Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Haven for all

The city of Helsinki owns a Winter Garden that is open to the public throughout the year. The most popular times to visit are Christmas and Easter thanks to the decorative set-ups the gardeners always arrange for these holidays.

Last October, the steel-and-class Winter Garden celebrated its 120th anniversary. It was built by Julius af Lindfors, a Major-General who turned into business, social activism and philanthropy after retiring from his military career. He donated the conservatory to the Helsinki Garden Society he also acted as the chairman for. In 1907, a few years after his death, Helsinki bought it along with the rest of the gardens in the area from the society.

In 2011, a major renovation was completed for the largely hand-crafted building. An inspection had revealed that the steel structures were in poor condition. This meant removal and crushing of all the glasses, all the 40 tonnes of them. Some of the plants that couldn’t be transferred elsewhere were lost in connection with the lengthy renovation.

According to the wish of af Lindfors, entrance to the Winter Garden was free from the very beginning. It still is. In the summertime, there is also a café there but the garden chairs and tables are not taken away for winter either. The rest of the year you can take a seat, for example, to read a book, to have your own picnic lunch or coffee break, or just to spend a moment or two enjoying the greenery. The only limitations are the opening hours (Mondays closed but otherwise at least from noon till 3 pm).

These days I tend to be on the move rather late and generally I do not pay attention to the exact time. So when I was driving past the Winter Garden the other day and suddenly decided to take a turn and pop in I could do no more than literally point and shoot while running through the palm room and the west wing. The lady in charge was kind enough to let me in although she had already started washing the floor in the cactus room. I’m not planning to wait another decade (or more) to pay the next visit.

The Helsinki Winter Garden is located a stone’s throw away from the National Opera House at the bottom of the Töölö Bay, which is a very sheltered location. The park also includes a lovely rose garden with splendid rows of shrub roses and trimmed linden trees in front of the conservatory facing the bay. I must stop to admire them and take a few photos next spring. Oh, spring. You aren’t that far away, are you?

Wishing everyone a very happy New Year! May you all be able to spend a lot of time in a safe haven of your own.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Rainy metropolis

Talking about the Helsinki Cathedral, I happened to witness a rare moment of sunshine on it a few days before Christmas. Or if I am supposed to believe a recent news report, it wasn’t that rare. They claimed that by the 18th this December had been the sunniest since 2005 for the metropolitan area. By then, we had had no fewer than 15.4 hours of sunshine as opposed to 24 minutes last year. Weren’t we lucky!

The ‘joy’ was short-lived. So far, the latter part of the month has shown us practically nothing but rain, rain and more rain escorted by fierce winds. Today was a cheerful exception: just grey.

I don’t remember this wet an end-of-the-year season ever nor one with such miserable weather throughout. But then again my recollections might go wrong. There might have been something equally bad in the past at a time when I could still stand some cold. Such a time feels so distant these days.

So does the sensation of feeling warm. Thank heaven we have now passed the winter solstice. In less than a week the Lux Helsinki event will light up the city. ‘The Blue Line’ (I told about in my post of last January here) will be accompanied by a fresh set of light installations we can’t miss whatever the weather. As long as we will be brave enough to step out of the car, that is.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Italian cribs

Boxing Day or St Steven’s Day has turned to night but we are still very much in festive mood. After all, the season lasts at least until New Year, doesn’t it? So I’d like to tell you about a great seasonal event I visited just before Christmas: an exhibition of outstanding traditional-style Italian nativity scenes in the crypt of the Helsinki Cathedral.

Although appreciated throughout the Catholic world, crib making is perhaps a true art form in Italy more than anywhere else. It was also born there almost 800 years ago.

This one was placed inside a glass cabinet. I apologize for the quality of the photo.
The Holy Family and the birth of Jesus have been portrayed in paintings and sculptures from the early times of Christianity. However, St Francis of Assisi is regarded as the father of the crib. He got an idea to stage a living nativity scene to remind people about the events of Christmas night. Liturgical rules were very strict in those days but the pope granted him permission for the novelty and he realized the first crib with three live persons, a bull and a donkey in 1223.

The show presents elaborate nativity scenes mostly from the southern Italian regions of Basilicata, Campania and Sicily. The setting is often a local landscape or view, either rural or urban, instead of that described in the Gospel.

The most impressive of them is a brand-new crib measuring 3.5m x 2.5m designed by the Sicilian artist Roberto Vanadia (photos above and below). The setting is a characteristic Sicilian village from the end of the 19th century pictured scrupulously from rural and architectural details to traditional outfits and utensils.

Someone is sleeping in the barn.

The scene shows 30 figures made of terracotta on a scale of 1:10. The villagers are engaged in their everyday activities while the birth of Jesus goes almost unnoticed. I’m afraid this might also happen to the viewer as the lightning in the crypt did not hit the child at all, which is my only complaint about the exclusive event.

Mary is wearing a blue gown.
The below crib is created by another famous master, (Francesco) Franco Artese. He was the designer of the 2012 nativity scene in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican. In addition, his monumental crib of 25 square metres is being displayed in the Turku Cathedral, the seat of our Archbishop.

Nativity scenes have been slowly sneaking northward from Southern and Central Europe. In the past few decades or so, they have reached also our shores. The local ones I’ve seen so far have often been rather homespun, that is compared with the exquisite works in the present show. With the current renaissance of artisan craftsmanship, I would be surprised if cribs didn’t continue to win popularity raising the standards also here.

The cribs in both Helsinki and Turku will be on display until Epiphany, January the 6th.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Carved in stone

Back to the Venetian cemetery island of San Michele (my first post on it here) and the art of headstones. I concentrated on the beauty of the older tombstones and memorials, often with stone carving and mosaic work. Especially the former seems to have been very much in vogue in the 19th and early 20th century. We saw a few rather impressive busts (some of which might have been cast though) and lots of portrait reliefs.

In many, if not most of the older carved tombstones the topic was a religious figure of some sort. There were mourning maidens, oftentimes probably Mary or another saint. I always find them fascinating as we have very little, if any, of this kind of imagery in our graveyards. It is a pity not to know anything about the symbols of even the most important saints. I must unravel the basics one day.

There were many angels, naturally. Nothing like the modest ones we might see in our graveyards.

We spotted a few figures even we could identify as Virgin Mary plus an occasional Jesus. 

To me, the most striking was the below headstone with two embracing ladies. They must be the two Marys who stayed by Jesus until the end and further; Mary the mother of Jesus holding the cross and Mary Magdalene, one of his disciples.

It is early morning on Christmas Eve. The rain has stopped and I will wrap one or two final presents while watching over the ham in the oven. With these photos I wish you a very happy holiday season.