Art – Nativity by Luini

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“Nativity” — a fresco by Bernardino Luini (Italy, 1485-1532), made around 1520-25.

In my eyes, this Nativity representation is most special because of the serenity that emanates from it and the gentleness in the gestures of all the ones present.

Being a fresco, the colours appear to us after so many years subdued, giving the scene a most serene and warm feeling. The use of the full spectrum of colours from warm to cold hues is remarkable in that there is no clash and everything remains soothing to the eyes.

And of course, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is undeniable. Da Vinci was a contemporary and a friend of Luini, and his influence can be seen through the softness of the facial expressions and the delicate touches of light. Actually both painters used similar technics, and until recently some paintings by Luini had been attributed to Da Vinci.

This fresco was originally in a private chapel in Milan. It is now at the Louvre, Paris. The photo was taken by me and the colours are exactly as you see them.

Gare de Lyon

Gare de Lyon, Paris (Français, English)

Sous le regard automatique de la grande horloge,
les gens se retrouvent et se séparent.
Elle qui a tant vu, ne sais plus lire les visages.
Pourtant, je l’ai vu hésiter une fraction de seconde
lorsque j’ai serré mon fils dans mes bras.

Under the automatique gaze of the big clock,
people meet and part.
The clock has seen so much, it can no longer read faces.
And yet, I saw it hesitate for a fraction of a second
when I held my son in my arms.

Kenza.

Contemplative silence

For the ones who have been following this blog, you may have noted that many writings are on silence.

Reading expressions of silence 

Recently, I have been looking a little bit more into it, beyond the usual poetry and expressions of silence.

I read from the Desert Fathers, those wise early Christians who spent time in utter silence and contemplation. I looked into Zen poetry, and the silence that comes gently once the temple bells quiet. I even delved into the notion of the 40 holy days with Moses on Mount Sinai, and Jesus fasting in the desert; and through them at St Francis, Sta Teresa de Avilla and St John of the Cross –not that I aspire to be a saint, mind you, but just as celebrated events and writing about contemplative silence. I read the Sufis, especially Rumi and Ibn Arabi; and I looked at what contemporary thinkers and poets had to say from Emily Dickinson to Rabindranath Tagore to Antonio Machado to Thomas Merton to Czeslaw Milosz.

And as usual, I turned my attention to the Tao Te Ching, a book I read every morning and where I still discover, after many decades, wisdom and intellectual sustenance. This of course, led me to the late third century BC Chinese Taoist philosopher par excellence, Chuang Tzu. And here, I finally found what resonated best with my line of thought or at least what felt in harmony with my instinctive notion of contemplative silence.

Chuang Tzu

In a few words, not to bore you, Chuang Tzu advocates silence as a natural condition. He places it along with all human behaviour within the notion of “wu wei” (無為) or non-action.

“Wu wei” is not idleness. Rather, it means that there is no deliberate planning and one acts spontaneously without rigid rules or restrictions; and because one acts naturally, it is “perfect action,” that is “perfect joy.”

Being in contemplation is not a goal and does not entail a rigid system of rules (kneel, stay alone, etc…); rather, true contemplation is the tranquillity that comes in the action of non-action (known in Chinese as “yin ning”). So one transcends contemplation and action because one is beyond them, all being spontaneous.

To explain further, allow me to paraphrase an example given by Chuang Tzu himself. He says it is a little like wearing tight shoes to impose discipline (a Confucian notion). The shoes are tight so you think about them all the time. As a result, you are forced to walk straight or be generous or whatever these tight shoes are suppose to make you do. Now, if you wear comfortable shoes, you actually do not “feel” the shoes and whatever action you will take will be with joy.

To get back to the topic of these lines, silence should not be forced. If so, then it is not silence. If there is a plan for remaining silent, then silence will not be. It would be like having tight shoes and constantly thinking about them.

There would never be contemplative silence since it will become the constant topic of thought, analysis and internal discourse. These thoughts and discourses will lead to having opinions, to evaluations of good and bad, and right and wrong, and all will become entangled and inharmonious, hence, unnatural.

So silence, and more precisely contemplative silence, should be spontaneous and lively. It should not be dictated by rigid norms nor by some attachment to the fact that one wants to remain silent.

Contemplative silence transcends the very act of “not talking.” It is spontaneous and hence joyful.

As Chuang Tzu said:

“The sage is quiet because he is not moved,
not because he wills to be quiet.”

Retreat

I hope you do not mind me sharing these thoughts. Next week, I shall be in a one-week silent (talking only when absolutely necessary) retreat at a Cistercian Monastery near Avignon, France; and in the midst of anxiousness and trepidation, I needed to understand more about contemplative silence.

I am afraid however that I have fallen into what Chuang Tzu warns us not to do –intellectualise. Notwithstanding, I am glad that my instinctive take on contemplative silence echoes in a very humble way the dust left by his words.

I shall share some more upon my return if you are interested.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.


Quote: “The Way of Chuang Tzu” by Thomas Merton (New Direction, 1965), xiii-I, page 80.

Lady with a fan

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She stood with a fan in her hand, her gaze reaching far beyond the fence.

She filled the museum room with grace and poise – a silent contrast to the visitors, all smart phone at hand rushing by, their short attention span turning stillness into boredom.

I was absorbed by her grace. I never asked myself any questions about what she may have been thinking. There was no need.

I stood there, wishing for her serenity to touch me. And as the visitors withered away, it did. I hope it touches you as well.

Kenza.

A photo I took of “Lady with a fan” by Fei Danxu (China, 1801-1850), ink on paper, hanging scroll, Qing Dynasty – on display at the Shanghai Museum. 

Calligraphy alley – Xi’an

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During my week in Xi’an, I went back several times to calligraphy alley.

It is actually a main alley with a few small side streets, ending in the Stele Forrest Beilin Museum, housing some of the earliest examples of Chinese writing.

But it is the alley with its stores filled with brushes of all sizes, kilometers of rice paper rolled up or folded, the smell of ink and the seriousness of the buyers that attracted me most. I was one of them, checking each bush for its softness and feel between my fingers. I unrolled paper and opened exercise notebooks, taking all my time while choosing a few items.

I returned to the same store a few times, making friends with the owner, love for calligraphy being our common language. She spoke no English, and I speak no Chinese. My nine year old son was equally fascinated, and the lady kindly let him try out several brushes before he settled for one.

As I walked, I could only imagine what it must have been a thousand years ago, as Xi’an was the start of the silk road and an important center of learning. A town more than 6’500 years old, it became the political and cultural center of China in the XIth c. BC and continued to be so for almost 900 years, of which 300 where under the highly sophisticated Tang Dynasty.

I imagined old Tao masters and Confucian students walking down the street looking for the perfect brush, smelling ink stones and appreciating their blackness, while exchanging arguments on whether wisdom is acquired through living or learning.

Having been an important Buddhist center as well, I also pictured monks in loose robes and small umbrellas, gently feeling the thin rice paper, and choosing the best one to copy the Sutras Xuan Zang had brought from his odyssey across India in the VIIth c., now housed in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an.

I felt most humble when I was there. This was not the site of some major battle or conquest, as so many historical places tend to be, but one of knowledge and beauty. I think anyone would have felt the same.

Thank you for reading.

Kenza.

Photos I took in Xi’an and at the Stele Forest Beilin Museum – June 2018.