Comic Book Colors and Western Culture

Contemporary artists and designers often pride themselves on the use of bright colors and bold patterns to attract us, the consumers of their products.  Whether it’s a piece of sculpture or a rug, a pair of socks or a cocktail dress, we like to think of ourselves as living in a world where we are daring if we pick a color that is not a neutral.  Those bright red trousers you’re wearing to work now that Spring and warm weather have finally arrived might make you think that you’re a bold, outspoken sort of fellow.

Except, of course, for the fact that this has all been done before: you were just never told about it.

If your visual experience of Western Civ 101 in high school or college was limited to viewing some grainy slides via a poorly lit projector, or paging through some hazy illustrations in a textbook, you could reasonably be forgiven for thinking that Western culture up until the 20th century was pretty murky and dark.  Yet when we look at a cleaned and restored work of art from our past, brought back as near as possible to its original state, we can appreciate how people who lived centuries ago not only loved to use color, but were just as bold as we are in the use of it, if not more so.  They surrounded themselves with domestic objects, buildings, and works of art that were brightly colored.  And they themselves dressed in those almost garishly bright colors which we associate with things like cartoons and comic books.

A perfect example of this is what I’m using for my wallpaper at present, appropriately for Easter, a painting of the Resurrection by the Florentine Renaissance artist Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1476-1527).  Most of us today associate the Easter season with very bright colors after the months of dull, late winter grays and browns.  When it comes to public celebrations, ladies’ hats, and decorations such as Easter eggs, Easter grass, baskets full of colorfully wrapped candies, etc., we love to get out the virtual box of crayons and go a bit off the deep end in an explosion of color.  However this particular artist’s image of Easter is about as Easter Parade-y as you can get.

Look at the figures of the Roman soldiers and Temple guards reacting to Christ’s Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday morning.  It is a bright, sunny day, well past sunrise, and as Jesus rises from the grave dressed in white garments, the soldiers are falling down like dead men and running away, just as Scripture tells us.  One poor fellow in the lower left foreground has even had the stone slab from the tomb land on top of him.

Now take a moment to notice what incredible colors these fellows are wearing.  We see these tough soldiers dressed in salmon pink, coral red, periwinkle blue, spring green, dusty rose, saffron yellow, and midnight blue.  There’s no camouflage here: even the very few gray, brown, and white articles of clothing worn by these fighting men only serve to enhance the bright colors of their other garments.

It’s worthwhile to take a look at what the painting looked like before it was cleaned of its old varnish, and notice how dark and yellowed it was.  I think oftentimes this is the sort of image which misinforms our impression of Western civilization.  We’re taught, whether intentionally or not, to see the past and the people who lived centuries before us as collectively dusty, yellowed, confused, ignorant, and unexciting.  One look at this picture as restored should permanently dispel that badly-learned lesson from your mind, and this is but one example among many.

The truth is that there is always something heroic, fresh, and invigorating about Western culture.  This image neatly sums up that fact, for del Garbo clearly believed that he was living in an exciting, vibrant time when he created this work of art.  He chose to depict the boldness of his own day, in the figures of the soldiers he painted, rather than sticking strictly to an historical interpretation of what 1st century Judea probably looked like.  In doing so he preserves, almost like a snapshot, what people who lived 500 years ago thought of themselves, their faith, their culture, and their world.  Theirs is not some dark and gloomy, scary place, but an attractive, bright and cheerful spot worth a visit.  Who wouldn’t want to picnic beside the Roman ruins in the background of this picture, under the trees on a bright Easter Sunday?

Perhaps it’s time we get out some of the varnish stripper, ourselves.  Let’s try to wipe away some of the jaundiced coloring that has been shading our eyes to the bright, heroic achievements of those who came before us.  We are part of a long tradition in Western culture, if we would but recognize it.

"The Resurrection" by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510) Accademia, Florence

“The Resurrection” by Raffaellino del Garbo (c. 1500-1510)
Accademia, Florence

The Monastic Roots of Western Democracy

freshly-pressed-rectangle

Reading a 6th century text is probably not most people’s idea of a good time, but on this Feast of St. Benedict (480-547 A.D.) I want to encourage you, even if you are not Christian, to take a look at an extremely important document to the development of Western culture, the Rule of St. Benedict.  Although it was originally written for religious communities, to provide guidelines on how to live, work, and pray together, it had a tremendous impact on the formation of our Western democratic form of government.  Through the example provided by St. Benedict and those who tried to live under his precepts, his Rule is an often-overlooked  touchstone for the shift from oligarchic to republican rule in Western civilization.

Sometime between the year 529 A.D, when he founded the Monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (which was famously nearly obliterated during World War II), and his death in 547 A.D., St. Benedict wrote down what would become known as his “Rule”, which you can read in its entirety here.  For the past 1500 years it has been the basis for many monasteries and convents around the world, both Catholic and Protestant.  The Rule of St. Benedict greatly resembles what we would call a constitution, and provides a set of guidelines on how to live and co-operate peacefully and productively in a Christian community.  Its importance to Western culture is sadly often overlooked today, but it gave rise to numerous, deeply important ideas which still shape the ways in which we live in civilized communities, as we shall see.

Around 500 A.D., St. Benedict had become concerned about the lawlessness and moral laxity he observed in Roman society, of which he as the son of an aristocratic family was a member.  The degree of immoral behavior which he observed, in which people behaved as they wished, ignoring the teachings of the Church but still claiming to be Christians – sound familiar? – was something which appalled him.  He decided to withdraw from that society to try to grow closer to God, and focus on spiritual development rather than hedonism and material pleasures.  It was a path fraught with difficulties, which you can read about here.

Rather than focus on his fascinating life, however, I want to draw the reader’s attention to two interesting aspects of St. Benedict’s thought process in writing his Rule, which will be familiar to those of us living in a republican democracy.  One of St. Benedict’s most important contributions to the later growth of representative democracy in Western Europe was the concept, albeit not stated as such, of one man, one vote.  The proper application of his Rule meant that no member of the community had any greater standing than any other member of the community in voting for a new leader or making some other community decision, for all were equal before God.  Thus, the vote of an older monk did not count for more than that of a younger monk, nor did the vote of a monk from an aristocratic family count for more than the vote of a monk from a merchant or laboring family.  Consider what a departure this was from a well-established class system which prevented people from moving up or down the social ladder, no matter how successful or unsuccessful they might be in life.

A second, equally important consideration was that St. Benedict thought the leadership of the community ought to come from the one best-suited to the job, who was not necessarily the one who had been there the longest or whose background was the most prestigious.  This, in an age of privilege and social standing as birthright, can be viewed in many respects as an astonishing concept for the time.  Moreover,  when offering suggestions on how the leader of the community should be selected, St. Benedict counseled that due consideration ought to be given to wisdom, age, and experience when examining the nominees, but that everyone in the community was eligible to be elected, “etiam si ultimus fuerit in ordine congregationis” [roughly, "even the most recent one to join the community."]  Thus, one should not be automatically disqualified from office as a result of being a relatively new arrival, or being younger than the others in the community.   Again, this concept of finding the best man or woman for the job, based on ability rather than birth or seniority, is something that Western democracy would take some time to come to enshrine in its own laws.

We are often told that Western Europe at the end of the Roman Empire entered into the “Dark Ages”, when what we would view as civilization simply disappeared or retreated in many places.  Yet through the work of deeply devout men such as St. Benedict in his Rule, the foundation stones for our present-day representative democracies were established.  Much as we must thank the Ancient Greeks and Romans for their philosophical ideals regarding the rule of law and the nature of government, which more often than not they did not bother to put into practice, truthfully it is through Christian thinkers like St. Benedict who were able to move the idea of representative government away from being only a theory or the sole purview of the elites, to being a truly participatory and merit-based system.  For that reason, among so many, the Rule of St. Benedict ought to be far better-known among contemporary students of Western political theory.

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St. Benedict Giving His Rule to the Monks (c. 1129)
Monastery of Saint-Gilles, Nîmes, France

Never As Good?

With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another.  In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances.  “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.”  I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.

Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader.  Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole.  This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.

This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.

One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it.  Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.

This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely.  What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.

This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief.  It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due.  We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.

Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering.  We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death.  Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering.  In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.

This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.

Judith 8: 25-26, 27

Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise.  Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.

There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead.  Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come.  It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.


Still from the video for “Never As Good As The First Time” by Sade