Tag Archives: Art


Our theme for assemblies this term is integrity. For me, it’s one of the most important topics to discuss with young adults; I believe all of the young people I spend every day with have the potential to change the world, but if we want them to be a force for good then we have to equip them to head into that world ready to face life’s challenges with complete integrity.

Probably the best definition of integrity I’ve heard is this – making what’s on the inside, match what’s on the outside. We can put that into practice in lots of different ways, whatever our point of departure. It might be as straightforward as striving to fulfil our potential or, to borrow from my old school motto, it might be about committing to show our faith in the way that we live.

In a former life I was based at a major gallery in London, working mostly with their religious art. In that time, I learnt a lot about the lives of the saints and if we’re thinking about examples of integrity, that seems as good a place as any to begin. Saints are, by and large, ordinary people who do extraordinary things. What they all have in common, is a real sense of integrity.

St Jerome wasn’t born into a Christian family. As he was growing up he was incredibly sceptical of Christianity but when he moved to Rome to study, he was persuaded that it was something worthwhile and he converted. He was a student in Rome, and, not unlike the student life today, that meant a life of excess. As much as he enjoyed it, he was always left feeling guilty. Eventually, he turned his back on that lifestyle. He moved to Chalcis and became a hermit, where he completed his most famous work – translating the Bible into latin. It wasn’t easy, but integrity won out. He gave up everything to live the life he felt called to lead, not the life expected of him.

For Peter Martyr, a similar sort of integrity cost him his life. He was born in Verona into a family and wider community who were starting to break away from the teachings of the church. He dedicated his life to calling out Catholics who professes faith but didn’t act on it. The challenge he laid down made some people uncomfortable, and he was assassinated by Milanese Cathars on his way to preach in Milan. He was prepared to die rather than compromise his integrity.

St. Lawrence felt the same. He was arrested for giving away the riches of corrupt bishops to the poor. He refused to accept he had done anything wrong and was sentenced to death on a gridiron. Even as he was held over the flames they gave him the chance to admit he was wrong. Instead, he allegedly used his last words to say, “Turn me over; that side’s done.” I like St. Lawrence – integrity and a sense of humour.

At risk of veering towards my favourite topic the F word again, female saints are generally saints because they managed to maintain their integrity in the face of men being terrible. St. Catherine was something of a proto-nun. In a time when women didn’t have choice in the matter, she decided she didn’t want to get married, she wanted to dedicate her life to God and convert people to Christianity. One man who she tried unsuccessfully to convert decided that the best way to reign her in would be to marry her and force her to stop being Christian. He didn’t take her refusal very well, and decided to imprison her and torture her into death or submission by breaking wheel. She remained true to herself though, and her faith was apparently so strong that when they strapped her to the wheel it exploded (hence we have the fireworks Catherine Wheels today).

St. Lucy also had man trouble. She was a devout Christian, relentlessly pursued by a committed pagan who also wanted to marry and covert her. She would not compromise her integrity though. Legend has it that a letter telling her how beautiful her eyes were was the final straw; she plucked out her own eyes and sent the messenger back with them, telling him that if he liked them that much he could have them, but never her. Integrity to the extreme, some might say.

Finally, St. Edward. Edward is known as the Confessor because he dedicated his life to confessing his faith, regardless of the personal consequences. In other words, he lived a life of complete integrity. He lived much of his life balancing his devotion to his Christian beliefs with his commitment to seeing his subjects. This is summed up by the story of the ring: Edward had a great devotion to St. John and was dedicating a chapel to him in Essex when a poor man approached him and asked for alms. Edward had no money with him, and no time to get any without missing the service, so, to keep his commitment to both, he gave the man his sapphire ring and went on his way. Legend goes that years later two English Pilgrims stranded in the Holy Land were helped by an old man who claimed to be St. John. He gave the men the ring Edward had given away to the beggar to return to him, which they did. The moral of the story – integrity has its rewards.

The purpose of all of these stories is not because I’m suggesting you need to be a miracle workers or a martyr to show integrity. But just because many of us are lucky enough to live in parts of the world where we are free to live by our beliefs doesn’t mean we should become complacent about it. However big or small that belief might be I think we have a duty to not waste that privilege, to challenge ourselves to make what we show on the outside match what we believe on the inside.

Pope Francis said, “To be saints is not a privilege for the few, but a vocation for everyone.” As I said at the beginning, saints are just ordinary people who do extraordinary things. If I have one hope for my young people and myself, it is that we can find the courage and integrity to never settle for being ordinary.

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Forty thousand years of 2am.

It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because my brain is full of questions that I can’t answer. It’s overwhelming, as 2am tends to be when it’s just you and your thoughts. Tonight is different though, because tonight I’m trying to bend my mind around the idea that people have been lying awake at 2am worrying about their world for forty thousand years. It’s a strange thought, comforting and terrifying in equal measure, and it’s entirely the fault of a tiny little carved woman.

Female figure sculpted from steatite. Found at Grimaldi, Italy, thought to be about 20,000 years old.

Musée d’archéologie nationale
© Photo RMN/Jean-Gilles Berizzi

I have a theory about humanity. When we’re confronted with something beyond our comprehension we react to it in one of two ways – either we shy away from it and reject it, or we allow ourselves to be consumed by an infinite fascination. When it comes to our existence, though, only the latter is an option. This is why people like me lie awake at 2am, why philosophers philosophise, and why millions of teenagers are wracked by the sort of existential angst that Sartre would be proud of. Why am I here, now, and how am I myself? In the absence of a definitive answer, it seems only logical to lay out the pieces of puzzle that we have to play with. Enter art, and with it thousands of years of puzzle pieces – tiny fragments of expressions of existence.

Today, my whole scale changed. When I think about art, I rarely stray beyond two thousand years ago. Quite often I don’t even venture that far – my current paper has had me resident in 15th Century Florence for quite a while now and my brain and I have been having a lovely time there. Six hundred years adrift from my existence is pushing the boundaries of my capacity to relate, but every now and then I’m struck by something so human that that relation is obvious. When I walked into an exhibition of Ice Age art today, my head literally ached as I attempted to imagine humanity forty thousand years ago. Some days I struggle with basic counting so 40,000 is difficult enough as a number, let alone as a measure of enduring reality. My brain was trapped in a mini ice age of its own, frozen.

As it turned out, all that it took to thaw the great freeze was one tiny, carved figure. It was no taller than an inch and (then present company excepted) it was the oldest thing I have ever seen. I recognised the figure from the exhibition advertising but was not prepared for the scale of it in reality – the marketing team had, very literally, blown it out of all proportion. As I stood before it in the British Museum, I was overwhelmed. As the curator’s label informed me, it was not a literal depiction of a woman but it was most definitely a carved human figure; it was instantly identifiable but almost wholly abstract by modern standards. Then came the realisation – I was not looking at some primitive attempt at a portrait, I was looking at an expression of human existence. More than that, it was an expression that tapped into something so essential that twenty thousand years apart from the artist, I could identify with it. It was so simple and yet more complex than anything I can convey, and it was the key to unlocking my understanding of the whole collection of art on display. At first I thought this epiphany was an existential puzzle piece slotting into place, but it soon dawned on me that it was just the realisation that the puzzle is forty thousand times bigger than I’d ever imagined. That tiny little woman is the product of humanity under conditions that are more alien to us than I can really imagine, and yet it speaks to the exact existence I know today.

I find a funny reassurance in the commonality of it all – the idea that people have always tried to express the puzzle of what it is to simply be. Yet, as I lie here, I also can’t shake the enormous sense of disquiet at the thought that a billion lifetimes have passed since that little woman was fashioned and I am no less bewildered at 2am.

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For the first eleven years of my life I saw Van Gogh’s Sunflowers every day. There was a poster on the wall of my kitchen that was actually larger than the real thing (we moved after that and I’m not sure what happened to it). It’s one of my mum’s favourite pieces, so I made a point of seeing it the first time I went to the National Gallery and I’ve seen it many times since – I even bought her a print last Christmas that has hung on her wall since then. Yet it was last week before I noticed the most obvious thing – it’s desperately sad.

Laugh if you like – I almost laughed at myself. This is an image I have seen around 5,000 times in my life (genuinely – I just did the maths), but stood in front of it that rainy afternoon I saw it with new eyes. I whispered, out loud but to nobody in particular, “They’re all dying.” And they are. 14 dying sunflowers. How had I never noticed it before, you might ask? Fair question – it’s glaringly obvious to anyone with eyes and I’m meant to be doing a Masters in this stuff… The simple answer is, I’d never needed to.

When I see Sunflowers I don’t look at it. I think about my childhood, I think about the house where the poster hung and growing my own sunflowers from seeds up the back wall. When they grew as tall as they could, I’d cut them and put them in a vase in front of the picture (meta for a seven year old, right?!). Most of all, it makes me think of mum in that yellow kitchen, the happiest I can remember her. But, as I stood looking at the real thing last week, seeing it for the first time, I realised I was only remembering half the story.

Yes, that poster was in the background of all of my happy memories, but it was also in the background the first time I remember seeing both of my parents cry. I remember sitting in front of it when I covered my ears so I didn’t have to listen to my dog’s kennel being broken up after she died. I remember staring at it when things happened that I didn’t want to try to understand. I remember sitting opposite it alone with a glass of milk every time I begged my dad to stay and he didn’t. It lurks in the background of snapshots of loved ones who aren’t here to flick through the albums with me anymore.

And now I understand (as Don Maclean would say) what Sunflowers is all about. For Van Gough, Sunflowers were a symbol of happiness, just like for me. The famous painting is one of a cycle of four of the same subject, at various stages. It’s the most challenging, but also the most true – it’s still a happy painting, even though the subject is sad. Because as everyone who was ever in primary school knows, when a sunflower dies it leaves all of the seeds ready to be planted and to start growing again.

Sunflowers is about that cycle, about taking the good and the bad and being ready to go again. Because what else can I do with all of those seeds it’s dropped in my mind?

Vincent Van Gough - Sunflowers

Vincent Van Gough – Sunflowers
(The National Gallery, London)

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