Tom Sutcliffe: This holy child needs a crib sheet

The Week In Culture

Share
Related Topics

I learnt some new words last week, which is always a pleasing thing – though I doubt that I'm going to get a lot of opportunities to drop them into conversation. I can't really imagine a social situation – outside of the Royal Academy's Byzantium exhibition – when I might find myself needing to refer to "the Virgin hodegetria". And even if I did I think the chances are pretty slim that I would encounter anyone who knew what it meant. If you're curious, incidentally, it's the name you give to a particular iconographic representation of the Virgin Mary. "Hodegetria" is Greek for "one who shows the way" and it refers to paintings in which the Virgin is shown gesturing to the Christ child on her lap, in effect telling the viewer that this is their one-stop-shop for salvation.

And that wasn't the only novel term of art I came away with. Take "koimesis" as another example – a phrase that refers to "the falling asleep" (or the death) of the Virgin and which also appears in titles in its latin form, as "dormition". Or "anastasis" – which literally means a rising up or a removal but which is used in Byzantine art to describe an image showing Christ harrowing hell, that theological jail-break when the saviour descended into the inferno to release those deserving of parole (and, presumably, leave countless others behind to suffer eternal torture).

And when I say that I learnt these words I mean precisely that, because the Royal Academy wasn't offering a lot of help. It's possible that the audio guide helpfully explicated all these terms, but I don't usually use those anyway and the labels certainly weren't giving anything away. There is, as it happens, a useful glossary in the catalogue, which explicates all these terms and several others. But consulting that hefty and glossy volume would have been slightly impractical while actually touring the show. As a result it was only later, after trawling the internet for explanations, that the light of understanding dawned, a fact that may have amplified the peculiar feeling of claustrophobia that this exhibition induced in me.

The problem is the religion, I think. Not the Greek Orthodox church in particular, the faith which many of the objects derive from, but religion in general, and the armoury of concepts that may not be explicitly designed to separate priestly class from layman, but which certainly have that effect when encountered en masse. To enter the Royal Academy exhibition spaces at the moment is to enter a cultural space that is concertedly indifferent to the world from which most people have arrived. The pictures here are not windows on space we all share, but portals into a transcendent place, directing us somewhere else altogether. There are some exceptions to this generalisation: a child's tunic from Egypt; some metal spoons which hint at earthly, and earthy, life. But these signs of common human experience are few and far between – and vastly outnumbered by objects whose natural home is a sacred inner sanctum, and which seem to turn inward, away from outside influences, bent in devotion over their own hermetic mysteries.

They are objects that badly need a bit of evangelism, but they don't get it. Because the piety that virtually all of these objects express (and on which I'm inclined to think they depend for their effect) is overlaid by another piety – that of the academic museum show, in which the relic is an object of unquestioned veneration and a faint air of vulgarity or blasphemy attaches to the very idea of explanation. Don't ask too many questions, simply believe – or venerate. I wasn't able to do it myself, and it would have been nice to have some really meaty labels to read as an alternative.

Who ignored the rules?

One of the irritating things about the Brand/Ross scandal has been listening to the BBC's ideological enemies leap on it as evidence of systemic rot in the corporation. I present a programme for Radio 4 once a week and, every week, an editorial figure sits in on the recording to vet its contents. Indeed, an occasionally irritating degree of care is taken over elements that might conceivably offend listeners. Somehow I doubt that I happen to be working in the only department in the building that actually adheres to the BBC's required practice in this regard. Regrettably, I don't earn £6m a year, so I can't authoritatively say what that does to the balance of power between broadcaster and producer. But it isn't that the BBC can't be bothered to lay down rules. It's that for some reason individuals chose to ignore them.

I'm always tempted to skip the first chapter of a biography, since I generally find it difficult to muster much interest in a subject's great-grandparents. I often sense, too, that biographers are just going through the motions at this point – filling in the genealogical tables because they know it's expected of them. The opening sentence of Ian McIntyre's new biography of the 18th-century diarist Hester Thrale impressively finesses the problem: "She could be a bit of a bore about her family," it reads. At a stroke the pedigree becomes anything but boring; we want to know why Hester's ancestors inspired her to jeopardise her reputation for wit. We're also reassured that the author isn't blind to his subject's faults, even if he's likely to be affectionate about the personality they represent. All done, very neatly, in just 11 words.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home