Monday, 30 November 2015

Illuminations, Mary Sharratt

The young Hildegard is only eight years old when her mother promises her to a monastery. She will become the handmaiden of Jutta von Sponheim, who will be a hermit in a Benedictine monastery, forever living behind a brick wall.

The little girl has no idea what she is getting into, and these years are a torment to her. Jutta is mostly busy with praying and is declared a saint while she is still alive. Her fasts and penances get more and more extreme. The only comfort Hildegard has are the books brother Volmar gives to her.

More and more oblates (children promised to a monastery or convent) join the women and their fame spreads. When Jutta dies, Hildegard is chosen to be the next magistra.  

Hildegard sees visions, but the question is if these are from God or the devil. Only when both the pope and Bernardus of Clairvaux declare her visions to be from God, she is free to write them down. This also gives her the support to leave the monastery with her sisters and form their own convent.

Hildgard von Bingen (1098-1179) was an extraordinary woman. She wrote books about medicinal herbs and stones, composed music, was the abbess of a convent and had visions that were also written down. In 2012 she was declared a saint and a Doctor of the Church.

The problem with a historical figure like this is that we have so little to go on. The only sources we have are stories about a saint. And although these may be interesting or beautiful to read, they are not necessarily historically correct. That is not their purpose, the purpose of a hagiography is to tell us how wonderful and saintly the saint was.

We know about Hildegard from the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis (The life of the holy Hildegard) and this is the source for Mary Sharratt’s novel Illuminations.
In this Vita Hildegard is very clear about her childhood and she speaks strongly against the practice of young children as oblates.  

Is this the truth? We do not know for sure. In 1991 another Vita came to light, the Vita of Jutta von Sponheim and this story suggests Hildegards childhood was a little bit different than she told herself.

This however, does not matter for Illuminations. This is a beautiful story and the parts we do not know for sure are filled in a very believable manner. That Mary Sharratt uses some liberations here is no problem. A novelist can do that, as long as she stays true to her protagonist and the time the story is set. And in both cases Mary Sharratt does a wonderful job.

The time of the 12th century is written beautifully and both psychology and the balance in the characters is correct. I always like it when people are not black and white and none of the characters in this novel is, so none of them become caricatures.

Illiminations is a very beautiful historical novel that does justice to the extraordinary person of Hildegard von Bingen.

Published in 2012

Friday, 27 November 2015

Exhibition: Emperor Constantin in Amsterdam

In 313 emperor Constantin of Rome had a vision. If he would use the Christian sign in the battle the next day, he would win. Constantin had the Christian sign painted on the shields of his soldiers and indeed, he won the battle. 

This was an important moment in the history of Christianity.

From the beginning Christianity had been a small group within the Roman Empire and they had a lot of competition from all the other religions in the Empire. And the Christians were prosecuted by many emperors.

In those first centuries it never looked like Christianity would once become the dominant religion in the empire.

Only this changed when Constantin had his dream. Constantin (who was only baptized himself when he was at his deathbed) stopped the prosecutions and actively helped the Christians. New churches were built and Christianity slowly gained a leading role.

Where you see elements of the different religions mixed together, this slowly changed until only the Christian elements remained. Within a couple of decades Rome had changed into the centre of the Christian world and it would influence the world for all centuries to come. 

In Amsterdam there is an exhibition in the Nieuwe Kerk (new church) about these changes in Rome during the 4th century. The exhibition is set up very well and takes you from a multicultural city through the prosecutions to the triumph of Christianity.

It is very impressive, also because of all the special object that can be seen and are on loan from the Vatican or the Capitolinian Museums.

You can see for example the giant head and hand that once belonged to one of the statues of Constantin, but there are also a statue of Mithras, a statue of the good Shepard, and early depictions of Jesus from the sarcophaguses of the early Christians.

A very special exhibition. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Autumn in Paris

Paris is always beautiful in each season, I think. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days there in October. I was also lucky because the weather was still very good; it was dry and warm enough to sit outside on a parkbench in one of the many grand and small parks Paris has. And I could already enjoy the beautiful colours of autumn.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Downton Abbey, season 6 so far...

Yes, on Dutch television they are showing the last season of Downton Abbey. I am very happy about it and I have enjoyed every episode so far. And the good news, we have only had three episodes, so I still have a lot to look forward to.

Be careful, there may be some spoilers in this post!

Storylines I do not like so much
- The storyline about the hospital, this is silly and quite ininteresting as far as I am concerned.

- Denker, the Dowager's lady's maid, she is awful and completely uninteresting. I do love the actress, but the character is horrible.

The fashion
I still love the dresses and the hats, but I must admit that the manly looking suits Lady Mary tends to wear are not my favorite. I do love the skirts and long blouses with the long necklaces. Completely wearable even today I think!

Things I have liked very much so far 
- Anna being pregnant, I can only hope it all goes well, but the Bates family deserves some luck!
- Mr. Mason getting a safe home again after being so cruely evicted from the farm he  lived on for so long.
- The wedding between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Mr. Carson was very touching when he spoke about his love for Mrs. Hughes.

Things I hope for
- I hope Thomas will have a happy ending. Perhaps a new job that will suit him very much and even a love-interest, although I realize this may be too modern. But I can still hope. Thomas Barrow is often not a kind man, but I can see how he turned out the way he is. And I do hope some luck will go his way

- And I hope Lady Edith also finally will find some happiness. I begin to like her more and more, especially since she is taking care of her daughter, in spite of the scandal this could cause if people would find out. Perhaps this new man will finally be her chance of happiness?

I'll just have to wait and see! 

Friday, 20 November 2015

Exhibition: The Glasgow boys

The Drents Museum in the north of the Netherlands has a new and exciting exhibition. In the Spring I was here for an exhibition about works by Kazimir Malevich, but now it was time for some boys from Scotland.

A group of Scottish painters who were friends and saw eachother regularly in Glasgow, hence the name for their group: The Glasgow boys.

The Glasgow boys took their inspiration from the French impressionists, but also from Dutch landscape painters and for example a painter like Whistler.

They did not want to paint romantic Scottish landscape that had been so popular with the older generation, they wanted to paint people and landscapes just as they were.

They also painted in the outside (en plein air) just as the French painters did, although in France the weather was often better than in windy and rainy Scotland.

They wanted to capture the moment and their style showed this and in this they also followed the French.
Slowly you see a change from painting farmers to painting middleclass people and scenes from modern day life. 

The exhibition I saw also shows the connections between the Scottish painters and their colleagues in other countries. Paintings by Jozef Israels, Anton Mauve and the French landscape painter Jules Bastien-Lepage can als be seen and this sets the Scottish group in a larger dimension.

There are almost eighty paintings and forty drawings and these give an absolutely amazing overview.
I never heard of the painters before and their works I did not know, but that is why I wanted to see it. I love the French Impressionists and I had high expectations.

Well, I did certainly not come to Assen for nothing. I absolutely enjoyed the beautiful landscapes, the impressions of Scottish nature and the portraits and much more. On the one hand you can recognize elements from the French Impressionists style, on the other hand these Scottish paintings have something that is completely their own. 

Great also to see the influences of other painters, but also how each painters interprets things in his own way.

I love that we have museums like this one who organize exhibitions like this and give you the opportunity to see something new and to broaden your horizon.

The exhibition can be seen until February 7th 2016, so if you have the chance, you will not regret it!
More information HERE

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Paris Winter, Imogen Robertson

Maud Roberts is a student at an art school for Young ladies in Paris and she has moneyproblems. Paris is quite expensive and her family in England does not have a lot of money either, so it may be that Maud will not survive another winter in Paris. 

Then she has the opportunity to work as a companion for the Morel family. Sylvie Morel is addicted to opium and her brother Christian wants somebody to keep an eye on her and keep her company.

It seems Maud’s luck has turned, she has a roof over her head, three good meals a day an pleasant employers.

But then it all changes and it seems Maud is in deep trouble.

When I travel somewhere I always like it to have a book with me that is set in the same place. So when I went to Paris a couple of weeks ago, I put The Paris Winter in my bag so I could read it on the Thalys. I had hoped for a few pleasant hours with this book, but I was surprised at how much better it was than I ever thought!

First of all the historical background is excellent. The characters are written well and in the way fiction is mixed with historical facts Imogen Robertson shows she is a very good writer.

Paris is always interesting, but the period 1909-1910 is even more so. The flood of Paris in January 1910 gives the story momentum and a dramatic focus.

Paris comes to live in this book, from the houses of the poor in Montmartre to the grand boulevards with the shops for the rich.

The art-background is also done well, with little technical details that give it a lot of credibility and make it very interesting. Real events and people in this aspect of the book give it an extra dimension.

The twist in the story, the moment things change for Maud was unexpected. I knew something was going to happen of course, but the how and the what were a real surprise and very well done. The way the story progresses is lively and exciting and make it impossible to put the book down.

A nice and original touch I thought were the descriptions of paintings between the chapters, that give extra clues that you cannot immediately understand.

The Paris Winter is an excellent historical novel with credible characters and a well thought out plot that even brings some gothic horror to it at certain points. What more could you want in a book?

Read here what LARK wrote about this excellent book, it was because of her review I bought it immediately :-) 

Published in 2013

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Quote: Goethe

Everybody has two countries. His own and France.
My heart goes out to Paris and the whole of France after the horrors of last night. 
Goethe (German writer 1749-1832)

Friday, 13 November 2015

More art in my life

These are the books I already had about art (and fashion,
and Downton Abbey :-)) 
I love art and I think I always have. But I never really made a study of it and at best my knowledge is a bit hap-hazard. A couple of months ago I decided I wanted to know more about art and be a bit more serious about having art in my life.

I thought about doing a course in arthistory, but the ones that are affordable are often quite shallow and offer a lot of historical information I already know and the ones that are really good are also really expensive.

I have decided to go to an art-exhibition at least once a month and to read more about art. I’ve made a list of exhibitions I want to see and there are some pretty good exhibitions in Dutch museums at the moment. Turner was one I saw recently, but I also have an exhibition about Spanish painters in the Hermitage and one about Scottish impressionists on my list.

Sometimes a lecture is offered with an exhibition and this is a very good way of getting educated, without spending a fortune. I went to a lecture before I went to the Turner exhibition and I found that it increased my enjoyment and understanding of what I saw.
The new books
And I am very proud of my shelf with newly bought books about art and different artists. Caravaggio I rediscovered in Rome this Summer, and the Impressionists I already liked immensely, but when I saw those paintings again at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris I realized how much I like them. 

You can also see a few books about Vincent van Gogh  there, both his letters and a biography (funny, all the books use the same self-portrait).  

And you see the catalog from the Turner exhibition. I do not intend to buy a catalog at every exhibition, that would be too costly, but the ones I really enjoy and want to know more about, are on my wishlist.

So, prepare yourself for even more art here and posts about exhibitions and other art-related things. I am looking forward to it and I hope you are as well!

Monday, 9 November 2015

Red love, Maxim Leo

What is is like to grow up in a totalitarian state? 

A state that decided for you if you could study or not or what profession you could have. 

A state that kept a close eye on its people and where everything could be reason to be arrested. 

A state that kept its people prisoner and told them it was for their own safety. 

A state that distorted the truth and told its people that was freedom.  

Maxim Leo grew up in the socialist state of East Germany. His mother Anne was a party member and believed in the ideals of the socialist state. This was due to her father who was one of the leading members in the state. Only when she found out as a journalist how she has to compromise with the truth she began to have doubts, although she was not ready yet to give up all her beliefs.

His father Wolf was an artist who did not believe in the DDR and who tried to find his own path within the system. This caused many arguments with his father in law.

When he was young, Maxim wanted nothing more than to be a West German. One of his favorite pastimes with his friends was to walk through East Berlin in their western jeans, with a map in their hands saying things like: ‘gosh, this does look different than on our side’.

When the Berlin wall fell the first thing he did was to make sure he had a passport of West Germany, so he would have no problems if the wall would close again.

Maxim became a journalist, just like his mother and grandfather and gradually he had questions.
What happened to his grandfather Gerhard that he believed so strongly in the DDR? How did his other grandfather switch from being a national-socialist to a communist? How did his mother and father cope within the system? Maxim decides to talk to his familymembers to get the whole story.

I do not know what the Dutch and English publishers thought when they translated the German title into Red love, it sounds like soft porn from the seventies. Luckily I found out what the book was really about, and when I went to Berlin it seemed like a good moment to read the book.
The Berlin wall is gone, but sill visible in many ways
Red love is a very interesting story about recent history, that somehow seems so very far away already. I remember being 14 yo and sitting in front of the television when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. It was an impressive historical moment.

Reading this book while I was in Berlin made it extra special, because I recognized things.

Red love is a very good book about the DDR and the people who lived in it, and a must read for everybody who is interested in European history.

Original German title: Haltet euer Herz bereit
Published in 2009

Friday, 6 November 2015

Canal St. Martin

This canal in Paris was openend in 1825. It is 5 kilometres long and has nine waterlocks that have to work out a difference in height of 27 metres.

The canal was built so ships could cut their journey over the Seine short by 12 kilometeres. It is no longer in use for the professional boats, but the area still has the industrial feel to it.

The many waterlocks and iron bridges are very characteristic and it is lovely to walk here. I think it will probably be even more beautiful in the Summer, but then it will also be a bit more crowded I imagine. When I walked here a couple of weeks ago, it was very peaceful and I felt like I was in 19th century Paris for a while. Lovely.
It is only about ten minutes on foot from Gare de l'est, so it is not difficult to go there and have a stroll in this very special part of Paris.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Michael & Natasha, Rosemary and Donald Crawford

Michael Alexandrovich of Russia was born in 1878 as the younger brother of tsar Nicolas II.
As long as Nicolas did not have a male heir, Michael was the first in line for the throne. 

In 1904 Alexei was born, but soon it became clear the boy had the deadly disease hemophilia and would probably not get older than twenty. Michael was still important as a potential emperor for Russia.

Members of the Imperial family had to obey certain rules. You had to ask the tsar for permission to get married and marrying a divorced woman was absolutely not done. People who did not follow the rules were banned from court and sometimes even from Russia.

Since Michael played such an important part in the future of Russia, it was crucial he did follow the rules. There was however one problem, he fell in love with Natascha, a married woman who was divorced before.

They began a passionate affair and they wanted to get married, especially when Natasha became pregnant. They would never get permission to do so and finally married in secret abroad. Nicolas was not happy with the way his brother disrespected his authority and was not planning on forgiving him any time soon. Michael and Natasha were not welcome in Russia for the moment.

Only when WWI broke out, did they come back to Russia and Michael became an officer in the Russian Army.

The war did not go well for Russia and there were many people unhappy with the way Alexandra managed the government and Nicolas managed the army.

In March 1917 (OS) Nicolas was forced to abdicate. People expected Alexei to become the new emperor, with Michael as his regent. But Nicolas also abdicated for Alexei, due to his bad health.

Michael and his dog
The crown of Russia was now offered to Michael. Many regiments swore loyalty to the new emperor and a Te Deum was sung in the churches in his honour. Natasha was just never mentioned.
Michael realized he could not accept the crown without the permission of the parliament, but this never came.

It was the Provisional Government and later the Bolsheviks who took over the government and the Romanovs did not have a role to play anymore. Lenin wanted to get rid of them and the threat they still were.
In July 1918, some days before the Imperial Family was shot in Jekatarinaburg, Bolshevik agents took Michael into the woods and shot him.

His death was never made official and for a long time there were rumours that Michael was in Siberia to lead an army against the Bolsheviks.
Natasha tried to escape from Russia and ended up in England, where she lived in poverty. She died in 1952 in a hospital for the poor in Paris.

A lot of attention in Russian history goes to Nicolas and Alexandra and this is understandable, but it is also very interesting to read about the other family members and how they lived.

This biography by Rosemary en Donald Crawford about Michael and Natasha is a good one. There are a little too many snide remarks directed towards Nicolas and Alexandra, but that is all. The rest is well written and well documented and they managed to bring Michael and Natasha closer to us.

According to all records Michael was an amiable and capable man, who could have been a good tsar were the circumstances different.
Natasha was seen by many at court as a golddigger and her two divorces to marry a richer man seem evidence to that. But when you read their story, it seems it was true love between Natasha and Michael. They had to put up with a lot together and the marriage did not bring her much profit. Until her death she never married another man, because she still mourned for Michael.

Such a very sad ending for both of them.
Natasha and Michael

Published in 1997
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