Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Three questions

click photo to enlarge
The quiz in Saturday's "Guardian" newspaper asked: "Which Gauguin painting poses three questions?" The answer, is of course, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?" Or, if you prefer the original: "D'où venons nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous?" This great work, painted in 1897 in French Polynesia, asks what are, probably, the three most important questions of life.

Some people have seen religion alone as the source of the answers to Gauguin's questions. Others have suggested that history, philosophy and science are the disciplines that can best deal with each one. And there are those who think that history and science together can give us the answers. Ironically, each individual's existing view of life will determine which, if any, of these approaches is deemed the best.

I think history can be a great help in answering the first question. However, history is not an unchanging collection of facts. It is interpretation of the past, and consequently it changes over time, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically, according to new research, historiography, and the individual historian's views. What doesn't change is the actual artefacts of the past - the things that our ancestors made and which still remain. I like to visit churches because, besides being places of worship, they are tangible records of the past, offering a marvellous combination of social history, architecture, art, and crafts. And, whilst one can read about the past, it only truly comes alive when you look at, touch and experience it through that which remains. So, a church like St Mary at Weston, Lincolnshire (above), shows us not only the wonderfully ornate stiff-leaf capitals on the columns, a form popular in the early 1200s and categorised as "Early English" by Thomas Rickman (1776-1841) who classified medieval architectural styles, but also the chisel marks of the individuals who carved them eight hundred years ago. And, in so doing our answer to the question, "Where do we come from?" is broadened to include "a past where people toiled at seemingly pointless tasks because they knew the power of beauty, and believed it would help them to achieve eternal life."

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 14mm (28mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f3.2
Shutter Speed: 1/13
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: On