Courtyards: a vision of light perceived as through a
veil of gauze; as if, having passed beneath the arches, a curtain of shadow has
lifted to reveal a veil of light, a screen upon which is projected an image at
once a dream and yet so clearly a part of reality that there is nothing more
behind to discover, and so beyond which there is no further seeking. The veil
of light conceals nothing: the vale of light already lies before us.
a frame for the face of light.
Courtyards: caught between interior and exterior (not
just a linguistic binary but a profound difference in space on which
fundamental categories of experience have come to rest). A space forever
finding itself somewhere between garden and room; occupying the same semiotic
space occupied by gardens relative to the Nature/Culture opposition. As gardens
are to Nature and Culture so courtyards are to the garden and to the house. Yet
this is not a half moon, equally divided by light and darkness. One point of
view offers a near plenitude : the other a crescent. On the waxing side of
Culture there is the comfort of shelter, a sense of interiority, the presence
of a room without one actually being there. Yet like an eclipse a residue of
exposed exteriority remains. On the waning side of Nature there is the opening
onto the sky; the portal through which comes everything that falls. The side of
Nature that falls; of which foremost, the gift of light; making of the
courtyard a vast skylight, open to the heavens; charting the passing cycles of
sun and star; mysteriously transformed by the mercurial touch of moonlight. All
are permitted entry through the portal of the sky; all come pouring down, like
luminous rain, coin of the heavens, gold by day, silver by night. Unlike the
world of covered spaces, where light must peer in from the outside, come
slanting in from the side, as in the relation of room to window. Here the roof
is of nature's making; the vault of the sky is carried by unimaginable spans
beyond which the heavens are revealed. Constellations circle overhead.
cage of the sun; audience of shadows.
'Our' space and 'our' place. Private and open: a place
of light shared by individuals or their family. Or public and closed: a space
shared by small local communities, a group of families - their space. 'Our
space'. Also a place symbolising that community and its demarcation from the
greater 'good' (the greater community), a place symbolising their interrelation
and their concord (or its absence if the space is ill-used). A space conjuring
up a community - a shared identity giving spirit and taking place (genius
loci). A refuge (from heat, and wind, and public noise and dirt - also from the
public gaze). And if we find the presence of fountain and pool, of tree and
shrub, then the courtyard becomes a garden, replete with all the meanings such
a changing of mood, such a switching of the genres of space, can bring. An airy
canopy of green replaces the sealed weight of the ceiling. Cracked pots pour
forth red flowers. Everywhere the shadow of leaf on stone.
stone holds air in light. Water plays.
From the privacy of solitude to the confluence of a
very particular public; open to the gathering of the some and closed to the
passage of the many. Intimate and social; place of the performance of
hospitality and fraternity. An 'our' space which is also the place of the
Other. A palace of the Other (built on the ruins of the other). For all
community rests on two foundations (each disappearing into the ether of the
beyond). The law-giving meta-set, the axiomatics of the Eternal Other and the
other of the limit, the other that defines the limits of the self (the soiled,
abjected, taboo). Foundations invisible or built on the barrier of rejection.
The golden dome and the pogrom. 'Our' place. The knot in the rope of the
disappearing rope trick. A city one of whose foundations soars into the sky
(the other lies in the charnel houses of the gods, where the undevoured meat of
sacrifice is left to rot).
of the sun; the forgetting of shadows.
the intuition of the infinite reveals only the open ground of the temple (the
sanctum, like the sewers, lies hidden in shadow).
The path to the infinite is always the same path down
which return the tablets of law. The
In the mutterings of those entrusted with the policing
of exclusion, how strange to find, even here, the pale phantasms of power
holding court amid the pillars and the plants.
Courtyards (quotidian, sub-lunary): place of
joviality, sharing, place of secure somnambulence. If not diluted into the
affectless space of passage. (Or reduced to a car park).
Origins. The open courtyard of the Roman house (as
today, the dream of every dweller on the block - the insula or apartment block
arrived early on the urban scene). The atrium of the Christian basilica; the
place of composure before the hushed entry into the shaded sanctuary. Moorish
courtyards; the Alcazar gardens and the place of the faithful, the court of the
mosque; the gifts of Islam. Palazzi courtyards (from the Renaissance to the
By dawn; the filtered light of a hidden sun, an
etherialisation of matter that makes possible the brute passion of the day. The
ideal is born of the morning. The
courtyard nurtures it; preparing it for the dissipation of the day to come. The
day mourns the ideal. This time of reflection is also the time of looking
forward. A place between private and public, fresh, unformed, the place for the
performance of the self, of the dance of the ideal and the self, rehearsal for
the world without.
The course of the day witnesses the triumph of the
royal court of the sun; from whose beneficent dominion there must nevertheless
be a place to hide.
At noon, the retreat under the arch, behind the
shutters - or just the other side of a partly closed door. At cooler times one
might even emerge into the full sight of the sun, directly above, caught out in
the open, out in the unrelenting light: itself caught, like the taming of a
god, caught in a pagan frame, a sacred geometry, the circle in a square, like
the inside of a dome, its interior circle resting on four pendentives,
conducting its force down through the square of four pillars... so now we find
ourselves in a Byzantine place of worship, with the glow from above, the golden
glow of mosaics, a reflected glory, shining down. In the courtyard the stare of
Christ is replaced by that of an older god, a pagan eye that sits in majesty,
the light that sees, even as it illuminates, and so makes possible the act of
seeing. The art of seeing. Yet blinding too in its casual revelation: a fiery
icon. The fiery angel that stands in the sky.
where light hangs as if caught in the spray of a waterfall; blessing of the
sun, hosanna descending.
where darkness hangs as if caught between the glow of the city and the stars.
Absence is the gift of night to the imagination.
By night the courtyard becomes a walled garden,
silent, monastic - the precincts of a Moorish palace, scented with night
flowers that glow milky-white in the dark; the milk of the moon fallen into a
walled dark space. Night flowers: the scents of jasmine and honeysuckle, the
climbers in the branches, or the smell of lemons, of their flowers and fruit
refreshing the warm air (the fresher air of night accompanied by the slow
sounds of water leaking from cracked ceramics). The courtyard by night; a place
empty yet full; like all sacred spaces, like all sense of place; more than just
itself (like all art). And all around in the near-silence, the still night air
echoes with the presence of others, muted voices... the memory of sound, like
the cool air one breathes... the taste of the lives of others... as the sense
of sight retreats, so the others step in, smell and hearing... bearing the
remains of the day and the life of the night... dropping a stone into the well
of our mind... ripples of the lives of others blending with the darkness of the
bed of thought (and with our sense of touch, triggered by a clarity of sound so
pure we can feel the stone or the branch as we hear its rasp or whisper, just
as we feel the intimate motion of throat and jaw in the absent, distant voice).
By night the shadows, exiled to a half-life beneath
the arches, flow out until they reunite, flooding the courtyard like a dark ocean;
enveloping with their soft forms the hard glitter of negation. (For negation
still reflects both the negated and the viewer, whilst in the shadow these
subsist only in the outline of the form, leaving the content open to the wash
of the sublime.)
passage (a visit to the Oslavia district of Rome after sunset). Entering and
leaving the closed space of courtyards, window lights above, stars up when not
drowned by the omnipresent urban glow, street lamps and windows blazing-out the
presence of their occupants, like the sound of a radio or television
transformed into light... the white noise of sight. The mute blackness and
colossal appearance of trees in the courtyard by night, towering above,
accentuated by the frame of the walls around, a space channelling vision upward
to the sky, channelling the tree also; it rears up as it reaches
overhead... And then the amazing
presence of people, lots of people, some in groups, some alone, all invisible
accept for the odd trace of light and some occasional noise; invisible yet
present behind the walls and windows of the courtyard. A space enclosed by
people. Invisible people. In boxes, like a mausoleum, or catacomb, sepulchral,
sacred, as the burial ground or underground chamber, a final resting place, or
the shared site of this world and the next, the waiting room of the
netherworld. All around, concealed from sight, eternity's ghosts wait in their
rooms to pass on. The courtyard reminds us that no-one is ever more than a step
away from a glimpse of the infinite perspective. The courtyard, sacred as only
a framed piece of sky can be...
an infinite perspective, courtyards finally resemble all religious forms in
their homage to the sky; hypsosis
does not require a spire, only an opening. Present in every courtyard are - not
only the mosque or the cloister - but also the cleft rocks opening to the sky,
as in the oracular shrine of the Hittites in archaic Boazkale (
in and out, exchanging public and private space, making private, public, and
public, private, dipping in and out of light to dark, and dark to light
(feeling like Dante and Virgil traversing the spheres of the human condition,
finding our way through strange grottos and experiencing the diverse levels of
human mythology). Moving on tip-toe from one wall of tombs to another, at times
(at this time) courtyards are like Italian graveyards where the dead are found
slotted into shelves in a wall, attended by candles and flowers; and where a
red light burns for so long as someone remembers, for as long as some one is
left to remember. The filtered light from curtained windows and the flickering
glow of televisions, our candles, the red light of alarms our marker of blessed
memory, protector from night's alarms, and all around, indistinct yet present
like the hand held out before one in darkness, or glittering with reflected
light like a crystal carving of black sapphire, the coal-black silhouettes of
bush and shrub, our night flowers of negation - silently, invisibly, beckoning
the blind moths of the human soul...
so we move on, as from one flower to another, and always we are aware of
others... of other presences. For our own is an illegal presence, as if we were
walking in the graveyards of night, dreading the presence of phantoms, or lost
in the darkened halls and precincts of the priests' high sanctuary where walk
the souls of those sacrificed, whose sombre features flit-by as we pass through
this sombre space, barely imprinting themselves on our memories (a shallow
organ, little suited to recording the faint emanations of the dead). And
perhaps we too ourselves are such, believing ourselves to be visitors, but
doomed to repeat our passage nightly. Each time forgetting the time before.
Each time afresh; eternally present in eternal repetition. Ghostly
passers-through of a space dedicated to others... Passers-through of a passage
through space now dedicated to the prayers of the sleeping, the whispered
orisons of night.
Night prayers: from the closing ritual of Compline to
the dead time between sleep, the dream world of Vigil, the delirium of the
void, the watch of the soul. For this is the time of the time opened out in the
time between the closing of light and the waking of thought; the time that is
opened up in the dead of night, from the dead of night, for the dead, parting
the heavy veils of night with a chasm deeper than prayer itself...
...just as the
courtyard frames and reframes an absence whose significance gains in value with
each frame. Like the Russian Doll of ritual; the staggered repetition of a
liminal threshold. Or the infinite regress in the mirror; the Golden Sections
of the soul. The absence at the end of the final frame carrying all meaning
The star in the drop of water (the star in the pool),
the tear of heaven (the tear in the eye of heaven); transfiguring a leaf with a
bejeweled droplet (or making the pavement glisten with the presence of
rainwater) as the constellations of the Milky-way seem to hover just above the
The star in the drop of water, the tear of heaven;
transfiguring a leaf with a bejeweled droplet as the constellations of the
Milky-way seem to hover just above the flagstones.
Copyright 2003 Peter Nesteruk