Seeing Salvation

Meditation in an art gallery

The Light of the World, by Holman HuntYou stand like some wealthy Edwardian man
Half-smiling, confident, self-assured;
Fair-haired, white;
Coming back from some Midsummer Ball,
Dressed in a fanciful gown-like garb -
More Pre-Raphaelite kitsch,
Than Palestine poor -
Holding your light in a masquerade lantern
Low in a dusky elfin glade.
Is this Oberon or saint:
King of the Fairies
Or King of the Jews:
Both more than men,
We are led to believe:
A duality in both.

Then what a frame of fevered thoughts
Unravels itself to the caves of our minds,
When we wander the deeper
The gruesome wounds and tortured sights
That cheered mediaeval monks through nights
Of wretched penance and fleshly slights;
The abstract faith of the catacombs
That cared not whether a likeness was true.
Preferring symbols of fishes and lambs
To mark those attributes of Christ
They thought they felt or knew:

Now that Iíve rounded
The sights of salvation
Framed in the Nationalís nether regions
I come back to the world
Where the light began.
The casual self-assured male stance
Of Holman Huntís arresting gaze,
That seemed so smug and satisfied,
Now offers weary sympathy
Before we part our ways:
The metaphor of light rings free,
Uncluttered by its time and place:
A Comforter may have such face
As much as some more harrowed gaze
Of conventional canonised saint.

Perhaps we need to lift our eyes
Beyond our bonds of tradition and time,
That trammel our notions of goodness and grace,
To grasp the metaphors of faith
That mark the presence of God:
An ineffable essence
That shapes our lives,
To bring kindness and hope
And light to the world,
And justice to those who need it;
Not a terrible mortification of flesh
Like some latter day bodily sacrifice
In a desert of self-castigation,
That tries to deny the joy of life
And warps the art of creation.

Hugh Busher

Related article

Seeing Salvation - report on the exhibition at the National Gallery


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Last revised 30th December 2000