Perhaps the greatest trauma of my school-days were the art classes. They would sit us down with some rather stiff paint brushes and a few pots of paints, and tell us to paint something. I don’t think that there was any other subject where so little instruction was given. When we began Latin, our teacher didn’t just throw us a copy of the Aeneid and tell us to get on with it.

However, I suspect that I could have sat at the feet of Michelangelo for a dozen years and been no better off. My lack of talent in the visual arts was innate, complete. While other boys would come up with a passable imitation of a cloud or a horse, or whatever it was, my efforts would prompt the derision of my peers and the kindly silence of the master. How I used to dread those classes, as others must have dreaded P.E. or double maths.

Yet having no skill in painting needn’t stop one talking about it. Who would not, asked Plutarch, rather contemplate a sculpture of Phidias than sculpt it? And even if he was only being (as Maritain says) a snobby pagan, I suppose that someone who doesn’t know a hammer from a chisel may still commission a marble.

So, here are four paintings that I should like someone to paint. All involve meetings that have really happened, but which, as far as I know, have not yet been represented in this way.

The first is a meeting between Newman, Pusey and Keble. It didn’t happen in the hey-day of the Oxford Movement, but long after Newman had converted. An elderly man now, and finding himself once more in Oxford, he made an unannounced call on his dear Keble, whom he hadn’t seen since 1845. He didn’t know that Pusey, whom he also hadn’t seen since then, and with whom his relations were particularly strained, was visiting at the same time. When the front door was opened, Newman and Keble were so uncertain of who the other one was that they had to show each other their cards; and Pusey, siting inside, spontaneously shrank back from Newman’s gaze.

What a painter could do with that scene: doubt, dawning recognition, painful affection, and unbridgeable separation, would be portrayed on all their faces.

The next two meetings happened a bit later, both in the late 1880’s. One of them also involved Newman. A very old man now, and a cardinal, he was giving out the prizes at the Oratory school. One of the successful school-boys was Hilaire Belloc. What a meeting: the old man, with his frail body and penetrating gaze, the young man, with a certain fine unconscious arrogance, each admiring and pitying the other, while unbeknownst to either the torch of Catholic England was passed on!

The other is quite famous. It occurred when Therese of Lisieux, I think at the age of 14, visited Rome with a group from her parish, and got to see Pope Leo. Instead of just kneeling to kiss his ring and moving away like the other pilgrims, she placed her hands on the old man’s knees and looked up imploringly into his face, asking him to let her enter Carmel, until finally she had to be dragged off by the Swiss guards.

Like the meeting of Newman and Belloc, this would be a study in contrasts. Only here there would be a note of humour: armed guards having to deliver the pontiff from the importunity of a school-girl, and in the background her parish priest fretting. ‘I told them all quite clearly that no one was to speak to the Holy Father. That Martin girl is simply impossible. She’ll come to a bad end, that’s only too plain.”

The final one was photographed, but I do not know that it has been painted. It is the meeting of Archbishop Lefebvre and Padre Pio, not long before the latter’s death. The archbishop had made the pilgrimage to San Giovanni to ask St Pio’s prayers for the seminary he was intending to found. He asked the Capuchin for a blessing, but St Pio naturally said, in effect: ‘Me bless an archbishop? Of course not; it is you who must bless me’, and he knelt to receive it.

If an artist painted that right, I think we should have the impression of two prophets, each with an incommunicable burden, brought together by divine providence for a brief moment to their mutual solace, as the chaos and darkness grew around them.

So, I have had the ideas: and is that not the principal part of every work of art? As for the bit with the camel hair and the wet stuff, well, I leave that to others.

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I have just noticed that Archbishop Lefebvre and Father Frederick Faber had, by etymology and meaning, the same surname. Effectively, both of them were called Smith. Appropriately enough – they were both craftsmen who built things to last. Habent sua fata, as I have said before, nomina.

I remember a long time ago a sensible sub-editor coming up to me with a book in his hand, called ‘Mr. Smith’, or ‘The Smith Family’, or some such thing.  He said, ‘Well, you won’t get any of your damned mysticism out of this,’ or words to that effect.  I am happy to say that I undeceived him; but the victory was too obvious and easy.  In most cases the name is unpoetical, although the fact is poetical.  In the case of Smith, the name is so poetical that it must be an arduous and heroic matter for the man to live up to it.  The name of Smith is the name of the one trade that even kings respected, it could claim half the glory of that arma virumque which all epics acclaimed.  The spirit of the smithy is so close to the spirit of song that it has mixed in a million poems, and every blacksmith is a harmonious blacksmith.

Even the village children feel that in some dim way the smith is poetic, as the grocer and the cobbler are not poetic, when they feast on the dancing sparks and deafening blows in the cavern of that creative violence.  The brute repose of Nature, the passionate cunning of man, the strongest of earthly metals, the weirdest of earthly elements, the unconquerable iron subdued by its only conqueror, the wheel and the ploughshare, the sword and the steam-hammer, the arraying of armies and the whole legend of arms, all these things are written, briefly indeed, but quite legibly, on the visiting-card of Mr. Smith.  Yet our novelists call their hero ‘Aylmer Valence’, which means nothing, or ‘Vernon Raymond’, which means nothing, when it is in their power to give him this sacred name of Smith, this name made of iron and flame.  It would be very natural if a certain hauteur, a certain carriage of the head, a certain curl of the lip, distinguished every one whose name is Smith.  Perhaps it does; I trust so.  Whoever else are parvenus, the Smiths are not parvenus.  From the darkest dawn of history this clan has gone forth to battle; its trophies are on every hand; its name is everywhere; it is older than the nations, and its sign is the Hammer of Thor   (G.K. Chesterton, in ‘Heretics’.)

  

(I know that Brompton Oratory didn’t look like that in Faber’s lifetime. But he is still the man behind it.)

Worth pondering…

Unlike many conservative Catholics, he saw that it was impossible to wage an effective battle for orthodoxy within the context of the official reforms, as these reforms were themselves oriented towards the cult of man. The Archbishop saw that the liturgical reform in particular must inevitably compromise Catholic teaching on the priesthood and the Mass, the twin pillars on which our faith is built (Apoloiga pro Marcel Lefebvre, vol.1, introduction).

Today in the old calendar falls the commemoration of St Paul, the apostle who resisted Peter to his face while remaining humbly subject to him in his heart. It is also the 24th anniversary of the consecrations at Econe by which Archbishop Lefebvre made provision for his work to continue after his death. I well remember the day, though I was only a school-boy at a typical post-conciliar Catholic school and had no connections with ‘traditionalist milieux’. Our head of R.E., who, as I realised some years later, was a modernist, came into our classroom quite excited at the end of the day, and told us that something historic was happening. He told us about the Eastern schism and about the Protestant Reformation, and then told us that today a third schism was taking place. Yes, it was a very potted version of church history. He explained that until the 1960’s, Catholics had generally thought that if people in other religions were ever saved, it would be in spite of their religions and not because of them. But now, he said, the Church had changed her ideas and decided that people in other religions could be saved because of their religions, not just in spite of them. Only one French archbishop had refused to accept the new ideas, and now he was going into schism by ordaining some bishops. Little catechised though I was, I remember thinking that though this French archbishop must be a very bad person to be breaking away from the Church, I preferred the old ideas to the new ones.

It is surely a unique case in Church history (Aeliane, correct me if I err.) There have been plenty of people who have broken with the Church and still wanted to claim the name of Catholic. But this is a movement which not only acknowledges all the dogmas, but which also recognises the Pope and the bishops whom he appoints as the legitimate rulers of the Church, and denies that its own bishops and priests have any power of governance. I suppose the Anglican Papalists are or were similar, but they were clearly not members of the Catholic Church. It is an unnatural situation and therefore surely cannot endure. The SSPX general chapter begins today and looks likely to be a crucial one. A novena is being promoted, starting today: the Veni, Creator Spiritus, ‘Immaculate heart of Mary, pray for us’ (thrice), ‘St Pius X, pray for us’. And maybe we could also ask St Paul to speak to St Peter about it all.