Liturgical painting: Spem in Alium
Today we did a performance for the Good Friday gathering at Christ Church Hawthorn. Tamie read through Isaiah 53 while I pitched blood and filth at a great white throne flicked clots of red paint at a white-sheeted chair. It was a straightforward but powerful symbol of Jesus’ suffering for us.
I’ve also been turning over how I might pull off another piece of liturgical painting: an audiovisual meditation using one of my favourite pieces of music, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis.
As with Shakespeare, we know hardly anything about Thomas Tallis apart from his wonderful creative work. Spem in Alium was probably composed near the beginning of the reign of Mary Tudor in 1553. The piece combines eight mini-choirs of five people each, apparently designed for the 40 voices to surround the listener with a gut-busting wall of sound. Unfortunately, modern sound technology can’t really get a handle on that, and Spem in Alium is only rarely performed live because of the scale and technicality of the composition.
Tallis was the main composer for the Chapel Royal at the time, working under a Roman Catholic ruler. The words of Spem in Alium come from the liturgical use of the Book of Judith. Queen Mary had been identified with the heroine Judith — and back then, a lot of church music was for making powerful people happy. The Latin text of Spem in Alium translates something like this:
I have never put my hope in anyone but you, O God of Israel,
who will be angry and yet be gracious,
and forgive all our sins in suffering.
Lord God, creator of heaven and earth,
bear in mind our disgrace.
The piece lasts for about ten minutes. Now, is that enough time to paint out the depths of human frailty and desperation along with the beginnings of hope?