Back from the brink

Sculpture: “Lot’s Wife” by Hamo Thornycroft

On the eve of Holy Week in the Western Christian Church, I am joining in a Quiet Day at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, and reflecting on the poem “Threshold” by R. S. Thomas. In it, he poses three rhetorical questions:

“…………………..I have lingered too long on

this threshold , but where can I go?”

To look back is to lose the soul

I was leading upwards towards

the light. To look forward? Ah,

what balance is needed at

the edges of such an abyss.

I am alone on the surface

of a turning planet. What

to do but, like Michelangelo’s

Adam, put my hand

out into unknown space,

hoping for the reciprocating touch?”

The reference to looking back has echoes not only of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but also of the stories in the Book of Genesis of Lot and his wife (Ado, or Edith, in some Jewish traditions) and of Adam and Eve. Kate Bernheimer, in her book, “xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths”, writes that Orpheus’s music had the power to save Eurydice, and yet she was not spared in the end, and neither was he. Thus “both the power and the limitation” of artistic inspiration are captured in the myth.

According to orthodox Christian belief, the fall of Adam and Eve from Paradise placed all humanity in the power of the devil until Christ redeemed those who accepted the faith by his death on the Cross. But what about those who had lived and died before Christ’s incarnation? This led to the legend, first found in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, that between his death on the Cross and his resurrection, Christ went to Hell, overthrew the Devil, released the ancient righteous along with Adam and Eve, and led them to heaven. This is the subject of the fragmentary Latin “Harrowing of Hell” (found in the 9th Century Book of Cerne but possibly derived from 8th Century Lindisfarne, making it quite likely the earliest dramatic work from Britain).

Thomas was fiercely Welsh, and an Anglican priest, and would have known of the old Welsh wedding tradition of Priodas Coes Ysgub, or Broom Stick Wedding, where the couple perform the symbolic action of jumping over a broom of twigs and straw within the wedding ceremony. The broom represents the threshold of the home, and can also symbolise sweeping away negativity, helping the couple to start their new life with a clean slate. In her poem, “Lot’s Wife”, Wislawa Szymborska describes how a crack suddenly opens in the earth beneath the fleeing woman’s feet:

“Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.”.

Scots artist Peter Howson, OBE, earned fame as one of the New Glasgow Boys. He believes now that he was suffering from “a sickness of the soul” when he accepted the position of official war artist in the Bosnian Conflict for the Imperial War Museum in London in 1993. In 2007, he produced “The Harrowing of Hell”, which lent its name to his exhibition in the following year.

BBC Scotland broadcast a documentary film in November 2010, entitled “The Madness of Peter Howson”. In it, the actor Steven Berkoff, a collector of Howson’s work, commented:

“Having Howson in my life has in some way given me a sense of what I am. We need artists like we need lightning rods…It is the artist who is struck and scarred and burned by the lightning.”

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