead. These memories revolve around Ryder's relationship with a Roman Catholic aristocratic family in England in the 1920's. Evelyn Waugh also described this work as semi-autobiographical, recounting memories from his own years at Oxford. Waugh converted to Catholicism in the year 1930 after the failure of his first marriage.
Though Catholicism serves as one of the central themes of the story, it appeals to people of all beliefs (as evidenced by the fact that it is in top 100 lists of secular publications). For example, Waugh is one of the favorite authors of Fr. Robert Barron, a Catholic priest well known for his work in the "Catholicism" series, as well as the recently deceased British atheist, Christopher Hitchens. Why does a universal audience appreciate this novel when many non-Christians reject so many Christian stories? First of all, it is a well-crafted piece of literature! The writing style and the descriptions are beautiful, elegant, and poetic. Good art -- in this case, good writing -- appeals to a universal audience, regardless of background and belief. You can be a Budhist, an atheist, or a Catholic and still find the Sistine Chapel inspiring! In this case, we are dealing with literature not painting, but the truth still stands. As a quick example, I'm including a passage from the beginning of Book II:

"The human soul enjoys these rare, classic periods, but, apart from them, we are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflections and counterfeits of ourselves -- the sensual man, the economic man, the man of reason, the beast, the machine, and the sleep-walker, and heaven knows what besides, all in our own image, indistinguishable from ourselves to the outward eye. We get borne along, out of sight in the press, unresisting, till we get the chance to drop behind unnoticed, or dodge down a side street, pause, breathe freely and take our bearings, or to push ahead, outdistance our shadows, lead them a dance, so when at length they catch up with us, they look at one another askance, knowing we have a secret we shall never share."
Charles Ryder, played by Jeremy Irons, and Sebastian Flyte,
played by Anthony Andrews

Secondly the story itself is appealing to a broad audience with its high stakes and universal themes of love, friendship, betrayal, and spirituality. Thirdly, the view of Catholicism is coming from an outsider's perspective: Ryder is an agnostic raised without any religion. I think perhaps this may make the story more approachable for non-Christians. In addition, the portrayal of Catholicism is both enigmatic and controversial. I would hardly call it a favorable portrayal of Catholicism. Most of the characters who identify themselves as Catholic are seriously flawed. 
And yet, it is called one of the most Catholic novels of the 20th century. I have yet to understand why, but I am hoping it will become apparent by the novel's conclusion. 
We are currently nearly into Book II. I have also been watching BBC's miniseries adaption of the novel as I read. Though there have been a few unnecessary butt shots and there may be a sex scene in need of skipping (though I haven't gotten that far yet), the series is a commendable adaption of Waugh's masterpiece thus far! One of its greatest strengths is its faithfulness to Waugh's beautiful words. It also contains some excellent acting from Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. If you are looking for some quality entertainment and food for thought before summer's end, I highly recommend Brideshead Revisited
And for all you soundtrack buffs, I've read reviews of the newer film that came out in 2008 and, while it's not as accurate and probably not as good, it does have a beautiful soundtrack! It's a similar style to the recent adaption of Pride and Prejudice and Finding Neverland.