Have a merry multimodal Christmas

Christmas is a feast for all the senses, a search for a feeling of bodily quickening and life at this dead time of the year. In this part of the world we have the ‘Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’ at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, broadcast to the world every Christmas Eve. The choir and the college date back to their 1441 foundation by Henry VI, but the service itself is comparatively recent. It was created in 1918 by Eric Milner-White, Dean of the college, to be more communicative of the Christmas story to those returning from the carnage of the Great War. It has been an enormous success, broadcast since 1928 to millions every year bar 1930, extending the Cambridge ‘brand’ globally in ways I am sure (and glad) not many people in the college or the university think about, but with complex, material, surprising and culturally rich rewards. I am being mischievous here, but how much would the brown sugary drink manufacturer pay for the naming rights of ‘The Coca-Cola Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols’? (Though of course their grisly and ashamed ‘Holidays’ metonym vampirizes Christmas spirit while denying and precluding any association with Christianity, Saturnalia, Yule, history, anything …) As it stands the service is a perfect example, based on the pure principle of doing what you believe is right, of what I have called elsewhere sustainable communication.

To our ears, on radio it communicates a sense of deep faith through the dignity and expressiveness of superb musical performance. To our eyes the simple but sinuous shapes of gothic tracery and low-res articulation of the coloured panes of early Renaissance stained glass are also fully idiomatic to television (in the slightly shortened version called Carols from King’s); close-ups on faces add to continuous visual interest. The abstract richness of colours in the stained glass looks wonderful on our screens too.  As the outside light darkens, the glass colours fade to grisaille and show up the strange outlines of the black spidery leadwork; the mood and visual space of the service intensifies and the cameras pan in on the sumptuous reds and russets of the Rubens Adoration of the Magi.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi (1634). Image from Wikimedia Commons

This alien interloper looks gorgeous, but it is an arrival not just from the Baroque but from the age of television. It was given to the college in 1961 by an ex-Kingsman, Major A. E. Allnatt, and was at the time the most expensive painting in the world. The installation (finished in 1968) required the levelling of the floor at the east end of the chapel to keep clear the congregation’s sightlines of the stained glass in the astonishing East Window. The college added some rather splendid if incongruous underfloor heating; it also countermanded – nowadays unthinkably – Henry VI’s clear and still-surviving ‘wille and entent’ of 1448 for steps up to the altar. The painting is large, but compared with the acres (I am not exaggerating) of stained glass, it looks puny. It looks fantastic close up; it looks great even on my web image above, or on television, which favours an intimacy in scale of viewing. Note that it shows, appropriately for the college if also a little lacking in modesty, worship by kings, admittedly of – as the final words of the always-closing hymn say – ‘our newborn king’.  The chapel’s previously defining image (the unreproducible East Window, see below) shows the Easter story. The first Christmas television broadcast from the chapel was in 1963 – is it possible that the arrival of this kings-friendly image is connected with the coming of TV? Note too that the presiding Provost (King’s College terminology for Master) until 1966 was Noel Annan, who was both passionate about the importance of art and also highly media-literate; his knowledge of television resulted in his appointment in 1974 as chairman of the Annan Committee on the future of broadcasting.

Noel Annan in 1991, defined by his enthusiasm for art. Illustration by David Levine

Here, by contrast, is a split image (by Nick Thompson) – I apologize that this is too static and low-res to be in any way idiomatic for web or TV viewing, but this is my point – of the East Window:

If you have the patience to work out what these extraordinary images are showing, there are 6 ‘scenes’, each 3 panels across, in two rows. The two thicker mullions (vertical stone pillars) divide up the 9 panels in each row into the 3 scenes. Top left: Jesus is nailed to the cross – pure invention by the artists; there is no text for this in any of the Gospels. Top middle: Jesus crucified, his side pierced with a spear; in the foreground soldiers cast dice to see who gets his purple cloak. Top right: Christ’s deposition from the cross; front right, Mary (Jesus’ mother, in blue) weeps while John, disciple and evangelist, tries to console her with his hand on her shoulder. Bottom left (first group of 3 panels): Jesus (in the purple of kingship) is presented to the crowd after his trial; they mock him and choose to free Barabbas. Bottom middle: Pilate (on his throne and looking like a Renaissance potentate) washes his hands of the fate of this innocent man – Jesus, with a green crown of thorns, stands in front of him. Bottom right: Jesus carries his cross; Veronica holds out a cloth to wipe his face. The placement of figures (Christ crucified, Pilate, Christ wearing a crown of thorns) down the central axis suggests a deliberate meditation on the theme of kingships heavenly, worldly and parodic. This is particularly apposite for King's College, and for the sponsor of this window, Henry VIII. Note nonetheless the unapologetic insignia of royalty in the uppermost area under the arch, including a handsome red Welsh dragon of the Tudors, the Tudor and Lancastrian roses, and (either side of the dragon) the H of Henry and the K of Katherine Parr.

In reality these images are some 80 linear times larger (6400 times by area) than their reproduction here – and there are a further 24 other windows 5/9ths this size. Their real-life scale and colour are overwhelming – even the biggest plasma screens in HD could not begin to replicate our experience of them. Have a look round the excellent virtual tour, but the windows still don’t make sense on the screen. But see them in the chapel, study them and they will jump into your head – for ever.

My Christmas point about multimodality and communication is this: the King’s College Chapel of Our Lady and St Nicholas (to give it its proper name) was designed to show the depth, intensity and reality of religious belief, ‘on Earth as it is in heaven’. But please note that even if you have religious faith you may still find that words like this simply cannot express this amount of meaning. Words about the ineffable are like watching a YouTube video over a slow broadband line – the image breaks up and we may decide to drop the connection. For the representation of any rich or complex experience to our limited consciousness – and a ‘religious’ experience is perhaps by definition beyond expression – we need all the help we can get. Artists and communicators throughout history have tried to reach our minds through the sensorium, the full range of our senses. So in King’s chapel there is a feast for the eyes (the windows/Rubens), ears (beautiful music), smell (incense), taste (Eucharistic bread and wine) and touch (textures of stone/wood/marble). There is the world’s biggest graphic novel, on the lower row of windows, of the story of the birth of Mary to her Assumption, that frames the life of Jesus; on the upper row there is the counterpoint (‘antitypes’) of the prefiguration of the New Testament by the Old. The single cosmic Christian day of history rises in the east with the death of Jesus and sets in the west with the Last Judgement. And the sheer size of the building, as Freud suggests in ‘The Future of an Illusion’, imposes on us that we re-enact our infantile experience of (small) being-in-the-world, with all its heightened intensity of perception.

These are the ways the chapel works on us. Some of that heightened intensity can even survive – through a little speaker in the corner of the kitchen, or the plastic and electronics box in the sitting room, and through just two of our five senses – to enrich our conception of who we are in the world. I can only wonder at the faith of those who made this building for 70 scholars and 12 fellows, and who intended 570 years ago that it should do what it still does, that (as in Matthew 24:14) ‘this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations’. I think I can also sense more fully how, as John the evangelist mysteriously tells us about that first Christmas, the Word became flesh.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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