memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Posts tagged ‘leonardo da vinci’

Her pilgrim soul



When I was young I greatly admired the poem When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats, the middle verse of which I quote:

How many loved your glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true;

But one loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

Now I’m getting to be quite old myself and well, it has more meaning for me and I still like it.



All a stitch-up?



Here is picture from the British Library called Christ in Majesty from the Stavelot Bible.

Mosan School, AD 1097.

I love this picture. Monks painted this exquisite page patiently in the fervour of their belief in the glory of God. I have always admired and revered sacred as well as profane art, be it the early medieval illuminations of the monks or the Plain-Chant echoing distantly from the college chapel of my school-days or the time when I was introduced (at the age of eleven) to Chartres Cathedral by my father who remarked that it was astonishing that the architects, engineers, stone-masons and glass-stainers who designed, built and decorated what was arguably the pinnacle of Western Art were anonymous.

Neither the great masters of the Italian Renaissance nor the Popes who commissioned their works were particularly devout – the formers’ genius was too broad to encompass such narrow doctrine and the venality, greed and lust-for-power of the latter too great. But The Last Supper and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are marvellous creations, are they not?





But might it not be that instead of being the product of Divine Intervention they are the result of human creativity reaching upwards to the sublime.

In other words instead of God creating us in his own image we are creating God in our image.

I read or heard somewhere that the catholic children who still learn in the catechism (which is a simplistic paring down of an already rather narrow doctrine) learn that if a baby dies before being baptized then he/she is technically denied access to the Kingdom of Heaven; his/her soul is technically transferred to a sort of limbo-créche. One is immediately transferred to a vision of a vast grey vault containing countless little grey cradles silently waiting until … until what … until when? In Zeno-like terms (reductio ad absurdum) the proposition breaks down completely.

How could the interpreters of the Divine Architect get it so wrong?

How could He/She/It make such a hash of it?

Or is He/She/It is just winding us up?

Is this all a cosmic stitch-up?


Mathematicians (and who are we to argue with such purity) propose that in the limitless universe the presence of a planet identical to our world is a certainty.

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?



When the stars threw down their spears,

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

William Blake


Naked in Gaza


Jamilah – meaning in Arabic, beautiful, graceful, lovely – lives in a small apartment building in an unfashionable district of Aleppo, with her parents and younger sister.

She is an obedient Moslem girl, living according to the guide-lines laid down by the Sharia; she never appears in public without her burka and is scrupulous about her diet and hygiene habits; she washes herself at least twice a day as prescribed by Koranic law. Unfortunately there is a shortage of water in their part of the city and so she only manages to have a bath once a week.

She makes a ritual of this, waiting till the rest of the family have gone out to the market on Saturday mornings, and then filling up the tub with water, taking off her robe and stepping delicately into the cool liquid; with her long black hair and her olive-toned skin she ressembles a painting by Ingres.

She lies back and closes her eyes.


Suddenly there is loud crack, the whole building shakes and water slops out of the bath. Jamilah immediately realizes that a tremor has occurred that could pressage an earthquake. Terrified she starts to rise from the water … at that moment, a neighbour, Hassan, is passing the door of her apartment; he bursts into the hall then into the bathroom just as Jamilah is stepping out of the bath, her nude body gleaming in the half-light: instinctively, in her modesty and shame, her hands cover her … (can you guess what? … No, you’ve guessed wrong), her hands fly up to cover her face.


Micky wakes up that Saturday morning and stretches luxuriously. His girlfriend Bella is sitting at the kitchen table, eating a slice of toast and reading the paper. In the background the TV is saying …. and we interrupt this program with some breaking news: there has been a major earthquake in northern Syria; the quake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, struck the city of Aleppo this morning; so far the authorities are saying that 250 people have been killed but the death toll is bound to rise …

–          Turn that thing off, will you please; don’t you realize Bel that today’s the big day of my demonstration.

–          What! You’re not really going through with that stunt, are you? People will just think you’re another exhibitionist, just one more mad streaker; they just won’t get it!

Look, let’s look it up in the dictionary: streak, streak of luck etc. here we are: verb intr. = the non-sexual act of taking off one’s clothes and running naked through a public place. Well you can count me out, I’m not going to be shown up in front of my friends …

–           I just want to get some free publicity for our stand on the Environment and the Green Party.

Not for the first time in their relationship does it occur to Bella that her boyfriend is a bit of a head-case; she is having serious doubts about his sanity – maybe it’s time to dump him.

So Micky goes alone to the game – a semi-final of the League Cup, Spurs v Liverpool at White Hart Lane, a classic confrontation. He passes innocently through the turnstiles and picks his way to his place on the benches near the edge of the pitch. He has chosen half-time to make his move; he feels completely calm and his face was impassive; only his eyes betray him, showing the rich glint of lunacy.

The whistle blows for the end of the first half; as the players are leaving the pitch Micky takes off all his clothes and runs naked on to the pitch.

The rest is history.

The TV cameras soon pick him up, streaking down the side of the field, to be quickly joined by the security team which flank him in a curiously protective tableau.


And then CLICK – the famous iconic photograph is taken and syndicated throughout the western world.

Let us examine this image: the pose is heroic and sublime, the white naked man with his arms outstretched and his handsome bearded profile staring sideways at the face of the policeman who is covering his private parts with his helmet. The image is suggestive of a Renaissance painting – Michael Angelo could have drawn that pose, in fact it reminds one of The Creation of Man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Man pointing limply at God (a bit gay)? Or it is redolent of a scene by Leonardo de Vinci – Jesus being helped by the Roman soldiers towards his crucifixion – forgive them Father, for they know not what they do… (Micky sees himself essentially as a martyr for his cause and, in his mad way, glories in the publicity – streaking is, after all, a form of perversion).

ALEPPO (two weeks later)

Hassan had managed to bundle Jamilah out of the building before the main quake struck, and both were saved. Her family was also safe in the market, but they had lost all their possessions.

They now live in a tent village provided by the Red Crescent. They are used to crisis-management and count themselves lucky to be alive (Allah be praised). About half the inhabitants of the poorly-built apartment block, including Jamilah’s uncle and aunt, had been killed. Two tents down the row live Hassan and his family. His parents regard Jamilah’s rescue by Hassan as a sign from God and both families agree that Hassan and Jamilah should be betrothed.

Out of tragedy comes joy.

What the betrothed couple thinks of all this is neither here nor there – the old traditional ways are best.

So tomorrow Hassan is going to be formally introduced to Jamilah. Hassan is curious about the girl; he hardly knows her – after all, he hasn’t yet even seen her face!

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