Thought for the Day - Rhidian Brook
Last week, I was in Bruges. We were standing in front of yet another unbelievably stunning painting by the Flemish artist Hans Memling, in a 12th century hospital built specifically for the poor, when my daughter said: ‘Oh no. Another picture of Jesus. Did they ever paint anything else?’
I had to laugh. Although I knew that most artists of the 15th century were obliged to paint religious scenes and that these were some of the best ever painted, I shared her complaint. For the last hour we’d gone from one brilliant depiction of the infant Jesus to another, without a profane image in sight. The whole town was saturated in a heavy religious culture. The accumulative effect was becoming monotonous - even oppressive.
Which got me thinking: if someone who believes in what’s being depicted in these paintings is struggling to connect with their spiritual content, perhaps all this rich culture is obscuring rather than enhancing the story that inspired it. Is it possible to find the spark of faith in it – or has it been snuffed out by the weight of tradition and history. Could I even spot the difference?
So, as we continued walking through the city, I played a game, trying to separate what I thought was inspired by a true faith in God, and what was not. It quickly became difficult: for every almshouse there was a wealthy patron who’d paid for it; the money made in the market might have raised the tower in the square but it also bankrolled the foundling homes and the schools, too. And of course the great paintings weren’t done pro bono. After a while I gave up. It was impossible to tell. This city – like many great European cities - was a complex meld of venal ambition, artistic brilliance, social climbing and sincere kindness and charity. Faith was in the mix, some of it pure some of it bogus. But it wasn’t easy to separate the human from the divine. A bit like life.
In his recent biography, the former Bishop of Edinburgh - Richard Holloway – identifies this tension when he writes: ‘my mistake was to think religion was more than human.’ He goes on: ‘I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was sure religion was.’ As with the art and architecture of Christendom – much of it obviously a human construct – it’s sometimes hard to know where God is in it all.
And yet Paul once described Jesus as ‘the invisible image of God for whom all things – visible and invisible - were created.’ This cosmic claim reminds us that when God got involved with man – he also got involved with culture. I confess, I found it hard to match the image of Jesus – so skilfully depicted by Memling - with the image I carry in my head. But perhaps that’s how it’s meant to be: a messy mix of imperfect people trying to imagine and interpret a perfect God who can never be perfectly pictured.