09 May 2022

Paolozzi’s statue inspired by
Blake and Newtown brings
together belief and reason

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s 12-ft bronze sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton outside the British Library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

As two of us walked from Euston station to King’s Cross at the weekend, we stopped at the British Library to admire Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s magnificent 12-foot bronze sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton.

Paolozzi’s statue in the Piazza was completed in 1995. It depicts Sir Isaac Newton in his search for knowledge, and has become, perhaps, the British Library’s most famous resident.

Paolozzi’s Newton is inspired by William Blake’s 1795 watercolour of Newton (1795) illustrating how Newton’s equations changed our view of the world to being one determined by mathematical laws.

Blake’s original watercolour shows Newton surrounded by the glories of nature but oblivious to it all. Instead, he is focused on reducing the complexity of the universe to mathematical dimensions, bending forward with his compass.

Paolozzi’s six-tonne sculpture was cast by the Morris Singer Foundry, established in 1848 and best known for the Trafalgar Square lions.

Sir Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924-2005) was a Scottish artist, known for his sculpture and graphic works. He is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of pop art. His interpretation of Newton was inspired by both Newton and Blake together – one representing science and the other representing poetry, art and the imagination.

He decided that this synthesis would be perfect for the British Library: ‘While Blake may have been satirising Newton, I see this work as an exciting union of two British geniuses. Together, they present to us nature and science, poetry, art, architecture – all welded, interconnected, interdependent.’

For example, in this sculpture, Newton’s body resembles a mechanical object, joined with bolts at the shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles, demonstrating the relationship between nature and science.

The architect Sir Colin St John Wilson commissioned this sculpture as it embodies the purpose of the British Library as a place serving humanity’s endless search for truth, both in the sciences and the humanities.

The statue is based on an extremely rare colour print and watercolour of Newton by William Blake that is now in the Tate Gallery. It is so rare, in fact, that only two versions of this print exist.

The mathematician, philosopher, physicist, astronomer, alchemist, theologian and author Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is widely recognised as one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time and among the most influential scientists, and he was a key figure in the Enlightenment. His book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), established classical mechanics. He formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until it was superseded by the theory of relativity.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian who privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, unlike most fellows of Cambridge colleges in the day.

He spent the last three decades of his life in London, as Warden (1696-1699) and Master (1699-1727) of the Royal Mint, and was President of the Royal Society in 1703-1727.

The poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827) was largely unrecognised when he died 100 after Newton. as an English. Today, however, Blake is seen as a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and the visual art of the Romantic Age. He lived almost his entire life in London and produced a diverse and symbolically rich collection of works that embrace the imagination as ‘the body of God’ or ‘human existence itself.’

Blake’s great works of art include his ‘Ancient of Days’ (1794), drawing on Daniel 7, while his best-known poem is ‘Jerusalem.’ In that poem, Blake described England over 200 years ago as a ‘green and pleasant land.’ When his poem was slightly altered by the composer Sir Hubert Parry, it became the unofficial anthem of England.

The poem, written as a tribute to John Milton, was inspired by a myth that Christ once travelled to England with Joseph of Arimathea, and that they had visited Glastonbury. This myth is reflected in the original title of Blake’s short poem, ‘And did those feet in ancient time.’

Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ is contrasted sharply in his poem with an England that is being overrun by ‘dark Satanic Mills.’

It is not that Blake is yearning for a flight to the countryside from the cities of the Industrial Revolution. But looking at the Albion Flour Mills built in Southwark by John Rennie and Samuel Wyatt, he saw this tall new building as a symbol of the destruction of another era and of the oppression of the workers and their families.

Blake saw the new cotton mills and collieries of his time as a mechanism for the enslavement of the masses and the destruction of culture:
‘And all the Arts of Life they changed into the Arts of Death in Albion ...’

The words of the anthem are, paradoxically, an apocalyptic warning about a future England that is faced with choice between either embracing a more open way of life or of oppressing the masses.

William Blake’s notebook, with drafts of his poems and many drawings, is part of the manuscripts collection at the British Library. In Folio 12 in his notebook (‘The Rossetti Manuscript’), in pen and black ink with pencil, Blake has written part of the poem ‘You don’t believe’ along the left-hand edge.

In this poem Blake refers to Newton:

You don’t believe — I won’t attempt to make ye:
You are asleep — I won’t attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life’s clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.

Reason says ‘Miracle’: Newton says ‘Doubt.’
Aye! That’s the way to make all Nature out.
‘Doubt, doubt, and don’t believe without experiment’:
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said ‘Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!’

So, in Paolozzi’s sculpture at the British Library, Blake’s belief in miracles can be seen to provide a contrast to Newton’s self-excluding observational stance.

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton was inspired by William Blake’s watercolour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying with the Psalms in Easter:
9 May 2022 (Psalm 75)

‘All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted’ (Psalm 75: 10) … a shofar or ritual horn in the Casa de Sefarad or Sephardic Museum in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have another medical appointment later this morning, and I am planning to fly from Birmingham to Dublin later this afternoon. But, before this day begins, I am continuing my morning reflections in this season of Easter continues, including my morning reflections drawing on the Psalms.

In my blog, I am reflecting each morning in this Prayer Diary in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a psalm or psalms;

2, reading the psalm or psalms;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Psalm 75:

Psalm 75 is the third psalm in Book 3 in the Book of Psalms, which includes Psalms 73 to 89. In the slightly different numbering scheme in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, this is psalm is numbered as Psalm 74. In Latin, it is known by its opening words as Confitebimur tibi Deus.

This is the fourth of the ‘Psalms of Asaph.’ These are the 12 psalms numbered 50 and 73 to 83 in the Masoretic text and 49 and 72-82 in the Septuagint. Each psalm has a separate meaning, and these psalms cannot be summarised easily as a whole.

But throughout these 12 psalms is the shared theme of the judgment of God and how the people must follow God’s law.

The attribution of a psalm to Asaph could mean that it was part of a collection from the Asaphites, identified as Temple singers, or that the psalm was performed in a style associated with Asaph, who was said to be the author or transcriber of these psalms.

Asaph who is identified with these psalms was a Levite, the son of Berechiah and descendant of Gershon, and he was the ancestor of the Asaphites, one the guilds of musicians in the first Temple in Jerusalem.

Asaph served both David and Solomon, and performed at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple (see II Chronicles 5: 12). His complaint against corruption among the rich and influential, recorded in Psalm 73, might have been directed against some of court officials. The words used to describe the wicked come from words used by officials of the cult or sacrificial system.

Several of the Psalms of Asaph are categorised as communal laments because they are concerned for the well-being of the whole community. Many of these psalms forecast destruction or devastation in the future, but are balanced with God’s mercy and saving power for the people.

Psalm 75 is attributed to Asaph. It continues the theme of Psalms 57, 58, and 59, which also begin with the words al tashcheth (אל תשחית), ‘Do not destroy.’ Scholars do not agree on its meaning, but it may refer to an ancient song whose tune was to be used in singing the Psalms.

Like the previous psalms, Psalm 75 speaks of the Jews in exile, and praises God for preserving them. The laments of the people are voiced here and their promise to sing the praises of God at all times is established.

This psalm is labelled as a song or psalm to the leader, interpreted as the chief musician or leader of the community. The leader ends the psalm with a statement about the wicked being humbled and the righteous being exalted.

The Midrash Tehillim cites ten scriptural verses that mention horns to identify ten horns that God gave to the people: the horns of Abraham, Isaac (the shofar or ram’s horn), Moses, Samuel, Aaron, the Sanhedrin, Heman the Ezrahite, Jerusalem, the Jewish Messiah, and David in the future.

When the people sinned, these ten horns were removed from them and transferred to the wicked, as it is written, ‘a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong … was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns’ (Daniel 7: 7). The Midrash teaches that as long as the horns of the wicked prevail, the horns of Israel will be cut off; but in future, when God elevates the horns of the righteous, the horns of the wicked will be cut off.

Some commentators suggest the horn may be a symbol of honour or strength, but when possessed by the arrogant, the horn is said to be ‘cut down’ or humbled. While God rejects the horns of the haughty, he exalts the horns of the righteous.

In Jewish tradition, Psalm 75 is recited as a ‘prayer for forgiveness.’ In the Sephardic tradition, this psalm is recited during the Motza’ei Shabbat prayers on Saturday evening.

Johann Sebastian Bach used the beginning of Psalm 75 for the opening movement of Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (BWV 29), a cantata for the inauguration of a town council in Leipzig. He used the music again for the movement Gratias agimus tibi of the Mass in B minor, expressing the same thought of thanks.

Hymns based on Psalm 75 or specific verses include the popular ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ Catherine Winkworth’s translation of Rinkart's ‘Nun danket alle Gott.’ The German hymn and its English version inspired several settings, including some by Bach.

‘Let us pray for the Diocese in Europe and the many countries it serves’ (USPG Prayer Diary, 9 May 2022) … the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar, is one of the three cathedrals of the Diocese in Europe – the others are in Brussels and Valetta, Malta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Psalm 75 (NRSVA):

To the leader: Do Not Destroy. A Psalm of Asaph. A Song.

1 We give thanks to you, O God;
we give thanks; your name is near.
People tell of your wondrous deeds.

2 At the set time that I appoint
I will judge with equity.
3 When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants,
it is I who keep its pillars steady.
4 I say to the boastful, ‘Do not boast’,
and to the wicked, ‘Do not lift up your horn;
5 do not lift up your horn on high,
or speak with insolent neck.’

6 For not from the east or from the west
and not from the wilderness comes lifting up;
7 but it is God who executes judgement,
putting down one and lifting up another.
8 For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draught from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.
9 But I will rejoice for ever;
I will sing praises to the God of Jacob.

10 All the horns of the wicked I will cut off,
but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Celebration in Casablanca.’ It was introduced yesterday by the Right Revd Dr David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop in Europe.

The USPG Prayer Diary this morning (9 May 2022) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Diocese in Europe and the many countries it serves.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org