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Remarkable objects

05 September 2014


EVERYDAY MIRACLES is a title that is guaranteed to excite the interest of readers of the Church Times. Its subtitle, The genius of sofas, stockings and scanners (BBC4, Tuesday of last week), may have acted as more of a turn-off; but turning off would have been a mistake.

Professor Mark Miodownik was eager to show us how everyday objects exist only because of the component materials, and that they - even less regarded than the objects of which they are essential constituents - are very remarkable indeed.

This might not be so very distant from sound theology. I often preach that Christianity, which proclaims that God is manifest to us in bread, wine, water, and fishes, is the most material of all religions, and there is something properly incarnational in taking seriously the stuff of creation.

Professor Miodownik demonstrated how technological innovations in recent centuries have had remarkable results. Around the end of the 19th century, our gene pool was enriched because bicycles enabled poorer people to travel away from their home village or town, meet new people, fall in love, and have children.

And cheap, efficient bicycles were possible only because of the development of seamless steel tubing, vulcanised rubber pneumatic tyres, and the roller chain. At today's cutting edge, 3-D printing is now developing accurate temporary scaffolds for stem cells, so that damaged or missing body parts can be replaced. This would, indeed, be miraculous; but, of course, that does not make it a miracle - or does it?

Knowing more about the underlying scaffolding was half the theme of The Beauty of Anatomy (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). Dr Adam Rutherford was sharing with us his interest in the relationship between anatomical dissection and the canon of Western art, and this episode reached, perhaps, the high watermark of the process: the Dutch Golden Age - and, above all, Rembrandt.

His two paintings on The Anatomy Lesson are not depictions of what actually went on in the dissecting theatre - they are group portraits, commissioned to immortalise the status of the senior doctors - but, within this formal constraint, Rembrandt creates works of unsettling genius. In the first, the corpse of the executed criminal is cleaned up, and placed full-length, centre-stage. It is almost Christlike: an entombment.

The second is far less well-known. Here, the corpse confronts us, face to face - except that the top of the skull has been removed, and the dissector is about to cut into the exposed brain. It may have been a reference to a book by Descartes, which suggested that here was the very location of the soul. It might look like science, and we may appreciate it as art - but all along it is theology.

The latest BBC4 Saturday-night Nordic noir crime-drama is Crimes of Passion. In fact, it is not all that noir, as it is set in a breathtakingly beautiful country, and has less existential angst to cheer us up.

The first of these dramas was, to my mind, sub-Agatha Christie, but I predict a cult following for the amateur sleuth Puck Eksted.

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