Thursday, May 01, 2008

New wine in old vessels

In a post last week I suggested that the stories associated with the foundation of Christianity -- The Annunciation, the Visitation, the Virgin Birth, the Flight into Egypt, and so on -- might be respectfully entertained by a religious naturalist even as he rejects the literal truth of the stories. As might be expected, I was challenged by friends who contend that the world has quite enough superstition without keeping religious fairy tales alive.

Do the stories attendant upon the birth of Christianity have any value in the 21st century? Or should they be jettisoned as the supernaturalist humbug of an earlier age?

Let us not be so quick to condemn the imaginings of our ancestors. The Christian stories have resonated down through the centuries as vessels that can contain a multitude of truths, just as the Greek and Roman myths remain generously instructive in their frequent retelling. We fill the vessels with our own imagining.

Here is a work of the young Caravaggio -- The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt -- painted in Italy about 1597, as Galileo was in Padua laying the foundations of modern science. The young Mary sleeps with the infant Jesus cradled in her arms. Her older husband holds a songbook for the young angel who just happens to appear on the scene with his violin. The ass looks on with a dreamy eye. (Click to enlarge. And here is an image you can examine more closely.)

I love this painting. Why? There is nothing literal about it. Surely this resting place under an oak tree is not the desert the family would have had to cross. Nor were there violins or modern musical notations at the time of Christ. Caravaggio makes no pretense at historical realism. His purpose is otherwise.

The madonna and child sleep in a natural bower. They are the feminine still point at the heart of creation. Cut the painting in half along the angel's edge-on wing and the right side is a Raphaelesque world of neo-Platonic repose.

The real action is on the left, where a less reposeful male drama is acted out. The aged Joseph, who has accepted the responsibility of bringing his young wife and child out of danger, is here reduced to holding the score for youth. Look at the old man's feet and read there the anguish of his heart confronted with the beautiful adolescent boy. And the boy, with feigned indifference, knows full well he is playing on the old man's heartstrings as well as upon his violin.

A distinctively male tension between age and youth resonates through all of Caravaggio's work, which no doubt accounts for why the artist has become something of a gay icon. But here, in The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt, something more than homoeroticism is at play. On the left -- darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul. On the right -- light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance. Most luminous of all, the angel, his wings improbably affixed at the center of his back, filling the frame with a music that excites the ache of longing and lulls the sleep of innocence. (Why are the angel's wings black? As counterpoint to the white of the flowing robe?) Caravaggio offers his own version of yin and yang, a dichotomy of the human spirit that transcends any historical tradition and permeates them all.