Prose and the Arts

Galleria: Lorrain, de Champagne and the Mannerists

The National Gallery, London is a treasure trove for art-enthusiasts. Getting an opportunity to visit the gallery, I was pleasantly surprised to find works like ‘Supper at Emmaus’, which I have included in a previous post for explaining what the concept of ‘Chiaroscuro’ means. In this post, I will try to include some works that struck me as interesting and appealing, and describe them briefly.

Claude Lorrain’s and Others

Claude Lorrain was the most successful landscape painter of the 17th century. Claude’s early work shows the influence of both his Italian contemporaries and North European artists working in Rome. His mainstay was idealised landscapes and port scenes. The delicacy with which he painted the effects of light maximised the poetic impact of his works. His works and those of some other artists such as Pierre Patel are displayed in room 20.


Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Pierre Patel (1652)

Patel’s landscape shows the impact Claude’s works had, and was painted shortly after the arrival in Paris of works by the latter. Here he creates a version of the Roman Campagna, which is a low-lying area surrounding Rome in the Lazio region of central Italy. He uses framing trees and elegiac ruins in this work. The Holy Family pause beside a derelict temple covered with picturesque bas-reliefs; behind them a vista opens between trees to a cerulean seascape.


The Enchanted Castle

Claude (1664)

This Claude-painting revolves around the story of Psyche, which tells how Cupid falls in love with Psyche but conceals his identity from her, visiting her only at night. Fearing he is an evil magician, she looks at him, although forbidden to do so, and Cupid then abandons her. The moment shown by Claude in this work may be before Psyche has encountered Cupid, when, following her salvation from danger by the West Wind, she was ‘qualifying the troubles and thoughts of her restless mind’. It may also be after she has been left by her two sisters who attempted to persuade Psyche to murder her beloved. This painting influenced John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

Frans Hal and the Mannerists

A couple of roughly contemporaneous strands of 17th-century Dutch painting: those of Northern Mannerism and the art of Frans Hals, are exhibited in room 24. Frans Hals spent his career in Haarlem. Hals’s vigorous brushwork allowed him to convincingly characterize and animate his sitters, and seemingly bring them to life, thereby establishing a legacy of a highly individual and expressive style of portraiture.

Mannerism encompasses a variety of approaches influenced by, and reacting to, the harmonious ideals associated with artists such as Da Vinci and Raphael. Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial qualities. Mannerism favours compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting. The Statue of David by Michelangelo is an example of a Mannerist sculpture. In the statue, David is not shown to be victorious over Goliath as in the depictions of David by Renaissance sculptors, but rather as a tense figure who has decided to battle Goliath but has not fought him yet.


The Judgement of Paris

Peter Paul Rubens (~1597-1599)

The painting is based on a famous story from Greek mythology, which was one of the events that led up to the Trojan War. It is recounted that Zeus held a banquet in celebration of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (parents of Achilles). However, Eris, goddess of discord was not invited, for she would have made the party unpleasant for those attending it. Angered by this, Eris arrived at the celebration with a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides, which she threw into the proceedings, which had the inscription kallistēi or “for the fairest one”.

Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They asked Zeus to judge which of them was fairest, and eventually he, reluctant to favour any claim himself, declared that Paris, a Trojan mortal (a prince), would judge their cases, for he had recently shown his exemplary fairness previously. While Paris inspected them, each attempted with her powers to bribe him; Hera offered to make him king of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war, and Aphrodite offered the world’s most beautiful woman: Helen of Sparta, wife of the Greek king Menelaus. Paris accepted Aphrodite’s gift and awarded the apple to her, receiving Helen as well as the enmity of the Greeks and especially of Hera. The Greeks’ expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris in Troy is the mythological basis of the Trojan War.

In this painting, Paris, seated with his back to the viewer, gives the prize of a golden apple to Venus/Aphrdoite, the central standing goddess, whom he judged to be the most beautiful of the three. To the left stands Juno/Hera who is angered by the choice, and to the right, turned away, Minerva/Athena, identifiable by the armour at her feet. Venus is accompanied by Cupid and crowned by a putto (a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child, usually nude and sometimes winged); another putto holds two doves. Paris is accompanied by Mercury at the left, and in the background two satyrs watch the contest. At the right a water god and a nymph recline on the ground.


Young Man with a Skull

Frans Hals (1626-1628)

This painting is not a portrait. The skull held by the boy is a reminder of the transience of life and the certainty of death. This powerful theme has been captured beautifully with oil on canvas by Frans Hals. Such a subject is known as a ‘Vanitas’ (Latin for vanity), and corresponds to the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.

The Rembrandt School of Art

Rembrandt was the most influential artist of the Dutch Golden Age. His works and those of those associated with the ‘Rembrandt School’ are displayed in room 23. Rembrandt’s distinctive painting style, his dramatic use of light and shadow (Chiaroscuro, dear readers) and his sensitivity to human emotion made his works famous. Individuals such as Aert de Gelder (his last pupil) and Aelbert Cuyp are considered as his followers.


A Franciscan Friar

Rembrandt (~1655)

Rembrandt painted a young man in a Franciscan ‘habit’, in the tradition of what are considered to be ‘tronies’ (literally, heads), which were artistic works which were not meant to depict any identifiable individual but rather to depict a particular role or a character study.


The Woman taken in Adultery (enlarged)

Rembrandt (1644)

Rembrandt portrays a Biblical story about the nature of God’s forgiveness for sinners. The Scribes and Pharisees, knowing that Jesus took pity on wrong-doers, tried to catch him condoning disobedience to the Law. They brought a woman to him who had been caught in the act of adultery and said, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?‘ Christ replied, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her‘. In Rembrandt’s interpretation, Christ’s stature is exaggerated to make him seem taller, and by analogy morally superior, than those trying to trick him. The painting shows Rembrandt’s gift as a colourist: the colours are generally muted but there are balancing touches of brightness, as in the dull gold of the throne and the altar.


The Maas at Dordrecht in a Storm

Aelbert Cuyp (~1645-1650)

On the right is Dordrecht (Netherlands), dominated by the profile of the Grote Kerk (Church of Our Lady in Dordrecht). The horizon is very low which gives greater prominence and space to the ship in the foreground as well as to the dramatic sky.

 Dutch Dilineation

The 17th century proved an exciting and prosperous time for Amsterdam, making it arguably the new world capital of that time. During the period 1660-1800, painting technique generally became more refined in the Netherlands. Artists had fully absorbed and developed what they had learned from Italian masters, and found new inspiration in the elegant styles emerging from France. Dutch painters flourished during that age and rooms 21 and 22 have the works of some of the renowned Dutch artists of that age.


Still Life with a Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls

Jan Jansz. Treck (1651)

The muted tones and sombre composition of this work play down the sumptuousness of the precious objects on display, indicating and highlighting the inclination of Jan Jansz towards vanitas as a theme for his works.


View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam

Jan van der Heyden (1660?)

Characteristic of van der Heyden, who specialised in town views, is the way the picture is painted in every minute detail for the view. The figures were added later, and interestingly, given the artist’s attention to detail, their shadows and reflections in the water are missing.


The Avenue at Middelharnis

Meindert Hobbema (1689)

The painting shows the village and church of Middelharnis in South Holland. Hobbema’s design with the avenue of trees receding towards the centre of the picture is simple and yet majestic. The trees are employed to mark the quick recession from foreground to background while the expanse of sky is emphasized by the upward-pointing trees. Unfortunately the paint of the sky was damaged by cleaning some time in the 19th century; the billowing cloud to the right is the best preserved section.


River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants

Aelbert Cuyp (~1658-1660)

This painting is one of the greatest 17th-century Dutch landscapes and the largest surviving, and arguably the most beautiful, landscape by Cuyp. The entire scene is bathed in a gentle sunlight, harmonizing all the elements in the painting. This design is focused more directly on the landscape than in earlier paintings by Cuyp on the same scale, and the figures and animals are more minutely painted. According to the painter Benjamin West, it was this picture, acquired by the Earl of Bute in the early 1760s, that began the rage for Cuyp among British collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries. His popularity came to rival that of Claude.

 Philippe de Champaigne’s and French Artists

Most of the paintings in room 18 were made in Paris around the middle of the 17th century. The political ambition to make of Paris a new Rome, resulted in more French-born painters making their careers in the city. This trend was encouraged by the founding in 1648 of a royal academy of the arts, and by many wealthy individuals refurbishing their homes. A distinctly French style emerged which rejected flamboyance and strong contrasts of light and shade, instead favoring restraint, even in lighting, elegance and clarity of composition.


Cardinal de Richelieu

Philippe de Champaigne (1633-1640)

Increasing French power and self-confidence are qualities evident in de Champaigne’s full-length portrait of Cardinal Richelieu, who governed France as chief minister from 1624 until his death in 1642. This portrait is one of several variants of a full-length composition showing the minister in cardinal’s robes and wearing the Order of the Saint-Esprit. For a prince of the Church to have himself portrayed standing like a secular prince was unique and new, and was presumably intended to underline Richelieu’s role as a statesman.


The Four Ages of Man

Valentin de Boulogne (~1629)

This picture was in the celebrated collection of the Dukes of Orléans during most of the 18th century. In this painting, Infancy (centre foreground) holds an empty bird trap, perhaps symbolising hope; Youth (left) plays a lute, probably symbolizing amorous desires; Manhood (right), in armour, wears a victor’s laurel wreath and holds a plan of fortifications; Age (centre background) is associated with a pile of coins, which are symbols of avarice. The glass he holds may be symbolic of the fragility of life.

Asemooni Viluna

This is a published short-story on war and strife.  

The dunes roll under the scorching noon sun. Soft eddies ease down into tresses, immaculately adorned by desert brush at the ends. Two miles to the north the village of Alemshahr sits in perfect solitude, popping out an odd citadel into the relaxed breeze every half a block or so. The pale buildings and the dusty leaves on palm trees watch the Desert Nymphs dance around in a million ways, at times quietened by the deafening rumble of a noisy tank. Over, way over the heads of the Bazaar folk, a burst of colour makes its way through the scanty cloud cover: a perfect round blob of blue, bobbing up and bobbing down, as if to the beat of the whistling winds that caress the Nymphs, all so softly; much like heads in rock concerts in modern Abu Bal-Shahr or like the forgotten trot of war-horses, clomping down the path along the caravanserais. The children in the Bazaar squeal with joy as the drab yellow of run-down Alemshahr is punctuated by cheerful azure!  Asemooni Viluna. Balloon from the heavens.


Postmaster Ali Bashar’s gape after “Roosi comrades come in Alemshahr, heavens stop pou…”, in his broken English, addressed to one of the visiting journalists from BBC, seems to be growing nearly to the size of the gorge in Tangi Gharu. Last time a similar balloon in orange descended on Alemshahr, a couple of weeks back, poor Ali Bashar was relaxing with his head dangling over the head-rest of a creaking chair, and he turned over as his round eyes took in the sight. The children run to where the balloon comes to its lowest and give it a soft nudge back into ether. The balloon is taken by a draft due east where women on roof-tops are drying their hair and spreading lentil-crisps for drying on straw mats. The balloon rolls briefly over the veil of a lady and sends her scurrying to retract it from the offensive tug of the winds. Bobbling, like in devilish fun, the balloon descends to a fountain-top in the town-square, and jumps up on the next squirt of pale ground-water, a little deflated from the sudden burst of vitality but still diabolically in cheer. They all know where the little punk is headed. Rather they all know where it should be headed, and yet the aged gentiles in the Majlis-verandah whisper at each other, as if in mock-amusement.

Broken by the ribs and bleeding at the mouth, the body of Kishkari comes into town, in a rage of wind and dust. They saw the typhoon building up the previous night near the watering hole at Jalia Halvas, right out of the calm. Two days later the first tanks of the Russians had rolled down the large dune hiding the hole behind. Kishkari, like a rag doll cruelly dismantled in a fit of rage, got stuck on by a hook at the top of the village inn. At first Ali Bashar, on his round of ablutions, thought it was one of inn-keeper’s loathsome son-in-laws, pelting their water-balloons at a bypassing trader or dervish. It was only when the body slumped, as if in meditation, and stayed there long enough for eternity to have passed, that Bashar sounded the town-elders. 

The balloon does a lopsided jig on the tip of the Madrassa’s spire, before being caught by the wind and sent into the northern end of the town. Two of the vendors gently nudge the balloon along, as it gathers speed. The winds, at times sure of their direction, at times confused, rustle through the dry leaves in the erstwhile Emir Mansion’s rooftop, as the balloon goes into a tizzy above the flutter of restless pigeons, which presently take flight.

The soft fall of the arid soil on Kishkari’s lifeless body rang through the halls of the elders, even as his little daughter slept in peace on the other side of town. Kishkari’s wife, the girl’s mother, had died in childbirth, and Kishkari, the gentle shepherd who guarded Alemshahr’s gates and gossip, was all she had to call her own. And yet the elders kept a deafening silence when the girl ran up to them, her eyes large and curious, and asked them how long Kishkari would take to herd the sheep back to their pen. They said Kishkari had gone to find the Bahamut, the Great Fish that supports our earth, and that had forsaken these lands under the first moon of the month.

The balloon briefly rests on one of the poles Karim Balsama’s statue was recently stabbed with, from which the flag of a local militia leader hangs. All manner of posters and bills and peeling paint hang from the hands, the firm chest, the torso and the flaring nose of Balsama, who stood up for Alemshehr when the lances of the Great Kings fell to the Huns. The balloon almost goes bazoooom on the sharp edge of the Magistrate’s boundary fence, before softly being nudged by the champion athlete of the town, Qadir, who runs up the boundary wall in a jiffy.

Kishkari’s brother calls on the village council even as Qadir and Ali Bashar take Kishkari’s girl for a walk down to the watering hole.

“Praise be to Allah, for he has given us a reason to live and fight. He calls on us to rise and wage war against the cruel designs of the Shaytan, and he takes our brother Kishkari into his arms. Kishkari lives. A martyr lives.”

“Who may this rumbling giant, this fire-spewing Shaytan be, brother Junaid?”

“I know not but I heard a charlatan with an Oud in town a few days back saying that he runs on land and slithers through the waters; he can kill the best of men from seirs away.”

“We shall fight till our last man stands!”

“We shall fight till Kishkari’s name whistles through the sands in half-forgotten memories.”

“We fight for a new day!”

A call of arms to the Mujahids, brothers in arm, like never seen in the sleepy town of Alemshehr since Balsama’s days, rang through the corridors of the erstwhile Emir’s mansion.

The balloon almost reaches the earthy arena of the village wrestling pit, even as the old master jumps and puts it away, much like a last minute dive to catch roosters in the village fair: this one to keep up soft whispers of time and not to put down Duyuuk in the town square. Slowly the balloon turns the corner near Fahd’s cycle-repair shop, precariously dangling over a skinned chicken, humming what sounds like a prayer to the winds, before swooshing into the alley where Kishkari’s girl is playing. Hopping twice, landing on some soft mulch to the groan and roll of eyes of her girlfriends, her eyes come upon the blob of azure.


Her cracked lips slowly ascend into a perfect crescent, her eyes turns moist and her gaze soft as the dusty alley turns into a singularity of blue for her. She jumps gently and catches the balloon. The Great Fish, the Bahamut, winks back at her in the afternoon sun, as the words ‘il-kafan maluuš giyuub’ stare back at her. The shroud has no pockets. She understands and smiles, sobs gently, wipes her eyes on the kaftaan Kishkari made her one fine morning, just like this, a decade or so back, takes the balloon to her father’s room and places it near his bedpost, near the two other balloons that sway in the gentle breeze coming in through the open windows. She quietly listens for the soft promises that her father whispered to her before she slept on stormy nights. She listens for the gurgles of laughter her mother made just before she died, seeing her baby-girl, right in this very room. They live. They live there. She knows. The Bahamut may keep her father away for a century but he can’t take his soul, his promises, his soft smile, his gentle caresses on her temple, away from her, in his kaftaan pockets into the far-lands.  Those are for her to keep and sleep with.

You can read this work in the online or ebook format on Booksie as well.  


Cosmic Religious Feeling and Einstein’s Views on Religion

The following article by Albert Einstein appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 9, 1930 pp 1-4. I like this article because it coherently presents Einstein’s views on religion, and how religion and science can complement each other through the concept of a ‘cosmic religious feeling’.

A beautiful read.

Everything that the human race has done and thought is concerned with the satisfaction of deeply felt needs and the assuagement of pain. One has to keep this constantly in mind if one wishes to understand spiritual movements and their development. Feeling and longing are the motive force behind all human endeavor and human creation, in however exalted a guise the latter may present themselves to us. Now what are the feelings and needs that have led men to religious thought and belief in the widest sense of the words? A little consideration will suffice to show us that the most varying emotions preside over the birth of religious thought and experience. With primitive man it is above all fear that evokes religious notions – fear of hunger, wild beasts, sickness, death. Since at this stage of existence understanding of causal connections is usually poorly developed, the human mind creates illusory beings more or less analogous to itself on whose wills and actions these fearful happenings depend. Thus one tries to secure the favor of these beings by carrying out actions and offering sacrifices which, according to the tradition handed down from generation to generation, propitiate them or make them well disposed toward a mortal. In this sense I am speaking of a religion of fear. This, though not created, is in an important degree stabilized by the formation of a special priestly caste which sets itself up as a mediator between the people and the beings they fear, and erects a hegemony on this basis. In many cases a leader or ruler or a privileged class whose position rests on other factors combines priestly functions with its secular authority in order to make the latter more secure; or the political rulers and the priestly caste make common cause in their own interests.

The social impulses are another source of the crystallization of religion. Fathers and mothers and the leaders of larger human communities are mortal and fallible. The desire for guidance, love, and support prompts men to form the social or moral conception of God. This is the God of Providence, who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes; the God who, according to the limits of the believer’s outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even or life itself; the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing; he who preserves the souls of the dead. This is the social or moral conception of God.

The Jewish scriptures admirably illustrate the development from the religion of fear to moral religion, a development continued in the New Testament. The religions of all civilized peoples, especially the peoples of the Orient, are primarily moral religions. The development from a religion of fear to moral religion is a great step in peoples’ lives. And yet, that primitive religions are based entirely on fear and the religions of civilized peoples purely on morality is a prejudice against which we must be on our guard. The truth is that all religions are a varying blend of both types, with this differentiation: that on the higher levels of social life the religion of morality predominates.

Common to all these types is the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God. In general, only individuals of exceptional endowments, and exceptionally high-minded communities, rise to any considerable extent above this level. But there is a third stage of religious experience which belongs to all of them, even though it is rarely found in a pure form: I shall call it cosmic religious feeling. It is very difficult to elucidate this feeling to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it.

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this.

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.

How can cosmic religious feeling be communicated from one person to another, if it can give rise to no definite notion of a God and no theology? In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it.

We thus arrive at a conception of the relation of science to religion very different from the usual one. When one views the matter historically, one is inclined to look upon science and religion as irreconcilable antagonists, and for a very obvious reason. The man who is thoroughly convinced of the universal operation of the law of causation cannot for a moment entertain the idea of a being who interferes in the course of events – provided, of course, that he takes the hypothesis of causality really seriously. He has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion. A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death.

It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.On the other hand, I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research. Only those who realize the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of the emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue. What a deep conviction of the rationality of the universe and what a yearning to understand, were it but a feeble reflection of the mind revealed in this world, Kepler and Newton must have had to enable them to spend years of solitary labor in disentangling the principles of celestial mechanics! Those whose acquaintance with scientific research is derived chiefly from its practical results easily develop a completely false notion of the mentality of the men who, surrounded by a skeptical world, have shown the way to kindred spirits scattered wide through the world and through the centuries. Only one who has devoted his life to similar ends can have a vivid realization of what has inspired these men and given them the strength to remain true to their purpose in spite of countless failures. It is cosmic religious feeling that gives a man such strength. A contemporary has said, not unjustly, that in this materialistic age of ours the serious scientific workers are the only profoundly religious people.

Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA)


1. Is The Government Giving It’s Final ‘LOL’ Salaam? Click Here

2. Era of the Pseudo: Politicking Faith. Click Here

3. Churnalism+ and the Desi Clique. Click Here

4. AAP (Aam Admi Party) Ki Kahani. Click Here.

5. Of Balkan Woes and Vote-Banks: The Great Telangana Debate. Click Here.

6. Messing it up for Hobbes: On the Mighty Feline in Sariska. Click Here.

7. That ‘Bhatkal’ Breather, this ‘Tunda’ Trial: On India and Terror. Click Here.

8.  Populism vs Political Pragmatism in AAP ki Delhi. Click Here.




The Indian Economist

1. Hollow Hooahs of the Indian Sentinels? Click Here.

2. Political Rapid Chess. Click Here.

3. National Science Fest, 2014. Click Here.

4. The Power of Symmetry. Click Here.



Elan, the newsletter of Finesse, the Knowledge Cell, by clicking here: Elan or reading the revised version elan.





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