oxford shows off 16th century ‘video nasty’

I was fortunate to be on a guided tour of the Christ Church Picture Gallery, where my good friend John Whitehead was on duty, yesterday afternoon. Although it was free, and there were plenty of tourists in the city as a result of  St Giles’ Fair, I was the only person on the tour. This made for a very interesting afternoon, hearing about all sorts of paintings, and seeing some particularly gruesome images.

Four Angels

One of the first paintings we looked at was Four Angels by Bernardo Daddi, unfortunately it is only part of the original painting. Another part of the original survives in the National Gallery as The Coronation of the Virgin. In Four Angels, we see the heads of the angels all looking in differing directions. I was told that this was so that Daddi could show what was possible – not that they weren’t paying attention like naughty choristers and altar boys can do (obviously such altar boys would not be members of the Society of St Tarcisius).

Mrs Centaur?

One reads and hears of the mythical beast the centaur – but one hardly ever hears of, let alone sees, “Mrs Centaur and the children” but in Filippino Lippi’s The Wounded Centaur that is just what we see – while the centaur is looking at Cupid’s arrows which he has nicked, and injured himself – his wife is back with the children in the cave to the right of the painting. Is this a painting to suggest that we should not play with love as it can end up hurting us?

The Martyrdom of St Lawrence

Tintoretto’s painting which is pretty gruesome, was described by my guide as

video nasty of its day

which is a peculiar but pretty memorable way of putting it. I was told, by Mr Whitehead, of a mutual friend who, whilst an undergraduate, used to go and sit and look at this painting for hours. Others have described Tintoretto’s St Lawrence as

having muscles the size of walnuts.

St Lawrence, pray for us.

When I first came to live and work in Oxford, the parish church (“Church of England”) in South Hinksey where I was living (and working) is dedicated to St Laurence (the spelling changes in many cases but it is definitely celebrated as St Laurence of Rome not St Laurence O’Toole (which would gladden Irish hearts)). St Lawrence is a martyr of Rome, he was a Deacon, and was martyred as we see in Tintoretto’s painting, on a grid iron. It is said that he cried out

Assum est, inquit, versa et manduca

during this torture.

St Lawrence suffered because he had been asked to turn over the riches of the Church to the Emperor following the martyrdom of Pope Saint Sixtus II on 6 August, 258. When the good and holy deacon heard what he had to do, he worked swiftly to distribute as much Church property to the poor as possible, so as to prevent its being seized by the prefect. On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, he presented himself to the prefect, and when ordered to give up the treasures of the Church, he presented the poor, the crippled, the blind and the suffering, and said that these were the true treasures of the Church. One account records him declaring to the prefect,

The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.

This act of defiance led directly to his martyrdom.

St Giles, pray for us.

St Lawrence, pray for us.

St Sixtus, pray for us.

Our Lady of Oxford, pray for us.

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