Monday, March 21, 2016

Fratricide and Apocalypse in Brugge....

Saw Alessandro Scarlatti's 'Il Primo Omicidio' on Saturday evening at the Concertgebouw. Wow! What an extraordinarily powerful emotional musical dramatization of the biblical story of  Caine and Abel created as a focus for devotion in counter-reformation Venice.
Lucifer had a beautiful seductive deep throated base voice whilst God was a rather high pitched, shrill disapproving counter-tenor. There were some wonderfully plaintiff and melodic arias and duets throughout by Adam and Eve and Caine and Abel, and despite being tired from physical work during the day the music had a buoyant energy in its vibrations that went directly into the central nervous system and fleshed out the narrative with very satisfying harmonic dialogue.  
As a 'Bruggerling' I can visit for free the city museums and galleries and go often to Sint Jan's and the Groeningen to see paintings. Looking at the St. John's altarpiece by Hans Memling one is always struck by jewel-like richness and complexity of oil paint after so many years, its colour and light as well as the gentle modelling of forms and textures and the spatial qualities still fresh and startling in this amazing work.

The figure of St. John in the right hand panel can be interpreted on a number of levels. Represented seated on a rocky outcrop on the island of Patmos to the bottom right of the panel he gazes up to the sky illuminated with rainbows with the colours of the spectrum encircling the throne of God surrounded by Angels in the top left. Below this we can see the four horsemen of the Apocalypse riding diagonally across the surface from left to right.  This vision is made visible because the evangelist has transcribed it into words - we see him poised with his writing tool and his hand on the page ready to begin his work - and the artist has transcribed his words back into an image, the writer and the artist using words and images to convey a transcendent vision that lies beyond ordinary sight and outside of ordinary time.  'Et verbum caro factus est' like the incarnation itself both Van Eyck and Memling use paint to give flesh to the creative principle and to visibly embody the abstractions of  language, reason and inner vision.  The function of words and pictures as tools for channelling  the power of imagination and aesthetic pleasure into contemplation has never been better expressed by an artist than in this figure of St. John with his book and vision. Far from the nightmarish fears and anxieties the idea of  'apocalypse' suggests to our imaginations to Memling and to his figure of St. John the end of time is contemplated in a calm and reassuring vision of an ordered universe where good ultimately triumphs over evil in a delicate and delightful explosion of light and colour.  

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