Saturday, 31 December 2011

Recovering our culture: visit Canberra this summer!



St Sebastian, Raphaello c1501-2
currently at the NGA, Canberra
 Well, the year is ending more or less as it began with the battle over the preservation of Western culture hotting up this summer.

Unfortunately, all the signs are that we are losing...

All Christians are extremists?

Over at the Sydney Morning Herald, that newspaper is continuing it's relentlessly anti-catholic campaign  featuring a video program today implying anyone who does more than (as much as?) go to Sunday Mass is raving loony.

The program, called 'Christians Unplugged' looks at three US fundamentalists.  Its mostly what you expect from US fundamentalists as far as I can gather (I didn't bother to watch the whole thing) - a mix of perfectly justified concern about the direction of our society and horrors such as abortion, and extremist rants (at least from an Australian perspective!) about the role of Government.

The problem is not so much the program itself but the descriptor that comes along with it:

"A rare look into the lives of what some would call extremist Christians - a world that goes far beyond Sunday mass. We become absorbed in the lives of 3 people whose theology may be shocking. They are members of a growing movement that believes America has become morally bankrupt [are they suggesting it isn't?], Christianity has strayed too far from its roots [certainly an arguably proposition in many cases!], and government has taken over the church's role in people's lives [more contestible but not really far from many mainstream US conservative perspectives]. These believers think it's time to return to the basics, where everyone takes care of each other, and government has little place in their lives. Some of them even believe it is time to form an independent Christian nation. They are unplugged from civilization [viz the pro-homosexual pornographic, paedophilic secularist construct that the SMH supports?], existing as much as they can on the edge of society, living as they believe Christians did in the beginning."

Meanwhile in Canberra: handwritten

Meanwhile in Canberra the remnants of Western culture are being served up in exhibitions that attest to the vital importance of Christianity in shaping our civilisation.

The first is the National Library's fabulous free exhibition, Handwritten, of works from the Berlin State Library, including several early manuscripts, such as Bede's treatise on the calendar interleaved in a copy of St Augustine's City of God, a missal with a twelfth century chant version of Puer natus est pro nobis displayed, several beautiful books of hours and other manuscript treasures. 

While one can have reservations about religious works treated purely as art and artifacts, such exhibitions are in reality the only way one can readily access early manuscripts save perhaps in facsimiles and other reproductions, and these ones really are worth the trip to look at.  Though I'd have to say that the larger books could have been displayed in such a way as to make more of the page readily accessible to those who can read Latin and have some training in paleography such as myself!

The exhibition also includes manuscript copies of works by a number of great composers such as Handel and Mozart, along with recordings so you can follow along with the score.

Unfortunately at the time I went, rather than focusing on the more interesting exhibits (such as the documents written by Galileo, Copernicus and others) the hordes seemed to be determined to queue earnestly in order to view in order and at length the assorted documents written by various famous scientists, politicians, writers activists and others.  Personally, while I thought the little background explanations of who the people were were good, most of the documents themselves, unless one has enough languages and interest in some fairly obscure topics, or some expertise in handwriting, quickly became a bit tedious.

In the end, I jumped out of the queue and went around backwards, focusing my time on the music and manuscript sections at times when they were largely being ignored.  So my advice would be, do the exhibition backwards, making strategic strikes focusing on the manuscript and music collections when the crowds are low!  The exhibition has timed entry and you can book online (though don't forget to visit the 'Treasures' Exhibition' next door which also has some gems).

Don't forget to grab a couple of the free postcard reproductions, and take a look at the list of transcriptions/translations of the documents available at the online site before your second visit!  Because this is one worth going through a few times.

National Gallery: Renaissance Exhibition

The other big exhibition this summer in Canberra is the National Gallery's Renaissance Exhibition, which I got to see courtesy of a Christmas present (at $25 a pop its a cost one might think twice about on a very low income!).

Again a fabulous collection of mostly religious art work from the Academia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy.

In many ways though, this is I think a problematic exhibition because it was treated purely as art, with little attempt to reflect the origins of the pieces.  An altarpiece, for example, is displayed at great height.

The National Library makes some effort in its descriptors of the Handwritten Exhibition to explain what you were seeing (the annunciation etc) and at least suggest how the missals, books of hours etc were used.  The National Gallery, by contrast, on its supporting material mostly talks about painting techniques rather than the iconography behind the paintings.  That can be a little bit interesting, but unless you are an artist, pretty much equivalent historico-literary criticism of written texts: a tedious and obsessive focus on how the work was produced rather than what it is trying to say!

While the blurbs often give the names of the saints or biblical scenes depicted in various paintings, it doesn't attempt to give the stories depicted, or any information about why those particular saints were favoured by the artists or their patrons.  Perhaps some of that was in the audio tour tape (which I didn't bother getting) but I suspect not given the interest that my explanations to my companion seemed to be attracting.  Nor is the online site much help.

Nonetheless, my suggestion would be, take a quick look through the online gallery before you go, and brush up on the stories of key saints and the reasons for their popularity in Renaissance Italy (think St Jerome and the lion, the Book of Tobit, St Sebastian, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Appollonis and more).

All the same, there are some beautiful works in this exhibition which can certainly transport you as they are meant to do, to thinking of God. And some of my favourites actually included the secular works, especially the pictures respectively of a bored and a supercilious teenager! 

Know what you are getting, but still worth seeing.

Hmm, maybe the NLA management could take over the NGA...

Cosme Tura, c1475
currently at the NGA Canberra

1 comment:

A Canberra Observer said...

Yes, the SMH, Mardi Gras central ...