Seeing Salvation - Grunewald and his Contemporaries - National Gallery
St Johns' Passion - J. S. Bach - English National Opera

I started April by going to see the exhibition SEEING SALVATION at the National Gallery, one of the most complete exhibitions about Christ's life, covering many rooms of the Gallery and including the Christ of St John of the Cross, by Salvador Dali, from Glasgow Museum. This painting is used as the poster of the exhibition and is one of the most significant and emotional that I have seen. But what really captivated me was The Bound Lamb of Francisco de Zurbaran, 1635-40 Madrid, Museo del Prado. " Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world", a traditional Christian symbol of Christ's death on the cross. The lamb of Zurbaran is lying on a stone slab, feet tied together passively, waiting to be slaughtered. It is symbolic Christ's sacrifice and reminds us of the St John Passion.

In the room dedicated to "Grunewald and his Contemporaries" ( a 16th Century German artist), all his paintings are of religious subjects. The painting of Christ on the cross is powerful and emotional, with the dark sky showing the very moment that Christ died for the salvation of the world; this is the visual equivalent of the religious mysticism of medireview times as practised in Germany. The painting shows the body of Christ contorted, the mourners red-eyed and uniquely suffering. The body of Christ is covered in wounds and agonising, a very devotional work.

I found the production of the St John Passion at the Coliseum Theatre ( English National Opera) very intense, with both singers and audience participating. It is the choral work of J S Bach translated into English.

As background, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his St John Passion in 1723 ( he also wrote the St Matthew Passion in 1728-29). This chorale, based on the Gospel of St John, is for solo voices, choir and orchestra. It was customary during Easter week for a Passion to be presented in Leipzig and Bach decided to introduce himself into this sphere of activity with this work. It was presented on Good Friday 1723 in the Church of St Nicholas in Leipzig; the first performance in London was in 1872. Outstanding amongst the music are the tone-painting in the scene of Peter's denial of Christ; the aria " All is Fulfilled" and the closing aria "Rest in Peace".

It was an unusual experience for ENO to bring Bach's work to an opera-house as he didn't write any operas - his work was mainly for church performance. The Chorales were sung professionally on stage by amateurs in the picturebox plus the audience! I had a wonderful English singer next to me; in fact when the performance was over the American couple in front of us complimented her on her beautiful voice, and said she ought to be on stage!!! It was a touching religious experience in the Edwardian splendour of the Coliseum. I have been going to this theatre for a long time and particularly noticed how the lights were used to best advantage to illuminate various things in the auditorium and dimmed for the communal singing, bringing performers and audience together as one.This gave the feeling of being in a church. They tried to recapture the spirit of the time of Bach in Leipzig and its associations with death so we were invited to sing Lutheran hymns. Bach shows the last hours of Christ in a Passion less rich than the St Matthew, although both the Passion begin with the same chorale melody. ( Incidentally, a manuscript has just been found, forgotten by the Bach family in Kiev, Ukraine; Bach's last piece of music - a funeral piece - which he wrote for his own funeral, feeling his end was near).

In this production of the St John Passion, the performers wore modern dress. Hundreds of light bulbs were suspended over the stage, moving up and down depending on the intensity of the performance - it had a truly magical effect. There were three emblematic crosses and used as a background was a film of Christ with drops of blood coming from his face like tears. Apart from that, everything depended on the singers and the chorus.

Jesus, played by Paul Whelan, had a very physical presence with a fascinating body. When he is going to be crucified he removes his shirt, and you can see he has a most perfect body, no muscle fat, no excess fat, his individual vertebra were showing, ( unlike myself, I could see he has no back problems!!!). He was tall and he sang beautifully. I really believed I was seeing Christ before my very eyes. He was an exact portrayal of how I would think him to be from paintings, sculptures etc, and as portrayed by the Church. John The Evangelist - disciple of Jesus - was sung by Mark Padmore and Pilate by David Kempster. He was the only one wearing a tie, which he adjusted before starting to sing. It was produced and staged by Deborah Warner. Bach specialist Stephen Layton conducted and Neil Jenkins did the translation from the German.

The final image was of the entire chorus and the principal singers laying down flowers, which covered the stage, ( someone likened it to the tribute to Princess Diane in Kensington Gardens). All the stage was illuminated with hundreds of moving light bulbs.At the very end someone came from the back of the stage carrying a LIVE LAMB, which was handed to John The Evangelist, and then I cried with emotion!!!!

Francesca (my darling daughter) and I have been to Syria twice, reading our guidebook in an attempt to find " the road to Damascus". we visited the Mosque where they are supposed to have the head of St John The Baptist (?). Although I am in London, I am on the road to Damascus in my soul - it is all a Greek tragedy!! Talking of Greek tragedies, there is a Greek Passion at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a story of today's refugees and villagers. The St John Passion was my religious experience for this Easter although for the last 30 years, I have spent Easter with the Pope, in Rome. The Pope comes into the Via Crucis in the Coliseum - very often it rains - and when I saw him he was carrying the cross on his shoulder, with the TV cameras and the tourists watching. Now I am in London, a very cultural city, and I have found this Easter a particularly glorious experience in which to celebrate the Millennium, Christianity and the tribute to the 250th anniversary of Bach's death.

Easter reminds me of Jerusalem, when Francesca and I were at the Mount of Olives, with its view of the walled Old City, and the Garden Tomb of Jerusalem. When we went inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we were very shocked by how it is divided between the Christians, Christian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenians and I do not know how many others. We had the feeling that they did not get on very well together - not a good atmosphere.We visited the whole of Israel. We intended to get baptised in the river Jordan, but were put off by the water and all the wriggling worms. After we'd jumped in we quickly jumped out again!!! We visited all the Christian and Jewish spiritual places and spent time praying at the Wailing Wall. We left our little "message papers" in the slits between the stones of the Wall, with our dreams and wishes.Our hotel was in the Jewish area; we visited also the Muslim places; our taxi-driver was from Palestine, but he wouldn't take us to the Jewish area, so we had to get a Jewish taxi to get us to the Muslim area to get our taxi!!! What a performance!! Jerusalem really is a Holy Land, and there is a magic about the place that captivates you. When you leave, you immediately start to think about when you are coming back!!

At the start of the new Millennium the Pope visited the Holy Land; the Church has marked the occasion as a Jubilee, celebrating 2000 years, since the birth of Christ. A plenary indulgence is supposed to get you out of hell, so I am on my way to Heaven!!!

PS. There is a new book, The Changing Faces of Jesus, by Prof. Geza Vermes, a Catholic priest who returned to his Jewish origins. He says the break between Judaism and Christianity was not caused by Jesus but by Paul, who never knew Jesus. But Paul developed a new form of religion. Jesus was worshipped as divine, through the Trinitarian doctrine. In this book Vermes argues that it was Paul, not Jesus, who was the founder of Christianity as a separate religion from Judaism.

Please feel free to send this e-mail to anyone who might be interested.

Verinha Ottoni.


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