The Nightmare of Saint Helena

We went to the National Gallery on Sunday and while we didn’t see Quentin Blake or Rolf Harris we had a very good time.

It is a cheap laugh to go to a free museum and make fun of the unintentionally humorous aspects of paintings universally considered priceless masterpieces by the worlds greatest artists, who have no doubt strived hard to perfect their art and represent the timelessly sublime nature of Creation. But a cheap laugh is still a laugh.

You are never short of ‘yuks’ at the expense of well meaning religious iconography (and with all the martyrdoms there are any number of yucks as well.) If you don’t laugh at all the out of proportion baby jesuses that look like pasty old men, or the saints with ludicrous pudding-bowl haircuts then maybe the more subtle absurdity of The Vision Saint Helena by Paolo Veronese will appeal to you.

Careful! That’s the one true cross!

This is the last time I get Cherubs to help me move house.

It’s a sad fact that when you walk around museums you’ll notice that people spend almost as much time peering at the little cards beside the pictures as at the paintings themselves. But given the obscurity of some of the imagery it is an necessary evil. Did you know that purity is often represented by an ermine (which is basically an upmarket weasel)?

Fortunately, this is not the case for Veronese’s divine painting. Even without knowing that is subtitled ‘The clumsy Cherubs’, it is instantly obvious what is going on. In fact, it has that remarkable characteristic of capturing convincingly in one instant the movement and unfolding of dramatic action. Look at almost any other painting of the era (or any other!) and they will seem staid and staged, static tableaux artificially posed. This painting not only stops time in mid flow but also at exactly the moment that tells us most about what is going on.

We see Helena seated at the window of an unfurnished room taking a rest, from the oranges and yellow of the skies outside we know it is approaching twilight and obviously she’s had a hard day. And now to top it all, two cherubs are falling past, having lost control of the sturdy woodwork they’ve been moving.

All day she has been patiently directing these hapless removal men, swallowing her yelps as they’ve bashed the credenza against the lintel, biting her tongue as scraped the paint off the bannisters when carrying in the divan, counting to ten when they smashed one of her favourite ornamental amphoras. And now it’s all too much. But she can’t bawl them out because they had volunteered and she blames herself for letting them help.

At the time it seemed easier than getting in professionals but it was clearly a false economy. For all their honesty, enthusiasm and power of flight there’s no getting away from the fact that Cherubs are humongously clumsy and not too bright.

There wasn’t even any need for them to fly the cross over the house. Yes, she’d wanted it in the back garden and not left out the front where the neighbours would gawp – she feared they take it as some sort of reproach or spiritual one-up-manship. But the premonition of the scuff marks on the parquet had made her stop them taking it through the house.

They could have carried it round the side and if it was to fly it was at least a four cherub job, but the other two cherubs had knocked off early to go cavorting with some Rubenesque beauties, leaving her with just Laurel & Hardy here. She left them to it and Lo and Behold, down it goes!

With hindsight she should have left it where she found it, but she wasn’t to know that the One True Cross has a habit of causing bother.

Looks like she probably has a migraine too; It would try the patience of a saint.

About caspar

Caspar is just one monkey among billions. Battering his keyboard without expectations even of peanuts, let alone of aping the Immortal Bard. By day he is an infantologist at Birkbeck Babylab, by night he runs
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