What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Paolo Veronese’s Masterpiece: Feast in the House of Levi (c. 1573)

“I paint and compose figures.” ~ Paolo Veronese

At first glance this Italian Renaissance painting appears to be depicting your average 16th century lavish Venetian banquet; but when you focus on the central figures beneath the middle arch it becomes apparent that it’s actually a scene of Jesus and his twelve disciples at The Last Supper.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

The Last Supper was in fact the painting’s original title, as commissioned by the refectory of the Convent of San Giovanni e Paolo, to replace Titian’s Last Supper which had been destroyed by fire in 1571. The monks did not take umbrage at the painting’s contemporary aristocratic setting and adornments.

Exterior of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice

The Inquisition however, took a more pejorative view! During the political and religious landscape of the Counter-Reformation all religious art works had to strictly convey the spiritual message and theological doctrine that was dictated by the Roman Catholic Church.

A brush with the Inquisition!

Despite its magnificence as a work of art, the Last Supper got Veronese hauled up before a tribunal of religious inquisitors who were less than impressed with the painter’s secular additions.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

Some of the questioning went along these lines:

TI: Why have you depicted buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarves, and other like fooleries?

PV: We painters take the same licence as do poets and madmen…for ornament, as one does.

TI: Who do you think had been present at the Last Supper?

PV: I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…

TI: Has anyone given you orders to paint Germans, buffoons and similar figures in this picture?

PV: No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

TI: Should the ornaments in the picture not be suitable to the subject…or have you put them there only to suit your fancy, without any discretion or reason?

PV: I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.

TI: Do you not know that in countries that were besieged by heresy- particularly in Germany- many such pictures full of foolishness had been painted in order to ridicule the Catholic Church?

PV: I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters.

TI: What have your masters painted?

PV: In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling. (I bet he thought he’d stumped them with this reply).

TI: Be advised that clothing was not necessary at the Last Judgement, but no foolishness was present there either.

PV: I do not pretend to (defend) it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration.

A page from the transcript of the Inquisition.

It must have been a trifle intimidating being questioned thus about his motives and his art. Not wanting to fall foul of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church, Veronese agreed on a solution to correct the picture according to the requests of the tribunal at his own cost.

Veronese may have felt more defiant than he let on, and rather than alter the picture as directed, he simply changed the title of the painting to The Feast in the House of Levi, and the Inquisition was satisfied.

Veronese’s renamed painting remained inside the Convent of San Giovanni e Paolo until 1797, when it was removed on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte and taken to Paris. When it was returned to Venice a decade later it sat once more in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo until it was relocated to its current home at Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Interior of San Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

When compared with other Last Supper paintings by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Jacopo Tintoretto the questioning of Veronese by The Inquisition appears concordant with what they were trying to achieve.

The Last Supper Fresco by Leonardo da Vinci c. 1495 – 1498

The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto

Paolo Veronese was clearly not burdened with the same concerns, as he wanted to put his own artistic spin onto the traditional biblical scene.

From Wikipedia:

The revised title refers to an episode in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5, in which Jesus is invited to a banquet:

And Levi made himself a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

The Feast in the House of Levi

The oil on canvas painting was completed in 1573, measuring 18 ft 2 in x 42 ft (555 x 1280 cm) and its home is in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.

Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese c. 1573

What I love about this painting is the vibrancy and range of colours, and its realistic rendering as a supper that may have taken place in the grandeur of Veronese’s Venice. The diversity of people in their cultural and social depictions highlights Venice as an important and eclectic centre of trade, culture and wealth in the late 16th century.

Veronese had painted what he knew best – people. Whereas his older contemporary, Titian, was more concerned with exploring the psychology of his subjects, Veronese painted people in their outward public appearance, in realistic activities and attire for the era. It would have placed the Last Supper in a setting viewers could relate to; in many ways making it more human and accessible to its audience.

Detail of Christ, Saint Peter, Saint John and Judas

You have the divine figure of Christ in the centre, engaged in teaching and sharing with his disciples, and around them (almost as if the holy party aren’t really there), a whole raft of ordinary people: Venetians, merchants, moors, German guards, various guests, jesters and animals, feasting without a care in the world.

Detail of the Germans

It probably seemed entirely feasible to him that Jesus would tolerate a cat gnawing and playing with a bone at his feet beneath the table, with a dog curiously looking on, or a parrot sitting on the arm of a dwarf.

The sumptuous green clothes of the wealthy man on the left portrays an open, communicative stance, whilst the corpulent Venetian guest on the right of the central archway comes across as more inebriated; his belly full of food and wine, his stripy robe somewhat dishevelled and saggy, his skin pallid and sweaty, as if he suffering the after effects of a little too much indulgence…

The smooth marble pillars of the three archways are formidable and luminous, anchoring the scene in a majestic backdrop, where from behind the figures ghostly silhouettes of buildings glow in the moonlight of an immortal Venetian evening.

His use of colour and attention to detail of the ordinary folk gives us an evocative snapshot into the more decadent side of life in Renaissance Venice.

The Lord Jesus Christ is depicted in a translucent salmon tunic with a dark blue cape with his loving light surrounding his head; in deep conversation with Saint John, as Saint Peter listens whilst helping himself to a leg of lamb. Even though they are the chosen ones they are still shown in their human aspects.

The traitor Judas, the figure in dark red in the shadows, to the right of Saint John on the opposite side of the table is looking away from his Lord, likely ashamed of the betrayal he has agreed to commit, knowing it will lead to Christ’s crucifixion. He seems afraid that Jesus will see through him to the vile act in his heart, even as Jesus already knows what will happen.

Paolo Veronese (1528 – 19 April 1588)

Born Paolo Caliari in Verona, Italy, the son of a stonemason; his birthplace immortalised his artistic name, Veronese.

Paolo Veronese – Self Portrait

He joined the workshop of his uncle Antonio Badile before studying under Giovanni Francesco Caroto (1480-1546) and subsequently working on the decoration of Venetian villas.

Veronese created numerous pastoral frescoes in well-known villas such as the Villa Barbaro by famed Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in Maser. He gifted aesthetic beauty to the walls and ceilings of the houses and churches of ‘La Serenissima’.

As a fun-loving Venetian patron of Veronese you would have been confronted with the imaginary landscapes, lively festivals and various illusory effects that served as a backdrop to your entertainment and possibly your portrait.

Another of his grand banquet scenes was the Marriage Feast at Cana (except it’s Venice); an explosion of colour and an extraordinary depiction of humanity ensconced in celebration.

Forerunner to the Baroque era

Veronese’s ceiling paintings of Esther Brought Before Ahasuerus and The Triumph of Mordecai in the Church of San Sebastiano as well as The Rape of Europa in the Doge’s Palace are particularly ahead of their time, providing a model for the Baroque style that was soon to sweep the continent.  Perhaps he had anticipated the coming epoch.

Veronese’s legacy was partly as an influence for Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, one of the most important Baroque fresco painters.

The Complete works of Paolo Veronese:

Last Work

Veronese’s final painting was his homage to the Serenissima, The Triumph of Venice. It was completed just three years before his death and had taken him five years of toil. It shows the people of the republic willingly surrendering to Venetian power, and among the envoys paying their respects is no less a figure than the French King Henri III.

The Apotheosis of Venice by Paolo Veronese

I wish I could have seen his exhibition when it was on at The National Gallery in London, although I think the Feast in the House of Levi was too large to transport:

If pomp and splendour was your pleasure, I doubt anyone else could have outshone or outdone Paolo Veronese!

There are three Venetians that are never separated in my mind — Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. ~ John Ruskin Art Culture : A Hand-Book of Art Technicalities and Criticisms (1877)

Revealing Reflections on Life, Survival and Soul Stamina

“In your soul there are infinitely precious things that cannot be taken from you. “ ~ Oscar Wilde

I have been pondering the meaning of life these last few weeks, or at least more than usual!  Lately I’ve found myself caught up in seemingly endless vicissitudes, and have been telling myself it’s all for a higher purpose. This thought helps me get through the chaos. We have to embrace all of it, the good, the bad, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Writing is like a purging of my soul, it’s a cathartic comfort blanket that enables me to have perspective. I’ve written some poetry as I muse over developing soul stamina, which I hope you can relate to in some small way.

It seems to me that just one lifetime (even a long one), is too short a time for our souls to fully experience earthly life and attain nirvana. I have entertained the idea that maybe we get to come round many, many times, building on what we said, thought, did and achieved before.

This idea is nothing new. Plato believed in an immortal soul that partakes in a multitude of lives, and the concept of reincarnation is a central tenet of religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

The bigger picture of human existence and the universe eludes us for certain, but faith, love and hope are really all we need while we’re here.

I’ve also included some music which for me perfectly encapsulates soul stamina. The composer who I believe most embodies these qualities is Beethoven, (no surprises there!) but any music which really affects you emotionally is speaking to your heart and soul, being the universal language.

After all, Plato did say: “Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.”

Bach’s music was the backbone of his religious convictions, it was solely to glorify God. This particular transcription for cello and organ of his Adagio in C, BWV 564 by Jacqueline du Pré and Roy Jesson could only have been composed and played by individuals with loving souls:

Mozart knew how to plumb the depths of his being. He must have been wearing his heart on his sleeve when he wrote the adagio of his Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488, in 1786:

I feel Richard Wagner captures the torment of the soul with the battle of the sacred and the profane in Tannhäuser – The immortal Overture and Venusberg:

While I’m at it, Tristan und Isolde could not have been written without a deep well of emotion. The glorious and heart wrenching Prelude and Liebestod (Georg Solti – Chicago Symphony Orchestra):

Vivaldi’s music brings joy and exalts the soul – The Gloria in D Major, RV 589 with John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and The English Baroque Soloists:

Beethoven’s magnificent Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (The Choral) was the pinnacle of his musical genius. For me, it encompasses life in all its guises and every day glory, with a finale that overcomes the suffering and struggle of humanity in unity and brotherhood – the unforgettable Ode to Joy by the Sabadell flashmob:

“The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the luster of it will never appear.” ~ Daniel Defoe

Soul Stamina

The mind may forget, but the soul remembers,

Explorations in humanity, countless footsteps…

The faces of yesteryear, now etheric embers,

Glowing from the heart of our eternal depths.

Do we bear these former translucent portents?

Embedded and merged, in our body of the moment?

Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Soul wisdom is creative; desiring experience anew,

Looking behind your eyes, I see the real you…

The one who has always been; wore bodies through

Your radiance surrounds and shines so true.

Everything you are, is held and holding you fast,

It’s all here now; the future, present and past.

Self-portrait with a dark felt hat at the easel by Vincent van Gogh c. 1886

Do we transfer it over, the healing and the heartache?

A name, a pattern, a place, a talent, a skill,

Drawn to our soul’s connections; not fully awake,

Distant memories reflecting, through windows of Will.

Sojourns of unfinished karma, or perhaps dreamy plans?

With souls to share our journeys and time spans?

Reflection by Alfred Stevens

Meeting of souls: spiritual, chemical reactions abound

As astral beings reunite; immutable yet impermanent,

Knowing each other long before – apart then found,

Different yet the same; embalmed in the moment.

Living to enrich the soul, on its timeless fray,

Ancient selves expressing; mortal games to play.

The Storyteller by Hugues Merle

We envy souls on a seemingly smooth path,

Whilst we are buffeted on rocks for measure,

Honouring our struggle for growth, not wrath,

Physical interludes of pain, parsimony and pleasure.

En route to glory, souls are breached time and again,

With wounds that sear and scar; no two the same.

The Kiss by Carolus Duran

Whether in lofty social status, or ordinary life,

Have we chosen the routes to our Shangri-la?

Maybe comfort and warmth, or problems and strife?

In divine unfolding, we are blind to reason,

But for every learning; belongs a perfect season.

The Honeysuckle Bower (the artist and his first wife Isabella Brant) by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609

The soul has no colour, creed, race or gender,

Myriad of vessels from life’s eclectic diversity,

Anatomical robe of being, searching for an answer…

Archetypal beneath, evincing modes of personality.

A pilgrimage of passion; rebirth will come,

Adventurous spirits, immortal inside, part of one.

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Wake gently from sleep, oh consciousness,

Hear and know your inner voice, your soul

The higher part which exists in opulence,

I will see through those eyes, in fleshy stroll.

Do our human journeys build soul stamina?

Mind, body, spirit: metaphysical phenomena.

By Virginia Burges

Our Corner (Anna and Laurense Alma-Tadema) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The soul of man alone, that particle divine,

Escapes the wreck of worlds,

When all things fail. ~ William Somerville

The Way Gut Bacteria Affects Anxiety and Depression Will Blow Your Mind

 “Every molecule in your brain starts at the end of your fork.” ~ Dr. Drew Ramsay (Nutritional psychiatrist).

Have you ever had a gut feeling about a person or a situation, or perhaps had butterflies in your stomach? Has hunger ever changed your mood? It certainly brings on grumpiness in my children!

Our digestive system and brain are physically and biochemically connected in a number of ways, meaning the state of our gut microbiome can alter the way our brains work and behave, giving a whole new meaning to ‘food for thought’!

In my first post, What You Need to Know About the Most Influential Organ in Your Body I covered some pretty startling facts about the microbiome, but today I’m focussing on how the second brain in our gut microbiome can literally ‘speak’ to the brain in our heads, controlling mood as well as impacting on our mental health.

#MicrobiomeMorsel: There are more microbes in the gut alone than there are cells in our bodies.

Lifestyle and the Microbiome

Hippocrates was telling everyone back in 400 BC that all disease begins in the gut, and that food is your medicine.

Life in the 21st century has strayed a long way from this ethos. Global populations live mostly in urban areas and are exposed to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs,) such as Glyphosate which is prevalent in the western food chain. We lead busy, stressful lives, with many relying on shelf-stable, processed food that is high in sugar and salt, with no nutritional content, which have been designed and marketed for taste buds and not for health.

Simple carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread are another nail in the coffin. Whilst we all resort to pizzas and fast-food once in a while, it’s worth remembering that on a regular basis, convenience kills. And it kills us with a raft of modern plagues because it is damaging our microbiota.

If we don’t feed our microbiota with the food to make them flourish then we are self-harming at a fundamental level.

Western medicine, it seems, has a pill for every ill. Drugs are adding to the problem rather than solving it – what has been termed rather aptly as ‘Pharmaggedon’.

There are 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants every year in the UK alone.

Poor gut health is the root cause of the global health crisis we see today: obesity, diabetes, allergies, auto-immune and disgestive disorders, and believe it or not, mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, OCD and autism.

Obesity and diabetes alone threaten to bankrupt the NHS in the next 10 years unless as a society we take a more proactive attitude to our wellbeing.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: If you fix the gut, you fix the problem!

The genes contained in the microbiome outnumber our human genes by 100 to 1 – and by that reckoning we are only 1% human! We are literally walking bacterial colonies. Humans have evolved over millennia alongside these micro-organisms in a symbiotic relationship.

The Invisible Universe of the Human Microbiome:

The friendly, essential bacteria helps us to synthesise and absorb nutrients, control appetite, manage weight, make short chain fatty acids (SCFA’s such as Butyratethe primary source of fuel for the cells of the colon), activate our genes, regulate metabolism, signal the immune system (of which 75% resides in the gut), and affect our mood and skin.

Harmful pathogens can upset the balance and if not rectified, a toxic gut microbiome will evolve, known as dysbiosis– a dangerous state indeed.

Causes of Dysbiosis

In addition to a poor diet, a toxic environment caused by traffic pollution, pesticides/heavy metals in food, personal and household products; emotional stress is also a big factor. Because the microbiome is so sensitive, even two hours of severe upset and worry can have a negative impact.

When we are under emotional stress our bodies are gearing up for an emergency response, and need extra fuel, therefore using more of the amino acid L-Glutamine, which is stored in the gut lining.

The mucous membranes are the primary interface between the external environment and the internal environment of the body. Most absorption of nutrients and toxins occurs across the mucous membrane. Most pathogens enter the body by binding to and penetrating the mucous membranes.

If this becomes ravaged over time the damage to the gut lining causes leaky gut, where pathogens escape through the now permeable gut wall, and can travel all over the body, igniting many potential health challenges.

Inflammation starts in the gut but generally ends up manifesting in any number of symptoms:

  • Constipation/diarrhea – many people who suffer with depression also suffer with constipation or dysfunction of the gut.
  • Gas and bloating
  • IBS
  • Joint and muscle aches and pains
  • Anemia
  • Increase in allergies
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Immune dysfunction

Inflammation Assesment Quiz

The Second Brain

Our gut microbiome is part of the Enteric Nervous System and weighs about the same as our brain. Even though our brain only makes up 2% of our body weight it uses up to 20% of our energy resources. Inflammation in the Gastrointestinal tract also directly impacts the levels of the feel good chemicals of serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

Through evolution our species has had 4 billion years of optimising inter-cellular communication. Our second brains have 100 million nerve cells sandwiched in between layers of the gut which regulate digestive processes. These nerve pathways go both ways, but predominantly travel from the gut to the brain via the Vagus Nerve.

These powerful neurotransmitters and sensors communicate with our brain which then processes the information and acts accordingly. The second brain can survive being cut off from the brain via the Vagus Nerve but cannot generate conscious thought.

A fascinating TED talk about how our bellies control our brains by Ruairi Robertson:

Moody Microbes!

A whopping 95% of the serotonin used by our bodies is stored and produced in the gut in special cells; by far the largest store of that molecule that plays such a crucial role in modulating our mood and wellbeing, appetite, pain, sleep and sensitivity.

Serotonin is synthesized in the gut from precursors that come from the food we ingest, because the microbes that live in our gut microbiome produce powerful mood regulating neurotransmitters.

It is estimated that 60% of chemical production in the body is due to signals that come from our gut bacteria.

Food for thought…

The food you eat determines the bacteria you grow in your ‘gut garden’.  Bacteria turn on different genes, and genes either prevent or activate disease. Bacteria follow the diet not the other way around…

Ladies, be aware that the contraceptive pill depletes vitamin B12, folate, zinc levels and kills off beneficial bacteria. When certain beneficial bacteria are missing from the microbiome, so is their protection from disease.

Cravings – the devil in your gut!

In my best Bridget Jones moments I used to regularly sit and consume a whole bar of Galaxy after my evening meal. I felt powerless to resist these cravings.

If bad bacteria and fungi such as Candida Albicans get out of control they communicate via the information highway from the gut to the brain that you must consume sugar, which they thrive on. It’s almost impossible to resist.

The more they get fed the more they crowd out the good guys and the more acidic our bodies become, creating a cycle of cravings for carbs, sugar and chocolate, continually feeding our harmful bacteria, creating a vicious cycle of dysbiosis and ultimately disease.

In my next installment I’ll cover the best foods and nutrients that promote a well balanced gut microbiome, as well as a holistic supplementary 21-day programme that turned my gut health around.

When you reset the gut and alter your body chemistry these cravings disappear – they did for me. Since last October chocolate has had absolutely no control over me whatsoever. Seven months and counting!

Helping people to improve their energy levels and overall health and wellness is a passion for me, so I will soon be setting up an Elite Health Page on the main menu, with links to my health articles (and others), as well as the Holy Grail of supplements I personally use to achieve elite health.

Until the next time, be well.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, (Warrior Princess of Wales)

On a cloudy afternoon in March my son and I stood at the top of the tallest tower of Cydweli Castle in Kidwelly, Wales. Sleety rain dispersed over us, cold droplets like tiny needles driven into our flushed faces on the crest of a biting wind. Panting and puffing, our breath mingled with the boisterous breeze as we recovered from a steep and winding climb up the tower, our feet carefully treading over centuries of narrow, worn stone.

Towers and battlements of Cydweli Castle

A low lying mist shrouded the rolling green landscape around us. On one side the view looked over the coast of Camarthenshire, a narrow estuary and marshland that had been developed with housing, leading to the village and the surrounding fields and hills.

Over a thousand years of history lay silent around us except the rushing of the elements and the occasional whooping of my daughters elsewhere in the castle.

We looked out over Maes Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s Field), about 500 metres from the castle, near woodland. The once stirring battle cries of the brave warrior princess, Gwenllian echoing silently down over the centuries through the legend of her deeds.

After I learnt of her story I was inspired by her courage and sacrifice and felt she deserved to be remembered in my writings.

Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (1100 – 1136)  

Princess Gwenllian was the youngest daughter and child of Gruffydd ap Cynan (1055 – 1137), King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad. Born at the family seat in Aberffraw, she had four older sisters (Mared, Rhiannell, Susanna and Annest) and three older brothers (Cadwallon, Owain and Cadwaladr). She was said to be beautiful with long, flame red hair, intelligent and well educated.

After the French Norman Invasion led by William the Conqueror in 1066 turmoil had been unleashed across the kingdom. The Welsh lords had lost many of their lands and possessions to the Normans, who built impressive fortifications and castles in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Camarthen, Pembroke and Cydweli.

These castles stood on land that had once belonged to the Kingdom of Deheubarth.

Map of Welsh regions c. 1093 when Rhys ap Tewdwr died.

It was in this environment of repression, rebellion and Welsh patriotism that she was raised. Even though physically striking she was no wilting violet, having been taught how to use a sword by her father!

Gwenllian was about 13 years old when she first met the love of her life, Gruffydd ap Rhys, prince of Deheubarth. He had received a warm welcome from her elderly father and promptly fell in love with his spirited daughter Gwenllian.

The couple eloped to Gruffydd’s castle home of Dinefwr in the Tywi Valley, Deheubarth. They had four sons: Morgan (1116 – 1136), Maelgwyn (1119 – 1136), Maredudd (1130 –1155) and Rhys (1132 – 1197). Gwenllian and Gruffydd were a kind of medieval version of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, making daring raids on the Normans in Deheubarth, redistributing their goods and wealth among the local Welsh population.

Their raids would surely have been an annoyance for the Normans, but no significant turning point came until early 1136, shortly after the passing of Henry 1st, the Norman King of England. His death had created a power struggle between his nephew, Stephen of Blois and his daughter, The Empress Matilda, in a civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’.

A revolt began in South Wales, where a Welsh army lead by Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog defeated Maurice de Londres at Llwchwr near Swansea. The Norman lord fled back to Cydweli Castle.

Sensing the Normans were on the run, Gruffydd and Gwenllian made the fateful decision for Gruffydd to ride north with his men to gather support and the forces of her father based in Gwynedd in the north. An army of that size would have been able to drive the Normans out of Deheubarth.

Battle and betrayal at Cydweli Castle

With her husband and the majority of his men away, Gwenllian and her sons were left vulnerable. In the early hours of the 28th of February 1136 Gwenllian received news that the Normans were amassing an army at Cydweli Castle, likely aware that Gruffydd and his men were away. Gwenllian had already decided to fight should the need arise, and after making sure her two younger sons Maredudd and Rhys were safe she rallied support from the local men.

Working men from the Tywi Valley left their labours to join Gwenllian in defence of their lands. Maybe she said something like:

“Men of Deheubarth, will you join me in battle? I am the daughter of a king, but you are the sons of Wales. This is your land, and the Normans have already stolen much of our birthright. Shall we let them steal even more?”

Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess, led her army consisting of her two eldest sons and around two hundred ill-equipped local men and by the afternoon they had reached Cydweli Castle. The short winter daylight hours meant they had to camp nearby. She decided on two strategies, namely lightning raids which she had organised before with her husband, while waiting for his return to launch a major offensive.

She split her troops in half; one group to remain with her at their camp in the woodland to the north of the castle, intent on cutting-off supplies to Maurice de Londres in the castle, while the other group, headed by a local chieftan, took men by boat to stop the Normans landing on the coast.

This may well have worked, had it not been for the traitor in her midst. Gwenllian was betrayed by no less than her chieftan, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, who instead of cutting-off the coastal landings as instructed, met with Maurice de Londres and gave away Gwenllian’s position.

She had lost the element of surprise and was the victim of a surprise attack herself as Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and the Normans descended from Cydweli Castle along the banks of Gendraeth Fach, their banners fluttering in the wind. Soon they had surrounded Gwenllian’s camp.

A fierce battle ensued, with archers and dagger men, and eventually Gwenllian was felled from her horse. Her eldest son Morgan was killed trying to protect her, and Maelgwyn was made to watch as his injured but defiant mother was captured.

The cruel Norman Lord, Maurice de Londres, who instead of acting in a chivalrous manner towards a woman captive (which was the etiquette of the time), decided she should be executed.

Poor Gwenllian was spared being burned at the stake but was beheaded there and then on the battlefield. A gruesome but quick death. It is said that a spring welled up in the place where she died, fighting to the end for Welsh freedom.

When her husband Gruffydd ap Rhys and her brothers Owain and Cadwalar heard that Gwenllian and her two sons had perished at the hands of the Normans they were filled with grief and vowed revenge. Her death was the catalyst for the Great Revolt of 1136.

Revenge for Gwenllian!

The furious Welshmen attacked the castles of north Ceredigon, slaughtering the Normans there. They had a further victory at Cardigan in 1136, but Gruffydd ap Rhys died only a year after his wife. Of their four sons only the youngest Rhys ap Gruffydd lived to old age.

There is a touching monument to Princess Gwenllian at Cydweli Castle, and stories abound of her headless ghost roaming the field where she was so mercilessly slain. For centuries after her death Welshmen used the battle cry, “Revenge for Gwenllian!”

For decades after her death the welsh and the Normans battled over castles and territories, but eventually her youngest son Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys), became the greatest Welsh lord of his time. He regained many of the lands his family had lost in Deheubarth and won others to boot.

In 1159 he retook Cydweli Castle from the Normans avenging his mother’s murder. He rebuilt the fortress in 1190 and held it until his death in 1197. Rhys also claimed Cardigan Castle, where in 1176 he founded the first Welsh Eisteddfod. Thus was started a festival tradition that continues to this day. Singers and musicians have performed for centuries, long after the court poets, harpists and bards of Lord Rhys’ era.

Royal descendants

The title of ‘Prince of Wales’ may well have first been used by the Lord Rhys. He must have been a man of vigour as he was known to have fathered at least nine sons and eight daughters. There was a bitter feud between his eldest legitimate son, Gruffydd ap Rhys (II) and his eldest, illegitimate son, Maelgwn ap Rhys.

Two of his daughters were named Gwenllian after his legendary mother, but the younger Gwenllian (1178 – 1236) married Ednyfed Fychan, seneschal of Gwynedd under Llywelyn the Great, and through her offspring her grandmother, Gwenllian ferch Gruffyd became an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty.

Posthumous bust of Henry VII by Pietro Torrigiano made with Henry’s death mask c. 1509 – 1511

Through the Tudors inter-marrying with the House of Stuart, Gwenllian is an ancestor to the House of Windsor and also an ancestor of several ruling houses in Europe. When Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1485 to make a bid for the English throne, his descent from the Lord Rhys (and Gwenllian), was one of the factors which enabled him to attract Welsh support (Henry flew a Welsh dragon banner at the battle of Bosworth Field).

Caniad Hun Gwenllian

Gwenllian is remembered in a traditional Welsh lullaby known as the ‘Caniad Hun Gwenllian’, by Meilyr Brydydd (1100 – 1137), chief bard at the court of Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd.

Sleep, Gwenllian  

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight

Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,

An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;

Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,

Thy heart as happy day and night!

Mid all our woe, O vision rare!

Sweet little princess cradled there,

Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.

Thy brethren battle with the foe,

Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,

Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep

All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!

What are the angels whispering low

Of thy father now

Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,

How many a Queen of high degree

Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

Our Welsh sojourn was fun and fascinating, summed up for posterity on a blog with photographs (Wales is Always Poetic, Even in the Rain).  For me Gwenllian really embodies the spirit of Wales, wild, beautiful, patriotic, cultured and courageous, having left a tremendous historic legacy on the UK and the world.

The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Vieuxtemps

“Vieuxtemps’ art – expressive, human, romantic and distinctive – belongs not only to history, but to the contemporary world as well”. ~ Prof. Lev Ginsburg

To my shame and consternation I have never played a piece of music by Vieuxtemps on my violin. I honestly wasn’t that familiar with his repertoire before reading up about him. I knew of him, but I had no idea just how beautiful and virtuosic his music really is.

Henri Vieuxtemps by Marie Alexandre Alophe

An outstanding virtuoso violinist of the romantic era, he mastered his performance craft and was completely in tune with what was and wasn’t possible on the violin; pushing soloists to their technical limits in his violin concertos.

He had almost certainly been influenced by the brilliance of the famous violinist Paganini. The two met in London in 1834 when Paganini was in the twilight of his career and Vieuxtemps had given his debut in the city. Both were said to be mutually impressed with each other’s talents, but differed in their musical philosophy.

Vieuxtemps eschewed excessive showmanship, and although his compositions were undoubtedly rhapsodic and extremely technically challenging, he never sacrificed unbridled virtuosity at the expense of the music. This philosophy was impressed upon his renowned Belgian pupil, Eugène Ysaÿe, who quoted his teacher: “Not runs for the sake of runs – sing, sing!”

If one could know a person through his creative output I would say that Vieuxtemps possessed a great love for the violin and wanted to explore what it was capable of within the parameters of aesthetic enjoyment.  It seems that the virtuosity in his music is the epitome of his flair and improvisational skills, but it is never misplaced or garish.

A man of taste, passion and emotional intelligence, his numerous qualities translated into his solo career and romantic concertos, an enduring legacy for the most poignant and expressive instrument of all…

Henri Vieuxtemps (17 February 1820 – 6 June 1881)

 Although Henri Vieuxtemps, (literally translated as Henry ‘old times’) was incredibly popular during his lifetime his work has slipped into comparative obscurity today.

The young Henri Vieuxtemps – Portrait of a Violinist by Barthelemy c. 1820s

His early development seems to follow a similar path to that of others I have written about in the violin virtuoso/composer series, in that he was a child prodigy from the age of four. Oh what it must be like to be gifted from the get-go! Henri was initially tutored by his father, a weaver by trade, but also an amateur violinist and luthier.

Vieuxtemps the virtuoso

Vieuxtemps made his first public debut playing a violin concerto by Pierre Rode aged six, and later came to the attention of illustrious violinist/composer Charles Auguste de Bériot  at one of a series of concerts in Brussels and Liege. De Bériot became his private tutor and took the young Henri to Paris in 1829, where he made his debut with another Rode violin violin concerto.

The July Revolution of 1830 in Paris and de Bériot’s marriage to Maria Malibran forced his return to Brussels where he continued to perform for a time with Pauline Garcia, de Bériot’s sister-in-law.

During a tour of Germany in 1833 Henri met and became friends with Louis Spohr and Robert Schumann. He also garnered the attention and admiration of Hector Berlioz during his touring of various European cities.

Now established on the European classical circuit Vieuxtemps also made three concert tours of the USA, firstly in 1843 – 44, in 1853 and again 1857 – 58.

Henri Vieuxtemps standing (with his Guarneri violin), alongside noted musicians and composers who performed in John Ella’s 1853 season of the Musical Union. Louis Spohr is seated with his score, with Berlioz next to him.

Perhaps it was the influence of traditional American folk music that inspired his composition of the ‘Yankee Doodle’ Souvenir d’Amérique.

A brilliant encore by Joshua bell:

Vieuxtemps in Vienna

Not content with performance alone he studied composition with Simon Sechter in Vienna, after having performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major as his debut in the composer’s home city. A mature work indeed for a tender teenager of fourteen, and a concerto he would champion throughout his career. He also became a pupil of Antonin Reicha in Paris.

Franco-Belgian School

Vieuxtemps was an influential performer, composer and teacher, especially in the history of the Franco-Belgian School of violin during the mid nineteenth century. The school dates back to the evolution of the modern violin bow such as those made by François Tourte, often referred to as the Stradivari of the bow.

Qualities favoured by the Franco-Belgian School (and most likely epitomised by Vieuxtemps) included elegance, a full tone with a sense of drawing a ‘long’ bow with no jerks, precise left hand techniques, and bowing using the whole forearm while keeping both the wrist and upper arm quiet, (as opposed to Joseph Joachim’s German school of wrist bowing and Leopold Auer’s Russian concept of using the whole arm.)

Vieuxtemps the composer

What stood out for me listening to and discovering his violin music and overall oeuvre was the singing, ‘bel canto’ quality of the violin, especially in the higher registers. This is a quality that Tartini also embodied. The works aren’t overly violin dominated but encompass the entire orchestra in partnership with the violin and are richer for it.

Whilst he may not be on par with Beethoven in terms of composition, (whom he admired and performed), alongside Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn, he certainly used his intimate knowledge as a player to bring out the emotion, rising above the obstacles of technical difficulty.

His violin music has a freedom to express emotion that is most endearing and attractive for a soloist; enabling a player to impart their own style and personality on the music.

Vieuxtemps’ violin concertos

Henri Vieuxtemps wrote seven violin concertos, the first being completed in 1836, but published as number 2 in F sharp minor, opus 19. Hrachya Avanesyan does the honurs:

Violin Concerto No.1 in E-major, Op. 10 (actually his 2nd), performed by Misha Keylin with Dennis Burkh and the Janácek Philharmonic Orchestra:

Violin concerto No. 3 in A Major, Op. 25 composed in 1844, performed by Misha Keylin:

Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31

The most famous of his violin concertos was number 4 in D minor, composed while he was in Saint Petersburg as the court violinist to Tzar Nicholas 1 of Russia in 1846. Unusually for a violin concerto it has four movements, which Vieuxtemps (rather astutely in his experience as a performer), advised that the challenging ‘off-beat’ third movement was optional for programming purposes.

The orchestra’s opening few bars of the concerto are gentle, lush and romantic, with a dramatic, if slightly melancholy melody that soon reaches a crescendo infused with a dark edge, hinting at unknown depths…

When the violin makes its expressive and singing entrance, free and interpretive, forward moving with increasing tempo and power in the higher notes, a certain forcefulness in the chords, virtuosity in the runs and harmonics – a drifting and energetic solo using the whole range of the instrument – you have a concerto worthy of immortality!

I love this fantastic performance by Hilary Hahn and the Berlin Philharmonic. Hilary has been playing this concerto since the age of ten, and rightly knows it inside and out! She brings a certain ‘je ne sais quois’ to it:

To my mind it’s better and more complete with the 3rd movement included; said to be difficult even for professional violinists with its the tricky rhythm between soloist and orchestra, but at the same time lilting and lyrical with a rather playful quality, especially in Hahn’s gorgeous interpretation.

The final runs in the 4th movement indicate a March like theme with impressive motifs and changing melodies. It’s what Hilary Hahn refers to as a ‘finger twister’!

I am in awe of anyone who can play this concerto, especially the section in the finale that requires the fingers of left hand to move in alternating small and large increments whilst the right, bow arm and hand keep the pressure in the sweet spot so that 3 strings are simultaneously depressed; a violin multi-tasking mind bender!!

Another performance of this beautiful concerto I really like is by the late Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux:

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Op. 37 ‘Grétry’ written in 1861, played by Shlomo Mintz:

Violin Concerto No. 7 in A minor, ‘À Jenő Hubay’, Op. 49 c. 1870 (Op. 3 posthumous) with Misha Keylin:

Salon, concert and chamber works

I adore this rather operatic style composition for violin and orchestra, the Fantasia Appassionata in G minor, Op. 35 in this wonderful 1980 recording performed by Gidon Kremer and the London Symphony Orchestra with Riccardo Chailly:

Ballade et Polonaise Op. 38 with Heifetz:

Romance sans paroles Op. 7 Nos 2 & 3 with David Oistrakh:

Vieuxtemps ‘Reverie’ with Lola Bobesco:

David Nadien plays Vieuxtemps’s Regrets:

Duo Brilliante in A Major, Op 39 for violin, cello and orchestra with Aaron Rosand:

Elegie for Viola and Piano Op. 30 with Robert Diaz and Robert Koenig:

Capriccio in C minor for Solo viola ‘Hommage à Paganini’ played with heart and soul by Anna Serova on the Amati 1615 ‘La Stauffer’ Viola:

The ‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri del Gesù Violin – the most expensive violin in the world

Famed violin maker Guarneri del Gesù made the violin in 1741, three years before his death, and it was used extensively by Henri Vieuxtemps in his performances as a virtuoso violinist.

Later musicians who played the Vieuxtemps Guarneri included Yehudi Menuhin, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Joshua Bell.

The violin’s excellent condition and undisputed provenance led to a steady increase in price and the instrument was sold to an anonymous buyer in 2012 by J & A Beares in London in conjunction with Paolo Alberghini and master violin restorer, Julie Reed-Yeboah. The final record-breaking price was said to be somewhere in the region of $16 million, with the purchaser gifting lifetime use of the ‘Viuextemps’ to the ecstatic virtuoso violinist, Anne Akiko Meyers.

As Anne says, with other legendary violins owned and played by Paganini, Kreisler and Heiftez now resting largely unheard in museums, it is a precious gift to have the ‘Viuextemps’ being played on!

Anne gave this moving interview after receiving the violin – ‘Art and Soul’ of World’s Most Expensive Violin:

Anne Akiko Meyers History of  ex-Vieuxtemps Guarneri Del Gesu:

‘Vieuxtemps’ Guarneri Del Gesu Returns To The Concert Stage…

News coverage of the sale by npr.

Russian legacy

Henri Vieuxtemps achieved great success and popularity in Russia. He made two concert tours there in 1837 and 1840 as well as his later 5 year stint at the Imperial Court. Perhaps his lasting legacy from his most revered time in Saint Petersburg (1846 – 1851), was his founding of the Violin School of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and his early guidance of the ‘Russian School’.

The teachers that followed him in Saint Petersburg were violin luminaries Henryk Wieniawski and Leopold Auer, whose students inlcuded some of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, such as Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Georges Boulanger, and Oscar Shumsky.

Final Years

An excerpt from Robert Cummings’s Biography sums up Vieuxtemps’ final years:

“He took a teaching post at the Brussels Conservatory in 1871, where his students included Eugène Ysaÿe, and two years later suffered a stroke resulting in paralysis of his right arm. This episode effectively ended his career as a soloist, though he eventually regained enough ability to perform chamber music in private concerts. He was also able to compose in his last decade. In 1879, he moved to Algeria where his daughter lived. His inability to play with proficiency in his final years was a source of great frustration for him.”

I feel strongly that Henri Vieuxtemps deserves more recognition and to be heard regularly on stage and in recordings.

Memorial to Henri Vieuxtemps in Verviers

I hope you have enjoyed his music as much as I have during my venerative Vieuxtemps interlude!

A Sunny Sunday at the Beautiful and Bucolic Blenheim Palace

One never needs an excuse for a family picnic. As Sunday was my birthday, and rather fortuitously, the sunniest and hottest day of the year to date, we drove to Woodstock and spent a fabulous few hours at Blenheim Palace.

Roughly 25 years have flown by since my first visit and my children have never been, so we decided to explore the vast park and gardens that have been home to the Dukes of Marlborough for 300 years.

Blenheim was also the birthplace and ancestral home to former UK Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, being a grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough and a direct descendant of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough.

“Under the auspices of a munificent sovereign this house was built for John Duke of Marlborough, and his Duchess Sarah, by Sir J Vanbrugh between the years 1705 and 1722, and the Royal Manor of Woodstock, together with a grant of £240,000 towards the building of Blenheim, was given by Her Majesty Queen Anne and confirmed by act of Parliament . . . to the said John Duke of Marlborough and to all his issue male and female lineally descending.”

~ Plaque above the East gate of Blenheim Palace

It was fascinating picking up bits of history through an exhibition in the stables, just off the main front courtyard.

Aerial views of Blenheim in winter:

The Battle of Blenheim

During the War of the Spanish Succession, John Churchill 1st Duke of Marlborough proved to be a canny general and diplomat. England was allied with the Dutch Republic, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, together forming the Grand Alliance against Louis XIV in his brazen attempt at dynastic rule over Spain and their European territories.

The Battle of Blenheim (fought at Blindheim, Bavaria on 13th August 1704), was won under John’s leadership in alliance with Prince Eugene of Savoy, and was a major turning point in deciding the European balance of power.

Rather than engaging in siege warfare against Marshall Tallard and his French forces, Churchill made a strategic, surprise attack forcing an open battle. It was hard fought and hard won, with many casualties on both sides.

The Duke of Marlborough signing the despatch at Blenheim c. 1704

He won further victories at Ramillies in 1706, in Oudenarde in 1708 and Malplaquet in 1709, elevating and securing his position as one of the most successful and respected generals in Europe. The Battle of Blenheim was such an important turning point for Great Britain and its emergence as a military and political leader in Europe, that the estate in Woodstock was gifted to John and Sarah Churchill by a grateful monarchy.

Despite the glorious victory that preceded and heralded Blenheim’s existence, much acrimony surrounded its construction. Blenheim’s birth was not an easy one!

Plan of Blenheim Palace and Gardens c. 1835

A major reason for discord between the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough was John’s controversial choice of architect, Sir John Vanbrugh.

Aided by Nicholas Hawksmoor, he designed and built Blenheim Palace in the English Baroque Style. However the duchess, Sarah Churchill, a close confidante of Queen Anne, had wanted to employ Sir Christopher Wren, who was unassailable after St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was constant bickering between the Duchess and Vanbrugh.

The two could not agree about the fate of the existing Woodstock Manor and lodge, which had served as a royal retreat since the time of King Henry I.

Princess Elizabeth, before ascending to the English throne had been held captive in the lodge between 1554 and 1555 by her half-sister and Queen, Mary Tudor. It had lain in ruins after its destruction at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians since the Civil War.

Ruby in the perfect climbing tree near our picnic spot.

All but a stone pillar was swept away before construction of Blenheim Palace at the behest of the duchess; against the wishes of Vanbrugh, who had wanted to conserve what remained of the original dwelling.

Political infighting with the Tories and Whig Party and a fall out with Queen Anne sent the Churchill’s into ignominious exile on the continent, only returning after Queen Anne’s death in 1714. They took up residence in the east wing of the then unfinished Blenheim, and found themselves back in favour with the new monarchy, the Hanoverian dynasty.

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough first cousin of Winston, inherited his dukedom in 1892 under the shadow of personal and family bankruptcy.

The debts incurred by the extravagant spending habits of George Spencer-Churchill, 5th Duke of Marlborough, which John Winston Spencer Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough had not been able to stem, even after selling off many of the family’s heirlooms, forced him into a mercenary and loveless marriage with Consuelo Vanderbilt; the beautiful, young American railroad heiress in 1895.

9th Duke of Marlborough with Consuelo and their sons, by John Singer Sargent

New world Vanderbilt money ensured old world Blenheim’s survival, but the Duke and Duchess were unhappy together. They had two sons to carry on the Marlborough line, but separated in 1906 and divorced in 1921, after which Charles had their marriage annulled.

Consuelo Vanderbilt by Carolus Duran c. 1900

We didn’t go into the house, my daughters made it clear that walking round a stately home would be a fate worse than death; but we did enjoy parts of Blenheim’s formidable 2,000 acres of gardens and grounds.

The Fountain Terraces (complete with sculptures from Bernini’s Italian studio) and lakeside walk are a pleasure to amble through on a sunny afternoon. An ice cream treat doesn’t go amiss either!

Blenheim Palace is unique as a country house in that it is the only non-royal residence (apart from the Church of England’s Lambeth Palace) allowed the status of ‘palace’. Its grandeur had even beguiled Hitler, who instructed that it not be bombed during World War 2, eyeing it as a possible residence should he invade the UK. Fortunately that nightmare scenario did not prevail!

Blenheim Palace was first opened to the public in 1950 and made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.

The estate is now home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family, who in his younger, reckless days was labelled the ‘Black Sheep’ of the family by his estranged father John Spencer-Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough, also a cousin of Winston Churchill and given the nickname ‘Sunny’, (but not due to his temperament). Eventually father and wayward eldest son were reconciled.

The millions of visitors each year provide the funds for Blenheim’s onerous upkeep.

Before we departed I wandered over the Grand Bridge built and designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, with the Column of Victory looming before me.  Ruby was very tired and had taken to dragging her feet whilst pulling my arm and wailing intermittently.

She begged me mercilessly to let her roly-poly down the steep hill, but I decided the generous amounts of geese poo and the thought of her rolling straight into the lake prohibited that particular fancy…

Grand Bridge and Victory Column

The sun was slowly sinking, its fading light reflected as brilliant, squint inducing starbursts off the water, shimmering and glinting at passers-by, illuminating every last drop of Blenheim’s peace and tranquility.

I eventually turned to head back to our picnic spot to search for Emily’s lost bracelet, but took a moment to admire the distant sandy coloured façade and columns of the palace, standing noble and proud to this day. Blenheim will always be an emblem of courage, fortitude and empire that presides over its Capability Brown landscape and beyond.

William also admiring the view!

Blenheim Palace is the legacy of its founding father and his outstanding military achievement, but each generation of its famous chateleins, (the Spencer-Churchill family), have left their mark in the process of preserving Blenheim for future generations – a national treasure with a magnificent, historic heritage.

“At Blenheim I took two very important decisions: to be born and to marry. I am content with the decision I took on both occasions.” ~ Sir Winston Churchill

The temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill rather romantically proposed to Clementine Hozier during a rain storm in 1908. He later wrote: “My most brilliant achievement was my ability to be able to persuade my wife to marry me.”

Bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the WC Memorial Garden

I hope you like my photographs of the grounds and gardens. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the vicinity of Oxford. It will be especially fun for families this Easter weekend. Happy Easter!

A Courageous Experiment that will Make you See Music and Beauty Differently

“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.” ~ Oscar Wilde

At 7.51 am on Friday 12th January 2007, an unassuming lone male figure dressed in a long sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap played the most spiritually uplifting violin music there is, on a £3.5 million Stradivarius, to oblivious passing commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza on the Washington Metro.

The subway experiment:

Normally classical music fans, and in particular, violin aficionados pay around $100 to attend a Joshua Bell concert, for the chance to listen to one of the greatest living violinists.

I saw Joshua Bell in a performance of Schubert with Jeremey Denk in Vienna a few years back. It was very special. I got to meet him briefly afterwards, and I cannot think of a more down to earth, approachable and lovely person as he. It also helps that he’s pretty much flawless on the violin too…

Joshua Bell in Vienna

The experiment was thought up by Joshua Bell and Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post journalist, curious to see if someone of Joshua’s fame and reputation would elicit large crowds and a hefty amount of coinage in his case.

The outcome of the 45 minute busking session was shocking – of the 1097 people that passed by Joshua that morning, only 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or longer, and the ones who tended to want to stop most were children.  Joshua had received little over $32 for the entire session.

I’m not sure many other professional violinists would have undertaken a similar experience…

For lesser virtuoso’s that kind of reception would likely have cleaved a severe dent in their ego, but Joshua Bell, I think, was able to look objectively at what happened. It had no bearing on his skill on the violin.

It had everything to do with perception, placement and people’s capacity to enjoy something despite its context and their preconceived ideas.

Buskers, although many are highly talented, are not usually in the same league as a concert soloist. We tend to disregard them unless we like what we hear. No matter their skill level my children always stop for buskers.

It was early in the morning and people were naturally rushing to work so they weren’t really focused on anything else. The dismal results highlight how often we can live in a kind of manic, 21st century stress bubble.

Our schedules are crammed to the hilt; we don’t appear to have a nanosecond to enjoy the finer things in life. But such a blinkered attitude means we miss out on what’s really around us.

“Some of the most thrilling things in life are done on impulse.” ~ Syrie James (The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen)

It’s time to open up our awareness and take a deep, abdominal sniff of the roses – really smell and devour their glorious scent – make it a part of us.  Let that divine aroma mingle in our blood as it pulses around our body and nourishes our cells.

Stop and listen to the music if you can, it’s highly beneficial for human beings. Pause and appreciate a work of art, read an excerpt of a classic text and truly digest what message, what heart-felt passion and skill went into its creation.

One of the best violinists in the world was playing music that speaks to the soul on a Golden Period Stradivarius, and barely anyone could truly appreciate it. This wasn’t just any old music played on a shoddy instrument by an amateur – this was mastery – mastery of composition, of violin construction and musicianship.

It makes you think what else we might miss if our radar isn’t attuned to art, nature, beauty, literature and music, our whatever it is that elevates our soul. The universe is ‘speaking’ to us all the time, but are we listening?

Many opportunities for joy may pass us by if we are in a kind of awareness stupor, only concerned with the banalities of life. To be fair, maybe some people didn’t recognise or know who Joshua Bell is; but surely the heavenly music would have roused them from their cultural cocoons for just a minute?

It’s a sad day when a person’s life is so devoid of feeling or joy that they cannot spare such a short time to enrich it.

Here’s the article that Gene wrote after the experiment in the Washington Post.

The Man with the Violin

The experiment prompted children’s author Kathy Stinson to write a glorious book about it: The Man with the Violin. Kathy put herself in the shoes of one of one of the children who may have passed Joshua that cold wintry morning and wrote it from a young boy’s point of view.

When I discovered this book I had already seen the experiment and knew that my daughters would love it. They do, and so do I, because it reminds me to pay attention to what my children pay attention to, and to live in and enjoy the moment.

It’s beautifully written with a beautiful message and evocative illustrations.

Context

One of the lessons of this enlightening experiment was context. It turns out that time and place matter, that expectation has an impact on our experience and enjoyment. When we have paid a considerable amount of money to sit in a concert hall and hear the amazing acoustics of a hotly billed soloist we are in the right frame of mind to get the most out of that experience.

Spontaneity is not something that the majority of people who passed him seemed to possess. It also demonstrated that people tend not to value something unless they pay for it.

His follow-up performance at Washington Union Station in 2014 was much more successful! It helped that the event was publicised, so people knew in advance what was happening.

Joshua Bell is very eloquent when he talks about the experience and classical music in general:

I love his passion for children to have a musical education and how that impacts on their lives as well as their test scores. Music (of any kind) is not a nice to have, it’s as essential as maths and literature. It’s fundamental to our well-being on a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual level.

So whatever floats your boat, be it music, literature, art, or being in nature, take time to enjoy it and let its beauty infiltrate your life and revitalise your soul.

“No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.” ~ Carol Bryant

Ultimate Brain Hack: How to Avoid Losing Your Mind

“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” ~ Buddha

Recently I was fortunate to attend a workshop on brain health run by Jenny Phillips of Inspired Nutrition. Jenny did a popular guest blog a while back for rhapsody in words on breast health and screening, and as a cancer survivor has written a book everyone should read: Eat to Outsmart Cancer.

With alarming rates of early onset dementia and an ever increasing number of the population suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, she has been fascinated by recent research from the US showing that early cognitive decline can be reversed.

Jenny has a proactive attitude towards health that I wholeheartedly share. Her aim is to help others proactively adopt a lifestyle that will reduce the risk and help to prevent cognitive decline. If we can optimise our biochemistry we can influence the expression of our genes for a positive outcome.

Although Alzheimer’s disease mainly affects older people, according to the WHO it is not a normal part of aging.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, the umbrella term for a group of neuro cognitive disorders (NCDs); characterised by a decline in cognitive functioning. Symptoms include memory loss, difficulty with language, thinking and problem solving. In severe cases it has the potential to steal our independence and personality. Alzheimer’s was named after the man who discovered this cognitive condition, Dr. Aloysius Alzheimer (1864 – 1951).

From Jenny’s brain health manual:

AD is caused by parts of the brain shrinking (atrophy), which affects the structure and function of particular brain areas. People with AD may have abnormal protein deposits in their brains (amyloid plaques), neurofibrillary tangles (containing tau, an important brain protein), imbalances in a brain chemical called acetylcholine and vascular damage. This affects communication between neurones and results in cell death. Over time the damage spreads and symptoms progress.

The first area of the brain that is usually affected by Alzheimer’s is the Hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores, retrieves and makes our memories.

Early onset of Alzheimer’s can very often cause difficulty in forming new memories or recalling recent actions and events. Older, childhood memories tend to remain longer as they are stored in different parts of the brain. We should be able to remember at least 6 numbers or more as a sign of a healthy memory.

There are 3 stages of Alzheimer’s Disease: early – middle – late. Ideally, we should put in place strategies before any early signs appear.

The role of genes

Jenny talked about increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s for those that have the ApoE4 gene and how it is expressed according to environmental influences. She pointed out that if anyone has a history of dementia in their family it might be worth getting a genetic profile done. Knowledge is power, so armed with this information it may encourage people to take their health more seriously and adjust their lifestyle accordingly, to stack the odds in their favour.

Prevention is always preferable to, and easier than cure. There are many ‘hidden’ costs associated with cognitive decline; such as not being able to work, the emotional, physical and mental strains on the individual as well as their family and friends, being unable to perform activities such as driving and many other actions/interactions we may take for granted.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), “There is no treatment currently available to cure dementia or to alter its progressive course.”

This view is perhaps a touch pessimistic, and Jenny gave us hope by sharing the latest research. She carefully presented the facts and managed to make a complex subject easy to understand with her relaxed and logical teaching style.

We each inherit 23 pairs of chromosomes from our parents, the blueprint of our genetic makeup; ‘the recipe book of you’ as Jenny calls it. If there are mutations or spelling mistakes this can cause trouble later in life if we are not diligent in managing our lifestyle.

Jenny covered three main areas where we can impact our brain functioning: root cause resolution, optimal performance and protection.

Root cause resolution:

We covered the ingredients for a healthy brain; the raw materials that make it grow.

“For the brain to flourish you’ve got to nourish.” ~ Jenny Phillips

Our brains are 60% fat, which means they need replenishing with essential fats such as omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). In addition to diet I personally supplement with Dr. Mercola’s krill oil as it’s high in these nutrients and sustainably sourced.

Healthy dietary fats include coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil (uncooked), and butter. The trans-fats that are in margarine and other oils cause oxidative damage to our cells and should be avoided at all costs.

B vitamins help the brain make and use neurotransmitters. The brain also requires amino acids, vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, which has been dubbed the ‘master mineral’ as it is a co-factor in every process in the body. Good digestion and gut health is also fundamental to brain health (as I will elaborate on in a future post).

Optimal performance:

The brain’s main source of energy is glucose. For those in varying degrees of metabolic syndrome (waistline and weight is an indicator), and who have developed insulin resistance this is significant for the brain, as it can’t get the glucose it requires into the cells, as insulin takes sugar into the cells. Anyone with a diet high in sugar and refined, processed foods is at risk. Treatment of insulin resistance may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Lowering sugar intake, insulin regulation and energy from nutrients such as healthy fats, magnesium and CoQ10 all contribute towards brain health.

An alternative source of energy is when the body breaks down fat into ketones, known as ketosis.

Another risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s is poor oral hygiene. Gum disease arises when there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the mouth, and is linked to increased inflammation. The cold sore virus can also cause Alzheimer’s disease.

Stress

When we are feeling stressed our body produces the hormone cortisol, and lengthy periods of un-managed stress means that we are living off our adrenals and this is bad news. Long term high levels of cortisol increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Jenny suggested meditation as a great way of reducing and managing stress. I have found meditating for over a decade has been invaluable. I meditate for an hour a day with Holosync, but there are other similar programmes, and even half an hour a day of clearing your mind in whatever way suits you best will be of benefit.

Use it or lose it

The phrase ‘use it or lose it’ applies to the brain, (our mental muscle), so it’s important to undertake activities that give your grey cells a workout; such as playing a musical instrument, hobbies that induce relaxed concentration like chess, puzzles, crosswords, sudoku, knitting, writing, reading, any kind of crafts or brain training games.

Exercise

Regular physical activity  is crucial to brain health and overall well-being. Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, such as walking, dancing or an active hobby. I’m aware that as a writer I am sitting for long periods, so I have to be consciously moving around every 2 hours.

Office work can also lead to a sedentary lifestyle which is something our early ancestors never had to deal with due to a radically different way of life.

Sleep

This one area where I struggle to get enough hours of pushing out the zeds! Jenny recommended a minimum of 7 hours per night to give your body a chance to heal, repair and rejuvenate and distribute Human Growth Hormone (HGH), so that we can function to the best of our ability the next day.

Protection:

Jenny talked about the dangers of high levels of homocysteine in the blood, an aggressive molecule strongly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. We should look to increase our intake of vitamin B12 (liver is a rich source), folate and glutathione. High alcohol intake robs our body of B vitamins and also destroys helpful bacteria in the gut.

Jenny advised that we can’t go wrong by eating the rainbow, a diverse range of fruits and vegetables of all colours. Bone broth can be made in the slow-cooker and is incredibly nutritious for maintaining the integrity of the gut lining and supporting digestion.

Toxicity in the body strains the liver so powerful antioxidants are needed to combat aging and free radicals that cause cellular degeneration.

Diet concerns:

  • Dependency on refined foods and simple carbohydrates
  • Not enough fresh vegetables – limit or cut out processed/shelf stable foods
  • Confused about facts (e.g. misleading information from government bodies about a low fat diet). Jenny recommended a book: Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill
  • Too much alcohol
  • Sodium : potassium ratio needs to be in balance

Sadly, the food industry as a whole isn’t concerned about health, it appeals to your taste buds with sophisticated marketing. Labels can also be misleading and you should read the ingredient list carefully. Interesting article on junk food.

21st century life has solved many challenges for humanity, but in doing so, our drive for a more convenient life has unwittingly created other problems. Diet is a biggie, hence the rise in obesity, diabetes, digestive, auto-immune disorders and cognitive decline.

It’s worth having an individual genetic test to assess your risk factors. This could give you peace of mind about what you are already doing or motivate you to make any necessary changes.

Cognitive decline does not happen overnight but is a result of environmental factors influencing the way your genes express themselves. Our daily habits hold the key to health and longevity.

Jenny gave us some very promising data that was being garnered by Professor Dale Bredesen and his colleagues at the Buck Institute, who, unencumbered with the need for funding and the hidden agendas that usually accompany such investment, are working on solving problems of the aged. He speaks of Alzheimer’s disease being akin to a ‘roof with 36 holes’ – where no one therapy will ever come close to plugging all the gaps.

Reversing Alzheimer’s Disease – Dr. Dale Bredesen, MD:

Bredesen wrote a 2014 paper: Reversal of Cognitive Decline around the results he achieved with his patients using his MEND therapeutic programme, which included discreet eating and the lifestyle indicators Jenny spoke of.

7 Pillars of Brain Health:

  • Nutrition
  • Fasting
  • Gut health
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Stress Reduction
  • Brain stimulation

After the study section of our workshop was completed Jenny treated us to a healthy home-made juice with pineapple, spinach, ginger and celery, followed by a delicious, nutritious lunch of salmon, avocado, sweet potato and a beautiful salad with a choice of brain healthy dressings.

We were also given a short manual that recapped on what we had learnt with helpful dietary advice and the best brain healthy foods. Included at the back was a health dashboard to enable us to focus on the fundamental elements of brain health and overall well-being and write any notes about what we decide to put into action along with results.

I’m very grateful to Jenny for sharing her knowledge! We left feeling empowered to implement the changes we each needed to reduce our risks of developing a neuro degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s.

For more information about future brain health workshops, nutrition and advice on brain health contact Jenny via her website.

Other useful websites:

Photosynthesis: Connections to Life, Growth and Perspective

“I want my words to illuminate like the sun, as I give my daily lecture on photosynthesis to my houseplants.” ~ Jarod Kintz

In my daily watering of the fresh basil, parsley and coriander plants that sit on my kitchen window sill, I began to notice that over a period of a few days their slender stalks and rounded, green leaves lean markedly towards the window and the light streaming in. So much so, that if I don’t turn them they get tangled up with one another and almost start to climb the pane.

I move the herbs every few days to keep them balanced and limit any lopsided growth. Sure enough, each time they start to lean again, reaching for their source of energy and life.

It’s a complex, natural process – science calls it photosynthesis. Plants, flowers and nature as a whole never stray or deviate from what benefits them the most; they instinctively know that air, light and water enables and promotes life.

As I was tending to my sweet, fragrant herbs this observation sparked a thought, and here I am, duly expounding my extemporaneous insights!

Humans on the other hand, have a tendency to lean towards the shadows: thoughts and actions that don’t serve us. That is the divine burden, blessing and responsibility of conscious thought, infinite choices, free-will and intelligence.

Perception and perspective…

It’s easy to reach for the light when things are going well.  We are bursting with energy, and more likely to be happy and positive.

It’s when we are beset by problems, dealing with trauma, challenges and difficult situations that we can become caught in the shadows. We’ve all experienced times in our life when it felt like we were an unfortunate character trapped in a dystopian novel – enveloped in a story so unpleasant that even Charles Dickens couldn’t imagine or describe it!

“Please sir, I want some more” ~ Oliver Twist

We can become entrenched in our views that God and the universe have it in for us, and nothing will ever be good again. There was once a time when I was at rock bottom that I believed the implacable march of fate was against me. But perception and perspective is everything…

“Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison.” ~ William Shakespeare (Hamlet – Act 2, Scene 2)

How do we interpret such events and times? That’s the hard part. We can get down on ourselves, others, or our lot in life, or we can put it down to experience and try and glean something positive from such moments and move forwards. I’ve often exacerbated a tricky situation by self-sabotaging myself.

However, my greatest spiritual learning, growth and development has always arisen from my deepest and most intense suffering. Not that I relish suffering, none of us do, but part of life is embracing both the ups and the downs, the duality of existence.

I find it helpful to accept everything that constitutes my life experience, that way I recover quicker and put more energy into solving and improving things instead of grumbling and having a pity party. It doesn’t always happen straight away though!!

Rudyard Kipling had it right in his poem If, when he advised us to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same.

I have to constantly remind myself to practice gratitude. I like to think of 3 things: something/someone or a happening from my past, present and future. The last one takes a creative licence and leap of faith that things will be better. Afterwards I always feel happier. The problems are still there, but the difference is I’m better equipped to handle my life when I’m in a higher vibration and reaching for the light.

I’m quicker to notice when I start moaning and gently forgive myself for holding myself back. That has taken years to master. Other strategies are to do more of the things that bring me happiness and fulfillment, look to where and when I’m in flow and unencumbered by the cares of the world.

So when we get pulled off course and away from the light; whether it be a short deviation or a lengthy detour,  it requires being aware and taking steps to alter direction, just like a weed or flower will grow through the tiniest crack in a block of concrete; it is indefatigable in seeking the light.

It’s never fun wallowing in the shadows, and if we’re not careful it can be an addictive form of energy that our ego feeds off. Just like the leaves of the kitchen herbs lose their vibrant, green lustre and wilt if deprived of light and water, we too become spiritually, mentally and physically jaded. Being unplugged from our source is debilitating.

“Four elements, Hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, also provide an example of the astonishing togetherness of our universe. They make up the “organic” molecules that constitute living organisms on a planet, and the nuclei of these same elements interact to generate the light of its star. Then the organisms on the planet come to depend wholly on that starlight, as they must if life is to persist. So it is that all life on the Earth runs on sunlight.”  ~ George Wald (referring to photosynthesis)

Something simple like deep abdominal breathing, going for a walk, or being in nature can give an instant lift and help us through the moment.

Just as the leaves of plants will turn brown, crinkle and die if left untended, so we must dig deep and look to our strengths and sources of joy to lift us out of the gloom and bloom once more. Love is light.

Plants have no choice but to grow and nourish themselves. It is an automatic chemical reaction when carbon dioxide, water and sunlight are present; life-sustaining energy will be produced. Energy that not only benefits the plant, but also humanity, for the oxygen we breath and the food we eat.

For all you budding scientists out there!

Soul stamina

Our collective soul stamina was sorely tested this week, with the horrific events in London, and it is right to mourn and fully support those affected. Wisdom urges that we do not wallow in victim hood but tackle such evil at its root cause – the twisted, de-humanising and hate preaching ideology of extremists. Weak minded individuals who use religion as an excuse to vent their sick sense of puritanical outrage and violent tendencies. They live in the shadows, the unconscious.

Our anger at such heinous acts can make us bitter and resentful, but this is unhelpful if we wish to create a safer, happier and more prosperous world for the human diaspora.

The British mantra of ‘keep calm and carry on’ seems very fitting right now…

The terrible news of Wednesday’s events made me feel sad and tearful, but also grateful for another day with my family. None of us knows what will happen when we step outside our front doors. The brave PC Keith Palmer could not have known that fateful day would not turn out like any other normal day at Westminster, until he made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our democracy. The stories of the other souls who died in the attack (indeed, from all terror attacks, wars and their effects), are equally heartbreaking. Grief stricken parents, children and families who will not see their loved ones return home.

Whatever we may be dealing with, there is always someone who has it worse somewhere in the world.

In fact, millions do, the global challenges are great – but we can each make a brighter future if we follow Gandhi’s advice and endeavour to BE the change we wish to see in the world.

I’ll bid you farewell with a final analogy of the herbs reaching for the light. Let’s take a leaf out of nature’s book and adopt photosynthesis for our mind, body and soul!

Oxygen is the lifeblood of our respiratory system, powering our cells and movements, the influx of fresh ideas and zest for life. If you can’t escape a polluted area, have plants around you. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants which when consumed, keeps our blood and organs in an alkaline state – being as huge swathes of the population live in a toxic environment.

Water is the fluidity of our mind set and attitude; it needs topping up daily, and perhaps filtering to remove any impurities, (those stagnant, self-limiting and negative thoughts), thus hydrating our motivation and belief as well as our cells.

Sunlight, converts vitamin  D3 in our bodies and can be likened to our higher Self, our soul, the source from which we manifest physicality and spiritual resilience, even transcendence. It is our guide and home, showing us the way.

All these biological elements in photosynthesis are needed for an organism to grow and thrive. Our mind, body and soul are dynamic systems, each needs the right form of energy in order to follow our dreams and live life to the full. If we can only reach up into the golden rays of consciousness, those invisible photons of the soul, even on bad days…

What’s in a Painting? Taking a Closer Look at Peter Paul Rubens’ Masterpiece: Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1611-12)

“I’m just a simple man standing alone with my old brushes, asking God for inspiration.”  ~ Peter Paul Rubens

With so much violence being perpetrated in Syria, across the Middle East and in pockets around the world, it seems timely to revisit a powerful anti-war artwork by one of history’s greatest artists – the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens’ visceral and heart-stopping visual depiction of the biblical story about the slaughter of the firstborn male babies in Bethlehem fills me with horror. It’s almost as if the heinous, frenzied energy portrayed within the lifelike pigments on the canvas spill out onto the viewer. It’s impossible to remain passive and calm while looking at Massacre of the Innocents.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The Massacre of the Innocents now hangs as the pièce de résistance  in the Art Gallery of Ontario, to whom it was donated by Kenneth Thomson; a generous gift to the people of Toronto. After its initial time hanging in the National Gallery, (side by side once again with the painting that preceded it, Samson and Delilah) it was sent to its permanent home in Toronto in 2008. I wished I had seen it while it was in London…

Provenance and Misattribution

The Massacre of the innocents was the first of two works on the biblical subject painted by Rubens, commencing in 1611 just three years after his return to Antwerp from an eight year stint in Renaissance Italy.

Alongside Rubens’ earlier masterpiece, Samson and Delilah, the Forchondt Brothers sold the works to a patron of the arts and an avid Rubens collector, Hans-Adam, the Prince of Liechtenstein in around 1700. The paintings remained in the Liechtenstein family collection for two centuries, and at one point were hung together in the Garden Palace in Vienna.

The first misattribution occurred in 1767, when the Massacre of the Innocents was categorised by Vincenzio Fanti as a Franciscus de Neve (II) and the second mistake happened in 1780 when it was catalogued as being by Jan van den Hoecke, one of Rubens’ assistants. The painting was subsequently sold to an Austrian family in 1920, and then loaned in 1923 to Reichersberg Abbey, a monastery of Augustinian canons in northern Austria.

When the Massacre of the Innocents came up for sale it was brought to the attention of Sotheby’s and the National Gallery in London where David Jaffé helped to identify the work as a Rubens.

He compared it with Samson and Delilah (already hanging in the National Gallery) and recognised the artist’s distinctive style and artistic ‘handwriting’ immediately.

Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609 – 10

It strikes me as more than co-incidence that these two works by Rubens have crossed paths multiple times throughout their history!

Some statistics:

Once the Massacre of the Innocents had been attributed to an Old Master its perceived value increased exponentially.  It was the most expensive painting ever sold in the UK and Europe when  the hammer crashed down with the winning bid at a thrilling Sotheby’s auction in 2002.

The purchaser was the Canadian billionaire and art enthusiast Kenneth Thomson, who stumped up the eye-watering amount of £49.5 million; a world record for an Old Master. It’s in the top ten of the world’s most expensive paintings. No painting has reached more at auction in the UK and Europe to this day.

On 1st March 2017, Gustav Klimt’s ‘Bauerngarten’ painting was sold by Sotheby’s in London for a record price of £47,971,250 ($59,321,248), making it the second highest painting in British and European history after Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents.

Bauerngarten by Gustav Klimt

However, if one includes sculptures as works of art, they were both eclipsed in 2010 when Alberto Giacometti’s life size Walking Man was sold for £65 million by Sotheby’s.

Previous to the sale of Massacre of the Innocents only two other paintings fetched more at auction: Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet at $82.5 million in 1990 and Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette, which fetched $78.1 million in the same year, both in New York.

Anti-war sentiments:

Rubens grew up in the aftermath of violence and war, as a protestant led rebellion was crushed when his home city of Antwerp was laid to waste by the Spanish on 4th November 1576 during the Eighty Years War. This brilliant article by Jonathon Jones in The Guardian gives an insight into the life and times of Peter Paul Rubens and his social commentary on violence and war via his art, and in particular, his epic painting of the Massacre of the Innocents.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” ~ Elie Wiesel

The genius of the Massacre of the Innocents

When you get over the sheer revulsion of the subject matter – it’s not easy to look at infants being slaughtered, or the anguish on mothers’ faces as they desperately try to save their sons from the cruel attack of Herod’s soldiers – you can appreciate the skill of Rubens in creating a scene of pure drama, of the wretched bodies trapped in time, in their epic struggle for survival.

The impressive blend of shades of light and dark epitomise the influence of Caravaggio imbued from his travels in Italy.

Massacre of the Innocents by Sir Peter Paul Rubens c. 1611- 12 oil on canvas, 182 x 142 cm

The luminous and deathly grey skin tones, the rippling muscles, the terror on the faces, the contortion of bodies in a confined space make for a powerful painting. It’s not glorifying violence, it’s condemning it.  Rubens fought against warmongering with his paint brush, (it’s not just the pen that is mightier than the sword).

My eyes are drawn to the central figure, the young, fair haired mother with her back turned to us and being pushed downwards by an older woman about to be run-through by a soldier. She is grasping her baby in her left hand, shielding him beneath her fleshy, alabaster shoulder, whilst her right hand reaches up to claw and gouge the face of the soldier who is grabbing at her son’s loin cloth. The silky, deep crimson skirt has a sombre sheen, as if it is meant to represent their spilled blood.

Above and behind them, orange streaks across the sky and a ruined, classical city provide the back drop for one of art and history’s unspeakable deeds. Rubens has a way of making spectators become involved in his paintings, his visual storytelling.

David Jaffé on The Massacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens:

Perhaps the outrage evoked by this 406 year old painting should be seared onto the minds and hearts of politicians all over the world.  Innocents are still being massacred and exploited in one way or another. Maybe that will never change; human nature has shown us repeatedly that we are slow to learn from the lessons of history.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ~ Eli Wiesel

Peter Paul Rubens (28 June 1577 – 30 May 1640)

Born as one of three children to Jan Rubens and Maria Pypelincks, Rubens was well educated as a humanist scholar, familiar with Latin and classical literature. He remained a devout Roman Catholic throughout his life. He began painting at age 14, and studied under two leading late Mannerist artists of the time, Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen.

Peter Paul Rubens – self portrait c. 1623

Sir Peter Paul Rubens was not only a prodigious painter (with around 1400 works of art to his name), but a scholar, diplomat and businessman. He was knighted by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles 1 of England.

His works were mostly religious and historical in subject; usually bold, ebullient and colourful, with a classical aesthetic for muscular, full-figured human anatomy and reverence to a more natural, realistic way of portraying people, places and scripture, that defined Flemish Baroque art.

The artist and his first wife, Isabella Brandt – The Honeysuckle Bower by Peter Paul Rubens c. 1609

During his years of study in Italy, Rubens drew many statues and sculptures from antiquity and learnt the techniques of High Renaissance painters from Venice such as Giorgione and in particular, Titian, who he revered especially for his use of colour; as well as the towering figures of Raphael, da Vinci and Michelangelo in Rome.

He also embraced the edgier Baroque artists such as Carracci and Caravaggio and reflected each of their styles in his unique body of work as he became established in his own right in Antwerp. He fused these iconic influences into his own unique perspective, and is probably considered to be the greatest painter of the Dutch Masters.

I’ll sign off with a short documentary by Andrew Graham Dixon which gives a fascinating insight into the genius of this extraordinary man:

“My talent is such that no undertaking, however vast in size… has ever surpassed my courage.” ~ Peter Paul Rubens