Saturday, August 07, 2010

What matters


A year or so ago I wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid, and ever since the painting (or a part of it with the proper aspect ratio) has been my computer desktop. Which means day by day I have lived with the wonderful textures and colors that Vermeer was able to evoke with oil on canvas. In the detail above (I see it now peeking out from under my document in progress) one can almost feel the bread crumbling in one's hand, the suppleness of the wicker, the smooth glaze of the earthenware, the soft fabric at the girl's waist, and the cool trickle of milk from the pitcher. Click to enlarge.

Vermeer was clearly a man in love with the world, the world of everyday material things, the stuffness of the world.

I was raised in a tradition -- Roman Catholicism -- with a conflicted attitude towards materiality. On the one hand, matter was the polar opposite of the pure spirituality we should aspire to, and "materialism" was the philosophical underpinning of all that was opposed to God's plan of salvation. On the other hand, the Catholic sacramental tradition was steeped in materiality -- bread, wine, wax, chrism, oil, incense, richly colored and brocaded fabric, gold, silver, light, dark, fire, water. What an apprenticeship into materialism it was to be standing at the side of Father Shea in my altar-boy cassock and surplice holding his chasuble aside as he applied the crossed beeswax candles to the thin white necks of the seventh-grade girls on the Feast of Saint Blaise! One was torn between wanting to escape from the body into immaterial union with the angels, or cozying down in the world of matter like a weasel in his burrow.

Who could have predicted which force would win that particular tug of war? In my case, it was materiality -- this world, here, now, this world of things that breathe and flow and reside and flourish. Stuff you can taste and touch and see and hear. Stuff you can scratch and caress and feel the heft of in the hand. I have no interest in airy, bodiless spirits.

But the influence of the Catholic sacramental tradition is still very much with me, a sense that all things -- the bread, wicker, ceramics, cloth and skin in Vermeer's painting -- are shot through with a strange, ineffable power, what Vermeer scholar Daniel Arasse called "the power of the image to incorporate a mysterious presence that is both living and indefinable."