Tonight the winds begin to rise
And roar from yonder dropping day
The rooks are blown out of the skies
The last red leaf is whirl’d away.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)
Ah, the rooks! The red leaves too! And the rising winds…
But I mustn’t fall over my own feet to get where I have to go. Let us therefore take a look at poor Andromeda first. As you can see, she has been abducted by a hideous and revolting creature, reptilian in essence, a macho-monster without pity, let alone a heart. His jaws are wide open and he spews soot and sulphur. Flapping his bat-like wings, he is brutishly arresting her arms while divesting the delicious body of its already flimsy attire, an outrage marvellously accentuated by one beautiful long thigh gleaming silkily in the early morning sun. Her flaming red mane, which reaches to the slim ankles and beyond, could easily cover her nudity, but the artist won’t permit it. As might be expected, her expression is rather pained, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what she believes will befall her ere long. Yet she and we have reason to rejoice, because in this very moment a deadly arrow pierces the swinish sadist’s slippery hide.
What you are looking at is a masterpiece by one of the world’s greatest painters, Frederic Lord Leighton. A few years back I had the great good fortune to see some of his works in the original, including perhaps the most expressive portrait ever painted, Captain Sir Richard Burton. As to the paintings themselves, a few of my favourites were on hand, most notably Invocation, Clytie and Flaming June.
All three, if observed from nearby and with the right illumination, are so sublimely beautiful and transparent, so obviously fashioned with superhuman skill that there can’t be any explanation other than the Muses Themselves had a hand in it. By the way, the master and I have lived for a while in the same picturesque village on the south coast of Rhodes, depicted in Winding the Skein, but he a hundred years earlier than me, for which I still envy him.
Lord Leighton was President of the Royal Academy from 1878 until his death in 1896. If you observe his art, and that of his contemporaries in Europe and America, you get a clear idea of the cultural pinnacle we were inhabiting then, and how deep we plunged from it only a century later. Because the present president of the RA is a trite modernist architect whose masterpieces are dreary concrete heaps resembling plastic sausages, and the art he peddles are gems like Damian Hirst’s Rotting Shark or Tracy Emin’s Stinking Bedstead, all chaperoned by that unspeakable grease-pot and carpetbagger Saatchi, nomen est omen, and financed through the Jerusalem Foundation, the Henry Moore Foundation and similar maggots who have long since sequestered the hallowed halls and now gnaw at their very foundations. As to the RA’s present worship of feminine beauty and splendour, you only need to cast a fleeting glance at one of Lucian Freud’s chef d’oeuvres to know where we stand.
Or better, where we slouch and slump and slurp, because that is the present niveau of our once great culture after it was sequestered and utterly debased by the aforementioned alien invaders who understand as much about beauty and aesthetics as you and I about Einstein’s Relativity Theory or Freud’s Oedipus Complex.
But again, I must not forestall myself and return instead to our point of departure, the incomparable Eve of Autun. Divinely initiated at the very dawn of man when those unknown painters at Lascaux and Altamira crept into their dimly lit caves and fashioned murals of breathtaking grandeur, was her spiritual and creative birth some fifteen thousand years later the spark that led to the world’s unique and never matched epoch of artistic splendour.
Yet in order to understand it fully we must remember its foundations, namely the cataclysm that had happened a millennium earlier and now began to blossom into the mysterious flower that is mankind’s one and only hope for a distant salvation. If this sounds too farfetched or improbable altogether, let me tell you that those men and women who nourished the flower weren’t confounded fools or delirious dreamers, but bright, independent and clear-minded scholars who could have stood up to any present-day academic with absolute ease. Take St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who commanded an immense respect among peasants and nobles alike, due to a brilliant mind combined with the profound conviction that whatever views he postulated had a sound and demonstrable base. This is a scrap of his famous Canticle.
Love seeks no cause beyond itself and no fruit. It is its own fruit, its own enjoyment. I love because I love. I love in order that I may love…
In the windfall of this extraordinary gnosis prospered a poetic revival that began around 1050 AD with the French Troubadours and culminated in the German Minnesingers, whereby the latter developed a highly stylised form of female veneration called Minnesong. Now Minne is Old High German and means Love, but in this case has some very particular connotations. Because the lyrical hymns those battle-hardened knights and nobles, their emperor included, composed and performed in praise of an adorable lady were almost as pure and exalted as Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Which does not mean the adored ones were unaware of their seductive appeal. This is a captivating excerpt from a courtly tale of those days, Lanval, written by the exquisite Marie de France.
She had an attractive, slim-waisted figure. Her neck was as white as snow on a bough. Bright eyes in a pale face, a lovely mouth, a perfect nose, dark eyebrows. Her hair was wavy and corn-coloured. In the sun it had a light finer than spun gold. She was dressed into a white linen shift, loosely laced at the sides so that one could see the skin from top to bottom.
Attractive indeed, so help me God! Yet what really mattered was the emotional depth tempered by a chivalrous restraint that imbued the recital with a sublime thrill, a deeply gratifying delicacy. Qualities of feeling that seem today as remote as the next Milky Way, particularly if you watch a liberally sound, democratically approved and politically correct piece of pornography, be it some inter-racial gangbang or just a spot of raping, flogging and buggering in the dungeon.
Once again, I’m galumphing ahead.
The Gothic Era, an epoch so marvellous, magical and perplexing that I must leave it untouched in this little essay, triggered a rebirth or Renaissance, another magnificent period that, most important, rediscovered the great cultures of our forebears, Greek and Roman alike, and polished them off with Christ’s maxims. Thus the first literary giants of Christianity stepped onto the stage and Humanism was born. Amazing heroines like Petrarch’s Laura or Dante’s Beatrice captivated the hearts of educated Italy and beyond. As a result, the veneration of the weaker sex received yet another boost, and those dukes, popes, counts and condottieri, all with an infallible sense for beauty and elegance, had their spouses, daughters and mistresses educated, usually by the best scholars money could buy. Thus while proudly exhibiting the ladies’ outer splendour, it was touted with equal delight that they could read Virgil in the original and, perhaps over a glass of sublime Montepulciano, embark on a spirited critique of his certainties and fallacies.
Small wonder therefore that Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of Florence, decided one day to bestow immortality on an exceptionally lovely maiden, most likely a closer acquaintance of his. He entrusted the task to a preferred protégée, one Sandro Botticelli, and to imbue it with a measure of subdued passion and complex intellectual depth, as was the fancy in those days, he invited his bosom friend, the venerated humanist and poet Angelo Poliziano, for a little parley. During which they forged an emotionally staggering and philosophically overwhelming allegory as underpinning for the world’s most beautiful work of art.
Angelo, by the way and if I remember well, was the first Christian lyricist who wrote an elegy on the death of his beloved dog. Which is, at least in my book, one of the finest credentials a true humanist can advance if asked to declare himself.
Thus the Birth of Venus was born.
The Goddess of Love stands in a shell that swims close to the shore. She is immensely beautiful, with shimmering red hair and light-blue eyes. Though naked, she radiates an impression of virginity and purity. She covers herself with a strand of her long hair. To the left hovers a winged couple, firmly embracing each other, also naked but clad into a sky-blue cloth. They fly in a cloud of wild roses and both are blowing air, in this way producing a breeze that pushes the Goddess ashore. There waits a young woman, ready to receive her. She represents Mankind and holds a finely woven cloak, clearly intended to wrap the Goddess into it after taking possession of her.
What makes the painting so incomparable, its sheer beauty apart, are two features. First, the young couple with the wings. They are, of course, God the Creator who never before in European art has been depicted as an entwined male and female, naked at that. Second, His gift, the greatest ever handed to Mankind. Often mistaken for just a sensually induced agitation, is it in fact much more than that, namely Love with a capital L. A mundane attitude, an all-encompassing sentiment, a perennial philosophy, a divine principle. Love of goodness, love of truth, love of justice. Love for the sad, poor and downtrodden. Love for a tree, a butterfly, a sunset, a bear, a child. Love as Mankind’s final and highest achievement, its only key to a distant Utopia. And, above all else, love between a man and a woman.
So there she stands, the Goddess supreme, and I can’t imagine a greater compliment to our women-folk but her. In passing I might point out that Lorenzo commissioned Botticelli to make further use of the same lovely model, namely by portraying her as the Holy Virgin. Now this might strike you as odd, even indecent, but let me assure you that you are mistaken. Because the two Goddesses are identical, with only the very small difference that one is dressed and the other is not.
Which is a reason why I’m unable to comprehend the vow of celibacy imposed on the catholic priesthood, not even in terms of a sublime enhancement as to their daily communion with God. Obviously someone got it terribly wrong a long time ago, which has led to the sad fact that a clown is nowadays residing on the throne of St. Peter and our temples are closing down for want of a sturdy curate who is able to dispense Christ’s message happily, with fervour and convincingly.
However that may be, the Magnificent Millennium evolved, only occasionally marred by war, upheaval or famine. Canvas and sculpture flourished unhindered, its excellence only marginally vacillating with the passing time. Music of unbelievable beauty, delicacy and complexity was composed, from a lovely folksong to a grandiose symphony or opera. Literature reached heights of expression so vast and powerful that we still stand stunned and amazed. And of course heroines abounded, one more lovely and captivating than the other, all unforgettable, no matter if innocent, virtuous, mischievous, wicked, heroic, tragic or joyful.