Monday, October 20, 2008

Going and coming

Anyone who was raised a Roman Catholic, especially in my generation or earlier, will be familiar with the image on the left, Bartolome Murillo's La Inmaculada de Soult, painted in 1678, now in the Prado in Madrid (click to enlarge). What we have here is the immaculately conceived Virgin being assumed body and soul into heaven. The doctrine of the Assumption was formally declared an infallible dogma of the Church by Pius X II in 1950. This means that to be a faithful Catholic one has to believe that the atoms of Mary's body are not part of the dust of the Earth, but somewhere else. It is a charming story, especially if the sinless virgin's departure was attended by a bevy of cherubs as depicted by Murillo.

Then, sometime in high school, I came across the image on the right, La Naissance de Venus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, painted by 1879. It was of course familiar -- the same languorous pose, the same assembly of cherubs, the crescent moon replaced by the scallop -- but, oh my goodness, something very different is going on, something that was rather more engaging for an adolescent boy.

In the one case, a mortal woman is going off to become a goddess of sorts. In the other case, a goddess is arriving among mortals. Two lovely stories, two lovely women, one modestly wrapped for eternity, the other nakedly personifying earthly beauty. The biggest difference was that I was required to believe the first story literally true under pain of sin; the second I could accept as poetic without risking my soul to hell fire.

I'm not trying to be smug or dismissive. It was dealing with real contrasts like this that eventually led me into agnosticism. The choice was between a fallen nature only redeemed in a supernatural hereafter, and a nature that is -- or can be -- intrinsically beautiful, redeemed by human love. I'm not sure how my Catholic friends in academia resolve the conflict. Most, I would guess, doubt the literal doctrine of the Assumption, picking and choosing their miracles. I am rather more inclined to embrace both images -- left and right -- for what they are -- delightful stories from a less scientifically informed time, chapters in the long human struggle to make sense of the world.