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Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) by Unknown artists
Man-Made Fibres by Mitzi Cunliffe
Concentration of Hands I by Barbara Hepworth

Unknown artists

Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands), began c.7,000 BCE, Mural, UNESCO Wolrd Heritage Site, Santa Cruz, Argentina, De Agostini Picture Library / Bridgeman Images

Mitzi Cunliffe

Man-Made Fibres, 1954–56, Portland stone, University of Leeds, LEEUA 1956.013, © Mitzi Cunliffe; Photo University of Leeds Art Collection / https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/504

Barbara Hepworth

Concentration of Hands I, 1948, Pencil and oil on plywood, 53.5 x 40 cm, The British Council, P53, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness; Photo: © The British Council, Courtesy of the British Council Collection

Handling Our Fragility, Seeking a Wise Heart

Comparative Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

Psalm 90 is often described as a psalm of communal lament (Clifford 2004: 191; Goldingay 2008: 21). It is a shout for help arising from a specific moment of collective crisis, the imminent or present collapse of life as it is known—a crisis experienced as the consequence of past actions (figured as divine punishment) but now a crisis in the face of which the community is powerless.

Often, also, and sometimes by contrast, this psalm is categorized as a meditation on wisdom, recalling timeless truths about the fleeting character of human life that everyone in every age would do well to learn; we do not need, or should not need, to be in the middle of a crisis to learn to number our days. The images of hands, and the work of hands, suggest how these two aspects of the psalm—the communal lament and the individual wisdom meditation—come together.

The wall of the Cueva de las Manos speaks about each and every human life, every person across nine thousand years or more who might reach out and touch the wall—he or she flourishes and then fades like grass (Psalm 90:7); and it reflects a specific community’s project and vision, an attempt to structure meaningful lives in a stable dwelling place. Barbara Hepworth’s Concentration of Hands has at its centre an individual human life and its frailty, the body under the surgeon’s knife; but it depicts an intimately shared activity, a tradition of wisdom and skill honed over generations. Created at the time of the founding of Britain’s national health service, Hepworth’s picture also reflects a social and institutional vision that sees human fragility and suffering not as a burden to be borne alone fatalistically but as a shared predicament that calls forth compassion and creativity.

The hands that reach out to heal, create, or build, as well as the institutions and the cultures they create, are all made of the same creaturely stuff that withers and fades, that may be consumed or overwhelmed by disaster. Mitzi Cunliffe’s strong hands are exposed to the elements and merging with the fibres they weave; Hepworth’s surgeons wear their flimsy masks. The wisdom meditation—all life is fleeting—points inexorably towards the communal lament. In turn, however, the communal lament points back towards the urgent search for wisdom—for some indication of how to ‘restore and to maintain the beauty and grace’ (Hepworth 2013 [1953]), not only of the individual body but also of the social body.

From the middle of its communal lament—its cry of ‘how long?’ (v.13)—and in the face of overwhelming destruction, Psalm 90 grasps at the possibility of remaking the individual’s heart and the community’s life. It reaches for God’s faithfulness (v.14) as the hand reaches for the solid rock that has been a dwelling place for generations, leaned upon and taken for granted. It calls on the God who ‘turns’ people to dust, to turn towards God’s people and restore their common life (v.3)—reworking and restoring it with infinite compassion, from the heart outwards, like the transformation occurring under the concentrated hands of the surgeons.

What is particularly striking in Psalm 90 is that what sounds like the resounding finale to a communal drama—the reversal of fortune, affliction repaid with gladness, the glorious power of God made manifest—is not in fact the ending. The final double prayer for the ‘work of our hands’ recalls us to the quotidian; the vocations and traditions and institutions that these works of art celebrate as the ‘work of our hands’:

Prosper for us the work of our hands—
  O prosper the work of our hands! (v.17 NRSV)

Specifically, the intergenerational community is the context in which wisdom is learned and passed on, hand to hand—like the cat’s-cradle in Cunliffe’s sculpture—to be used and remade; we and our work are given over into each other’s hands.

Psalm 90 begins with a reference to ‘all generations’ (v.1) but ends with the more specific and precarious reference to ‘children’ (v.16). The collective future before God, the future compassionately granted in God’s ‘turning’, is not an indefinite open-ended continuum of more of the same, but rather a repeated call to take up, perform, and pass on the work of our hands.

 

References

Clifford, Richard J. 2004. ‘Psalm 90: Wisdom Meditation or Communal Lament?’, in The Book of Psalms, ed. by Patrick D. Miller and Peter W. Flint (Leiden: Brill), pp. 190–205

Goldingay, John. 2008. Psalms 90–150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic)

Hepworth, Barbara. 2013 [1953]. ‘Sculpture and the Scalpel’, Tate Etc., 27: 13