When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

 

 

About these ads

Death and Humidity, Italian Style

Current news reports are that the Galleria at the Villa Borghese in Rome has been without air conditioning for two months now, and if you know anything about art, then you know this is a bad, bad thing.  The Borghese is filled with priceless works of art, from painters like Caravaggio and Titian, to masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque sculpture.  Bernini’s iconic “Apollo and Daphne” for example, in which Daphne is starting to metamorphose into a tree just as the young god Apollo catches up with her, is one of the prizes of the collection.

Another of the very great treasures in the Borghese’s now-threatened collection is a painting by Raphael dating from around 1507, “The Deposition of Christ”.  In it, the painter shows the dead body of Jesus being taken from Golgotha to the tomb donated by Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by several figures, including the Blessed Virgin, St. John, St. Mary Magdalene, and others. What the viewer may not know however, is that the young man with the long, wavy hair standing in the center foreground of the picture and helping to carry the body of Christ on a linen shroud, is the reason this altarpiece was painted in the first place.

Grifonetto Baglioni was a member of a wealthy and powerful clan in Perugia, the region of Italy which Raphael hailed from.  Grifonetto and some other members of the family decided to try to murder four of their senior relatives on the night of July 3, 1500, as they arrived for a family wedding the next day, in order to try to take control of the family for themselves.  No doubt Don Corleone or Tony Soprano would have understood the impulse.

In the midst of the slaughter, the head of the Baglioni managed to escape, and thereafter targeted Grifonetto for revenge.  The young man fled to the home of his mother Atalanta, asking her to hide him, but she refused.  Feeling remorse about this, she later went after him, only to see him cut down by assassins in the middle of the town’s piazza.  She managed to persuade him to repent of what he had done and to forgive his attackers before he died.  In guilt and grief, she commissioned this altarpiece from Raphael to hang over her son’s tomb in the church of San Francesco al Prato, using her son as the model for one of the two young men helping to hold the body of Jesus.

A friend asked yesterday, when news of the Borghese air conditioner fiasco was making the rounds on social media, how paintings like this managed to survive so long without air conditioning.  The answer is, largely: pure luck.  Altarpieces like this were never to be hung on thin plaster and lathe walls or be exposed to the outside air.  Rather, they were designed for churches, whose super-thick walls and permanently shut windows allowing in minimal direct sunlight would have limited light exposure, maintaining a fairly cool, constant temperature.  Once such paintings are no longer in situ, i.e. the place they were designed to be, and they are exposed to greater fluctuations in the levels of light, temperature, and humidity, they often start to develop problems such as cracking, fading, flaking, mold, and so on.  That is now what the “Deposition” may be facing, unless it is given a reprieve very soon.

Raphael’s “Deposition” is not only a great painting, and an important one for understanding his career as an artist.  It is also a powerful image of suffering, on the part of Christ, His Mother, and the Disciples, as well as on the part of the family who commissioned it.  Let us hope the Borghese receives the funding it needs to repair its air conditioners soon, so that future generations will be able to admire, reflect upon, and learn from this glorious piece of Italian art.

Detail of Graffinito from "The Deposition of Christ" by Raphael (1510)  Galleria Borghese, Rome

Detail of Grifonetto Baglioni from “The Deposition of Christ” by Raphael (c. 1507)
Galleria Borghese, Rome

 

That’s About the Size of It

Often we are told that in order to truly appreciate something, we need to physically go and look at it.  We understand a foreign culture better, or can marvel at the wonders of the natural world more readily, if we take these things in for ourselves.  Yet while oftentimes people think nothing of trekking off to an insalubrious part of the world to experience a completely foreign culture, I wonder how often they take the time to explore the genius of human creativity in their own culture, when given the opportunity to do so.

No doubt looking at the Himalayas in person tells us a great deal more about them than simply watching a documentary on television.  Yet so too in art, we learn far more from actually examining the historical treasures of Western civilization than we do from flipping through a book or clicking on images.  The benefit of going to see such things can truly change our perceptions of the subject matter, and increase our admiration for the level of skill and achievement which these artists were able to reach.

Seeing something in person fundamentally changes one’s perceptions, there can be no question.  I was at a Christmas party at a rather swank Washington hotel a couple of years ago, when two very well-known reporters from CNN showed up.  Both were of far, far shorter of stature than I had imagined them to be, which made them less imposing than I had imagined, and more approachable.  This is a common occurrence, for when we see someone on-screen or in print on a reasonably regular basis, we develop an idea in our heads as to their size, which sometimes bears no resemblance to reality.

The same holds true when it comes to works of art, for good reason. A book or a computer screen displaying a photograph of a famous painting is not necessarily displaying that painting at its true size. Rather, the image is blown up or shrunk down to accommodate the limitations of the display space. This is why although one can learn a great deal from books, in the end it is the experience of actually seeing the art that brings its full impact and increases our understanding.

Take for example the sculpture I chose yesterday for my Lenten Facebook wallpaper, before logging off. “The Merciful Christ” by Juan Martínez Montañés (1568-1649), a realistic portrayal of Jesus on the cross, probably completed sometime between 1603 and 1605. Someone dropping by my Facebook page may look at the photograph of the sculpture, and associate the image with the type of wall crucifix that one often sees in Catholic institutions, such as schools and hospitals.   In fact, “The Merciful Christ” is almost life-size, as one can see in the photograph accompanying this post.  This is not a wall crucifix for most people, unless you happen to have the acres of wall space necessary to be able to accommodate something this large hanging over your desk or bed.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a lady or a gentleman’s education was not considered complete until they had made a tour of several countries in Europe.  Part of their education was to see famous paintings, sculptures, buildings, gardens, and so on.  The value of this practice was viewed primarily as being educational: they or their families thought that it was important to get a sense of Western heritage, of taste, of history, and shared values, which they would be able to employ in order to help lead their communities back home.

Visiting great works of art does not necessarily have to involve trans-oceanic travel, of course.  There are many fine museums in the United States where one can go and understand better why we are fortunate to live in our present society, whatever its myriad of faults.  And the objects contained in the galleries of these places are physical expressions of why we have the ideals, values, and freedoms we do have in the Western tradition.

A great painting or sculpture is something made by human hands, however many centuries ago.  Someone individually crafted an expression of their own human experiences – faith, love, sorrow, joy, hope, loss, etc. – which chances are you yourself have experienced and thought about.  The artist expresses that which they value, by using the creative talents they were given by their Creator.  So by going along to see their work, and hopefully recognizing that mutual bond you share, you will realize how much good and beauty our civilization has achieved and is still capable of achieving, as well as how much we need to remember and celebrate those good things we have managed to create, as much as we do natural wonders or exotic cultures.

Carmelite admiring the "Christ of Mercy" at an exhibition in London

Carmelite admiring the “Merciful Christ” at an exhibition in London