A few times I’ve stared at things for a bit longer than necessary:
- Sitting down in the Tate Britain in front of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion
- Gazing at one of Monet’s many Water Lilies paintings, in the National Gallery
- Poring over the new graffiti on the walls and temporary hoardings of Stokes Croft, Bristol
Three Studies… by Francis Bacon
You can probably surmise from this selection that I like vibrant colours. And there’s not much more that connects these three images – other than, in pinning me down to take a long look, they’re each a spur to consider: why do some pieces of art take time to understand? To understand not just the intention of the artist, but the effect the art seems to be having on me?
Think about the way an artwork focuses your attention, and sets limits on it. An artist sees an extensive garden vista, say; they zoom in to a small part of that vista, and the resulting cropped image is what the viewer gets to see. In many of the Water Lilies paintings, no edge of a pond/lake is visible, so we’re especially aware of there having been a vast continuum full of life, of which we only get to see a rectangular fraction – and even then, an ‘impression’ of what was originally there. There’s even more at play when we come to devotional art, but the focusing/limiting principle’s still there.
Claude Monet: Water-Lilies, after 1916.
I’m writing towards the end of Lent, and so thought it a good time to share a new song of mine, plus some accompanying thoughts about the words ‘Ecce Homo’ and artworks which have been created using that title. These words (Latin for ‘Behold the man’) come from a tragic moment in Jesus’ biography – he has already been tortured and shamed, and believing him to be innocent, Pilate the governor presents him to the higher-ups to judge. My song is partly situated in this moment, but instead of the art-historical essay I’d intended, let’s think about how songs can also be devotional art, and their similarity to icons.
I recognise that the prolonged gaze can seem like a bit of a luxury, now when ‘time is money’ and money is tight. But contemplation, meditation, mindfulness are good for human health in general, aren’t they? I think responding fully to the way we’re made, means making space for contemplation in our lives. And there’s wide variation in those practices – the silence or peace they bring is good, but the practice needn’t only be subtractive. Something can be added to you in contemplation, too. To a person of faith, the icon can become a part of this process: helping direct their attention to God, such that their attention is open enough to hear back from God.
Icon by Andrei Rublev (early 15th century), known variously as The Trinity or The Hospitality of Abraham.
Featuring the recurrent phrase ‘Behold the man’, my song aspires to iconicity in a small way. Using a non-visual medium to talk about ‘looking’? Like podcasters playing charades, right? Hopefully not. Ian MacDonald, writing about The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, called a moment from that song “televisual” where Paul McCartney says of a character
Look at him working,
and that blew my mind. Yes he’s calling us to look at what we can’t see, and inviting the listener into this narrative as a space in which its characters are viewable. I guess I hope for the same, sometimes – as if grabbing a listener by the collar is enough, saying, look inside. Because the character here is Christ, worth pausing, dropping everything to look at.
Use the word ‘behold’ in conversation today, and it stands out a bit. Sounds rather grand. The version of the Bible I use the most, the ESV, is a bit of an outlier among modern translations in that it uses “behold” all over the place. One of the guys who worked on the ESV says
In earlier translations (KJV, ASV, RSV), the word ‘behold’ was found many times. It was the common translation used for the Hebrew word hinneh in the Old Testament and the Greek word idou in the New Testament. Both words simply mean something like ‘Pay attention – what follows is especially important or surprising!’ Early in our translation work on the ESV, our committee… realized that in some cases there was an alternative such as ‘look!’ or ‘listen!’ and in a few cases that was what we used. But in hundreds of other cases, neither ‘look’ nor ‘listen’ seemed quite suitable.Wayne Grudem
They couldn’t find another word in English that encapsulated the level of attention implied by idou. So in a few cases in their rendering of the gospel of John (from which the Ecce Homo comes), ‘behold’ stays. Some of the beholds are spoken about Jesus – “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” says John the Baptist, when Jesus comes into his view. And towards the end of the book, the Roman governor Pilate, though believing Jesus to have done nothing meriting execution, says to the crowd “Behold, the man”. Part of his supposed crime is the heresy of claiming to be divine, but the more politically pertinent crime was the treasonous claim of being a king – which, though Christian tradition largely treats Him as such, is not a claim Jesus made directly. After questioning and torture, Pilate again brings this man out to hostile citizens and clerics, this time saying “behold your king”.
With each “behold”, it’s as if we the hearers or readers are being invited to stop and consider this Lamb, Man, King. Stations on the narrative journey. It’s not just diegetic chat – John reporting the words Pilate addressed to the crowd – it’s John insetting icons into his text, devotional moments through which minds, eyes, spirits may try to look at the divine. In painters’ renderings of the Ecce Homo, Pilate’s hands are often open towards Jesus, directing our eyes to Him, as if to say: consider this man, consider his state. The figure we see may be heavily bowed, showing signs of torture, or standing stoic to show the impending triumph of his resurrection. But each time, those hands, the ‘behold’ of Pilate, seems to say “what has he done? What have we done?”
Ecce Homo, by Antonio Ciseri
I wonder what the trouble was that started all of this?
says Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, in his slight but devastating song ‘Lua’. It’s about addiction and depression, seemingly, and still I hear the above question encompassing more than the two lives essayed in Oberst’s narrative. As if the speaker’s hands illustrating ‘all of this’, instead of gesturing towards themselves, are thrown out widely, wildly, to encompass the world.
As an attempt to answer this broadened question, in my mind I throw out my hands across history, thinking you’ve got to go back pretty far to get to the root of this (often beautiful, but undoubtedly deadly) mess. Your mind might go to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to the atomic age arriving as an atrocity is committed on the people of Hiroshima, to the beginning of the colonial era, back to the institution of empire… each like a kind of watershed, another lapse, beyond which we as a human species can never be quite as innocent as we once were. Back to the gates of Eden.
Bright Eyes, plus “window reflection”
Since all of this started, we’ve been broken-hearted. We’re on the run
Since history began, it was always the plan that you’d come for us
I always go back to that original lapse. Even if it’s mythical. The heart of it seems too true to ignore – that people, and the love between them, can be so wondrous, that it is conceivable that we once walked with God in the cool of an evening, untroubled. Utterly decentred from the world, and loving it – in simple community, pre-narcissism. I can imagine that state existing up until the point anyone placed their personal ambition and self above everything else there was. After anyone did that, began to act as if they themselves were distinct and different and best, I can see all the other lapses following. That familial connection with God, somehow squandered.
Since all of this started, we’ve parted from part of our heritage
Since history began, Son of Man, you wanted to share your parentage
The whole idea of Cristo Redentor (Christ who redeems), of Jesus (saving one) to me is of God stepping into the narrative of “all of this”, knowing that doing so is the only way “all of this” can end well. Stepping in media res of a wounded world, where so many of the wounds of the Anthropocene are self-inflicted (again speaking for all of humanity, like Conor Oberst’s wildly gesticulating hand). It is the world of parties where “supplies are endless” that needs Jesus to turn up; he comes to meet those who “might die from medication, but… sure killed all the pain”, to again quote ‘Lua’. I don’t know if any such experiences have led you to think “what was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane”, but it’s that stark morning clarity, the loneliness following the good time, that this song situates itself in.
Some more words born from loneliness following a good time:
My tears have been my food, day and night, while they say to me ‘Where is your God?’.
These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng,
and lead them in procession in the house of God with glad shouts,
and songs of praise – a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, o my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?…
Deep calls out to deep at the sound of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
These lines are devotional poetry from Psalm 42, and the lyrical starting point for my song ‘All That’s Within Me’. It’s a bit of the Bible that’s dripping with grief, nostalgia, and the acknowledgement that life with God can be, to say the least, tempestuous. Not to mention the trolling of some unspecified trolls, who make a show of the beleaguered person with the supposedly rhetorical “where’s your God now, eh?”. These are the depths from which to cry out. And apparently, they’re like the depths Jesus endured – he knew grief intimately, at night all his friends surrounded him, flaunting the bonds of their brotherly allegiance, and in the morning after a serious scuffle, they abandoned him. The trolls were real, too – the religious elite (in Matthew’s gospel) walk past a crucified Jesus saying “he trusts in God. Let God deliver him now, if he desires him”.
So ‘All That’s Within Me’ is a song of devotion in downheartedness. It was a micro-song, performed once years ago and shelved; this year to expand it, I explored it with a guitar’s assistance until it became more like itself. A sweet drum feel was gained by overlaying some recordings of Ollie Goddard (ooh, listen to his triplet feel on the kick) and a loop from Circles Drums, slotting in fills that Iajhi Hampden played on my Flora & Fauna record. Guitars and vocals were all recorded in my room, but the rest was assembled quite unnaturally, collage-style. And the resulting song went through a few drafts, needing the help of Charles Spurgeon to get to its current form.
That phrase “deep calls out to deep” is a bit cryptic, y’see. Does it sketch out the struggles of life, depicting a human heart as one embattled, assaulted by wave upon wave, crashing noisily? Does it say that God is real, complex and powerful, and relating to him is like learning to surf, that we necessarily find ourselves overwhelmed in doing so? Or that the deepest part of a human, their spirit, say, is pushed by the harshest trials of life to screaming the name of God, uttering a desperate prayer? and thereby reaching the deepest part of God? You see how the poetry is open to interpretation. I sought the help of a few preachers/theologians, and the text of a Spurgeon sermon online gave me… well, not quite the right answer, but further language around the truth that Psalm 42 presents:
There is a deep which answers to the deep of human ruin, and it is the deep of divine grace. There can be no evil in man which the infinite mercy of God cannot overcome. Behold God himself incarnate in the person of the Nazarene! Behold the Son of God spending on earth a life of service and of condescension! Behold him dying a death of ignominy and pain!Charles H. Spurgeon
This sense of ‘answering’, and the advice to “behold” Jesus helped me to shape the song. The part that’s full of “beholds”, the middle eight, is the point of greatest iconicity: time to stop and train all your means of perception on this wonderfully humble fellow-sufferer. The arrangement of the song changes here – there’s a harmonic ‘pause’ (instead of proceeding G-Am-F-Em7, it gets stuck on the Am), and the rhythm guitars take a bit of a break. Space to behold. The melody that was previously played on electric guitar recurs here, given to the brass section. Brass somehow felt like it’d work well for a song about the Passion. What you hear is a collage of real performances, with real breath running through them – I wanted to be able to hear that breath, for the ensemble to wheeze almost, like someone heavily bowed (as in Bosch’s Ecce Homo). Some of the washier, fanfare-y notes can’t help but sound triumphant though (similarly to the coded references to the resurrection in other religious painters’ work).
Ecce Homo, by Hieronymus Bosch
The Passion is not the end of the story – redemption demands a more glorious and more complex narrative arc. And there’s more to say about Jesus’ suffering: what it means, how it makes him unique among deities, how it makes him an unendingly transfixing person to give your attention to. My song isn’t really ‘finished’, either. Have you lived Psalm 42? What have I missed out from the experience? Is there too little ‘room’ within the music? Whatever you think, while everything else continues, while life goes on at whatever pace, let’s allow everything else to tick by while we stop for a while, and behold the man.