27 Mar 2015

The Province of Joy - Lenten Series 2015 - The Meeting on the turret stairs - Burton



"The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." (Song of Solomon 2:8-13, NRSV).

A number of years ago RTE conducted a survey to find Ireland’s favourite painting and the result was “The meeting on the turret stairs” by Frederic William Burton which is one of the most popular paintings in the National Gallery despite the fact that because its rather delicate nature it is not actually on public display that often.


“This richly coloured watercolour painting depicts the ill-fated lovers Hellelil and Hildebrand, meeting on the stone stairway of a medieval tower. The princess and her bodyguard had fallen in love but her father regarded the young soldier as an unsuitable match for his daughter and ordered his sons to kill him. Burton was inspired by the story of the ill-fated lovers told in an old Danish ballad. The poem had been translated into English in 1855 by Whitley Stokes, a lawyer and philologist, and friend of the artist”[1].

“A careful reading of the ballad reveals an imagined early moment in the relationship when the couple meet fleetingly on the stairs, as Hildebrand passionately seizes Hellelil’s arm, embracing it and making the most of a brief encounter in a doomed affair. In the words of George Eliot, ‘The face of the knight is the face of a man to whom the kiss is a sacrament’. Burton creates an emotionally charged situation—by focusing attention on the knight’s intense embrace of the arm of his lady, who, taken by surprise, turns aside, having dropped her flowers, scattering the petals on the stair—symbolising the brevity of the affair and its destructive nature[2]”.

The painting probably appeals to the romantic element in our Celtic temperament; the ideal of giving all for love as the story of Hellelil and Hildebrand is after all a tragic romance – like Romeo and Juliet there is no happy ending for the two lovers. The idea of the star crossed lovers like Deirdre (of the Sorrows) and Naoise is a common theme in many stories from an Fhiannaíocht and an Rúraíocht.

The painting depicts a stolen moment; a kairos encounter; an encounter stolen outside the running tide of time as the lovers seek to mark their love for each other. A fleeting embrace as they pass each other by.

Love can be such a fleeting thing; but it is part of being human where we recognise that not being in love somehow makes us seem less human; after all the saying is that it is better to have loved and lost then not to have loved at all. Our relationships in life can be complex and not simple. But always they are moments of encounter and relationships of love can be even sacraments of encounter. “As we journey from the womb of the sea with our gaze of longing fixed on the stars, we have stopped off on this earth for a short spell of belonging[3]. And sometimes the journey can be a “long and winding road” but “we are not asked to get it right, we are asked to be open, to keep the heart soft, and in this open space we discover the healing and stillness we long for. Maybe life is simply asking that we not anesthetise ourselves against the bigger questions, but with pilgrim hearts be always asking that which the poet Mary Oliver asks: ‘What is it you plan to do with your one, wild and precious life?’”[4]

Love is also the under lying theme of the scriptures. The stories, poetry, creation myths and historical recordings set out the journey of a people as they grow into a relationship with many side steps and tangents before its ultimate culmination and consummation in the empty tomb on Easter morning. And that idea of a love story is expressed in the Song of Songs or the Canticle of Canticles.

The Song of Songs is a book of the Old Testament which is regarded as part of the Wisdom literature. It is in unusual book in some ways with its earthy even erotic language of love and passion – recently I read of one commentator who described it as needing an R rating! In this book we hear the Shepherd and the Shulamite singing their love to each other, celebrating each other, praising each other, yearning for each other as much when they are together as when they are apart. It is the story of two lovers and their description of their love and passion for the other seen as an allegory for God’s love for the people of Israel.

As blogger Craig Adam’s notes[5]:

“....the books of Wisdom literature are life related. They speak to the here and now. They are reflections on life and how it is to be led. To the ancient Hebrews "wisdom" was the ability to live well. It was the ability to find happiness and fulfillment in life. We read in Ecclesiastes 3:12,13: "I know that there is nothing better for [people] than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil."

..... in the Song of Songs, we find ourselves in the ancient Jewish wedding festival. This is where these poems were originally read. They speak of the celebration of erotic love and of romantic longing. .......We should not be afraid of this part of ourselves.
Calling it "evil" and suppressing it will not make it go away. Our sexuality is woven into the fabric of our being. The more we reject and suppress the sexual urge the more out-of-control it is likely to become.

And, it's not an evil thing to see beauty and wonder in another human being. Hey, it's a good thing! It's not evil if it causes us to see and value that person as a human being. Really, our capacity for this is too small. The truth is that we are created in the image of God — don't you know? — and, there is a beauty in everyone that we are not always capable of seeing. God sees us as handsome and beautiful and wonderful — oftentimes tragic, yes — but nonetheless as God's "very good" creation. God delights in us.

God calls us into a relationship through Jesus Christ.
"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." Can you believe you are beloved, honored, valued?

Lent is a time for us to remind ourselves of that. Like the couple in the “Meeting on the turret stairs” God seeks to embrace us and often can only find those stolen moments of encounter. Lent provides us with an opportunity to reflect on that fact that “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him[6]”.  

As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us “these words...express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny”[7]. It poses the question for us – can we claim John’s summary of the Christian life that “we have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”? After all “[b]eing Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”[8] expressed in communion and community. “In the Song of Songs love becomes a concern and care for the other.”No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice[9].”

But where is our passion? Where is our drive and desire for love? Why is it that the Celtic temperament and drama of the Christian love story has been subdued within us? Where is the energy and the out pouring of desire?

We are almost afraid to recognise that “I am my beloved’s, his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields[10]  Why do we not cry out and ask God to set “a seal upon [our] heart, as a seal upon [his] arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is cruel as the grave[11]

Looking at the painting it almost seems to ask us can we make of our own the search for God, that “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him....”[12]. But are we seeking, searching, asking, opening ourselves to that love? As Lent draws to a close and we enter into the sacred Triduum, we can ask ourselves do we allow that space for that sacrament of encounter so that we can say 
“My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready. I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp, I will awake the dawn[13].




[3] John O’Donohue, The Four Elements – Reflections on Nature; Transworld Ireland, 2010; quote from the foreword by Pat O’Donohue
[4] Martina Lehane Sheehan, Seeing Anew – Awakening to Life’s Lessons; Veritas, 2012, pg 13
[6] 1 Jn 4:16
[7] Deus Caritas est, para 1
[8] Deus Caritas est, para 1
[9] Deus Caritas est, para 6
[10] Song of Songs 7:10
[11] Song of Songs 8:6
[12] Song of Songs 2:
[13] Psalm 56

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