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

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“Heaven and Earth” at the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Art’s current show on the art of Byzantium, “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, gathers together a number of rare and interesting works which have never visited the United States before.  It is a comprehensive exhibition, covering nearly 1500 years of art from the pagan and Greco-Roman to the Christian and early Renaissance in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, from icons and sculpture, to jewelry, textiles, and ecclesiastical objects.  Even if you are not a Christian yourself, for those interested in history and sociological exchanges between cultures, this show is well worth a visit.

To be frank, Byzantine art does not hold a great deal of appeal for me, generally speaking.  I say this as someone who owns about half a dozen reproductions of icons.  Perhaps being of a popish persuasion, although I appreciate the images as an aid to meditation, they do not speak to me in the same way they would to my Christian brethren in the East.

That being said, the intersection of Western and Eastern Christian art, particularly in the Early Renaissance and around the time of the Council of Florence, when there was a reasonable attempt at reuniting the two “lungs” of the Western and Eastern Churches, does hold a certain historical appeal.  Of all the pieces in the National Gallery’s show, the one which spoke most clearly to this cross-pollination, and which I made a bee-line to examine in person, is the “Crucifixion” by the Cretan painter Pavias Andreas (c. 1450-1505) on loan from the National Gallery in Athens.  Hung in the final salon of the exhibition, in a section appropriately entitled “Crosscurrents”, the collection of works in this room demonstrates just this sort of exchange of ideas, and this panel in particular makes it readily apparent, from the mixture of figures dressed in Western and Eastern fashions, and the fact that the artist signed his name in Latin, meaning it was most likely commissioned by an Italian patron.

In this “Crucifixion” we see many pieces of iconography related to the Passion. All three of the crucified have died, and if the viewer was in any doubt as to which of the two thieves crucified with Christ was the good one, we can see that Christ is oriented toward the thief on His right, whose tiny soul is being taken up into Heaven as Christ promised.  The soul of the bad thief, which is emerging from his eye socket – according to pious legend the bad thief’s eyes were plucked out by crows – finds a black, horned little demon waiting for him to take him to Hell.

The earthquake described in the Gospels as having taken place at the moment of Jesus’ death has revealed a skull at the base of Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull”, although the inclusion of a skull in the painting was not meant to be a pun.  It is commonly accepted that the term “Place of the Skull” refers to the shape of the hill of Mount Calvary itself, but there was an earlier tradition that Calvary was the place where the skull of Adam was interred.  This made Christ dying upon the spot where the first man was buried all the more significant.

One could spend hours studying all of the detail in the painting, and still come back to it to learn more.  The artist depicts the Crucifixion with a truly mesmerizing fusion of Eastern and Western ideas and stylistic elements, and a riot of activity and color.  It is the sort of work which the great, rather odd, Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch, an exact contemporary of Pavias Andreas albeit working hundreds of miles away, would have acknowledged as being that of a kindred spirit to his own.

The piece is thusly described in this slideshow of some of the highlights of the exhibition in The Washington Post which, as usual in the “mainstream” media, entirely misses the point:

An icon of the Crucifixion, made in the latter half of the 15th century, qualifies as beautiful without reference to its religious content, critic Philip Kennicott says. “Never mind the stifling fear of hell promulgated in the lower register, where demons cavort beneath a skull at the base of the cross. Even without engaging with its religious particulars, one senses the presence of something calm and essential in a sea of details and a riot of activity.”

It is always amusing when secular art critics make value judgments on sacred Christian art which they do not understand, particularly since the point of the picture is not the “stifling fear of [H]ell”, but rather Christ’s triumph over it.  The “cavorting” described represents the terror of the demons in realizing that they have lost, and God has won.  Be that as it may, even though it is not the most prominently displayed of the many works in this exhibition, it is definitely worth seeking out, if you are able to catch the show.

“Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”, is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until March 2, 2014.  Following its run at the NGA, it will travel to The Getty in Los Angeles from April 9 – August 25, 2014.

Detail of "The Crucifixion" by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century) National Gallery, Athens

Detail of “The Crucifixion” by Pavias Andreas (2nd Half of the 15th Century)
National Gallery, Athens

Some Good Things for Your Friday

Just a few clippings and items of note:

- Last evening’s Christmas Poetry party at the Catholic Information Center here in the Nation’s Capital, co-sponsored by the Thomas More Society of America, was a terrific success: great turnout, great food, and a great selection of poems.  If you were not able to attend and find yourself in the Washington area next December, make sure to put this event on your calendar.  I was asked to present a poem for the evening, and read a humorous piece by an anonymous author known as “The Lawyer’s Night Before Christmas” which was well-received.  My thanks again to the CIC and the Thomas More Society for a terrific evening.

- On a related note, I would draw the reader’s attention to a new section of the CIC website, known as CIC Kids, run by my dear friend Miss Margaret Perry of Ten Thousand Places.  CIC Kids selects and reviews some of the best children’s books available today, in a wide variety of genres from picture books to tales of adventure to well-loved classics.  As an example, take a look at the picks for the Top 10 Children’s Books of 2013.  Whether you have kids yourself, work with children, or just want to give the little ones of your acquaintance good things to read, this is a terrific resource for sifting through the enormous number of choices in children’s books to find worthwhile reading material.

- Tomorrow on the Catholic Weekend show our special guests will be Father Benedict Croell, O.P., who is the Vocations Director for the Eastern Province of the Dominicans, and author Elizabeth Scalia, a.k.a. “The Anchoress”, Managing Editor of the Catholic portal at Patheos.  Among other topics we will be discussing religious orders, since many people both Catholic and non-Catholic do not understand exactly what they are, and how being a member of an order fits into the Christian life.  Join us beginning around 10am Eastern for the recording of the show over on the Catholic Weekend channel on the SQPN site, where you can not only watch us live, but participate in the chat room with other viewers of the show.  If you cannot join us for the live recording, episodes are edited usually later the same day, and then made available to download on iTunes or directly on the SQPN site.

- Finally, another reason to visit Washington albeit in the more near term arises as part of the Year of Italian Culture here in the U.S.  Now through March 16, 2014, the National Gallery of Art here in Washington has arranged with the Capitoline Museum in Rome to exhibit one of the most famous statues from antiquity, the 1st-2nd Century A.D. Roman marble sculpture known as “The Dying Gaul”.  The sculpture is thought to be a copy of a lost Greek bronze from around 230 B.C., and was rediscovered in Rome in the 1600′s.  It subsequently had a tremendous influence on both sculptors and painters, and copies of it were made for museums and private collections all over Europe.  Not content with a copy, Napoleon briefly stole it and placed it in the Louvre, but it was later returned to the Capitoline after his fall from power.  This is the first time the statue has left Italy for two centuries, so if you find yourself in D.C. in the coming months, make a point of going to see it.

Detail of "The Dying Gaul" by Unknown Sculptor (1st-2nd Century A.D.) Capitoline Museum, Rome

Detail of “The Dying Gaul” by Unknown Sculptor (1st-2nd Century A.D.)
Capitoline Museum, Rome