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I was chatting with a friend the other night about art, and about visiting art galleries. It got me thinking about this painting, The Vale of Rest, by Sir John Everett Millais that used to hang in the Tate gallery on the north bank of the Thames back in the mid-1990s.
My friend Chris was saying how much he loves visiting art galleries with a friend of his because not only does he know the stories behind many of the paintings, he is also aware of the historical context in which they were painted. Often, it seems, that certain art movements began in response to something else that was going on at the time: cubism, impressionism… and that’s pretty much where my art history knowledge runs dry.
When I lived in central London in the mid-90s the Tate gallery sat on the route between my flat and my work. I would frequently pop in on my way home, and marvel at these enormous works of art by Turner and … Hooch?
But it was this painting by Sir John Everett Millais that kept bringing me back. There was just something about it that fired my imagination and intrigue. The story behind the painting is interesting, but I knew nothing of that at the time.
I was fascinated by the portrayal of the two nuns. One sitting with prayer beads in her hand, looking in the direction of the viewer; the other, with sleeves rolled up, digging a grave. For whom is she digging it? In the distance, above her head there is a bell tower. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. The painting is set at dusk, the sun clearly dying in the background.
This is what the display caption read in 2010, long after I had stopped visiting the painting, “Stirred by the spirituality and yearning in Mendelssohn’s song ‘Ruhetal’, here Millais’ theme is death, signified by the presence of the grave, skull and funerary wreaths, and in the intense and solemn colours of a graveyard touched with the last rays of a setting sun. Viewers are invited to contemplate their own mortality through the preparation of the new grave in the foreground and the nun who gazes out towards them. Despite the pain and sadness in death, the title offers hope that it will bring repose from life’s cares and an infinite contentment.”
This is a painting that I visit from time to time online. It reminds me of a simpler time in my life, but it also reminds me to slow down and appreciate what I have around me now. The painting suggests a slow pace of life, and a life of honest, hard work amidst gentleness and contentment. And those, for me, are things to aspire to.