Ordinary Sacred

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Female Nude, Modigliani

The Courtauld Gallery, in the Strand, is a little gem.  Without having to traipse miles round a gallery you can have a tour of extraordinary art from the 13th century to the 20th century, in compact!  And as I ambled through the rooms I was really struck by the changing subject matter.  Up to the 16th century it was religious art, formal and institutional – the life and death of Jesus and the saints.  In Room 3, 17th century art changed its subject matter to noble and worthy people – people who could afford to be immortalized in canvas, whether that was the artist’s family such as that of Jan Bruegel, and Mrs Gainsborough, or Queen Charlotte.  Then the freshness of 19th century art brings us to paintings of the ordinary – inside people’s homes or drinking places; leisure places and pursuits; vases of flowers, women in Fauve bright colours, or beautiful nudes – such as Modigliani’s (above).  There were also a number of landscapes of Argenteuil – a place on the river on the outskirts of Paris – off-centre, where life was bustling and buzzing on the periphery, vibrant with colour and idiosyncratic life.

It struck me how the earlier art was overtly sacred and I wondered if the sacred was then lost in the ordinariness of life and its depiction.  Some might say so, but then I thought, ‘Not at all’.  The ‘sacred’  is among us – in the midst of ordinary everyday life – lived in beauty and celebration and us at our best.  The sacred hasn’t disappeared – it’s just that the focus has changed from the overtly sacred to the ordinary sacred – sacred at the periphery.  And perhaps that’s not such an odd thing – as the ancient Christian writer, Paul, said ‘God is not far from each one of us.  For in him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:27,8).

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