Blessed Fra Angelico has got what you need. First, we have the women at the tomb greeted by an angel:
The Risen Christ hovers in the background, as it simply would not do to show merely an empty tomb. This fresco is in cell 8 upstairs at San Marco’s Dominican Convent in Florence, so Fra Angelico paints St. Dominic kneeling to the left – in the brother’s cell, he (almost) always puts a Dominican in the scene, to remind the viewer that he is not just looking at a pretty fresco, but is to see himself in the events portrayed.
I love the way the angel sits rather casually and seems to be caught mid-lecture: He is risen as he said!
Ye sons and daughters of the Lord,
the King of glory, King adored,
this day Himself from death restored.
All in the early morning gray
went holy women on their way,
to see the tomb where Jesus lay.
Of spices pure a precious store
in their pure hands these women bore,
to anoint the sacred Body o’er.
The straightaway one in white they see,
who saith, “seek the Lord: but He
is risen and gone to Galilee.”
Next, from cell #1, is the “Do not cling to Me” scene from the Gospel of John:
The lack of a Dominican is a little unusual – a quick skim spotted only 3 or 4 others cell frescoes out of 36(?) or so cells that do not feature one. I could make up a story about how the text being illustrated – Mary Magdalene, confused and desperate, looking for her Lord, is enough of an Every Person for the artist’s purpose. But I don’t know.
Love the hoe on Christ’s shoulder – mistaken for the gardener, indeed. Here and in his Annunciations, where man’s fall and salvation are front and center, Fra Angelico sets them in a garden and adds much details to the plants and trees. Man’s proper place is, after all, in a garden, a place restored and then some by Christ’s Resurrection. Ave fit ex Eva, after all.
We’ll end for this year with Piero della Francesca’s awesome Resurrection:
Aldous Huxley, of all people, describes this fresco thus: “It stands there before us in entire and actual splendour, the greatest picture in the world.” Like most masterpieces, photos do it no justice. Piero captured the grandeur of the Risen Lord, and his realistic portrayal of the guards as contemporary Italian men at arms who dropped asleep where they sat is wonderful.
One last distraction: count the guards’ legs. Piero was painting the Resurrection, not guards’ legs, so if he needed to leave out a few…
Got some Bouguereau lined up for tomorrow. He’s a pretty good cautionary tale against accepting the opinions of your age, one with, possibly, a happy ending. During his lifetime, he was considered the greatest painter in the world, for very good reason:
One may reasonably dispute about choice of subject matter, for example, or simply prefer other great artists. I’m partial to Fra Angelico and Botticelli, personally. But as far as skill and technique goes, he’s one of the very greatest painters ever, and he used all those painting chops to create always beautiful and often profound art. The accusations made against him and other Academic painters – that they were dull, lifeless, and cared only about technique – are disproven by a glance at just the 3 examples above.
But Bouguereau, who died in 1905, was forcibly consigned to the dustbin of history, and stayed there, his painting put into storage and dismissed in art schools for over 80 years. Only the work of some dedicated people has brought him back to life over the last couple decades.
When hung in museums, these are the painting the young and old alike linger over. It’s not because of bad taste. Preferring modern art to Bouguereau is a willful act of insanity. It is to choose ugly and shallow over beautiful and deep.
Anyway, yesterday, was wasting time on Twitter – but I repeat myself – when Daddy Warpig, self-proclaimed geek and trenchant social critic, tweeted:
To which I replied:
And, 10,000 or so impressions (whatever they are), dozens of retweets and likes and replies later – I’ve introduced Bouguereau to Mr. Warpig’s Twitterverse. You know, gamer geeks and Odds and all that. I do not understand Twitter at all. In about 12 hours, there was more Twitter activity around this tweet than the total from inception to that point. People thanked me for introducing them to Bouguereau, who (of course) they’d never heard of.
A happy, holy and blessed Holy Thursday to all who read this blog and their loved ones.
Let’s look at some nearly randomly chosen Last Supper art:
Along the east coast of Italy, facing what used to be the Eastern Roman Empire across the Adriatic Sea, there are a number of churches that look east for their architecture and style. San Marco, in Venice, is the most outstanding. Above is a mosaic of the Last Supper, from sometime after the 10th century, capturing the moment in St. John’s Gospel where, at Peter’s urging, John lays his head on Jesus’s chest and asks who it is who will betray Him. Typically of iconography, little attempt is made at realism – feature, not a bug, as the point of all such art is to raise our minds to contemplation of the Truth, not artistic realism.
An oddity: all 12 apostles are shown – and each has a halo. Since, at this point in the narrative, Judas has not yet left to lead the soldiers to Christ, is the artist trying to tell us he is still an Apostle, still counted among the holy?
Here, for example, from a few centuries later:
Note that John still had his head on Christ’s chest, even though at this point Christ is shown consecrating the bread and wine. Judas, front center left, does not have a halo. He is depicted as having already abandoned himself to treachery and the devil. There’s a long history of northern Europeans – largely, the Germanic tribes – having a very legalistic view of things which the missionaries from Italy had a devilish time trying to convert them from, such as compiling books of exactly what penalty each carefully-defined sin would get them in the confessional. The Eastern artist wanted to convey that even Judas was chosen by Christ for holiness and salvation. Huguet wants us to know who the bad guy is.
Fra Angelico wanted to be realistic, after the fashion of Giotto, with real figures shown doing real things. He’s also working with the existing architecture – he’s fitting this fresco on a wall under an arch, which intrudes in the upper left. He takes these considerations, and makes them strengths. He can’t hang his Apostles suspended in mid-air behind a table whose surface is in another plane from wherever it is the Apostles are located, so he wraps the table around under the arch, gives the three Apostles sitting there a higher built-in bench to sit on so that they line up nicely heightwise with the Apostles along the other stretch of table.
But there’s not enough room to show all 12 in this manner. Our Byzantine artist in Venice would have just packed them in, and that’s what Huguet did – nobody is eating dinner in his picture, they’re practically sitting on top of each other. Fra Angelico instead shows 4 empty seats that, had the Apostles been sitting on those benches, would have put them awkwardly with their backs to us, and instead has them kneeling – a nice reference to the way people would have received Communion in the churches in Italy in his day. These four Apostles obscure each other – unlike the other 8, they are not individuals, but a crowd. I think Fra Angelico did this on purpose, to have those 4 represent us, the people not at the table at the Last Supper, kneeling to receive Him today nonetheless. Also, he sticks Judas in that crowd, compromising on the halo question by giving him a dark one – Judas is still among the chosen Apostles, but he is losing the gift of grace as he embraces treachery.
Unlike the other paintings, here the table is cleared of dinner. “When supper had ended” we are told in Scripture, Christ consecrated the bread and wine. The other artists wanted to emphasize the Passover meal, and so showed it still on the table. Fra Angelico wants to emphasize the connection between what went on at the Last Supper and what goes on today at Mass, so the table is cleared. It is the Lamb of God distributing Himself Who is portrayed, Who completes and supersedes the pascal lamb of the Israelites.
Christ comes around the table to distribute Communion, just as the priest at Mass comes down to the railing. Assuming Christ was sitting in the middle, he’s starting with John, who would have been next to him according to John’s Gospel, and, as the youngest would be a beardless Apostle. But there’s also a clean-shaven Apostle on the end, so can’t be sure.
Finally, he puts Mary (I’m pretty sure) kneeling in lower left. Some tradition place her at the Last Supper, although she is not mentioned there in the Gospels. It serves Fra Angelico’s purposes to show her there – she is also us, in a way, the woman who said yes and for whom the Almighty has done great things. That yes and use by God for great things is what we aspire to. Judas is in a kneeling crowd, a crowd of those aspiring to what Mary has achieved – total surrender to the will of God. He could have chosen otherwise.
There are hundreds of other wonderful representations of the Last Supper. Maybe in future years we’ll get to a few more.
From the horrifying to the merely appalling: The other day, was talking with a friend who is a lovely person yet has, like St. Therese of Lisieux, terrible taste in art. (1) Specifically, this person (being evasive here, on the 1 in a million chance this person reads my blog) owns a bunch of Kinkade prints and likes much of the praise style music used in Catholic liturgies.
I’m enough of a snob to get my eyebrows up and in a fully locked position when contemplating the popularity of Kinkade. Really? I get that they’re pretty enough, after the manner of their kind, but – really? This particular Kinkade enthusiast is a college grad and professional. In ancient, no doubt darker times, a college kid would be exposed to real art, probably before he ever reached college. Heck, anyone Catholic who went to church regularly, back in the day, would almost certainly be exposed to art better than Kinkade’s in the architecture and furnishings of the building, if not in the paintings proper.
A philosophical thread on beauty expressed in 140 characters or fewer broke out. (Twitter: the thing next up to depart from my life, following computer games, the NBA, and Facebook. Soon, and very soon.) The worthy and serious interlocutors (interTweetitors?) were batting around definitions of good and beauty; Mark Neimeier threw up a post on it.
To sum up my position, which (I certainly hope) would be recognized as a callow amateur’s take of Aristotle’s and Thomas’s positions: The natural world is beautiful in its being (ontologically beautiful); when we see beauty, we are getting a glimpse of reality. Now, each of us sees this beauty according to our talents and skills – while all of us experience beauty as a part of our human nature, each of us also has gifts and shortcomings which affect our ability to experience the beauty all around us. I, for example, sometimes get a physical thrill from a beautiful chair or even a beautiful tool, because I understand them in a way most people have no reason to understand them. But ballet is to me beautiful in a way I don’t really understand, and I’m sure I’m missing some or most of what is truly beautiful about it. Further, someone who is seriously damaged morally and esthetically (and we all are damaged to some extent) may hate some beauty and find some ugliness attractive (and mislabel that attractiveness as beauty). This is no different from being physically crippled or having brain damage – that I can’t walk or speak due to such damage doesn’t make walking or speaking any less objectively real.
But enough – books have been written. Here I want to point out something from one of the very earliest posts on this blog: the argument that beauty is subjective – that it exists only ‘in the eye of the beholder’ is a self-defeating argument. What do we talk about? We just walk around stating what we do and do not like or find beautiful? To try to show someone else what it is we find beautiful in this or that is to tacitly admit that there’s something beyond my opinion which makes a thing beautiful. If it’s all subjective, then there’s nothing to talk about, and no point in talking.
On a more subtle level, the true, the beautiful and the good are not separable in practice – we can, if we want, talk about them separately, as aspects of a thing, but you can’t have one without the other two in any existing thing. Insofar as a thing exists, it is good and beautiful; any ugliness or badness exists only as a falling short of the intrinsic beauty and goodness of the things. Thus, traditionally, Satan has been viewed as the greatest of Angels – his evil lies in how far he has fallen short of his nature. But his existence, in itself, is good, beautiful and true.
Finally, nature, in the philosophical sense, admits of degrees of goodness and beauty. A rock or a plant is natural, but far less natural, and therefore far less beautiful and good, than a humans being. People possess the rock’s nature as a physical object, and possess the plants nature as a living thing. We even possess animal nature, where we can see and move around. But we can also know things in a way no rock, plant, or animal can, and act on that knowledge in a way only angels (that we know of) can. Each of the ‘natures’ man has – mineral, vegetable, animal, human – have aspects of of the good and the beautiful peculiar to them. Man, as the most natural thing in the Universe, has all those aspects.
We are most beautiful and good when we freely act out of faith, hope and love.
Bringing it back around to SFF, a book or story will be good and beautiful insofar as and to the degree it is true to life. It’s possible to write a good and beautiful story with no real moral content – a rollicking yarn, fun, entertaining. I can’t think of any, off hand – every story that is any good I’ve ever read has somebody somewhere facing a moral dilemma of some sort. In comedy (as classically understood) the good guys win in some manner; in tragedy, they lose. What makes it tragic are human failings that led to people not acting selflessly and bravely. (Much of Mike Flynn’s stuff is a good example of modern SFF tragedy.)
Much more beautiful would be a fun, rollicking story where the hero acts heroically, heroically meaning, for the last couple millennia, virtuously – selflessly, bravely, for a loved one or an ideal.
I think we kid ourselves if we think we’re going to write good stories that are morally neutral, just fun and adventurous. If Frodo doesn’t risk death so that the Ring might end up in the Cracks of Doom, if Luke doesn’t risk all to save his father and the Rebellion, heck, if Corbin Dallas doesn’t tell Lelu he loves her and thus saves the world – well, it’s just not much of a story. Or if we’re not shedding a tear when the character’s failings lead to inevitable tragedy.
This weekend, with any luck, younger daughter will get to visit the Uffizi Gallery. She is on a semester in Rome trip from Thomas More College, and this weekend is going to Florence, her one shot to visit, since all other weekends are booked through the end of the semester. (The poor dear will have to make do with visits to Assisi, Prague, and other magnificent yet lesser beauties before heading off to Paris, Lourdes, Ireland and England before wending homeward. Kids these days.)
She only has a day or two, which is roughly 6 months, 5 years or a lifetime too little to have spent in Florence, depending on how you want to figure it. I’ve gotten to spend roughly 6 weeks of my life in Italy, 2 weeks in Florence – which is pretty crazy for a sheet metal guy’s son from Whittier. I’m not complaining. Those 6 weeks blew my mind and impressed upon me that 6 weeks is hardly enough, laughably so.
The Italians, when they weren’t too tied up scheming or actively killing each other, took time out to produce about 1/2 of the truly great art mankind has ever produced, a vastly disproportionate share of which lives in Florence. The last Medici Grand Duke, a complete degenerate but semi-decent Grand Duke named Gian Gastone de’ Medici, managed to separate out the artwork from the rest of the wealth of Florence before he died, and leave it to his sister, Anna Maria Luisa. For the previous 300 years, the Medici family made no distinction between the wealth of Florence and their personal family fortune – there was little practical difference. But once it became clear to Gianni that he was the end of the Medici line as far as Grand Dukes went (the Great Powers of the time weren’t interested in letting his sister Anna Maria rule as Grand Duchess, and there were no male potential heirs) he very wisely decided that the art the family had collected over the centuries should be considered the family’s, left to his sister – and left in Florence. I don’t how likely it was that Francis of Lorraine – Gianni’s successor as Grand Duke – would have hauled off the good stuff to his palaces as Holy Roman Emperor, but I’d guess that over the years stuff would get reallocated by Frank or his successors after the manner of people’s stuff always and everywhere. Anna Maria left the collection to the city of Florence, with the restriction that it stay there.
Thus, thanks to Gianni and his sister Anna Maria, the greatest collection of great art in the world – The Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, and other bits and pieces elsewhere in Florence – stayed put in Florence, where we can see and enjoy it to this day. (Although it would have been small loss if Frank had grabbed a bunch of Sustermans on his way out of Dodge. Just saying.)
It was years ago that that I heard it stated as a truism that 1/2 of all the great art that exists exists in Italy. I have no reason to doubt it. Here is a thought experiment: Take any great work of art from anywhere outside of Italy. Then set aside a comparable masterpiece from Italy. Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted one supply or the other. Well? Do you think you’d run out of Italian masterpieces well before the ‘all other’ masterpieces? Seems unlikely to me.
To the title of this little brain dump: How does this thought experiment work if you run it Western Art versus All Other? I can admire the vigor of a polynesian mask or the intricacies of a Persian rug as much as anyone, but neither compares to the beauty and sophistication of even fairly minor works of Western Art. (Western Art for our purposes here excludes the vast bulk of post-Bouguereau works. Once the conscious decision to be both stupid and proud of it took over the art world, Western Art effectively ended except for the occasional throwback. There are signs of life, however. Let us hope.)
Why is this so? Certainly, the Italians and Christendom in general were no more wealthy and peaceful nor technically accomplished nor blessed with resources nor victorious in war than, say, the Chinese or Turks, for all but at most a couple of centuries over the last 2,000 years. During much of that time, from 634 to 1492, Christendom was for the most part shrinking, getting conquered and displaced by Islam across all of north Africa, all the Levant and Turkey, and most of the former Yugoslavia and some of adjoining Slavic lands. If you are looking to military might, it was a one-way street from East to West – until the Battle of Lepanto in 1571! Then it was a draw for a few centuries. Then, finally, in the 19th century, Western military might was generally better than that of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire didn’t fall until 1917.
A huge portion of the greatest Italian art comes from periods of great internal and external unrest, the 13th to 16th centuries (and, frankly, unrest in the form of wars and invasions was the order of the day during almost all of its post-Roman Empire history from 410 – the Visigoth sacking of Rome – until the last 70 years). Contra what Jared Diamond may think, the comparative glory of Italian and Western art is not the result of Guns, Germs and Steel. For comparatively little of its history has the West had the best military, the healthiest people or the best technology. On the tech side, and subsequently on the military and health side, things began to change in the early Middle Ages, but didn’t become decisive for many centuries. Only in the last 150 to 200 years would it have not been foolish to bet on the West in a war with anyone else based on technology alone.
I suggest that there is one area where the West did far outstrip the rest of the world over the last 2 millennia (except, in an ironic reversal, the last 2-3 centuries): Philosophy. We thought about things better, deeper and with more understanding than anywhere else in the world. Science, it may be said, is the ghost of medieval philosophy animating a shell of math and gadgets. But it’s the persistent conviction that the world is understandable and that we are capable of understanding it that has driven technological and scientific advances.
But much more than that, the Christian-infused Aristotelianism that is the Perennial Philosophy of the west provides both motivation and inspiration for Great Art. The explosion of Great Art in the west – and its subsequent recent decline – is the result of how well we understand, accept and act on that philosophy.