Throughout all ages
IT WAS the sounding of the ancient horns which moved me most. I had gone to the British Museum exhibition “The World of Stonehenge” through a sense of duty (a former Reader of mine would have called it “the hardening of the ‘oughteries’”), and through loyalty to an institution that I’ve been visiting for more than 50 years. My father (born in 1910) wandered its halls in the 1920s, shown around the Egyptian galleries by an old man who sounded uncannily like Flinders Petrie — but I digress.
I must admit that, until now, whenever I have wandered around provincial museums, I have generally bypassed the cases full of Stone Age arrows and axe-heads until I hit the more relatable Roman bits: after this show, I’ll never do that again.
The exhibition is mesmerising. The context of the objects conjures up a real sense of ancient communities and their spirituality, and of what it means to be human in that, this, and any age. Beginning some 10,000 years ago, when we were still attached to continental Europe by the lost territory of Doggerland, it traces 6500 years of history, from Ireland in the West to the Alps in the East, until we meet the increasing violence of the Iron Age of 1500 BC, when the ancient ways of life seem to have unravelled.
WE FOLLOW the trajectories of hunter gatherers, then farming communities, and of individuals whose lives — through modern genetics — can be charted and movingly presented to us. There is a burial with three children, the two youngest holding hands; there is an archer, born in the French Alps, but buried, with his weapons, next to his great-grandson at Stonehenge itself; there are axe-heads from the Italian Alps, treasured and already two millennia old when buried as grave goods, c.2500 BC.
Underpinning it all is the sense of human minds’ and souls’ reaching out to the universe, most often through the cycles of birth and death, of sowing and harvesting, of the winter and summer solstices. A constant is the sun, seen as source of life and of hope.
Some of the most resonant objects, for me, are the little gold sun discs, found all over France, Spain, Ireland, and England: as crisp and bright as when they were beaten out, each incised with a cross — representing the sun’s rays, or the wheel of the celestial cart carrying the sun across the sky.
If I’d seen them without context, I’d have guessed Saxon Christian pieces, or maybe jewellery from Byzantium; but some of the discs date to 4500 years before the crucifixion. Maybe it all links into some Jungian archetype?
AND then there were the horns. Mostly found in bogs and marshes — lost, or presented as offerings in the liminal places between land and water, they moved me. Their sound had been recorded and was playing next to them: high and low drones that made these ancient lives accessible, and brought them seemingly within touching distance.
I was reminded of the trumpets of Tutankhamun, played and recorded in the same museum: haunting, but — as a modern mouthpiece was used — not really authentic. These horns, as they droned, were the sound of a lost world, but one that still has the power to resonate.
THE next day was Francis Bacon at the Royal Academy (Visual arts, 4 March). (I was, by the way, on my first extended annual leave in two years; the concept of “abroad” being still somewhat daunting, I holidayed in London, easing back into life like a mollusc gently peering out of its shell.)
I have long been intrigued by the Soho artists of the 1950s and ’60s, primarily Keith Vaughan, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon. I have a little drawing by Vaughan, Nude with Contraption, which I realised, after looking at it for a few months, was actually a sketch of a man trying to put up a deckchair.
As a child, I was shouted at by Freud’s muse, Lorna Garman, in the woods near home, where my boxer had scared her little dogs (she did apologise). Despite this trauma, I hugely admire Freud, with his combination of cruel objectivity and humanity.
Bacon, though, has always been more of a challenge: almost the next stage on from Freud, he eviscerates and torments his subjects, both human and animal. In contrast to Bronze Age use of Christian symbols millennia before their time, Bacon takes Christian tropes — crucifixions, triptychs —- and empties them of any transcendence, filling them instead with visceral “flesh, fur, faeces”, as T. S. Eliot put it.
With a couple of screaming popes thrown in for good measure, it is a nihilistic world-view rather different from my own. I recognise the power, but will leave him be. It did, though, amuse me that some of these exercises in anger and disgust were produced when Bacon was cheerfully living and gambling in Monte Carlo alongside his partner, George Dyer.
Ancient images of hope and the divine; modern images of brutality and loathing — of these, I know which for me, as a priest, resonate more.
The Revd John Wall is Rector of the Uckfield Plurality in East Sussex.