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Adventures in Art

A Child's Book of Prayer in Art

By Wendy Beckett

Publisher: Dorling Kindersley

Pages: 32

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

Elaine Hallett is co-author with her husband of Analyzing Shakespeare's Action and The Revenger's Madness.

Here are five books that show great art to children and help them understand it — and have fun looking at it. Any of them would be a superb addition to a family’s bookshelves. Three of them are by Sister Wendy Beckett, whose name and face may already be familiar. She is the energetic Catholic sister whose talent for analyzing art was discovered by British television and who for the past few years, in wimple and veil and habit, has been guiding armchair visitors through the great museums of Europe. It is good news for parents that Sr. Wendy is also writing books on art for children.

The first of these, A Child’s Book of Prayer in Art, reproduces paintings chosen and explicated by Sr. Wendy to introduce children to the intimate connections among art, knowledge, and reverence. “Looking at art is one way of listening to God,” says Sr. Wendy, and she proceeds to demonstrate this with the 12 paintings reproduced in her book, which opens with Bernardino Fungai’s Martyrdom of Saint Clement, a 16th-century seascape that contrasts the placidity of the sea with the tempest in the hearts of the seamen, who, having tied an anchor around St. Clement’s neck, are casting him overboard to drown. Sr. Wendy points out that the men are killing the old man because his religion is not the same as theirs. Seeing this should lead us, she says, to recognize the cruelty of acts of intolerance and, further, to realize that every one of us, even a little child, “can be cruel and hateful like this.”

Chardin’s painting The Young Schoolmistress inspires a meditation on learning, that begins with school and progresses to teachers in general, and leads the child to ask God to “help me to listen to everybody who is good and wise and not think that I already know everything.” Romney’s The Gower Family illustrates family, Velazquez’s The Surrender of Breda explores selflessness, and Uccello’s Hunt by Night portrays determination. Because the artists Sr. Wendy has selected are key figures in the history of art, because the paintings are beautifully reproduced and lovingly examined, and because the meditations can contribute to the formation of well-ordered and reverent minds, The Child’s Book of Prayer in Art will certainly take its place among the classic children’s books of this decade.

The other two books by Sr. Wendy are part of a series called “Adventures in Art” from the Prestel-Verlag publishing house in Munich, whose books are being briskly marketed in this country. There are already 12 titles in the series, all worth looking at. In The Duke and the Peasant: Life in the Middle Ages, Sr. Wendy explores with her young readers the seasons of the year and the medieval activities or “labors” proper to each, using the calendar pictures from the Duc de Berry’s Très Riches Heures, which is the most elegant of several prayer books illuminated by the famous Limbourg brothers in the 15th century. Though she seems more partial to the peasantry than to the nobility, Sr. Wendy focuses attention on the many instructive contrasts between these two classes in that highly structured society.

Sister Wendy’s Story of Christmas is an exploration of Nativity paintings from various countries and centuries. It makes the familiar subject of Christmas pleasingly complex and may stimulate — and reward — the curious young mind. Sr. Wendy invites the child to ponder the story of a birth that took place “not in a hospital or even in a home but in a stable.” She is at her most delightful in explaining why various artists rendered the stable differently: Poussin, she says, “cannot imagine the mother Mary in a dirty stable, so he has made a stable out of the kind of ruined temple he could see around him in Rome, which is where Poussin lived.” Lorenzo Monaco, on the other hand, “shows the bleakness of the setting, with the little stable just a sort of lean-to perched on dangerous rocks.” Rembrandt makes the stable dim and smoky, the figures seen only faintly in the glow of the fire. “By not showing us anything outright,” says Sr. Wendy, Rembrandt “makes us search within our own hearts” to imagine what that moment of Christ’s birth must have been like. Sr. Wendy is also charmed by the ox and the ass which are traditional members of the Nativity scene, and she charmingly points out the various antics and postures that each artist has invented for these animals.

She invites the child to consider other fascinating questions about Nativity paintings. How old does the artist make Joseph? In what attitude does the artist portray Mary? How do these parents keep their new baby warm in a cold stable in December? How does the artist solve the problem of making an incognito God manifest? Children fortunate enough to share this adventure with Sr. Wendy may gain a double benefit: The better they come to know the art and the artists, the closer they may come to truly experiencing — being present at — the profound event the artists are depicting.

Sr. Wendy shows us many paintings, but Nils Jockel in his book investigates just one, Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel from 1563. The adventure begins when one of the workers in the famous painting “volunteers” to explain the building trade, pointing out details (much in the way that David Macaulay has done in his books for children about castles and cathedrals). When the worker is called back to his job, Jockel himself continues the story, raising pertinent questions for the young reader to ponder and then answering them. Why did Bruegel paint Antwerp as the city with the Babylonian tower? What fascinated Bruegel about the hundreds of people who worked on this gigantic structure? What elements in the picture indicate that the building will never be finished — and why? In his closing pages Jockel reproduces six more versions of the Tower of Babel, one of them a different rendering by Bruegel. This book too provides a double benefit — its readers come to know not only the biblical story of the Tower of Babel and its significance but also the timelessness of the symbol. If it was applicable to Bruegel’s Antwerp it is as well to the commercial metropolis of our day.

Engaging the imagination in yet another way is Hello, Fruit Face by Claudia Strand, who collects 12 comical portraits by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. She explores in loving detail his near-magical power of conjuring human faces out of unlikely collections of objects. Gathered here are Arcimboldo’s seasonal portraits — faces composed entirely of flowers (smiling Spring), of fruits (bountiful Summer and Autumn), or of trees (chilling, “dead” Winter). There are also portraits of the Four Elements (Earth’s face is composed of animals, Air’s face of birds, and so on). The deeper fun of viewing Arcimboldo’s whimsies derives from the surprises that occur as individual elements lying quietly in the portraits and unexpectedly come into focus. One suddenly notices, for example, that in his portrait of a crafty lawyer, Arcimboldo has created the nose, cheeks, and forehead of the man out of plucked birds (no doubt a reference to that attorney’s unfortunate clients). In the picture of a court librarian, flapping pages form the man’s hair and a bookbinding is his nose. Looking closely, one also sees that this harried man is not only constructed entirely of stacked books but is in danger of collapsing if someone should jostle one of the volumes amassed to shape his torso. The “Fruit Face” of the book’s title comes from Arcimboldo’s portrait of his patron, Emperor Rudolf II, who is delightfully portrayed as Vertumnus, god of gardens and the changing seasons. Rudolf — his face a harvest — is literally “a man for all seasons.”

Prestel’s “Adventures in Art” is a wonderful series. With such a variety of titles to choose from (volumes are also available on Monet, van Gogh, Rousseau, Chagall, and Klee), a parent can easily find pictorial adventures to suit any child.

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