Nicholas Holtam has the telling gift of being able to create incisive phrases; phrases which lodge in the mind and force one to ponder. Let me give some examples.
In his lovely book “The Art of Worship” he draws our attention to some of the paintings in the National Gallery. And so, for example, in the text which he has written to accompany Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus” he says: “The stories of resurrection in the Gospels are transitory moments significant enough to change lives for ever”. It’s a beautifully crafted phrase, each word pulling its own weight.
He says, in a reflection on prayer prompted by Pieter Saenradam’s painting of a cool, white, Puritan-clean church in 17th century Utrecht, “In praying for the particular we are praying for the universal”. Enough said. It’s elegant, true, and straightforward.
And then, in his piece to accompany one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, he writes: “His sympathetic portraits of older people radiate inner strength from aged bodies”. And with these deft touches Nick Holtam enlightens our understanding not only of the paintings but of ourselves and our world.
His book is a collection of 46 paintings which he came to know and love during his time as Vicar at St Martin’s in the Fields. Each painting is accompanied by a reflection, and by prayers drawn from a rich variety of sources. And this is the clue to the meaning of the book. It is designed to be used in a meditative fashion, that is, slowly, and with that depth of attention which can be described paradoxically as lightness.
It takes art historical scholarship seriously, but quietly insists that these paintings can also be approached with a creative humility, and that they might “expand our imagination to the glorious possibilities of God’s world. What Christians seek is to be people alive to the presence of God.”
Oh, alleluia! It is such a relief to have a voice in the Church which does not nag… Treat yourself to a book which will bring you joy.
Reviewed by the Rt Revd Dr Christopher Herbert, who lectures on art and its relationship with faith for the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS).