Autumn Beauty: On Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna Of The Small Trees”

Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular image of the Madonna and Child in an autumnal landscape by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and since today is the first day of Autumn, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this piece with you.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the most famous member of a family of painters, which included his father Jacobo and Giovanni’s older brother Gentile, as well as his brother-in-law Masaccio. This particular member of the Bellini clan (and I will refer to him as “Bellini” for the sake of clarity throughout this piece) was not only a highly accomplished artist in his own right, but also the teacher of some of the most important artists who came after him. His most famous pupils were Titian, the greatest of all the Venetian painters, and the enigmatic but short-lived Giorgione.

Many of Bellini’s larger works, which were commissioned by the rulers of Venice, have unfortunately not survived due to fires and natural disasters. Yet his smaller-scale religious pictures, such as his beloved “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (1480) at the Frick Collection in New York, are arguably to Italian Renaissance painting what the work of Jan Van Eyck is to Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. They feature careful attention to detail, jewel-like colors, and inviting landscapes.

Bellini completed his “Madonna of the Small Trees”, now in the Accademia in Venice, in 1487; we know this because he signed and dated the picture on the painted slab of green marble on which the Christ Child is standing in the painting. We see Jesus and His Mother standing against a pea green, silk moire curtain with a cut velvet border in pink coral. Beyond the curtain is a dry landscape in early Fall, featuring two small trees – hence the title of the painting – along with some tree-covered hills and blue mountains in the distance, all beneath a very Venetian sky. It is a wonderfully quiet and still scene, and the rich colors of the fabrics provide an eye-catching contrast to the more subdued landscape colors in the background, which is composed almost entirely of graded blues, autumnal browns, and mottled grays.

This work is related to several other paintings which Bellini produced of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus around the same time, including his “Madonna of the Red Cherubim” and his “Alzano Madonna”, both painted in 1485, and both now in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in the city of Bergamo. However this one happens to be my favorite from this period, in part because Autumn is my favorite time of year, and in part because there is a pensive, dignified, but slightly sad quality to this picture. Given the size of the “Madonna of the Small Trees”, which is roughly 2 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, it was almost certainly painted for its original owner to use at home, as indeed were the aforementioned paintings.

In making this point I can’t emphasize enough when, as I often do, I point out to my readers that paintings such as this were not intended to be simply decorative objects. Aesthetically pleasing though they undoubtedly are, they were meant to be USED in everyday life. In creating works like this, Catholic artists like Bellini were, in part, trying to help their clients, who were men and women seeking to develop a deeper relationship with God through a more active prayer life. The fact that we can look at a painting like the “Madonna of the Small Trees” and find it beautiful is only logical. Yet if we look at it and miss the intent that went into the commissioning and the execution of this piece, then we have moved out of the spiritual into a purely material and incomplete appreciation of this work of art.

For the wealthy in particular, the challenge of being a good Christian during the Renaissance while living in a world of profit and loss, war and diplomacy, plenty and famine, was no small burden to bear. Paintings such as these helped to remind them of their Faith, and to encourage them to remember the tenets of that Faith in their dealings with others, even if (admittedly) they were not always successful in their attempts. We can see this as hypocrisy, or we can see it in the light that Evelyn Waugh would have, as in his famous letter to fellow writer and Catholic convert, Edith Sitwell: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

In following the art world as I do, trying to keep up with what is going on in the auction rooms, museums, and galleries, I often find myself losing heart or even my lunch. The creative, the well-to-do, and our own cultural institutions are generally not interested in commissioning beautiful objects, let alone devotional ones, and instead are intent upon creating and acquiring works of profound physical and spiritual ugliness. Because we live in a time when all seem to act with deadly, fixed intent upon appearing and behaving in as unattractive and crass a fashion as possible, it is to be expected that our art reflects or indeed anticipates our culture.

All the more reason then, to retreat as needed back into the Age of Faith, when beautiful pictures such as this not only celebrated the beauty of the physical world, but also the spiritual beauty of God made Man: an act of selfless beauty which, like Creation itself, God brought about on our behalf.

The Gospel of Happiness

Today I’m very pleased and honored to once again be part of Image Books’ latest blog tour. This time we’re going to be looking at “The Gospel of Happiness”, a new book by Dr. Christopher Kaczor, the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton, and professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles.  My thoughts appear below, but to read what other bloggers have thought of it, be sure to visit the Image website, and click through the Blog tour links to see what other writers – including my friend Kathy Schiffer over at Patheos – are saying about this helpful addition to your bookshelf.

We begin, as we must, with an overview of what the author is trying to tell us with respect to living a happier life. I’m going to ask you to bear with me through this more formalized part of this post, since I think it only fair that I try to give you some general idea of what we’re talking about here. After which, I hope you’ll stick around since, while I don’t often share personal details on these pages, I do intend to share a little bit about my personal reaction to this book, in particular its final chapter, which I found it extremely helpful.

In “The Gospel of Happiness”, Christopher Kaczor outlines positive psychology, a concept which has gained significant traction in the field of psychology over the last few decades. Instead of taking a pathological – and these days ultimately pharmaceutical – approach to the study, understanding, and treatment of mental illness, positive psychology looks at ways in which people can bring about self-improvement through the adoption of more positive attitudes and reactions to the circumstances of their lives. Dr. Kaczor certainly does not suggest that *all* people suffering from depression, addiction, and other maladies can be helped through non-clinical intervention. Rather, if I may paraphrase his work, he advocates what the ancient Romans understood, which my Catholic readers will recognize immediately as the motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola (and himself a significant influence on Dr. Kaczor’s own spirituality), of striving for the one-two combination of a sound mind in a sound body.

Positive psychology does not suggest that one must burst into a chorus of “Everything Is Awesome” whenever one is faced with difficult circumstances. Instead, it recognizes that in many cases, people can change their circumstances, or at least their reactions to them, by trying to focus on good things: those benefits they do possess despite their problems, ways they may be able to help others less fortunate than themselves, and so on. Dr. Kaczor takes pains to point out that positive psychology is not the 1950’s Norman Vincent Peale notion of “the power of positive thinking”, nor the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mantra of the Baby Boom generation, as transmogrified by the cult of Oprah Winfrey and her prophets. Rather, positive psychology has its roots in scientific, clinical studies conducted over many years, which show that “[c]ultivating positive emotions can aid us in making wise decisions because when we are in a positive frame of mind, we can take a broader view of what is going on, and can be more open to building healthy relationships.”

Interestingly, as part of that analysis, Dr. Kaczor points out that many of the positive reinforcement ideas and methods advocated by this field of psychology are directly compatible with living the Christian life. While he acknowledges the influence of atheism and immorality in a number of psychological methods and theories, he also shows how, through the words of Christ and the examples of the saints, Christians can lead lives with the goal of more positive treatment of the self and others, and ultimately greater intimacy with God. Studies quoted throughout this volume have shown that people who are not just believers, but active in their faith, on the whole suffer far fewer incidents of clinical depression and other psychological issues, or recover more quickly from such problems, than those who have no faith or who are lackadaisical in the practices.

Here endeth our formal presentation.

On a personal level, I’m going to drop the veil – er, cape – a bit, and confess something: I need to have a good clear-out. There have been quite a number of things going on in my life over the last couple of years, and in particular over the past few months, that have left me in the position of recognizing that I need to do this. I look at where things stand and realize that while certain things are going extremely well, other things most definitely are in need of a shake-up.

Let me put it to you in a more visible way, by providing a single example: my desk at home is an absolute disaster. It is littered with the detritus of a disordered, reactionary, mostly sensual life. New books I haven’t started, unopened and unread copies of magazines, ticket stubs from long-completed travels, restaurant receipts from long-forgotten dinners, junk mail from every Catholic charity known to man, and many other such things are piled in teetering towers, just ready for The Cat to knock over. My desk has become emblematic of many aspects of both my spiritual life and my interpersonal relationships.

What Dr. Kaczor explains extremely well, in the final chapter of “The Gospel of Happiness”, is that when things get to this point, we need to take measured steps, without expecting perfection, and learn from our mistakes. An example he gives concerns gluttony, something which I’m sure even those with the most frugal appetites among us will recognize. He asks us to take a step back from giving in to the short-term pleasure of eating that candy bar at lunch, today, promising ourselves that we will give it up tomorrow. Are we willing to live with the consequences of eating a candy bar at lunch, every day, for 30 days in a row, while promising ourselves that “one day” we’ll give it up? He argues that it’s when we step back and see the whole picture, putting temporary emotions and desires in their place and recognizing as he puts it that tomorrow must be today, that we can learn to master ourselves better.

While all of Dr. Kaczor’s book is very much worth your time, it is in this final chapter, on strengthening the will, that I find he really hits the high notes, both in terms of practicality and spiritual counsel. When he looks into how and why we fail, and allow our feelings to overwhelm us, we can see that he is making a great deal of sense. It’s not enough simply to want to change certain negative behaviors or patterns in our lives, but rather understanding on a practical level what we can do about it, that Dr. Kaczor tackles brilliantly. With the help of prayer, spiritual direction, and not beating ourselves up all the time, he gives many examples and an outstanding summary of ways to move forward in your own internal life, as well as in your external relationships, so that God, neighbor, and self are all in balance.

So many books of popular psychology start out well but then fizzle out by the end. So many more simply overlook the experiences of people of faith as being irrelevant, at best, or antipathetic, at worst, to the practice of psychology. Neither of these characterizations apply to this book. For me personally, Dr. Kaczor has provided a bit of a way forward, for me to start cleaning things out and start moving rather than reacting again. Perhaps this work can do the same for you, or for someone you care about.

image

Watching the “Watchmen”: A Beautiful Film from France

If you’re interested in seeing good men doing good work on behalf of the whole world, I can highly recommend a film which for some reason had skipped my notice until last evening, “The Watchmen of the Night”.  I was made aware of it through a tweet posted by my friend Sister Veronica Young, a member of the Sisters of Faith who lives in solitude in Utah, but whom I’ve come to know through social media.  [N.B. Incidentally, if you are on Twitter, Sister Veronica should be on your follow list, Catholic or not, as she regularly posts words of encouragement, prayer, and comfort for those who need it.]

No, this isn’t a review of the superhero movie “The Watchmen”, which in fact I debated about with someone the other day.  Instead, this film is about a Benedictine monastery in the south of France, the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in Le Barroux, a town in Provence.  The movie examines the day-to-day lives of the monks, as well as allowing us to get to know some of the monks themselves, and why they chose to enter the religious life. And fortunately, you can watch the entire one-hour documentary on YouTube by following this link.

If this sounds somewhat like another film about cloistered French monks, the German documentary “Into Great Silence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were rather similar.  Yet while that piece goes through a year in the lives of the Carthusian monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, this film is not only shorter and somewhat lighter in tone, it reflects on a slightly different kind of spirituality.  The German film has no narration, very little dialogue, and an overwhelming sense of the mortality of man preparing to enter God’s eternity, whereas the well-narrated French film touches upon these subjects, but presents a more upbeat, joyful tone about the life shared by the brothers in Provence.

Whereas outside of the Divine Office or Mass, the Carthusians spend the vast majority of their day in total silence and rarely if ever see anyone from the outside world, the Benedictines spend a significant portion of their day working in their community and receiving visitors.  This could be overnight visitors making pilgrimages to the monastery for religious services, or interacting with patrons at the monastery shop which helps support the needs of the poor and the monks themselves. The Benedictines have their own periods of silence, particularly at night, but theirs is not the near-total isolation of their brethren in the Alps.

Yet like the Carthusians, the Benedictines in this film respond to the suggestion that what they are doing has no purpose by pointing out that they do not work for a purpose.  They work for God.  As such, they have no need for the secular materialist justifications of this world.  So as the saying goes, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

What I found particularly interesting about Le Barroux was the fact that these Benedictines are not the hippy-dippy sort which one sometimes associates with the Order here in the U.S.  In fact, this monastery was only founded in the 1980’s, although the complex itself looks like it was built 1000 years earlier. Originally, the monks here were aligned with the traditionalist schismatic movement which was spearheaded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, but they eventually reconciled with Rome, and their monastic community was elevated to an Abbey in 1989.  To see how the monks live and how they worship is to see traditional Roman Catholicism at its most beautiful.

No doubt the lifestyle of the monks is not for everyone – particularly for those of us who could not bring ourselves to become vegetarians.  Yet it would be hard for anyone to look at the lives these men lead, and walk away unimpressed by the faith and the joy which radiates from them, as they go about following the great command of St. Benedict himself: ora et labora – pray and labor.  Particularly for those of you who are curious about traditional Catholicism, or what it’s like to be a member of a cloistered religious Order, or who want a very watchable film to show your children or students about Catholic spiritual life, this would be a fine addition to your film library.

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer