I come from a long line of believers. Welsh and Devonian clergymen (and some Lancashire Quakers) on one side, Greek ikon painters on the other. Admittedly, some of the Greek side got into fatal trouble with Ali Pasha, the Lion of Ioannina, around the time of Lord Byron (ending up, as those in trouble with Ali Pasha often did, in cauldrons of boiling oil), and at least one of the Devon vicars caused a divorce scandal that got as far as the House of Lords. In spite of, or probably because of all that, we haven’t been to church as a family for decades. The last time was one Christmas Eve long before my sister and I had families of our own. I don’t know why we went, really: we were all atheists or at least drifting towards the deep end of agnosticism. Perhaps it was just for old times’ sake, or to hear bells ringing out over the valley. That particular night, the village church had brought in a popular vicar from Plymouth to give the sermon: a dark-haired, red-faced, rotund man bulging with Puritan self-satisfaction. “Birth…” He scowled at us from the pulpit like a constipated Roundhead. “Birth… is a bloody business.” I remember my father raising his eyebrows ever so slightly. That was it. And we’ve never been back.
Atheism just hit me one day. A reverse epiphany. I can remember the exact moment when it happened. I was walking down a street in the London suburb of Ealing, on my way to the shops. I must have been around 9 years old – this was a long-forgotten age when 9-year-olds were allowed to wander down to the shops on their own to buy a few sweets or a comic – and it was summer. We’d been visiting my grandparents and there had been a lot of handwringing over my lack of a religious upbringing. I’d been feeling guilty, and a bit scared. It hadn’t been that long since my last visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum and the inevitable encounter with the Saint George Altarpiece, 375 square feet of Spanish Gothic grand guignol, that used to stand at the bottom of the grand staircase, waiting to terrify me. The saint is slaying the dragon in the centrepiece but all around it, people are slaying the saint in various inventive ways, each one more disturbing than the last. I loved – still love – the V & A but the altarpiece always seemed to ambush me. And each time I’d notice a new, horrible detail. George boiled in oil. George dragged behind horses, or crushed, or bisected by two men wielding a planking saw. It was obviously a cautionary tale but I couldn’t tell what the moral might be. What it seems like now is one of those illustrations from the manuals that come with dangerous machines: table saws, chainsaws. Except that belief seems to be the dangerous machine in question.
Perhaps the painting was on my mind that afternoon as I strolled along, trying not to step on the cracks in the pavement. At the end of the street I happened to look up at the dark green leaves of a bay tree that grew over the wall at the corner. I looked up, saw the dark, pointy leaves and the blue sky beyond and realised that there was no God up there. No God anywhere. No need for all the suffering and the guilt. All the painted blood that was somehow supposed to be on my conscience. It was an enormous relief. That’s what I remember, as sharp as leaves outlined against the London sky: a sense of infinite space and an intense, almost ecstatic relief.
That Plymouth vicar was right, though, in his way. Life is a bloody business. It’s quite possible that some lucky percentage of a rural Devon church congregation back in the early 1980s might have been deliberately or even accidentally unaware of world events. Didn’t read the paper, didn’t watch the news on the telly. A couple of the people listening to the vicar had never even been to Plymouth, 12 miles away. Hard to do that now, though, in a world where technology conspires to shove everything in our faces, all the time. The information age is an age of focus, of the zoom-in. News is claustrophobic in its immediacy. In that sense, the Saint George Altarpiece is almost modern. There’s no point in looking away because everywhere you look, something brightly appalling awaits the eye. And there’s nothing that requires belief in the sense of faith, because everything is, or appears to be, fact.
So to my surprise, and as an atheist, I’ve gone back to Christian art in search of that sense of space and relief. To the clear colours and pure beauty of the Early Renaissance. To painters like Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli and Piero della Francesca, whose paintings open onto more light and depth than any earthly window. Fra Filippo, whom I wrote about in Appetite and who is the subject of my next book, knew pain. He knew horror. By the time he had painted the unearthly beauty of his Madonna with Child and Two Angels, he had been tortured on the rack by the magistrates of Florence. But in the Virgin’s face – possibly the face of his mistress and great love, Lucrezia Buti – there is serenity, unaffected humanity. There is grace.
I find that I spend my life looking. Technology wants us to look. It doesn’t necessarily require us to see. Fra Filippo wants us to see. I think he’s telling us that if we open our eyes, belief will follow. We know what Fra Filippo, the old Carmelite friar, must have believed. But I’ve never felt that he’s telling me what I should believe, unless it’s that beauty transcends everything. He wants to remind us that it’s still there: all that space, all that serenity. The devastating calm of true beauty. Despite all the noise and blood and dangerous machinery. Even for an atheist like me.
A late Merry Christmas to one and all.