Tuesday 24 January 2017

Gouda's glass

St John's Church (St Janskerk), Gouda is the only ecclesiastical building in the Netherlands to have truly weathered the onslaught of the Reformation - and, indeed, to have continued to build on the extant symphony in glass after the church was assigned to the Protestants in 1573. It's also one of the few churches of cathedral-like proportions in the country (the longest at 123 metres) to present so harmonious a whole; consecrated in 1510 after the destruction of its predecessor by fire in 1438, it had to be rebuilt again following another fire in 1552, preserving its structure but giving a finer spatial effect with the removal of every second pillar.

Some 57 windows, many of vast size, make up the drama, with an additional seven Passion windows placed in the Van der Vorm chapel coming from the Monastery of the Regulars in Gouda. These are the most rewarding to see at close quarters; I'll hold off from overburdening this entry with them since they'll come in useful around Easter time. Let me just slip in a taster of one of the four faithful dogs accompanying the donors in the lower portions of these windows.

Earlier, Catholic donors featured in the bigger glass dramas include Philip II of Spain and Mary Tudor featured in the bottom left here looking on at the Last Supper.

This, like many of the finest scenes, is painted by the supreme master Dirck Crabeth (c.1505-1574). His work essentially began with the central east window of the church's Saint baptizing Christ (pictured up top; more of the windows around the choir to come).

Perhaps his most obviously impressive work is the saga of Judith and her beheading of Holofernes, made in 1571 after his own design; the window was donated by Jean de Ligne, Count of Aremberg, and his wife Margaretha van der Marck..

Dirck's younger brother Wouter 'illustrated' the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon a decade earlier, in 1561.

So to the series of eleven scenes from the life of John the Baptist interwoven with the birth and growing-up of Jesus. They mark the progress of the ambulatory from north-east to south-east, with Christ as Redeemer and figures of the Apostles in the upper lights made by Crabeth's studio.

Odd one out, style-wise, of the lower glories is this Annunciation, a late (1656) replacement for the original of 1559 which was blown out. Instead of the usual donors in the bottom third are the arms of Holland and Gouda. Got to love the clouds, though.

Wouter Crabbeth's work on the Adoration of the Shepherds has some nice touches, like Joseph in red holding a coal-pan.

and in the second plane (difficult to see at this size) women tend to the child near a fire.

Here's 12-year-old Jesus in the temple by Digman Meynaert and Hans Scrivers, Antwerp glaziers. In the lower part, donor Abbot Petrus van Suyren kneels before the Madonna and Child.

For some reason I don't seem to have caught the windows flanking the central glory which make up the great triptych, other than the splendid representation, below 'John the Baptists Preaching', of donor Robert van Bergen, with St Benedict behind him, kneeling before Christ in glory surrounded by symbols of the Evangelists.

 But here at least is the full baptism scene with Georg van Egmond, its donor, kneeling below

and a detail of Christ in the river Jordan with John the Baptist's outstretched right hand above him and the dove from the light-ray above that.

Next window along going south-east, also by Dirck Crabeth, is 'Jesus's First Preaching', with the donor Cornelis van Mierop and his patron saint St Vincent complete with millstone, shards and fire.

'John the Baptist reproves Herod' is by an unknown Antwerp master, dating from 1556, the same year as the Dirck Crabeth triptych,

with equally piquant details like the bear on a chain beneath Herod's right foot.

Many of the later, post-Reformation, windows tend to be secular in theme, starting with the Capture of Damietta presented by the city of Haarlem, whose soldiery are supposed to have distinguished themselves in this Crusade campaign.

The depiction of the Maid of Dordrecht resorts to classical motifs for the lady herself under a little temple (though with a Dutch fence below) bearing the arms of the town in her right hand and a palm branch in her left

while I rather like the angels holding up the cartouche

and, closing in further still, the bunches of grapes and other fruits at the bottom.

Further donations from Delft and Leyden inevitably include familiar Dutch features.

The glass does rather divert one from the other glories of St Janskirk - not least (though you take it in from various angles) the avowedly very fine 1736 organ by Jacob Francois Moreau.

We didn't really leave ourselves enough time for full exploration of modest Gouda, but at least we sampled the delights of the Cafe Central, which stretched back much further than its modest facade suggests and had a wooden Virgin on the bar to hold still in the midst of all the bustle,

admired the tapered Gothic elegance of the Stadthuis in the middle of the marketplace


and observed the relief of cheese-weighing on the 17th century Goudse Waag from the other side of the skating rink.

Then it was briskly to the station to take a train to sophisticated Utrecht, where we were to meet up with J's godson Frankie and a friend of his. More on that in another chronicle.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Uplift on nightmare's eve

It was more or less coincidence that we happened to watch two similarly-themed films from 2015 on our return from the Netherlands. Unquestionably the better is Pride, distinguished director Matthew Warchus's take on the unlikely coming-together of gays and miners in the 1980s when queer- and union-bashing were rife. Stonewall, on the other hand - and it can be dismissed very quickly - is a fairly crass take on the uprising on Christopher Street that changed gay rights for ever.

The problem with Stonewall is that the cute white boy is the hero, and there seems to be some sort of condescending attitude to 'sad' trannies and drag queens. Never mind; better that it get some sort of mainstream exposure than none at all.

My point here is about connecting in the face of the most frightening political appointment - at least in terms of consequences for the world at large since the 1930s (or the 1990s, if you include Putin, as I think we must - but for Putin to carry out his plans of sowing discord in the west, he needs powerful accomplices). Whatever your reservations about the re-telling of Pride - and a well-known director with whom I shared a coffee the other day says he remembers visiting the Brixton Fairies' hangout, and that they were much less cuddly and rather more damaged as individuals than their screen embodiments - you can't deny it happened. The miners really did turn out in force to join the Gay Pride march of 1985, and their union really was instrumental in pushing for gay rights in Parliament. This article with a number of interviews is excellent on what really happened.

The fact that the miners failed in their quest, and that maybe things fell apart afterwards, doesn't signify. What's important is that people from completely different walks of life got to know and, to a certain extent, to understand each other. Empathy, compassion: for me, that's the point of life. Advance or retreat into apparent comfort which is really a state of fear.

Interesting, incidentally, if not exactly troubling, that the participating stars, Imelda Staunton (first-rate as ever, utterly believable) and Bill Nighy (actually playing someone else, and amazing me), get centre billing, as it were, in the UK poster.

while the folk really at the centre of it all appeared on posters in Germany, Turkey and elsewhere (where possibly Staunton and Nighy weren't exactly household names anyway)*.

Anyway, as the sun leaves the Oval Office and pitch-black moves in, I want to post the two shorter films which are worth replaying, as much in terms of a fridge-note to self as so that others can see them. Saturday Night Live's script-writers hit new heights in this parody of the infamous press conference

while Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick and Cloris Leachman kicked off what I hope will be the first of many re-writes of The Producers. Expect 'Springtime for Putin' soon.

As we're at the bottom of the piece, here's an appropriate cartoon from the genius that is Steve Bell.

*update: my Arts Desk pal Graham Rickson writes:  'just read your blog, which reminds me hearing about this, and how "London-based" replaced "gay and lesbian" in front of the word "activists" on the DVD sleeve'.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Carlos Kleiber's golden rose

After comparison in the Opera in Depth class yesterday between fast Rosenkavalier Preludes (Strauss in 1926), too slow for the parodied sexual agitation the composer asks for in the score (Karajan in 1982) and censored (Kempe taking the Prelude as opener to a 'waltz sequence' and shedding the horn-whooping orgasm), plus multiple illustrations of all the little gems in the first scene, we settled down to watch the first 20 minutes of Carlos Kleiber's 1979 Munich performance. Brilliance from the off (CK's entrance is about 1'40 in).

You can watch all of this if you like (no subtitles, unfortunately, though Fassbaender's plausibility and Jones's beauty should carry it), but I've put it up just for the sake of the first couple of minutes to recommend that you witness the most flexible conducting of all time - as far as I know - in action. Abbado followed in the master's footsteps for unfathomable suppleness, and daddy Erich's recording is still a stunner, but this Prelude - and indeed the lively pacing of the whole - is pure gold. I'm also getting hold of the Vienna performance on DVD since that great lady Felicity Lott is coming to talk Strauss with us on the 30th, so we need to see how she and Anne Sofie von Otter work together with great Carlos at the end of Act 1. Her capacity to move is a given; I always melted at that point every time I saw her in the role at the Royal Opera. Meanwhile, more quickening of the pulses with CK should be the order of the week between work. And here's a gem of exquisite agony which shows him taking a car-crash from the stage lightly as the Baron Ochs and male semi-chorus f*** it up towards the end of Act 2.

We'll be lucky in choosing only the best. This Straussian joy for the next six classes at least is such a bolster against the unfolding horrors of our age. As for my free offer of a scenario for a sequel to Shostakovich/Gogol's The Nose, the image of Nigel back from his time in Trump Towers' golden-showers lift and hauled off at Heathrow with a mysterious immovable brown stain on his conk could now equally well apply to Gove. Not that one should really be giving these pygmies headspace.

In the meantime, if only Las Vegas socialite Sari Bunchuk Wontner were still alive to give her immortal Violetta at Trump's inauguration concert. Filth for filth.

Friday 13 January 2017

One fine day in Buren and Den Bosch

It was the only fine day of our happy time based with friends in Amsterdam, with the possible exception of the finale, a mix of dazzling blue skies, heavy showers and the occasional rainbow. Grey and bitter cold didn't stop us excurting elsewhere, to Delft, Gouda and Utrecht, and each place had its special qualities. But the bright-light memories will be of Nick and Max driving us to an exquisite place in the country and strolling around it with us at leisure before depositing us at a train station so we could go on to 's-Hertogenbosch, lively capital of North Brabant (pronounced 'Bos', which was news to me since I'd always sounded the 'sch' for the town's eponymous artist. 'Bosch' means 'woods', as in 'bosky', and 'Hertog' is close to 'Herzog', Duke. Henry I established a hunting lodge here in the 13th century).

My very patchy Rough Guide doesn't even mention Buren, which is good in a way since in busier times it would keep fellow tourists away. The Italians have discovered it, though, and they always have good taste over what's worth seeing, spoilt as they are with 20 per cent of the world's cultural heritage (don't ask me how that figure was arrived at). By the same token Brits don't tend to visit Bamberg, Germany's most stunning city/town (that I've seen, at any rate), while it's a major stopping-point for Italians.

I can track little down about this heavenly place, the epitome of Dutch civic life frozen in time, following the usual boundaries of rivers or streams and in this case a superb set of walls/ramparts which you can walk around in half an hour, and with the church bang in the centre. The two added tower storeys give a clue as to the distinction accorded this tiny place: the lower brick storey was added to the late Gothic building in 1540 by Alessandro Pasqualini, while its Renaissance look is surmounted by a Classical crown (1661-2, from designs by Pieter Post).

In short, royal status was accorded the town by William of Orange - more on him in the Delft instalment to come -when he married Anna of Egmont, Countess of Buren.

Their daughter, Marie von Nassau, bequeathed the town its grandest building, an orphanage if you can believe it, founded in 1613. It's now a by all accounts rather fine Museum of the Military Police. not that I think I would have been tempted, inviting though the gateway unquestionably is.

The question was in any case academic because on 2 January nearly everything was closed, the church included, and only the stray small group of visitors was to be seen around town or circumventing it.

This is the beautiful stretch beyond the splendid windmill, appropriately known as William of Orange and also of some antiquity (1716).

This area is the orchard of the Netherlands as Kent is the garden of England; Nick and Max's friend the wonderful artist Peter Keizer has spent a lot of time around here studying the fruit blossoms which he translates into thickly applied oil paintings. Obviously this photo is the one that's not mine.

But there's something remarkable, too, about seeing the bare outlines of trees near and far, especially poplars planted in straight lines.

I'd loved to have strolled down into the lanes that radiate outwards from the town, but there was only time to look longingly across at the market gardens

as well as towards the town from the south-east,

down to the gate through which we'd entered and exited several times already

and along to the wooden houses and barns leading out to the north west

before we gathered to get warm in a craft shop, one of the two establishments that seemed to be open, for excellent coffee and the best apple pie I've ever tasted. Li'l Johnny was alert to the smells but he's not a greedy dog so he sat patiently and stared longingly.

Train connections were swift: we just turned up at a nearby station and were in Den Bosch half an hour later. Like other city stations which were our starting points, this one meant a short walk down to the river or canal with the walled city beyond, but unlike the others it has a splendid monument of 1901 symbolising the city's reputation as "The Dragon of the Marshes", unconquered for centuries.

Not sure what they call the form of grandiose late Victorian architecture on this side of the River Dieze, as well as around the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, but I have a sneaking fondness for it. Little of that once over the river and heading towards the cathedral,

but there are fine and various facades along the Hinthamerstraat - this chemist's,

a former cinema

and the awning of the most tempting patisserie, paying homage of course to the city's most famous son. Wish I'd come to the big 500th anniversary exhibition here last year.

No time to loiter for any refreshment since we wanted to catch the interior of St John's (Jan's) Cathedral with the late afternoon light on it. This is one of the glories of northern Gothic built over a very long period of time (1380-1540) which shows in the difference between the west tower and the rest.

Inside, the impression is somewhat diminished by the Victorian overlay and the gaudy glass which disfigures so many Dutch religious buildings either rebuilt after fires or smashed up in anti-Catholic frenzies. The Protestants didn't use it much after 1629, when it fell into near-dereliction until Napoleon restored it to the Catholics in 1810. It now has a status as a Dutch Kanjermonument (literally 'whopper-monument') which qualifies it for government support. Despite the overlay, the grandeur within remains impressive both looking east

and back to the huge 17th century organ case.

Sunlight was still dappling reflections of the glass onto the pillars

and the central tower, replacement for a much grander version which collapsed in a fire in 1584, is filled with light

which made the all-seeing eye the more impressive.

Catholic sway places great emphasis on the 13th century Madonna and Child in the Lady Chapel (unusually by the west entrance) known as Zoete Liewe Vrouw ('Sweet Dear Lady').

On 2 January, with the streets outside thronged with shoppers, it was a popular destination for families bringing the children to light candles.

St Jan's must also have boasted the most impressive nativity walkabout around the east-end ambulatory, taxidermal heaven or hell with beasts from all continents

leading towards the crib scene at the end.

The only one I've seen to cap this is the hilarious one in Ienne, Italy, a hill town with dressed-up mannequins posted at many street corners and a manger with real sheep. Here a stuffed cat has to suffice.

I could have spent hours looking at the detail on the exterior, especially around the monumental south door

but hunger gnawed and at sunset, having traipsed a bit around the fair in the square before the cathedral

we headed into the excellent Heart of Brabant right by the cathedral for a fine set lunch of onion soup, two choice sandwiches and a prawn croquette.

Late arrival meant that we missed the opening times of the Zwannenbroederhuis, home to the 'Swan Brotherhood' guild to which Bosch had belonged; it houses, I gather, a fine collection of old instruments and manuscripts.

Den Bosch after dark over the Christmas period is, like many other Dutch towns, a festival of light

with plenty of cosy interiors. Going down the Verwersstraat/Oude Dieze past the splendid 18th century building which was once the seat of the provincial commissioner and now houses the Noordbrabants Museum,

and a modern building opposite with a Bosch mural

there were posh speciality shops going down the Verwersstraat/Oude Dieze, including one specialising in, of all things, leather floors (but its ceiling was more interesting)

as well as several antique shops and/or galleries with manger scenes either old-fashioned

or specially displayed.

It was too dark by now to look out over the nature reserve from the southern bastion, so we wended our way back via the lively triangular market-place with its statue of Bosch, the 16th century town hall behind

and stalls presumably left over from the 500th exhibition promising grotesque earthly delights.

Ours would have been to buy the local extravagance, the Bossche Bol of chocolate and whipped cream, but the main stall beneath De Moriaan, the oldest brick hall (beginning of the 13th century) in the Netherlands, had run out.

All was not lost; the fine baker's near the station packed us up a box of five to take back to our hosts on Amsterdam's Sarphatipark and we headed back for another cosy (gezellig) evening.