Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Evening, The Golden Plyos 1889

In the Summer of 1889, Levitan worked on this painting which is near the riverside town of Plyos. He has sitting above the Volga River on a hillside. Houses and churches go right up to the edge of the water. We're standing in a clearing of tree stumps; some wooded areas still surround the village.

An artist-friend told me recently that for a painting to be great, the colors are not as important as the artist knowing how to create light and shadow. This painting of a summertime afternoon is filled with a wonderful light. There is a mist or fog over the river that is so dense it veils the river's opposite bank.

For all we have,
and yet we remain

For all we can do,
and yet we remain

For all we have achieved,
and yet we remain

Easter Jesus,
lift the fog
that keeps us
from seeing 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Wild Lilac and Forget-me-nots 1890

Sometimes we see flowers placed in extravagant vases. Here, Levitan has casually placed May-blooming white lilacs and blue forget-me-nots in a clay vase with a matte glaze. He didn't buy these stems in the florist but would have found them walking along the road or in a field nearby. They are modest, unpretentious flowers in an unpretentious vase.

There's an old German legend that says, God had finished naming all the plants and flowers when a tiny un-named one called out: "Forget-me-not, O God." And God replied, "So that shall be your name."  

And while Catholics have largely negative attitudes towards the Free Masons, they were the ones who in 1926, wore forget-me-nots on their lapels as a symbol for the government not to forget the poor and the desperate. We could do with some of that today.

Any parochial school Catholic who grew up in the 1940's, 50's or 60's will remember the May-Mary shrines we decorated with lilacs brought to school wrapped in aluminum foil. But for all their delicacy and heady fragrance, bizarre as it may seem, in folklore it was considered unlucky to bring lilacs, especially of the white variety, into the home. And they must never be taken to a hospital. 

Fortunate for us, Levitan didn't know about any of that or simply didn't care. I suspect he was too genuinely spiritual a man to allow superstitions to distract him. He has simply found these flowers and put them together in their simplicity. Let us enjoy them.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mediterranean Sea Coast 1890

Levitan completed this painting of the Mediterranean Sea Coast in 1890 while traveling in the South of France. He takes delight in the sea's ranks of color and the wet beach covered with pebbles and shells. For his association with Levitan's work, the great Russian opera basso wrote:
"It has brought me to the realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic word that sets people's hearts on fire and this prophetic word can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and color."  Fyodor Shalyapin (1873-1938)
Shalyapin is bold in twice using the phrase prophetic word, which is a reference to God's active presence: standing before these paintings we might experience something of God.

The word "sea" appears for the first time in Genesis 1:9,10. It is day three of creation. 
And now God said, Let the waters below the vault collect into one place, to make dry land appear. And so it was done; the dry land God called Earth, and the water where it had collected, he called the Sea.
On day five, almost as a kind of creative after-thought, God filled the sea with living things. The original Greek has the birds, like the fish, being created out of the sea itself.

But it isn't long before the whole thing seems to have taken a wrong turn and the sea becomes a place of terror where, like the desert, monsters are encountered. By the end of the bible we see this negative "take" fully expressed:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared now, and there was no longer any sea. Revelation 21:1
Here, the word sea is no longer a geographical place but is now symbolic of all the chaotic energies and forces set against God. In the end, that sea of chaotic, anti-God energies will be no more. Jesus knows. Maybe he didn't use the word sea so to stress that evil isn't somewhere out there, but up close and personal:
"Can't you see that nothing that goes into someone from outside can make that person unclean, because it goes not into he heart but into the stomach and passes into the sewer." And he went on "It is what comes out of someone that makes that person unclean. For it is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions emerge: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within and make a person unclean." Mark 7:21-23

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Ferns in Forest 1895

This forest floor is so alive, Levitan might have titled his magical painting: Ferns and Moss in Forest. 

These light-collecting ferns, long passed their un-coiling, have spread their wings as if ready to take off. Ferns develop their spores (seeds) under the surface of the leaves, usually spreading them only after the leaves have dried. Other ferns spread by shallow, horizontal roots called runners

Perhaps it's this feature of winter-surviving, shallow roots that causes ferns to be seen as symbols of endurance. The word endurance seems to have derived from Latin, Greek, Irish and Lithuanian sources, all of which mean solid, strong, hardened, resilient - even oak - a particularly hard wood.

Everyone has a story of endurance: Hang in there an American might say. Carry on, a British subject would say. I had a parishioner who told of joining the fire brigade during the London Blitz, when she and her girlfriends would climb buildings dragging heavy canvas hoses, dousing roof fires caused by Nazi incendiary bombs. A twenty year old "girl" standing up to Hitler - that's endurance.

But of course endurance needn't be as dramatic as all that. 

  • caring for an elderly loved-one
  • years of study to become a doctor.
  • a difficult pregnancy
  • raising a family
  • slogging out long transportation to a unrewarding job 
  • fighting an addiction

Levitan's forest ferns might remind us of some personal time requiring endurance and gratitude for the inner "stuff" that enabled us to lean in and stay standing.

But then there's the moss beneath the ferns! Moss symbolizes the soft covering of maternal love. These two bible verses might come to mind. The psalmist likens God to a desert bird protecting her chicks from the withering sun with  umbrella-like wings, Psalm 91:3,4.
He rescues you from the snare of the fowler set on destruction; he covers you with his pinions, you will find shelter under his wings. His constancy is shield and protection.  
But we might give credit where credit is due: it's a mother-bird (she) who stands over the chicks with cooling wings.

And then Jesus, (who St. Juliana of Norwich called Mother), lamenting over Jerusalem.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refuse!" Matthew23:37

Consider the rich depth of Levitan's forest floor: the endurance of ferns; the maternal love of moss.