[EDITOR’S NOTE: Continuing our series on The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter, by Sister Wendy Beckett, Rebekah Dyer offers insight and reflection on the theme of ‘Peace’ for the third week in Lent. For more information on Sister Wendy and this series, see our Series Launch.]
Works about peace are not always peaceful. Sometimes, it is necessary to wrestle with the very idea of peace before we can begin to experience it on a deeper level. What is peace? How do we find it? When we have it, how do we hold on to it? Or is striving for peace, and attempting to keep it in our grasp, a sure way to lose it?
Sister Wendy’s seven days of peace walk us through parts of this mystery, helping us to reframe the way we contemplate peace. The section opens with Piet Mondrian’s famous Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue (1930), through which Sister Wendy invites us to consider peace as ‘an inner balance between desire and potential’ [p. 40].  Once we have aligned our desires with what can be attained, she suggests, we are released from the internal struggle which leaves us hopelessly unfulfilled. She reassures us that ‘our potential is infinite’ but our desires must aspire to something greater than insignificant pleasures. Only then will we find the balance of peace.
From Mondrian’s masterful balance of colour and line, Sister Wendy shows us scenes where peace appears to be absent, or at best, merely an illusion: the dignified but aloof portrait of Amédée-David, Marquis de Pastoret (1826), by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; the solitary subject of Interior (1908), by Vilhelm Hammershoi, sitting motionless in an empty room and apparently unmoved by the inviting play of light in the corridor beyond; the man, woman, and child lingering ill-at-ease with one another in The Silence (1965), by Carel Weight. Likewise, the precarious balance illustrated in Giovanni Bellini’s Allegory: Inconstancy (c. 1490) is presented as ‘conditional peace’, as the title for that day suggests [pp. 48-49].
In fact, peace seems entirely elusive until the final day of this week, in which Botticelli’s Annunciation (1489-90) portrays the Virgin Mary as she ‘sways in prayerful wonder’ [p. 50]. By contrasting true and illusory peace through each of her chosen paintings, Sister Wendy builds a picture of impregnable, eternal peace on the one hand and a fragile, doomed façade of peace on the other.
Sister Wendy’s perspective on peace — ‘true peace’ — is that it is ‘wholly steadfast’ [p. 40]. We must find a peace which is not dependent upon the instabilities of the world outside, which cannot give us a firm foundation for our peace. Rather, we must find a peace which exists as part of the world within. Our inner selves, Sister Wendy assures us, are the true home of peace.
As I have indicated, my experience with this week’s Lenten reflections were not exactly peace-filled. Perhaps this is not surprising, since the ideas and images presented to us have as much to say about what peace is not as about what peace is. Still, my peacelessness went deeper: uncovering a disconcerting tension between Sister Wendy’s eloquently-expressed tenets of peace and my fear that what she describes may be far beyond my grasp. If peace rests upon an unshakeable internal balance, where does this leave the cultivation of peace amid the ever-changing landscape of one’s inner life?
An allegory of peace
Struggling on my unpeaceful journey through this week’s Lenten reflections, I found myself drawn time and again to Bellini’s Allegory: Inconstancy (c. 1490). Also known as Fortune, the allegorical nature of this painting invites us to consider the role and significance of each of its elements: the care-giving woman, the impulsive infants, and the large blue ball suspended between them. Contemplating the relationship between these subjects can give us insight into how we might envision peace within the ‘inconstancy’ of human life.
The woman depicted, a caregiver of a half-dozen children in various moods, reclines in a shallow boat. She appears relaxed — careless, even, given the weight of the world which is balanced upon her knee. We imagine she might drop this precious globe at any moment and, following Sister Wendy’s reading, envision all this momentary peace gone forever. Perhaps we even see the dropped ball as an inevitable outcome of this unstable scene. An unsettling image, then, as we wait for the child supporting the ball to move and the equilibrium to fall.
Yet the woman in the boat sits calmly, gazing down at the two young children who cling to her side. A third child reaches for her unoccupied knee, perhaps having trouble in the water, or simply trying to attract her attention. A fourth child bobs uncertainly beside the boat, partially submerged, while above two more infants stand in the helm. The woman balances the blue globe among them, with its weight resting on a child’s shoulder. As Sister Wendy notes, ‘[the globe’s] real support is the child, as likely as all the other children to grow tired of the task and take to frolicking’. She concludes: ‘Any peace that rests upon externals is in such a state of insecurity’ [p. 48].
Still, I am drawn to the contemplative expression of the woman in the boat. Why is she so unconcerned about the globe’s inevitable fall? It could be that she simply does not care. After all, she has other matters calling for her attention — namely, the children all around her who are playing, crying, swimming, and reaching for her. To hold our peace amidst the needs of others naturally invites the inconsistency of other people. Yet, here, our caregiver in the boat chooses to risk the equilibrium of the entire scene for the sake of those in her care.
Nonetheless, for Sister Wendy, such a dependent peace cannot be true peace. As noble as the risk might be, genuine peace is lasting — and this graceful blue ball is apt to fall at any moment. But contemplating Bellini’s Inconstancy, I have to wonder: what use is our concept of peace if it is not something we are willing to risk for the sake of others?
There may be another reason for the relaxed posture of Bellini’s woman in the boat. It is possible that she knows something we don’t about the nature of the ball.
What if the ball, once dropped, was not entirely lost? What if — instead of shattering into a hopeless mess or sinking irretrievably into the depths — the ball bounced?
I am adopting an intentionally playful reading here, because I think that is what may be missing in our careful considerations of peace. Playfulness encourages us to explore without fear of the outcome and allows us to ‘bounce back’ (as it were) from every unexpected turn or apparent failure. Playfulness is, in other words, bold and adaptive. Like the children and their caregiver in Bellini’s Allegory, who respond and relate to one another, playfulness invites others into the mix.
Such a reading inspires us to relate peace to our nature as relational creatures. And if peace is resilient enough to be shared, we can begin to cultivate peace not in spite of our external reality, but in conversation with it. Peace need not be disconnected from the struggles and tensions of life. It need not be something we must keep in our grasp at the cost of fully engaging with our reality. Our inner emotional and spiritual landscape may not always feel stable. Yet picturing peace as something you can drop without losing, which can be struck without breaking, and can be risked for the sake of others — this kind of peace can last beyond any blow to our internal equilibrium.
If we know peace as something we can recover and cultivate anew, we need not worry that any experience of peace may turn out to be a façade. Instead, we find ways to practice recognising whatever peace we do have without constantly striving for it, and without second-guessing its legitimacy. Then we can bring peace into contact with our outward lives and relationships, as well as allowing the experience of peace to be a more fully integrated part of the world within.
In her final reflection for this week, Sister Wendy concludes that the foundation of true peace is ‘a sense of life having meaning’ [p.50]. Perhaps a vision of playful, relational, resilient peace can release us to find such meaning even in our most unpeaceful moments — and help us reframe not only our concept of peace but the ways in which we choose to embrace it.
Piet Mondrian, Composition in Red, Yellow and Blue: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piet_Mondriaan,_1930_-_Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_Yellow.jpg.
Sandro Botticelli, Annunciation: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Botticelli,_annunciazione_di_cestello_02.jpg.
Giovanni Bellini, Allegory: Inconstancy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giovanni_bellini,_quattro_allegorie,_incostanza.jpg.
 All page numbers refer to Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter (London: SPCK, 2017).