What a revelation! When the exhibition started in February, did anyone mention that these are pictures before which you yelp with laughter or swoon with lust? I think not. Lord L had two gifts: an excess of testosterone - he's far less interested in female beauty than in the greedy appreciation of it - and a droll way with symbols.
Look, for instance, at The Star of Bethlehem, in which one of the magi stands on the terrace of his house, watching a light in the sky betokening the birth of Christ. Beneath him there's a pelmet through which you can glimpse a revel going on, a party (it says on the frame) "from which we may assume he has just absented himself". Indeed we may assume it - for the revel-pooping magus has removed his crown and it dangles from his fingers for all the world like a hastily relinquished party hat.
Or The Garden of the Hesperides, in which the three daughters of Hesperus lie in crashed-out repose and matching pastels, guarding with Group 4- like inefficiency the golden apples of Hera and sleepily stroking a colossally rigid boa constrictor whose face is set in a leer that would not disgrace the late Serge Gainsbourg. It is practically smoking a post-coital Gitanes (untipped).
I drifted around in a dream of Nineties-ism, marvelling at the bug-eyed odalisques (Hector's tragic widow in Captive Andromache is the dead spit of the Princess of Wales in her Panorama interview) and the frilled, labial displays of ruched silk everywhere, and I giggled at the earnestness with which his Lordship took all this Neo-Classical nonsense. But then I stopped, transfixed, before The Fisherman and the Syren, in which a sleepy youth is entwined by the most gorgeous mermaid you've ever seen. Her arms are round his neck, her back is arched with desire, and there are pearls in her hair, which cascades across the picture and becomes a waterfall. Her tail begins at mid-thigh level, encrusted with slime (Lord L was clearly ambivalent about the attractions of Down There). She is the perfect 1890s Foxy Babe in Swimwear. The youth himself, seemingly buoyed up by nothing but love, holds on to his fishing rod but has let fall his catch and the fish are leaping away. You suddenly realise Leighton's genius resides in inventing symbols for inarticulate states of mind. This boy has totally lost his bucket. He has dropped his fish. Instantly I knew the feeling. And if, dear reader, you have the sense to rush to the RA before 21 April (when the show ends) and see there, gazing at picture No 12, a lovestruck fool who has utterly lost his bucket, it'll be me.
April Fools' Day passed in a blur of disbelief. The Queen to publish her juvenile love letters ... nah. A piece of Venus rock has entered Earth's orbit ... c'mon. Talking cashpoint machines in the future ... oh, sure. I sneered at everything I heard and read on all available media. You don't, I said, fool a raddled old cynic like me so easily. I said the same in the evening when my friend Louise presented me with a small cardboard box. "Look inside," she said. Inside, there was a sharp and narrow twig, perhaps three inches long, like a malevolent match. "We found that," said Louise, "up my daughter's nose. It dates back to the time when you were looking after her and she fell off a wall into a bush. She's had it inside her head for 16 months." One laughed, of course, at this uproarious deception, despite thinking it was in rather bad taste and a bit late for an April Fool, and then one abruptly stopped because it was obviously true. The most grotesquely unlikely accident had happened, gone unnoticed (especially by me) for over a year and been discovered by chance, perhaps minutes before it turned nasty. Several days of mea culpa's later, I'm a sadder and wiser man. Now, anything can happen.
Impertinent suppositions about the private life of Our Redeemer are back in the news. On Easter Sunday, Joan Bakewell will describe her excitement at discovering, in Jerusalem, a shelf of clay caskets bearing the names of everybody who was anybody in the New Testament: "Jesus, son of Joseph", Mary, Joseph, Mary II (ie, Magdalen), Matthew and "Juda, son of Jesus". Despite the fact that Mary, Jesus and Joseph are the commonest names of the period, Ms Bakewell is convinced they're from the burial site of the entire Christ family.
What interests me is not whether this find scuppers the doctrine of the Resurrection; it's that final tomb. The suggestion that Jesus had children, or at least one child, calls up a number of questions about his wife (did he make an honest woman of the foot-washing houri, Ms Magdalen? Alternatively, if Ms Bakewell had looked a little further along the shelf, would she have discovered a seventh casket marked "St Theresa"?) and some piquant scenes of family drama: Christ as family man, Christ as grumbling suburbanite, stamping about his carpentry warehouse muttering "bills, bills, bills ... bloody merchants", tinkering on Sunday mornings with his ox and ass, explaining that he is the Way the Truth and the Light to his sceptical teenage progeny ("Yeah, right Dad") and being reprimanded by Mrs Christ for turning the dinner-party water into the wrong kind of wine: "Not Beaujolais with gefilte fish, for God's sake ..."Reuse content