Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Intimations of mortality


Earlier this year I had a few things to say about this painting by the young Caravaggio, The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt (click to enlarge). I was so enchanted by the work that I made it my desktop, and I have been looking at it ever since -- or at least those parts of it that peek around my open windows.

Let me say a few more words about it now.

Caravaggio was born in Milan, in 1571, the same year as Johannes Kepler, and seven years after the birth of Shakespeare and Galileo. To the casual student of history, it was the year of the epochal Battle of Lepanto, a naval affair in the Gulf of Corinth in which a fleet of the papal league defeated the Ottoman Turks, helping to ensure the ascendancy of Christian Europe. In northern Europe, Catholics and Protestants butchered each other with abandon. Milan was devastated by plague in 1576. Modern science was struggling to be born.

If you know Caravaggio's work, you will recognize two common themes: Homoerotic depictions of boys and young men, and scenes of violence -- crucifixions, martyrdoms, and beheadings. The artist was a tempestuous man in tempestuous times, but in The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt we have something very different from the rest of his work, a scene suffused with such tenderness that it belies the age, painted in Rome when Caravaggio was 23 years old (or thereabouts), only a few years before Giordano Bruno went up in flames in the Campo de' Fiori.

Not least among the unique aspects of this painting is its careful attention to nature. We recognize oak, laurel, wheat, even the "turkey tail" fungus on the trunk of the oak. To the right of Mary, a watery Edenic scene lit by the soft light of day's end, with not a hint of human habitation -- Caravaggio's only landscape.

Peaceful, yes, but only superficially. There are really two paintings here, separated by the body of the angel. I observed in my previous post how the black wings and flowing white cloth of the angel are a yin/yang, surely not intended by Caravaggio, but familiar nonetheless. At the right, the yin -- feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. On the left, the yang -- masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension. Look at the ground near the feet: green plants where Mary sits, stony earth near Joseph. Mary and her infant are a typical Renaissance madonna and child; they are almost incidental to the painting, except as a counterpoint to the male drama on the left. Let them sleep, the artist seems to say. They are the still point at the center of the world.

Poor Joseph. Many years older than his pretty young wife. Not the father of her child, perhaps not even allowed to share her bed, but taking responsibility for their care and safety. As Mary sleeps, he stays awake to hold the music book for an unexpected visitor. The music is a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, published in 1519. The text is from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures. What is the angel doing here? A heavenly messenger bringing solace and repose? Not likely. Is he Joseph's fantasy? Why the Song of Songs? Joseph gazes into the angel's face, his expression one of weary resignation. The boy is beautiful. He faces Joseph fully naked. His thick red curls fall across his forehead. He flew into the scene on his pigeon wings with his music book and violin. He will fly out.

What is he thinking, this improbable intruder? He is concentrating on his music. He knows what's going on; his feet give the story away. His innocence is as pure as the white of his gown; his intentions are as black as his wings.

And Joseph? What is he thinking? I was once this young. I was once this beautiful. My flesh was once this smooth and firm. I too once dreamed of apples, pomegranates, cedar and myrrh. Look at the old man's feet; they caress each other as if in mutual consolation. What though the radiance which was once so bright/ Be now for ever taken from my sight,/ Though nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.