From A Descent InspirationThursday, January 12, 2012
| El Descendimiento - Rogier van der Weyden |
It was breathtaking. I knew this because I had done my homework. Before my wife Rosemary and my two daughters, Ale and Hilary, and I had gone on our trip to Spain I had read James A. Michener’s Iberia. Of the painting he wrote:
The most important picture I the Flemish section [of the Prado Museum], however is of quite a different kind. Many critics have held it to be one of the four or five most significant paintings in the world, and I know two experts who deem it the best canvas ever painted. It is of particular interest to anyone visiting the Prado, for it illustrates better than words can explain the peculiar quality of this collection.
Early in his life Felipe II heard that in a small chapel I Louvain, dedicated to the Confraternity of Crossbowman, there stood an altarpiece by Roger van der Weyden (1400? – 1464) depicting the body of Christ being lowered from the cross. Visitors familiar with the marvelous painting reported to Felipe, ‘It is the greatest in the north.’ In vain the king tried to buy it, and when this proved impossible he sent a court painter to copy it, and with the copy he was content for several decades. Later his aunt, the Queen of Hungary, succeeded in acquiring the painting for her collection, and remembering how much her nephew desired it, gave it to him as a present.
In this depiction of the ten differentiated figures, in their placement, in the use of color, design and space, and above all in the symbolization of religious emotion, this marvelous stark painting is one of the major accomplishments of western culture. The best painting in the world? That is too strong. One of the four or five best? Without question.
That painting and many others as well as a myriad of photographs are stored in my brain’s hard drive. They lie dormant until a scene, a model, models, or a situation draws them into my consciousness.
|El Descendimiento - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
It was a about 8 years ago when I was doing a series of ethnic Madonnas. I photographed nude women in Russian iconic gestures and I called them by their place of origin I was evoking, such as Santa Conchita de la Cochinchina (Vietnam), Santa Conchita de Valparaiso, etc. In one of those occasions there was a young man present and I immediately connected to that day at the Prado. While my photograph does not in the least resemble van der Weyden’s I took it in the spirit. My version incorporates the idea that Mary Magdalene helped in the lowering of the body.
This blog did not come out of the blue. Today Rosemary and I went to the Vancity Theatre on Seymour and Davie to see Lech Majewski’s film The Mill and the Cross with Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling, Michael York and what looks like a cast of thousands who have lingered in time after having been unemployed when Cecil B. DeMille stopped making biblical extravaganzas.
This film is no extravaganza. It is a film with lots of sound but little dialogue. It is a fictional (with lots of facts thrown in) story on the background to the painting The Road to Calvary by Peter Bruegel the Elder ca.1525-1569. Rutger Hauer plays the painter, Michael York his patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck and Charlotte Rampling is the Virgin Mary. Her son, is promoting the Reformation in Antwerp which just so happens to be occupied by the very Roman Catholic mercenaries of Spain. This is Flanders in the mid 1500s. This is the Flanders where Spain would ultimately squander all the gold of Peru and of Mexico. But it is also the Flanders of Breda (the birthplace of Peter Bruegel) where the Spaniards won their most important victory in 1625 which was an event that was immortalized by Diego de Velázquez between 1634 and 1635. I particularly enjoy the fact that I remember that the painting has thousands of lances but in fact Velázquez manages to create that idea with only 30!
|The Surrender of Breda - Diego de Velázquez|
The Mill and the Cross is a film of a painting that moves. This is slightly different from Carlos Saura’s Goya in Bordeaux (one of my favourite films of all time) in which movements become Goya paintings. In The Mill and the Cross every background, every foreground, is a Flemish painting. Every closeup is of a face that is exquisitely beautiful or interestingly horrible as if the Polish director, like Bruegel found inspiration in Hieronymus Bosch.
|The Procession to Calvary - Pieter Bruegel|
And of course, the pièce de résistance for me is Charlotte Rampling. The film has no subtitles and when the Spanish soldiers under the cross yell at a beautiful, richly dressed young woman, “Puta!” I knew she was a very familiar Mary Magdalene. It is one that Rebecca and I saw some 6 years ago in a very large painting in the Church of La Valenciana in Guanajuato Mexico. The mob is about to stone a beautiful and very blond woman. But Christ stops them by scratching something in the dirt. “Why is she blonde?” Rebecca asked me.
The descent from the cross in The Mill and the Cross is beautiful in a most un Flemish way. Perhaps because it is full of light. The agony on Rampling's face is excruciatingly beautiful.
|Charlotte Rampling as Mary in The Mill and the Cross|