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still silence

Jan Vermeer — The Little Street

Jan Vermeer — The Little Street

Jan Vermeer was a master of still silence. This is a view of Delft, possibly the view from his studio, over the Voldersgracht  to the Guild of Saint Luke, of which he was a member. You can see everything there is to see, with gorgeous natural colours and exquisitely painted details. Except you can’t see into the houses, nor what the maid is doing, or what the children are playing at, or what the woman is making, not even her face. Nothing important, nothing that gives interior meaning, just the exterior appearance.

So what is he saying? The lack of interior meaning is complete. This must be deliberate. He’s saying you shouldn’t look for meaning in the way things look, don’t even think you could find it.

all things shall be well

I’ve heard that the 18th century Viennese composer Mozart was the same person — via the mechanism of reincarnation — as the 14th century English anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich. This seems ridiculous until you hear the slow movement of his clarinet concerto — written whilst also working on The Magic Flute, with its themes of trial and initiation into higher knowledge, and the Requiem, which he thought might well be his own — and read her words — written (the first in English by a woman) in summary reflection after nearly dying, receiving the Last Rites and then many visions about sin and love:

All shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and all manner of thing shall be exceeding well.

Time stands still indeed.


John Sell Cotman - The Ploughed Field - Leeds Art Gallery

John Sell Cotman, The Ploughed Field, c.1805

I’ve seen the original of this, which is held in a safe in the Art Gallery in Leeds, where I live. It’s typical of the countryside north of here, and is an exquisite study in subtle  colour and texture. It’s also tiny, only a little larger than the postcard they sell in the shop (which is a good reproduction BTW, at least of the colours).

There are two human figures: a male, standing in ownership but in fact being owned, in shadow, surrounded by remembrances of death. He’s at the centre of his universe.

The other is female, walking up the path in the distance, in sunshine, surrounded by pale gold, free to seek a higher level.

What’s it saying? What you see is what you get.

to Be is to See and be Seen


  Jane Bown, Cow Eye, 1947

Love versus Like a Lot

Anita Klein, The Cockatoo

Anita Klein, The Cockatoo, 2008

Anita Klein makes pictures of ordinary life with tiny details that transform them into something beyond. This one is of a woman offering bird-seed to a cockatoo. She’s in a safe place but the bird is from the wild. She must like it a lot to feed it from her own hand.

But she’s not looking. It’s not an act of desire but of ego-less hope, in the dark. And, as a result, paradise, in the form of a slightly comical cockatoo, comes to her.

Soul in a bowl


This was made by Per Lütken at the Danish glassworks Holmegaard in the 70s. The technique, so I read, is you soak a wooden stick in water overnight, take a blob of molten glass from the furnace, and bring the two together, wearing gloves. Water turning to steam gives a thousand-fold increase in volume. When the cataclysm has died down you open your eyes and see what you’ve got. Often a subtle free-form vase, in this case a perfectly round small bowl. A lucky find on ebay for a fiver.

It is the essence of the meditative / mindful / unified / centred state. Whole, spontaneous, natural, still, translucent, receptive, reflective, restrained, inscrutable, balanced, self-contained, mysterious, a moment suspended, the colour of sky after rain.

The Hay Wain as interior path


John Constable, The Hay Wain

John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821

Some art has a spiritual interpretation. It may not be the intention of the artist, nor be the only possible interpretation. But here goes.

This image is on every place-mat in the land, you might say it is the cliché of English clichés. What is shown — besides the effortlessly natural & lovely Suffolk countryside — is the staunching of the hay wain’s wooden wheels in a millpond: the wood swells against the iron rims and makes the wheels stronger.

All the humans are going about their everyday purpose without pause or variation. But the small dog — whose senses are beyond ours — is waiting for something new.  This is a picture of the interior path to a place beyond the normal.

They are immersed in water — a symbol of truthfulness since it always finds its own level.  They are headed, in stillness but with the front wheels turned, towards a field of gold — a symbol of heaven on earth. They couldn’t move there by human willpower — various physical obstacles prevent that. They’re leaving normal sustenance to each side — drawing drinking water on the left and fishing for food on the right. And there’s no hay in the hay wain — the interior journey needs worldly emptiness.

John Constable was contemporary with William Blake, near enough. They are considered contraries, though both Romantics, but Blake’s luminous metaphysics was never so immediate and natural as this. The original is in the National Gallery, London, of course.