Saturday 25 November 2017

What Lies Beneath: 'Flevit Super Illam'

'Flevit Super Illam' by Enrique Simonet, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado

'Flevit Super Illam' by Enrique Simonet
'Flevit Super Illam' by Enrique Simonet

Niall MacMonagle

Holy, holy, holy. Today, Palm Sunday begins the most important week in the Christian calendar. Without Easter Sunday and the resurrection at week's end, Christians would have nowhere to go once earthly life is done. And on Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem. All four Evangelists tell of this momentous event and in Luke we are told that "when Jesus was come near, he beheld the city and wept over it." These last words in Latin, "flevit super illam", give this painting its title.

The deeply religious Spanish artist Enrique Simonet began sketching 'Flevit super Ilam' in the Holy Land and completed it in Rome in 1892 when he was 26.

Signed E. Simonet JERVSALEM/ROMA MDCCCVCII on the bottom left, it was awarded medals in Madrid, Chicago, Barcelona and Paris. This huge canvas, 10 feet tall and 18 across, is a single seamless canvas, something that wasn't possible until the 19th century.

Jesus views Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives at sunrise and, knowing what is to come, knowing that the Temple will be destroyed, with hands outstretched, he blesses the city.

The tallest figure, the son of God, in dark clothes is framed by figures in white, and at the centre is the sun, making possible the new day. Every face is turned towards Christ; above His head, the morning star.

Compositionally brilliant and dramatic, thickly applied or impastoed paint - and in other parts of the canvas, diluted paint - creates a transparent effect to give this work extraordinary power.

Latin was once compulsory for those who wanted to go to university and Biblical stories were a given growing up. But things have changed. Once, when I was teaching TS Eliot's 'Prufrock', and explaining who was being referred to in the phrase "my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter" a 17-year-old Irish lad asked, "Who's John the Baptist?"

But it's not that young people now know nothing; it's just that they know different things. And the Catholicism that many were steeped in has, for recent generations, become a shallow pool of knowledge. And Jesus wept.

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