I’m not sure why I love this word! It can have very negative connotations of something restricted, forbidden or beyond censure. But it gives me a warm sense of childhood awe and the amber light of candles and simple prayers.
If you look Sacred up in a dictionary, there are usually five definitions.
- exclusively devoted to a deity or to some religious ceremony or use; holy; consecrated
- worthy of, or regarded with, reverence, awe, or respect
- protected by superstition or piety from irreligious actions
- connected with, or intended for, religious use: sacred music
- dedicated to; in honour of
The word came into use in the 14th century but it has its roots much earlier and is probably from the Old Latin ‘saceres’ which can be connected with binding in the sense of enclosing or protecting!
But for me the feeling of the word is much closer to an Encyclopaedia Britannica reference . This is to the power, being, or realm understood by religious persons to be at the core of existence and to have a transformative effect on their lives and destinies. Now that really does take me back to my simple childhood sense of the sacred and the picture above – Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World. My father won a small copy of it as a Sunday School prize when he was a child. It hung over my bed from as early as I can remember. When I knelt to say my prayers, this was the God to whom I prayed, having no doubts at all about what was sacred!
The Old Testament Trinity subject is best known from this famous icon painted by St Andrey Rublev (created sometime between 1408 and 1425). The icon is actually more properly called the “Hospitality of Abraham” (see Genesis 18). The appearance of the three angels to Abraham at Mamre was a type of the Holy Trinity, not an appearance of the Holy Trinity itself as represented here. Icons themselves have been and continue to be controversial but it is difficult to ignore the empathy that is in this picture and the sheer love of the painter/saint for his subjects.
Renoir’s intriguing painting ‘Umbrellas’ , painted about about 1881-6, shows a bustling Paris street in the rain.
The composition of the painting does not focus on the centre of the picture which is a tangle of hands. It even cuts off figures at either edge like a photographic snapshot. This kind of unconventional arrangement was something that several of the Impressionists, including Renoir and Degas, enjoyed experimenting with. Although it looks naturalistically haphazard, the composition is actually carefully considered. Look at the pattern of angles and shapes made by the umbrellas.
The work is particularly intriguing in that it shows the artist at two separate points in his career, the second of which was a moment of crisis as he fundamentally reconsidered his painting style. Look at the difference between the way he has painted the woman on the left, and those on the right. During the early 1880s, he became increasingly disillusioned with the Impressionist technique. ‘I had come to the end of Impressionism, and I was reaching the conclusion that I didn’t know how either to paint or draw. In a word, I was at a dead end.’ He began to look back to more traditional art: the drawings of Ingres and the ‘purity and grandeur’ of classical art. Returning to the ‘Umbrellas’, he repainted the figure on the left in a crisper style, using a more muted palette. Why did he leave the painting in this half and half state? Perhaps he simply lost interest in the work and moved on to new projects. Or perhaps he wanted to leave a before-and-after record of the struggle he had gone through.
Ophelia by John Everett Millais, completed in 1852 and currently held in the Tate Britain in London.
The painting depicts the character from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, singing as she floats like a mermaid to her death by drowning. The scene is described in Act IV, Scene VII of the play in a speech by Queen Gertrude:
- There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
- That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
- There with fantastic garlands did she come,
- Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
- That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
- But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them:
- There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds
- Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke,
- When down her weedy trophies and herself
- Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
- And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
- Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes,
- As one incapable of her own distress,
- Or like a creature native and indu’d
- Unto that element; but long it could not be
- Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
- Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
- To muddy death.
Ophelia’s pose—her open arms and upwards gaze—resembles traditional portrayals of saints or martyrs, but can also be interpreted as erotic. The painting is known for its depiction of the detailed flora of the river and the riverbank, stressing the patterns of growth and decay in a natural ecosystem. “Ophelia” was painted along the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey, near Tolworth, Greater London
But for me Ophelia represents the feelings of any young girl at the loss of first love and innocence – a little death from which we never recover. Here is Ophelia mad for love and loss and incapable of the will even to save herself when she falls into the river – floating away to death and her own dream-like resolution!
In 1893 Monet had bought a strip of marshland across the road from his house and flower garden, through which flowed a tributary of the River Epte. By diverting this stream, he began to construct a waterlily garden. Soon weeping willows, iris, and bamboo grew around a free-form pool, clusters of lily pads and blossoms floated on the quiet water, and a Japanese bridge closed the composition at one end. By 1900 this unique product of Monet’s imagination (for his Impressionism had become more subjective) was in itself a major work of environmental art—an exotic lotusland within which he was to meditate and paint for almost 30 years. The first canvases he created depicting lilies, water, and the Japanese bridge were only about one square yard, but their unprecedented opeads and blossoms floating on the quiet water, and the Japanese bridge closing the composition at one end, have an almost hypnotic effect. This picture and the others depicting his garden go on to inspire the imagination of artists and gardeners as well as those of us who just enjoy the fruit of their labours
The picture is in Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
A Brief Understanding of Sunflowers.
There are pieces of artwork drifting through galleries around the world that have become nearly synonymous with the artists name and techniques. The various paintings of Sunflowers and Vincent van Gogh are a perfect example of this. Not only can one make a mental connection between the artists name and painting but also between the artist and their influence on the development of art through these paintings. Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflower paintings have been duplicated many times by various artists (although never reaching the vivacity and intensity of Van Gogh’s) and displayed everywhere; from households to art expos.
The ‘Sunflowers’ is one of the most popular paintings and most often reproduced on cards, posters, mugs, tea-towels and stationery. It was also the picture that Van Gogh was most proud of.
It was painted during a rare period of excited optimism, while Van Gogh awaited the arrival of his hero, the avant-garde painter Paul Gauguin. The lonely and passionate Vincent had moved to Arles, in the South of France, where he dreamed of setting up a community of artists with Gauguin as its mentor. The ‘Sunflowers’ was intended to impress Gauguin, and as a gesture of friendship. The alliance was to end in disaster.