Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Cornflowers 1894




Sometimes landscape artists take a break from sitting outdoors and instead, stay inside painting flowers. That's what Levitan has done here: though this "painting" isn't a painting at all, but pastels on cardboard. Here the artist has placed a bunch of wild and varying-ly blue cornflowers (with a couple of white ones) and two pieces of grass with seed heads in a contrasting, brown-glazed, earthenware pot. It's quite clear, Levitan loved flowers.

Perhaps he painted landscapes and still-life flowers in an attempt to heal himself psychologically. He'd lost both of his parents when he was a teenager, was homeless for a time, had to drop out of art school because he couldn't pay the tuition, was sick with a bad heart, was what we would today call, clinically depressed, even to attempting suicide a number of times.

Levitan was also Jewish, suffering under the tsar's 650 laws (1881-94) regulating every aspect of  Jewish life in Russia's cities. After a failed attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, 20,000 Jews were expelled from Moscow to the countryside. Levitan and his siblings were caught up in that  banishment.

In one book of flower symbology there is a little footnote indicating that cornflowers are symbols of tenderness. Tenderness means:  kindness, affection, compassionate, caring, concerned, sympathetic, humanity, warmth, fatherliness, motherliness, gentleness, benevolence, generosity. Isn't it interesting that Levitan, who was orphaned as a boy, has chosen to picture cornflowers which symbolize tenderness, which means fatherliness and motherliness.

But tenderness is always under attack. Saint Paul understands in writing to the Ephesians:

"There is to be no trace of bitterness among you, of passion, resentment, quarreling, insulting talk, or spite of any kind; be kind and tender to one another, each of you generous to all, as God in Christ has been generous to you." 4:32
A Harvard scholar spoke recently on TV in light of the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries, bomb threats being phoned in to Jewish schools and daycare centers in thirty-three states. He said, "This is what happens when a divided country lives in the extremes of left and right; the middle ground is abandoned." 

The national heart is becoming savage. Savage means uncivilized, violent, uncontrolled, ferocious. An organization called  Savage Arms advertises: "Make the 2nd amendment your first priority." The ad continues, "To hold one of our firearms in your hands is to know what winning feels like." Your first priority?! Jesus said: "But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." Matthew 6:33. And Jesus also said: "If anyone wants to be first he must be the last of all and the servant of all." Mark 9:35


Whether he intended to or not, Levitan has given us these luminous cornflowers which are a symbol of tenderness. Instead of worrying about candy this Lent, we might consciously pursue tenderness. A friend is practicing what he's calling a Ministry of Smiling for Lent's forty days.

12 comments:

  1. Tenderness is certainly something to consider in these cornflowers. But also notice the one lone cornflower laying on the ground outside the vase, the blue head facing the others as if to say "Pick me up and put me back in with the others".

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    1. That's tenderness: seeing and picking up the little one; the littlest one - the baby that needs a home, the runt of the litter, the chick that's fallen out of the nest, the Syrian child, the Jewish toddler who's daycare center is threatened with menacing phone call.....

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    2. How observant you are! I missed that lone flower which beckons to be part of the bouquet. The observation and message of inclusiveness inspires me...

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    3. I want to be sure we note that the powers of observation here belong to April P. All I did was respond to her comment. She started it! Blessed Lent everyone.

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  2. Some might see tenderness as weakness. This misnomer has led us to carry hardened hearts. Thank you for this post which reminds us that admiring beauty or being kind to someone and accepting everyone that isn't like you, are the acts that Jesus wanted from us. Not to be derisive or to carry weapons that harm each other. I see peacefulness in these cornflowers.

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    1. I wonder if someone would denigrate tenderness, calling it weakness, because he/she is afraid.

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  3. Isaac Levitan had a difficult life it seems, but he produced beautiful and abundant artwork. It is as if he was expressing the world as he wanted it to be for him, not as he lived it. The beautiful soul trapped inside. Many people live this way and never find a way to let their inner self shine.

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    1. Yes. And while suffering embitters some people, others are sensitized and compassion-ated by it.

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  4. Beautiful thoughts here. Looking at the cornflowers through an artistic eye and with your thoughts is inspiring.

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    1. Levitan has also painted a bunch of dandelions and white lilacs with forget-me-nots. Very lovely.

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  5. I particularly love and appreciate the reflection on tenderness.

    The immediate evocation for me is of the Blessed Virgin Mary because the blue, white, and tenderness complement each other. BVM... the most tender of all.

    Interesting how the cornflowers, relative to the more limp green grasses, have a bit of bristle or 'backbone', in the petals. The Ministry of Smiling brings tenderness into the world but requires a mindfulness that also has a resilient bristling backbone. Not everyone smiles back and sometimes it takes spiny gumption to find a kind/tender salutation when you just don't feel like smiling.

    Thank you also Fr. S for this diversion from outdoor landscape. Cool contrast. Regarding contrasts, your reflection on tenderness prompted me to listen to the soulful Otis Redding classic song, 'Try A Little Tenderness'.

    May the Sunday of others be as blessed as mine, Reflecting on Levitan and reeling with Otis.

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    1. I'm getting a lot of miles off this Ministry of Smiling, featuring it in the Mass homily today. A far cry from "grin and bear it" or "Whistle a happy tune" - smiling as an exercise of consciousness and self-awareness. What is my face saying, right now? Christianity is an inner, spiritual way.

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