Great Landscapes: Bruce Pennington

There is a subtle, and possibly snobbish distinction between mere illustrators and painters. The former often have more of a career than the latter, but they all started out the same way.

Some illustrators, like Robert McGinnis – still with us at 94 – are extraordinarily gifted artists, displaying not just the essential technical chops, but also a vivid imagination and scene setting. McGinnis’ brooding and often sexy men and women are instantly recognisable, oozing style and iconicism. He could paint landscapes too. His status is also assured, the combination of Americana and ineffable cool gives him a cachet that some of his peers lack. By way of contrast, the demographic that everyone looks down on is probably the scifi/geek set, exhibit ‘A’ being the Simpsons’ Comic Book Store Guy. They’re all losers, right?

Yet lurking within the genre are some extraordinary works of art – posters, book covers, LP covers, illustrated exegeses and more. The British artist Bruce Pennington (a mere 76 years old) is one of the masters. I had a few of his book covers in the 70’s, and they always had a dark, authentic imagination working away, clearly above the herd. His otherworldiness actually reminds me of Goya (at times), Bruegel and Vereshchagin. An unusually diverse peer group.

…. a Pennington classic…

By coincidence, the daily Office of Readings in the Catholic Lectio Divina, is, in this Eastertide period, excerpting heavily from the Apocalypse of St John, or the Book of Revelation. It’s quite a read. An essential read I’d suggest. Interpreting it is another matter.

The scripture teems with arresting and still terrifying imagery. A lot of it is hard to form as a coherent mental picture. The New Jerusalem is one example. How many jewels in the walls? What are the pearls as gates? There are endless examples.

But the two key protagonists, apart from God, are the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”, and the “great, fiery red dragon”, although you also have numerous angels, the Four Horsemen, the other Beast and many many more. Oddly, given the scriptural roots of much of the canon of Western art, there are very few major depictions of all this going back into the centuries. It is definitely a subject for the modern amateur and numerous contemporary evangelical Christian artists, but rarely of any aesthetic merit. Which brings us to Bruce Pennington, who may be contemporary but is in neither of those two categories**.

The rise of the antichrist

It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me the detail, the lighting and the sweeping imagination melding the Mediterranean and the Piazza San Pietro is quite brilliant. The emerging dragon fulfils the requisite threat and enormity superbly. It is indeed a landscape, but of a very strange kind, which fits with the subject matter. The restless sweep, colour and energy remind me of Dali’s late masterpiece, Tuna Fishing. That is quite a compliment.


** In the interests of accuracy, I should add that my reference to Revelation is correct, for the most part, but strictly speaking Bruce was interpreting Nostradamus (in his book Eschatus), although much of the Frenchman’s work seems pretty obviously derived from that book of scripture.

The weirdest triduum of my lifetime: interlude – #HolySaturday

Apart from the gospels and related scripture from the time of Christ, there are loads of scraps of writing from the first few centuries Anno Domini, which form part of the repository of Christian faith and have the seal of approval from the church, without actually forming scripture. They are mostly sermons, letters and analyses of what’s gone before, trying to form a coherent philosophical, theological and practical framework. This went on for centuries of course (see Aquinas), and much of the time was spent battling the numerous heresies that arose.

We don’t read this stuff much – mostly in the Lectio Divina, I’d say – though many of the authors are big names such as St John Chrystostom,  and some is remarkably poetic, which leads to today’s author, probably Melito of Sardis**. He definitely existed, and was less definitely the author of the piece which is always quoted for today, mainly because it’s hushed poetry is unimprovable. The whole sermon/prayer is worth reading, but it’s the opening that sticks in the mind:

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear…

Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ – one of the most technically daring paintings of all time given it’s use of extreme perspective – is appropriate. The face is not one of the broken failure of the cross, but rather nobility and strength in repose, waiting.

The Lamentation of Christ, Mantegna, 1478. Pinacoteca Brera, Milan


** the authorship is uncertain, here @EduardHabsburg (yup, those Habsburgs) is suggesting a St Epiphanus, two centuries later

A Roman Christmas – sort of


A small but perfectly formed piece by Andrew Ferguson, one of the smartest and wittiest writers in America. Given that the Weekly Standard is now defunct, there’s no certainty about what will happen to all of its online content, and in particular, that of its best contributor.

So here is Ferguson’s trip to Rome in the company of the legendary HV Morton, whose original book A Traveller in Rome sums up the Eternal City very well – no easy task – and also evokes the heady days of hassle free travel and effortless continental chic.

I went to Rome not long ago and took H. V. Morton along for the ride. He was an agreeable companion, for the most part. Through no fault of his own, he has been dead for 40 years, but before he clocked out he managed to publish a series of travel books that brought him fame and riches. His native England was a favorite subject and so was the Holy Land, but it was in Rome that he plowed especially fertile ground. Over a dozen years he managed to produce A Traveller in RomeThis Is RomeA Traveller in Italy(with lots of stuff about Rome), A Traveller in Southern Italy (ditto), The Waters of Rome, and The Fountains of Rome. Thus he managed to match and exceed the freelancer’s mandate: “Publish every piece three times.” He’s a hero.

Morton’s first fame exploded when he broke the news of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. After that sensational ka-boom his work and career settled down. His tokens were the quiet anecdote and the picturesque detail. The best of his Rome books is the first, A Traveller in Rome, and I tossed it in my carry-on bag for inflight reading, hoping that once airborne I could resist the temptations of Black Panther and Fantastic Mr. Fox beckoning from the seatback screen 18 inches from my face.

Morton had the essential journalistic quality: absolute confidence in his own judgments. Without it a hack can never achieve the fluency needed to shovel words by the bushel. “Often wrong, never in doubt” was long the motto of editorial writers, but it can be applied to the journalism racket generally. And so: “To cut a good figure,” writes Morton, “to have panache, to preserve one’s ‘face,’ are necessary to the self-respect of the Italian, and to reduce him in his own estimation is to earn his eternal enmity.” Is this true? I have no idea—my knowledge of the Italian character doesn’t extend beyond Godfather I and II, which are about Sicilians. It sounds plausible enough, and whatever it is, it’s not mush. Morton gives his readers granite-hard assertions they can grab onto and use to hoist themselves into the next paragraph. He is full of assertions.

And he phrases them always in excellent prose. Common enough among pen-pushers of his day, Morton has a style that flirts with the fancy, approaches the purple, but always turns back in the nick of time. I never knew what would draw my companion’s attention. Rome, I learned early on, “has the most wonderful steps in the world,” a fact that launches him into a kind of prose poem about stairs, along with their effect on his leg muscles. He grows censorious when he contemplates Roman elevators. “Italy is a country of intransigent lifts,” he scowls. And the motor scooter Romans favored in the postwar years: “An absurd vehicle.”

Morton isn’t a full-time grump. He would hardly have been worth taking along on a trip if he were. His eye for beauty is worthy of Rome, and he is always open to surprise. I find him especially useful for the unexpected fact with which a traveler can impress fellow travelers and feign worldliness. Did you know that it was once traditional, when a pope died, for the Cardinal Chamberlain (whatever that is) to enter the papal bedchamber and give the Catholic carrion three ceremonial taps on his forehead with a silver hammer? Me neither. But I know it now, and so do you, thanks to my companion’s tireless researches. Morton does not, unfortunately, go on to explain why this tapping ritual was performed. He’s not perfect.

It is commonplace to observe that in Rome history lies in sedimentary layers. The clay of imperial Rome covers the Roman Republic, that of Alaric and the barbarians is laid upon the remains of empire, the Middle Ages barely peeks through the Renaissance, and so on, up to the bullet-pocked façade of Mussolini’s headquarters. To these I now add an idiosyncratic layer of my own. When I walk the length of the Lateran basilica, I think not only of popes and saints and pilgrims; I think that this is where a British travel writer walked more than a half-century ago, author of what has become one of my favorite books, who left this holy place one afternoon for a quick bite to eat and recorded the event with his inexhaustible capacity for wonder.

“To watch an Italian faced by a gigantic mass of spaghetti is always to me an interesting spectacle. The way he crouches over it, combs it up into the air and winds it round his fork before letting it fall into his mouth and biting off the fringe, rouses the awe . . . ” 

Merry Christmas again, and happy travels in 2019


Fra Angelico, Noli me Tangere, 1440, San Marco, Florence.


Fra Angelico was one of the very earliest truly great painters. For a discussion of this masterly and blissful gem, see here and here. His genius transcends both the centuries and the artistic niches: “the great American artist Mark Rothko had been struck by the incredible light in Angelico’s works: an “inner” light that is stronger than the opacity that is intrinsic in the fresco technique.” And Rothko – talented though he was – was a very different sort of artist. He nevertheless identified something both real, and rare.

“Brava, la Fallaci. Brava.”

…she even made selfies look cool…

Eight years ago, in one of the earliest pieces in this blog, I wrote what was effectively a fan’s homage to one of the great women of our time, writer and journalist, Oriana Fallaci. I think it still reads well. Fallaci was something of a prophetess, of an uncompromising and ballsy kind, who could write and argue with great vigour and effect. She was a populist in the tackling of difficult (and dangerous) issues, such as Islamic terrorism. Here is Christopher Hitchens’ profile of her, in some ways a kindred spirit.

She died of cancer in 2006, happily dismissive to the end, of some early social justice warriors who were trying to get her prosecuted.

The people who use the word ‘populist’ in a contemptuous way now, would likely hold Fallaci in contempt too. I doubt though, that they would express it to her face.

All this is a preamble to an excellent piece by the Fallaci of our time (sort of), the tireless Douglas Murray, in the enduringly excellent magazine for the brainiacs of Western Civilization, Standpoint. Feel free to read my blog post too, but here, describing one of her most famous encounters, is Murray:

In the early 1970s she had conducted an interview with the Shah of Iran, in which he discussed the visions he believed he had received. The resulting piece was so damaging that when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he granted Fallaci the only interview that any Western journalist would ever get with him. They met in Qom in 1979, where the Ayatollah discovered that just because Fallaci disliked your enemies it did not follow that she would like you. When the Ayatollah claimed that the Iranian revolution which he was heading was animated by love she replied, “Love or fascism, Imam? It seems like fanaticism to me, the most dangerous kind: the fascist kind.”

The full version of the Khomeini interview remains one of the greatest pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Not just for the scoop, or the intricately revealing lead-up to the encounter, but for what Fallaci did during it. Forced into a chador in order to enter the Ayatollah’s presence, she ended up in a row about why women should be forced to wear such a garment, and became so enraged that she stood up and ripped off “this stupid medieval rag”, letting it fall to the floor “in an obscene black puddle”. At which “like the shadow of a cat . . . he rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck with a gust of wind. Then with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”

It should be noted though, that the newly labelled fascist fanatic Khomeini later reappeared and finished the interview.

She certainly had something.

Great Landscapes: when near Rome..

Thomas Cole was an American painter of the famous Hudson River School, though slightly bizarrely, he was actually born in Bolton, Lancashire. Famous and successful in his day, he did the obligatory Grand Tour to Italy in 1842, six years before he died at the age of 47. He had the requisite technical skills, certainly, but if you had to pin down what made him special, it was, I think, a sense of grandeur and otherworldly numinosity. A kind of large scale American version of Caspar David Friedrich, with a touch of the classicism and ethereal light that Turner and Claude Lorrain had mastered.

To a degree he is the victim of the kind of snobbery that relegates him to second tier status in the art world. If you were to dilute him down to the most basic elements, you might end up with someone like the gifted commercial sentimentalist, Thomas Kinkade.

In any event his Italian paintings are terrific, and here’s one of them:

Thomas Cole, Ruins of Aqueducts in the Roman Campagna, 1843. The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Connecticut

Which came to mind when I stumbled upon a magnificent landscape by Edward Lear, ‘nonsense author’, of the pyramids at Giza. I had no idea what a great artist he was. Having explored his stuff a bit, I found this:

Edward Lear, In the Campagna Near Rome, 1844

I’m not sure where it’s held these days, but note that it’s almost contemporaneous with Cole’s work. Lear had a long life and spent about 5 decades travelling on and off, mainly in Europe, at a time when that was obviously a bit more arduous than today. Both paintings are magnificent.

Before them both though, in 1826, was Camille Corot, with a much simpler style, but the same magical effect:

Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot, The Roman Campagna with the Claudian Aqueduct, 1826. The National Gallery, London


You can of course still see this scene, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, only a few miles from the city centre. The Roman engineering of the Aqua Claudia and associated structures is astonishing, but the photographs can’t compete with painters.

The statue of Christ being transported in the opening scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

The Porta Maggiore in 1896, the Aqua Claudia is the upper channel

The Aqua Claudia in the Campagna


Easter Saturday: there is a great silence on earth today**

I’ve posted on this four times previously (1, 2, 3, 4), in part because it’s such an intriguing day.  Bryan Appleyard tweeted 3 years ago: Easter Saturday, a catastrophic, hopeless day of no hope. Some say all Beckett’s work takes place on Easter Saturday. I guess that hopelessness is how it felt back then, around 1984 years ago. But if you’re a believer it’s different – you know what’s coming. This astoundingly good Mantegna painting sums up the Appleyard view…

Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, 1480. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

……it looks to be all over. But the mysterious activities behind the scenes, so to speak, on this Saturday are Christ entering hell, as seen in this engraving, also by Mantegna. Note that Christ is trampling down the gates of hell, with the souls in limbo waiting expectantly through the open door…

Mantegna, Descent into Limbo, ~1475, V&A collection

..and you may ask what that’s all about? I went into the background to it here. It’s decribed in the Catechism as the “last stage of Jesus’ messianic mission”, to “preach even to the dead”. It’s produced some pretty flamboyant painting, such as this derivation of Rubens, Bosch and other Low Country painters…

Jan Brueghel the elder, Rottenhammer, Christ’s Descent into Limbo, 1597. Mauritshuis, The Hague

Easter Saturday then is quite a day. The transient attempted secularising of Easter makes no difference to these awesome traditions and beliefs. Here is a fine blog post on the Limbo thing and its depiction, if you’re interested, and also a great study of the ‘Appleyardian’ view in painting.

** the title is from the famous and highly poetic sermon of Melito of SardisSomething strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.










Lent and Pasolini


If I may rehash a film cliche: what can a gay Marxist atheist anticlerical football fan teach us about Lent? Well, quite a lot actually.

I have to admire Pier Paolo Pasolini whose range of subjects is pretty remarkable. His so called ‘Trilogy of Life’ is near the knuckle but amazingly evocative of those ages and places that it wishes to depict: medieval England and Italy and the timeless exoticism of Arabia. His gross and grotesque Salo is in its deeply unpleasant way a serious film. Given its inspiration and setting, if it was remade today it would be called Raqqa.

The man had a distinctive cinematic style, and like his fellow Italian Sergio Leone, he was an absolute master of the human face. The most ordinary of people become gripping subjects instantly. Emotion is routinely underplayed, and is the more powerful because of it.

When it comes to Lent, the key is his remarkably pure and beautiful Gospel According to St Matthew (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). At a stroke Pasolini went from being in trouble with the Church and others for Accatone and Ro.Go.Pa.G to being justifiably feted by the Vatican for this movie, described in 2014 by L’Osservatore Romano as “…the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema”, although when it came out 50 years earlier, some of the church old guard had struggled with the idea that Pasolini could do this in all sincerity. But he did.

Why specifically Lent, given that the movie tells the story of the whole of St Matthew’s Gospel? The answer lies in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, praying and fasting, which is the most recent and most striking of the various allusions in scripture to Lent as we know it today. There he is tempted by Satan, and dismisses him with pointed references to the Old Testament.

In this film Pasolini typically used a lot of locals with no acting pedigree. He scattered in various acquaintances from his intellectual salon, and also his own mother. The locals are from Crotone, Matera, and Massafra, which is that primitive part of Southern Italy that stands in for ancient Palestine – totally convincingly. However, the desert sequence was filmed on Mount Etna, and it works brilliantly. The emptiness interrupted by the distant figure of Satan, walking purposefully towards Jesus, the dust billowing in his wake resembling, possibly intentionally,  sulphurous fumes. Satan himself is startling and charismatic, portrayed in the most understated way yet brimming with both evil and, one senses, confusion. Weirdly, this is the one main actor in the film who goes uncredited, as far as I can ascertain.

Other people find other scenes more compelling, but this desert sequence does it for me. Pasolini moved on to other things, some mentioned at the start, and got himself disapproved of again. However, he never disavowed his fascination with Christ and his teaching, seeing it in terms of its superficial similarities to socialism and more convincingly,  Jesus as a revolutionary, of a unique kind. He often mused on this paradox: “I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)… but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me”….“I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer—at least not consciously.”

Which is fair enough. But this man of contradictions was also anti-drugs, anti-establishment and remarkably, completely anti-abortion. This is from when he opposed the legalisation of abortion in Italy in 1975: “I am however shocked at the idea of legalizing abortion, because, as many others, I consider it a legalization of homicide. In my dreams and in my everyday behaviour – an attitude common to all human beings – I live my prenatal life, my being happily immersed in the waters: I know that I existed then. I will stop here, because I have more urgent things to say on abortion. That life is sacred is an obvious thing: it is a principle even stronger than any principle of democracy, and it is useless to repeat it.”

He also portrayed the actuality of hell in one scene from The Canterbury Tales, in a mind blowing mix of Hieronymus Bosch, the Carry On movies and Dante’s Inferno. One thing he gets right, based on the popular imagination, is the deafening, screeching noise of hell.

Having said that, the real Satan, who affects us all, is the one in the desert.