When I went with a friend to Florence, I was the one who wanted to look at the “boring old churches”. We also went to the Uffizi, or “offices”, and passed dozens of Annunciations. Some of the symbolism- the lilies for purity, the dove for the Holy Spirit- may need explanation, but the relationship between the two figures is immediately apparent. Start with one I find difficult:

Philippe de Champaigne. Yes, I know he was French school, but he illustrates all I dislike about the treatment. Gabriel is clearly supernatural, floating above, wings out. Mary is- sitting at a desk! Reading! A peasant- a peasant girlРreading. Would she be surprised to see an angel floating in the air? For this artist, it seems, no.

For me, the Gospel has value for human beings if it is a human story. In de Champaigne’s work, God is taking care of everything, and the human involved is the blessed of God, born without original sin.

Often she is reading. By traditional iconography, she reads Isaiah 7:14

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a maiden shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

I change “virgin” to “maiden” because I understand it is closer to the Hebrew, being able to convey unmarried woman as well as woman who has not had sexual intercourse. In the prophecy, the invaders have overrun Judah and society has broken down. God is with us, and no-one else is.

John William Waterhouse is far more to my taste, even if I would usually deprecate following a style from decades before.

Here the only supernatural thing is the halo, which I like to see as a symbol of force of personality rather than holiness.

John Collier shows the form still has vitality:

Trainers? Well, why not? Here, as always, is a Mary for her contemporary audience to relate to. I am unsure about American teenagers, but I think specifically for a rather older audience to relate to.

At last, to the Uffizi:


Fra Angelico

Simone Martini

Mary, for me, has to be that human being who comes to the sudden realisation that she is in the most difficult position: an unmarried peasant who is pregnant. At that moment, the cry “All generations shall call me blessed” is a cry of faith in herself as a human being, able to cope even with this¬†situation.

The Adoration of the Magi

Here is another of my formative experiences of an art work:

As a student, I had a poster of the Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Bruegel the Elder on my wall. This was a pose, as I wanted to appear to be an intellectual, and I did not like it particularly. I cannot say it grew on me, so much as altered in an instant. That instant was a moment of amazing shock and delight.

I got the poster from my father’s “Teachers’ World” magazine, and thought all the people in it hideous and ridiculous, particularly disliking the green-skinned fellow on the far right. And then one day I looked at it, and it was transformed. I saw the reverence and wonder on each of the faces, and ever after saw them like that, not ugly as before.

I am still not sure of the knowingness on the face of the bairn. He is God, after all, he must Know- but to me, he is human, and I find his divine nature particularly difficult to imagine in a newborn. I have seen expressions on the faces of very young children, particularly when in eye-contact with another person, but not this.

So I now love the image, and learned the value of living with a work of art and letting it communicate its secrets over time.

John Martin

The Plains of Heaven

When I was a child, we visited my grandparents in outer London for a fortnight every Summer, and I would be taken round the Science Museum and the Tate Gallery. I got from my father the lesson that Culture needs effort to understand it, and is worth that effort, and often I would think that is true. Bach violin partitas, initially unlistenable for me, on repeated exposure became captivating and wonderful.

The Great Day of His Wrath

In my early teens, bored in the Tate, I came across John Martin for the first time, and I was captivated immediately.

The Last Judgment

There is an exhibition of his works at Tate Britain until 15 January. I was captivated, particularly, by those suspended huge boulders,¬†just starting¬†to fall, in “The Great Day of His Wrath”. Of course a huge amount of painting invites the imagination to show what happens next, but this was my introduction to that. I had an instant, visceral response to the armies of Gog and Magog and the Whore of Babylon in “The Last Judgment”. I found “The Plains of Heaven” comparatively uninteresting, though I began to notice beauty in it: it was something worth looking at, not just something I looked at because I was told to.

The paintings are about two metres by three, though in my memory they are much bigger than that, overwhelming panels the size of a wall, to match their emotional impact. I read that in the current exhibition they are illuminated a part at a time, with a commentary and music, in a fifteen minute show. The original viewers, before Cinema, would have seen them in even lighting on gallery walls and been invited, as I was, into an immediate mental drama, as the eye takes in the armies in steam trains, the Great Gulf Fixed, the zigzag lightning and oceans of lava.

I am not aware of the context, but now as my eye moves round The Last Judgment taking in Jesus’ return in glory, the angel with the Trumpet, the blessed, I think of Kandinsky and early Joan Miro with separate subjects in one painting, in relationship but no longer in one perspective.

What will people think?

In August, eating al fresco with my father in the Grassmarket, I took my wig off, and the world did not end.

It is a noble cobbled plaza just to the south-east of the volcanic plug crowned by the castle. The high tenements have architectural frolics, like that conical cap to a turret down Cowgate. It brings to mind the cheery rhyme,

up the Grassmarket
and up the West Bow
Up the long ladder
and down the little tow

because public executions were held here until 1864. But that day, the world did not end, I did not find myself at the centre of an HM Bateman cartoon. Even my father, circumspect in his advice when the heat is in me, said nothing untoward.

At camp in the Summer, I wandered around with my wig off, and that was alright. I have done it while touristing, in a sun hat with a wider brim, and a long, loose cotton skirt, something unambiguously to show that I am female. It is too hot in the Dordogne in August, for a Scot in a wig.

Insofaras I can say that there is any constant I among my changing thought and morality, it is that I am Female. If there is any constant desire it is to express myself female and be seen as female. In 2002 I put on my wig and padding and painted my face, and took off my pretense, the strain of acting male. I could just be.

But my head, with terribly sparse hair at the front, none on the crown and thick round the sides so that, shaved, it produces a mannish shadow, gives this the lie. It proclaims I am male, which I cannot bear. I almost do not care what others think, whether they see me as a person, or see my character and personality truly and so still see this aspect of my physical being as feminine, it proclaims maleness to me, so I hide it. Someone I met wore a wig in bed, she was so upset by her baldness.


There is delight everywhere. Seize it and make it yours.

A single grape. Pay it your entire attention, and feel its sweetness explode in your mouth.

Can you see a plant? A tree or a blade of grass, go to it and see its beauty. Say hello.

In places where there are no plants, human beings still like to create and possess things which have no purpose except beauty. If you can see it, in that moment it is yours. Its beauty enriches you, and if you turn away from it you hardly need the memory, there are so many new beautiful things to see and take in.

Consider the wonder you can see where you are. The electric light, the connection of your phone or computer, the ordered way in which strangers meet and pass in the street. What we have made together.

Consider the wonder in you, muscle and bone and sinew, perception intellection and decision, movement and repose. Look at the back of your hand, how perfect it is.

All things are a source of joy. Beauty and wonder and delight are everywhere, there, at all times and in all places, only needing to be noticed.

This post started as a comment on VerVitae, and grew from there. An astrologer inspired it.

Thanks to Gneiss Moon and Carlene O’Conner for educating me on¬†astrology. However, I have made¬†a decision on synastry: while astrologers should look to Venus and Mars for males and females, they should look to Mercury for Gynandrous or Neutrois people. That is, if it says¬† the relationship I want is going to go well.


I am really enjoying doing Yoga badly. Alice puts one arm round something and through something else, and miraculously her hands meet. My hands are a yard apart still, and that is quite alright. Put your head on the mat- use a block if you need to- oh well, three blocks. “Don’t fight the pose” is a useful tip, rather than straining to go further with muscular control, just relax into it, go further. So I get better. My PE teacher said that if we practised, we could do the splits after about ten weeks. That was thirty years ago, but I am sure the principle still holds. I will get better, I will go further, if I do this. It is beautiful, and its beauty will increase for me.

The hall where I do it is in a village which seems Mediaeval: manor house at one end, church at the other, street of houses in between with one cross-street by the church. No pedlars, as far as I am aware. It is in the Domesday Book.

I am enjoying doing it badly, because I still get harsh on myself for doing things badly, and then next time stop trying. Yes, that is childish. Yes, I have noticed and am finding myself able to avoid that.

I will make no undertakings or promises about the future, because I get all insh-Allah-y about such things, but I notice that I want grace in my carriage and deportment, and notice that yoga may help with this aim. Such Edwardian words- grace in deportment! Out of fashion because they were made a chore, the concept seems to me a joy.