Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

By the Wall of Church 1885

Levitan has stopped for a moment in the cemetery of this old church. The wooden grave marker in the shade is weathered; the stone church needs to be painted. Maybe Levitan didn't go inside because he was Jewish. Or maybe he simply felt no need to enter the church, pleased to stand outside, listening to the summer sounds of birds and whirring insects.

This isn't a well-manicured church with a gold-lettered sign out front, clipped hedges and a tidy weed-free lawn. This church is way out in a rustic area, likely attached to a small village. Has the place been abandoned? The priest and the people gone away? There is a scene of loss.

  • To live on this planet is to know loss:
  • The loss of a pregnancy. 
  • A marriage ends in divorce. 
  • Declining health. 
  • The losses that come with aging. 
  • A damaged soldier. 
  • The losses brought on by addictions.  
  • Lose the job; lose the house. 
  • The loss of a child to bad influences. 
  • The losses people suffer around the world: the children of Sudan  dying of famine and thirst. The bombing of Syria's cities. 

Levitan stands in this churchyard of beauty but also of loss. There is no resolution. Maybe the parishioners did the best they could to hold onto their church and couldn't do anything more. Sometimes things just have to be suffered or endured. We can become bitter, sour, angry victims, or, because we know the sorrow and pain of loss personally, we can stand in a heart-solidarity with the world in its own awful losses. Maybe God is most near then - God, so understanding of loss for having lived with us in Christ.

Does the painting suggest this? Look! it's not a gloomy day, the sun is shining brightly, intensified by the reflective-white of the building. Standing near this church wall we might squint or shield our eyes with our hands - like Peter, James and John before the brilliant Transfigured Jesus. Can you feel it?


  1. I can't imagine Levitan didn't go in the church. He seems to be always searching, looking for beauty, comfort. The church must have impressed him. He gave it so much light. Maybe, he had feelings of hope there. I'd like to think that.

  2. Notice the open window. Surely thus is a sign that the church is not abandoned and some cares to let the light and fresh air in. I feel an invitation here, not loss, but rather the hope that I can find solace and quiet prayer within.

    1. But you see, that's precisely what makes for Lyrical painting - it creates a mood (atmosphere) which elicits from each viewer his/her own response. I suggested loss because in the late 19th century the Russian Church had failed the people terribly. That's why at the time of the Revolution in 1917 the masses abandoned the church and even acted against it violently. Here, the open window reveal a black hole - indeed needing air and light. Some people would say we should not read too much into any painting. I would disagree. Our culture tends to breeze by images without giving them (if any) consideration at all - except long enough for the product-commercial to register as sexy - no matter what is being sold.

  3. I see this church as lonely and abandoned. Maybe the villagers are so absorbed in their own lives that they forgot about their little white church, and the graves and the grass that all sit waiting while they go on with their lives.

  4. Ah! And now we are no longer talking about 19th century Russia but perhaps our own country in our own time. One priest chancery official told me that only 8% of the Catholics in his diocese go to Mass on Sunday. That's 8 out of every 100. Talk about 'forgetting' and 'going on with their lives'. In one parish where I served there were 230 Baptisms in one year, 230 First Communions, 230 Confirmations - but only 30 weddings. The Church 'lonely and abandoned." That's pretty much the scene in the North East. In one of his poems, Pope John Paul II wrote of Poland after the Second World War and his country being made into a Soviet Satellite - that "at night you could hear the women weeping in the sacristy as they laid out the vestments for the next day's Masses - for the priest who would not come - having been executed, imprisoned or exiled. The women wept because Poland had taken it all for granted and then it was gone.

    1. Another thought might be that the church building is a euphemism for a person, who sits lost and forgotten, feeling abandoned. And like the church has been taken for granted that they will always be there when needed.

    2. There's no limit to what an image may draw out of us. We shouldn't think: "Oh this is what Levitan is saying through his painting", because he is not here to tell us, but if the poem, song, photograph, vista, elicits insight, feeling or a new direction perhaps - then I'd say it has served its purpose and the artist would be satisfied. There are other approaches I am sure - as it helps to know the artist and what's going on in his/her own life. One of Levitan's early teachers impressed upon his students the need for paintings to make a strong social comment. But clearly Levitan had his own mind about things, for example, he paints the long road prisoners walked to Siberia, but he doesn't paint a procession of men going off in chains.