Thursday, May 28, 2015

What is your one image? A reprise (August 2010)


The poet Yeats said of the poet Shelley, "There is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom speaks first in images."

What, I wonder, is my one scene, one picture?

It would depend, I suppose, upon the time of life.

There was a time when I could have stood all day before Monet's room-sized painting of water lilies at MoMA, all gorgeous natural depths, lush, sensual, accepting. The story then was not so much about myself as about the world out there, the world for which I was a curious spectator. I wanted to see the world as Monet saw it, with a kind of X-ray vision that dives through the surface to whatever it is that makes the world go, and glow.

Then I became obsessed with the paintings of Mark Rothko, those haunting, agnostic canvases of floating color that spoke in cryptic utterances, revealing nothing. Those were the days when I kept company with the medieval mystics -- Julian of Norwich and John of the Cross -- and their absconded God.

As I settled into comfortable middle age I might have chosen one of Vermeer's quiet domestic scenes or Pieter Bruegel's The Harvesters, crystal clear in its mathematical precision, its unabashed realism, its sensual celebration of work and rest, food and drink, a brow moist with sweat and the white nape of a neck inviting touch. Not ecstasy or transcendence, but tranquility and immanence. Oh yes, there was a worm in the bud, but hidden out of sight.

And now? And now? I keep coming back to the young Caravaggio's The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. The black wings and white robe of the angel, curling together -- the yin and yang of a human life. On the left, darkness, a stony foreground, the anxious gaze of the seeking soul; on the right, light, verdancy, the quietude of acceptance; on the left, the masculine, hard, dry, fraught with tension; on the right, the feminine, gentle, soft, wet, conserving. The whole suffused with an erotic frisson. This angel is not one of the Christian heavenly choir; he is Eros. He is Cupid, with music for his wounding dart. And I am Joseph holding the score, a motet in C major by the Flemish composer Noel Baulduin, the text from the Song of Songs, that most erotic of scriptures: "How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden."

(Click to enlarge)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- a reprise (May 2009)


Each day at college, as I go to collect my laptop, I pass the Art Department's bulletin board. And, in recent weeks, I have been drawn up short by an announcement for a gallery show by the New England artist Janet Rickus, with this illustration of one of her works.

Why? What is it that so attracts me to the painting? A collection of ceramics and a fat vegetable arrayed on crisp cloths. The original painting, I understand from the internet, is life size. I also see from the internet that this is typical of Rickus' work.

Technical proficiency? The artist is indeed stunningly adept at portraying objects realistically. But that alone cannot account for the emotional reaction to her work.

The subject? There is a certain intellectual appeal to the juxtaposition of the organic and inorganic, but surely there is more to it than that. After all, these are commonplace objects, stark in their simplicity.

Maybe it is the stark simplicity of the objects that is their appeal -- shape, color, natural light, shadow. Then too we recognize the intentionality of the artist, her careful selection of the objects, their arrangement, their likenesses and contrasts.

And, yes, now we are getting at it. It is not so much the paintings themselves that grasp our attention, as it is a certain way of seeing the world. A certain way of making the world that we see.

Simple elements. Artfully arranged. Elegantly expressed. These are the same qualities we look for in a scientific theory. When Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity, physicists knew immediately they were in the presence of truth, even though -- initially -- not a single experiment confirmed the theory. The mathematics of general relativity was just too beautiful not to express reality. Beauty is the resonance of a pattern of flickering neurons in the brain with patterns of order in the world. And that is why beauty is nature's signature of truth.

"Beauty feeds us from the same source that created us," writes my friend Scott Russell Sanders. "It reminds us of the shaping power that reaches through the flower stem and through our own hands. It restores our faith in the generosity of nature."

Friday, May 15, 2015

...of elements and an angel sprite -- a reprise (May 8, 2007)



Let me say a few words about another painting that came up in a conversation lately, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Ecce Ancilla Domini ("Behold the handmaid of the Lord"), painted in 1850. (Click - and again - to enlarge.)

The theme, the Annunciation, was a common one (scroll down for gallery) in Late Medieval and Renaissance art. Rossetti has adopted many of the conventions of that time, but given them a new interpretation.

In the earlier paintings, Mary is generally portrayed as a mature woman, up and about, dressed for the business of the day in red and blue. She is slightly abashed by the words of the angel, but usually appears as if she were expecting the message and accepts her fate with equanimity.

Rossetti's virgin is a young girl, perhaps just woken from sleep, in her night clothes of virginal white. The traditional red is seen here as an embroidery hanging on a folded embroidery frame (we have seen it before in an earlier Rossetti work, The Girlhood of Mary). A blue screen is in the background, and a blue sky.

The lilies, the white dove, and the just extinguished candle (here a wall sconce) are all Medieval and Renaissance conventions.

Something new is going on here.

The angel Gabriel is a slightly androgynous young man, wingless, naked beneath his simple gown. He hovers just above the floor on fiery feet. The stem of the lilies points to Mary's womb. Here are the usual three blossoms, representing, presumably, the Trinity, but one of them is still in bud.

Mary is -- well, you tell me. She seems to be looking at something -- a hint of angelic tumescence? -- that Gabriel's turned posture does not allow us to see. She is aroused, embarrassed, fearful. She doesn't seem to have a clue that she is being invited to be the mother of God.

We are a long way here from the Age of Faith. We are witnessing a very modern drama, one that has less to do with the salvation of the world that working out the tangled scripts of Rossetti's -- and our -- psychosexuality.

If yesterday's Pontormo painting anticipated Copernicus, Vesalius and Agricola, this 1850 work of Rossetti anticipates Darwin and Freud. If we want to understand the painting, it is not to the theology that we must turn, but to evolutionary psychology.

In her big fruitcake of a book, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia has a lot to say about Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite "decadence" (although, curiously, she does not mention this early painting). She does mention the influence on Rossetti of "Italian Catholicism's vestigial paganism," and I think here she is close to the mark. In its sacramental colors and symbols, its frank sensuality, and its mythic interpretation of dreams, Rossetti's Annunciation -- this very Catholic painting -- takes us away from the supernatural drama of sin and salvation and back to the forest groves and caves where our neural circuitry acquired its primal wiring.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Sacrament -- one more reprised nod to Vermeer



Tom is here (Ireland) for a visit. He and his wife have just spent a few days in Amsterdam where they visited the Rijksmuseum. The hit of that visit was the four Vermeers, including The Milkmaid, which I have blogged here on several occasions.

Also in Amsterdam is The Little Street, another of my favorites (click to enlarge). It is unlike the other Vermeers I have blogged –- The Milkmaid, Woman Weighing Gold, The Geographer -– all closely observed interior scenes with a single human figure dominating the composition. Here the humans have been reduced to doll-like figures, faces averted -– a woman scrubbing, a woman sewing, two urchins playing on the stoop. What we do have is another exercise in close observation and quiet domesticity, the two things for which Vermeer is universally loved.

As I have said on previous occasions, I admire Vermeer for his Catholic attention to the materiality of the world, the is-ness of things. Whatever is transcendental in his paintings is sacramentally mediated through stuff. Surely, his stuff is there to be accumulated, as one might expect from a citizen of practical, acquisitive, Protestant Holland. But Vermeer sees through the surface of things to the mystery that lies within.

The Little Street is at first glance little more than a pile of bricks, but the bricks speak of an inner life. They bleed their lime. They crumble. They surrender at street level to a calligraphy of whitewash. The lines of perspective converge on a vanishing point deep inside those two dark windows, somewhere below the surface of the painting. The alley, too, hints of interiority.

Vermeer did not choose this scene because it was pretty; it has to the eye untouched by grace a proletarian dreariness about it. Rather, he takes ordinary matter –- brick, mortar, wood, lime, cloth –- and consecrates it with attention, this is my body, this is my blood. To the attentive eye, stuff speaks of its own transcendence, its infinite interiority. A pile of bricks is the journeywork of stars.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Natural and metanatural -- Part 2


"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch in The Voice of the Desert.

The nail. The iron nail. Vermeer is committed to exact observation and description of the natural world, no detail too small to be overlooked. There is no obvious metaphorical meaning here. The painting does not direct our attention to another reality. It celebrates this reality, the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. Vermeer's life overlapped Galileo's and Newton's. He may have known Leeuwenhoek. He is immersed in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution.

But the nail. How can the experience of a nail be -- dare I say it? -- numinous? Not numinous in the sense of the dictionary's first definition -- of or relating to the supernatural -- but of the second -- spiritually elevating, sublime.

Experience is not passive. It is a conflation of an external object and the experiencer's knowledge and imagination. A numinous experience is one that ignites a firestorm in the brain, a thrill, a rush of pleasure, a sense of the mysterious, of beauty, of overflowing fullness.

I hold an iron nail in my hand, cold and hard. There is first of all the tactile pleasure, purely sensual. But there is more, much more, that knowledge brings to the experience. What I hold in my hand is both a human artifact, rich in history -- an object that pierces wood and plaster -- and an element that is unusually common in the universe for a reason that points us to the deepest mystery of what is.

The Earth's core is mostly iron. There is iron in the crust, too, but iron has a propensity to form alliances with other elements and therefore hides in combination. The solar system swarms with iron meteorites. Iron drops onto the Earth from the sky.

All of which takes us into the cores of stars, where the heavy elements are forged from the primeval hydrogen and helium of the big bang.


Without going into detail, here is a graph familiar to any physicist, the nuclear binding energy curve for the elements. (Click to enlarge.) On the vertical axis, the energy required to break apart the nucleus of an atom into its constituent protons and neutrons. On the horizontal axis, the elements, from hydrogen to the heaviest elements. And there, at the very top of the curve, is iron (Fe), mass number 56, 26 protons and 30 neutrons, the most stable of elements.

If a star were to burn to its end, it would become a ball of iron. But before that happens other forces intervene, which can cause a star to explode and hurl its freshly forged elements into space, ultimately to become part of my body, my brain, and the iron nail in my hand.

The key to numinosity is to perceive the commonplace as part of a cosmic drama we only faintly understand, churning with powers that are perhaps beyond our capacity to know, to feel that drama unfolding in every jot and tittle of the ordinary, to be aware of being swept along on a unfolding tide of being, stars seeding the universe with the elements of life and mind -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin.

A nail. A hole in plaster. As Krutch said, it is not easy to live with a continuous awareness of things. We are grateful for the all too infrequent moments of numinous insight.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Supernatural and metanatural -- Part 1



I first wrote about Jan Vermeer's The Milkmaid back in the late-summer of 2009, when the painting was the star of a show at New York's Met. I was so enchanted with the painting that I made it the desktop on one of my laptops, where it has remained ever since. I wrote about it again here and here.

What I like about the painting is the way it celebrates the commonplace, especially the way it illuminates simple material things -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin. We see these things as they are, but also -- though the artist's genius -- as part of a transforming radiance that shines in even the most ordinary things, what in one of those earlier posts I called "the isness of things that overflows our knowing."

Well, here I go again. The Milkmaid is still on my desktop, and for the last day or so I have been fixated on two tiny details -- a nail and a nail hole in the plaster wall. Click image to enlarge. And here is the full painting.

Our first reaction might be surprise that the artist would register such homely details, but that is the charm of the painting -- the re-enchantment of the everyday.

And that, after all, is the challenge of religious naturalism: to experience the mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum -- the fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery -- in every aspect of the natural world.

I am, of course, borrowing these terms from Rudolf Otto, the German Lutheran theologian of the first half of the last century. Otto sought to ground the religious experience in the ordinary physical experience of things, a numinous grasp of something awesome and exhilarating behind the surface. For Otto, that something was "wholly other," a glimpse of the transcendent divine.

Mircea Eliade took up where Otto let off, and spoke of the sacred and profane. He too emphasized the experience of the transcendent in the ordinary, "the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural "profane" world."

Both Otto and Eliade had a huge influence on my generation of seekers, especially in their insistence that religion be grounded in the experience of natural things. All of this meshed well with the Roman Catholic sacramental tradition in which I was raised. But Otto, Eliade and Catholicism saw the numinous experience pointing beyond nature. Eliade wrote: "We cannot speak of naturalism or of natural religion in the sense that the nineteenth century gave to those terms; for it is 'supernature' that the religious man apprehends through the natural aspects of the world."

For the religious naturalist, the intuition of a "wholly other" is a step too far, not just beyond the physiological and psychological experience, but into a kind of anthropomorphic idolatry. What then is it that gives the experience its numinous quality, what I called in one of those earlier posts "metanatural," as opposed to "supernatural"? Tomorrow I will try to answer this question -- by reference to that iron nail in the milkmaid's wall.

Reprised from May 2011.