I well remember the intense disappointment I experienced when attending Luchino Visconti’s now almost legendary production of Rigoletto at Covent Garden sometime in the early 1960s. I had been studying the work for my A level music exams. As a result, I knew it backwards from listening to a scratchy LP set I’d got out from the public library. It was long before videos and DVDs and television opera productions were as much a rarity as they are today so one conjured up a production in one’s mind based solely on the aural experience. And the better one knew a piece, the more elaborately comprehensive one’s mental production. It wasn’t that Visconti’s production was inferior to ‘mine’ – it was opulently wonderful – just that it didn’t fit the preconceived picture I had and was therefore a disappointment.
To generations that grew up first with bible stories at their mother’s knee and later with their own reading of the Scriptures, there can be few places more susceptible to personal preconceptions than the Holy Land. It would take a singularly unimaginative person who grew up like this not to have the clearest of pictures of the places where, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, the Feeding of the Five Thousand and other events in Our Lord’s earthly ministry took place. Well today I, like many before me, had the uncomfortable experience of comparing my own long-nurtured picture of many of these places with the modern day reality. It's not that I had expected this reality to conform precisely to what I had imagined, just that the old pictures have now to be discarded and replaced by ones that are by definition more prosaic and such a process cannot but be unsettling. It also brings into sharper focus the related matter of how certain can we be that particular events occurred in a particular place. Ultimately of course such certainty is unimportant and that unimportance sits more comfortably with a mental picture than it does with a map reference.
The picture at the head of this post is one I took this afternoon at the traditional location of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan at the hands of John the Baptist. It will take my grey cells a long while to discard the desert landscape that has until now featured in my mind’s eye and in innumerable Hollywood biblical epics for the lush semi-tropical reality. In this case at least I'm somewhat relieved to find I rather prefer the new version.