One element in the sky never fails to fill me with wonder at its mystery and its sheer beauty. It is the rainbow. At the same time, it never fails to fill me with hope. It doesn’t matter how bad things get, how low you sink in your thoughts or how depressed and inconsolable you feel: when you see a rainbow, your spirits are instantly lifted. A rainbow, of course, is also intangible. Just when you think you are catching up with it, it moves elsewhere and remains out of reach.
I was driving on the M62 motorway recently, from our family law office in Cheshire to our base in Harrogate. Even at the best of times this isn’t a drive I enjoy, because the surroundings are bleak and there are always lots of lorries on the road, travelling between the ports of Liverpool and Hull. Accidents are frequent, as are endless traffic jams and road closures. The back road route can add another two hours to the journey.
However, this drive was different. I was on a particularly cold and unwelcoming part of the motorway, crossing the Pennines at their highest point, when I saw not one, but two rainbows soaring above the road ahead. One arced above the other. It was an awe-inspiring scene. They stood out against the grey sky on this partly cloudy, partly rainy and partly sunny day, and seemed to beckon me on. They were so mesmerising, I didn’t want the drive to end. The rainbows turned an average day into an unforgettable one.
They made me think of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, painted by John Constable in 1831 when he was in deep mourning for his beloved wife Maria.
She had died a year earlier from tuberculosis, aged 41. This couple had overcome many obstacles to marry: Maria was – ironically enough – the daughter of a family lawyer. Her father did not consider John Constable to be a suitable match for his daughter. Fortunately, Constable came into an inheritance that paved the way for their eventual marriage.
His painting can be viewed at the National Gallery London, and there have been many interpretations of this striking work. For me, its meaning is uncomplicated. Life is going on down below, as it always does; above, there is a storm in the sky.
The storm seems symbolic of the grief-stricken painter’s desolation and the powerful emotions that wrack him. Yet the most interesting feature in the sky is that magnificent rainbow. It cleaves the sky and dominates the landscape so that everything else in the picture pales into insignificance. Even the magnificent beauty of Salisbury Cathedral palls – although its spire is trying to reach up to touch the rainbow.
I understand that in fact, the rainbow was added later.
Perhaps at first, the painting was intended to depict the inner storm, raging and despairing, while life appeared to go on as before. With the addition of the rainbow, could Constable have reached a stage at which acceptance and optimism were returning to him? Did his hope return?
Looking at this painting, it occurs to me that I have sometimes seen the same storm in the eyes of divorcing clients. Even when people are outwardly calm and collected, their eyes can betray feelings of disbelief, shock, pain, anger and rage. These are not emotions that everyone can express in words. Life is apparently going on as normal. Just as in the picture.
Divorce is similar to bereavement. Until there is acceptance that the relationship has finally come to an end, there can be no closure, no recovery and the storm will continue. It can be a long time before hope emerges from the thunderclouds. Ultimately, however, that renewed hope for the future- albeit a different and unexpected future – will come.
Optimism returns. The storm finally abates and subsides. And life goes on. If ever a painting so magnificently sums up all these feelings, it is this one. I hope that it brings you comfort and pleasure as it does me.