The Art of Lent: Silence

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Continuing our series on The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter by Sister Wendy Beckett, Dan Drage offers insight and reflection on the theme of ‘Silence’ for the first week of Lent. For more information on Sister Wendy and this series, go to our Series Launch.]

 

What I dare not do while reading Sister Wendy is begin asking inappropriate questions about materials and movements and historical contexts. I do not doubt these questions mattered to Sister Wendy, and I expect she knew the answers. But for her own artistic form—spiritual meditative reflection on works of art—these questions are perhaps as out-of-place as inquiries into the market price of the paintings mentioned. With Sister Wendy, one is invited to gaze patiently at images of these paintings with the eyes of faith, allowing the spiritual self a chance to consider them. Of course, having a contemplative Carmelite nun as a guide may naturally lead one’s reading of a piece toward Sister Wendy’s own, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The book as a piece is succinct in itself— small, minimal prose, and simple layout. The diminutive size and straightforward design embody a sense of ease, an approachability— glancing at one small painting a day seems possible. Yet Sister Wendy’s reflections threaten to convince us we need more time than a passing glance affords. Ready to meet us in that tension, she provides both the call and the way forward into a longer, meditative reading.

On the other hand, the portable size also means the paintings are thereby also reproduced in minuscule scale. Most of the images are, to my eyes, much too small to provide a sufficient appreciation, let alone allow them to draw us into meditation. Likewise, the text layout, though the writing is minimal, pushes hard up against the accompanying painting on its opposite page. I highly recommend any reader make use of a thick, plain white paper or card to cover the left-hand page of text when viewing the painting on the right-hand page. Such a paper protects against the visual noise and aids our contemplation. Otherwise Vermeer’s young woman, for example, gazes out her window directly onto the text for Monday of Week 2.

‘Silence is completion of sound, not its absence’

This enigmatic quote belongs to Sister Wendy herself, from a much earlier collection of meditations on art. [1] Whatever one thinks of her claim, I believe it is somewhat necessary to frame silence over against or in connection with something that is not silence. Sound, for example, helps us fathom silence, and by it do we arrive at one rather apophatic definition for silence: a length of time and space wherein which exists no sound. It is sound which is the tangible thing, and silence is known in this way only for what it lacks (or completes, if you like).

Furthermore, we recognize that this kind of silence must exist within both time and space; and it must be measured by them. I read in the news recently of a team makingaudio recordings—of certain Stradivarius violins, no less—who insisted on demarcating a wide swath of silence for over a month around the building in northern Italy in which they were recording. [2] Silence of time and space together were needed for the purity of the recordings. Here silence and sound are again intimately linked: this is an audible silence, the inverse to the noise of Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, presented on Wednesday of Week 1. Both in subject matter and in the chaos of colors and activity, Babel’s chaotic noise ‘is profoundly destructive of our energies’. [3] Surely Sister Wendy, the prayer-filled contemplative whom she was, knew this in her own life and valued the silence which time and space can rarely afford.

 

 

Yet within The Art of Lent, one may encounter silence of a slightly different variety as well. Beginning Week 1 – Silence with Psalm 62:1, Sister Wendy has introduced a silence of the soul, in this case a soul longing for God.

Certainly, some of the paintings chosen are more illustrative of her topic while other works invite the viewer to experience a level of silence through the painting. I personally appreciate Sister Wendy’s wide selection of artworks, most of which would not be found in any general art history text. Hers is a deeper cut, including not just works by Rembrandt and Bruegel, but also lesser-known or recent contemporary artists, such as a piece by Scottish painter Craigie Aitchison from 1994. Though mostly Western artists are represented, a small selection of non-Western painters bring their perspectives to the volume. A favourite among these, chosen for the Saturday of Week 1- Silence, is a rather minimalist piece by Japanese-British artist Yuko Shiraishi titled Three Greys. With this piece Sister Wendy can explore the topic of time, suggesting that, ‘silence is making-friends-with-time’. [4] For her, the three very different tones of grey in wide vertical swaths will reveal their complexity only with time. As one takes time with Shiraishi’s painting, the swaths of grey indeed do begin to buzz in relation to one another, an energetic friction awakening the seemingly-dormant image: now the left color field is a cold storm, now the right is a royal yellow overlain with gossamer, now the middle field, a fiery charcoal, beckons us into its darkness. Only by spending time with this image is one allowed through that hospitable threshold. ‘In silence we break the hold time has on us’, SisterWendy writes, ‘and accept in practice that our true home is in eternity’. [5]

The preceding painting in the week of Silence, Rebecca Salter’s Untitled H30, is at first glance similar to Three Greys. Like Shiraishi’s exploration, Salter’s abstract minimalist triptych finds its basic form in parallel lines, and is, again, grey. Sister Wendy wasn’t deterred by the similarities and boldly organised the two on consecutive days. Lent is grey, surely, and what better way to illustrate silence than with more grey? Yet she saw also the paradox of this, as Untitled H30 is not necessarily a quiet, subdued painting. It is, rather, active like a waterfall, as Sister Wendy admits. This is silence as paradox, as both active and restful at the same time. In Sister Wendy’s words, this silence is ‘“intensely there” and, with equal intensity, “not there”’. [6]

Indeed, how tangible the silent soul is, filling up to the point of drowning out all noises, if only we allow that filling. If I try to quiet the soul by merely emptying or turning off my thinking, I cannot; my mind remains much too active, or else I fall asleep. If I have something quiet with which to fill the soul, however, such as offered by a few moments with The Art of Lent, I can begin to sense the presence of God, for which my soul too, like the psalmist, is waiting.

 


Image Credits:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg

[1] Sister Wendy Beckett, The Gaze of Love: Meditations on Art (London: Harper-Collins, 1993), 54.

[2] Christopher Livesay, ‘An Italian Town Fell Silent So the Sounds of a Stradivarius Could Be Preserved’, NPR.org, accessed February 18, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/17/694056444/an-italian-town-fell-silent-so-the-sounds-of-a-stradivarius-could-be-preserved.

[3] Sister Wendy Beckett, The Art of Lent: A Painting a Day from Ash Wednesday to Easter (London: SPCK, 2017), 16.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 20.

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