Monday, May 07, 2007

"New philosophy calls all in doubt..."


Here is a painting that has long intrigued me, The Entombment by Jacopo Carucci, known as Pontormo, an altarpiece in Santa Felicita, Florence, painted about 1528. (You can click to enlarge.)

There are many things that are striking about the painting, which shows Christ being taken from the place of crucifixion to the tomb, mourned by his mother. The colors are Day-Glo vivid, atypical for the time. The composition is highly unusual; a circular swirl with an empty center -- or rather, nothing at the center but a rag. The artist has sketched himself incongruously at Mary's left. And look at the faces! The haunted and haunting expressions! What do they register? Fright? Pity? Uncertainty? Doubt? These are not the faces of souls saved from sin by the sacrifice of the Son of God. These are deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing cultural transformation.

This is the end of the Age of Faith and the beginning of the Age of Reason.

As Pontormo paints, Copernicus is preparing his revolutionary work that will move the Earth from the center of the universe. Vesalius has begun the studies that will lead in a few years to his great work on human anatomy. Georg Agricola is compiling his scientific survey of technology.

Florence is in turmoil, the Protestant Reformation in full swing, and Pontormo himself -- always melancholy -- teeters on the brink of neurosis.

That empty center! The Earth sent spinning into orbit. The human body flayed by Vesalius, a soulless machine of flesh and blood like the pumps and engines of Agricola. It must have been a frightening time, as one world comes to an end and another is struggling to be born.