Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Venice, Chrisitianity and Sacred Art

venezia... as imposing and impressive as she is, she was still hard to find when we drove here on to the island from milano, after a stop in padua.

did i say 'a stop in padua'? let me correct myself, we passed through heaven in padua, as our friend, hugh bareiss, implied when he advised us not to pass by the scrovegni chapel in padua as we were traveling from verona to venice. he said, and i can confirm, that this is one of the most exquisite, refined and enobling spaces made by man.

actually, a man. giotto. a name that has come to mean more to me w- each passing year. at college i found a way to not take any history or art classes, spending my time trying to make my way through a philosophy/religion major's ontologies, theologies, epistomologies and even an occasion teleology... but somehow missed the major opus of western sublimity, her art.

yet through the curiousity of a long-distance traveller w- time on his hands, over the years, with trips back to italy every few years, it was impossible not to come face to fresco with the remarkable, enthralling, radiant work of the man who opened the entrance to the renaissance and the transformation of western art and christian imagery... giotto.

i think i first tripped over the beauty of giotto's work in either florence in the side chapels of santa croce church or the magnificent frescos of st. francis' cathedral in assisi. for those who have been there, the visualization is astounding and unforgetable. the colors, the forms, the exquisite human faces in mourning, loss, suffering and, possibly, liberation challenge our thoughts and tranquility.

the scrovegni chapel in padua, one room, one structure, still stands 805 years after these 36+ frescoes were painted, where you are permitted to observe, pay homage and emotionally genuflect toward the passion of christ and the life story of mary for merely 15 minutes before another group of adoring visitors arrives.

yet that 15 minutes is a lifetime of imagination and reflection.

there is the sense that we felt upon leaving that we had been transported, not just to a different time, when giotto painted these religious scenes of the martyrdom of jesus become christ, but to that timelessness of religious ecstasy, where the heavens actually do open and the human, physical world is left behind, temporarily.

i will never be a christian, a believer of the sacred mythic annunciation and resurrection of christ. it's not in my nature, my genes nor my family lineage. i am of the hebrew faith and identity, carrier of that ancient heritage and mystic monotheism.

yet, as i have often said, when entering st. peter's, i could be a perfect apostate. the wordly nature of christianity's 'power and glory' is not THE power and glory for no reason.

after a week of time in sacred space and time here in italy, in the paintings of the pinoteca of milano w- mantagna's dead christ; the milanese churches i visited w- leah; the sacred art in san zeno maggiore in verona; this transformative scrovegni chapel in padua; the awe-inspriring, almost secular, bellini 1488 madonna and child triptych alterpiece in the franciscan frari church in venice; titian's 'assumption of the virgin' in the same church; and, the tintoretto of christ before pilus pilate washing his hands in the scuola grande di san rocco...

how can i describe my feelings and emotions?

we live in such a secular, materialistic, urbane, sophisticated type of world. charmed and charming but limited in its religious sentiment or regard. monty python's adorable 'life of brian' is probably better known among many than of the painters or paintings i've mentioned.

for many christianity is considered more of a political identity than a religious one. the orders and monasteries that kept this traditional european world alive was cut adrift by napoleon's early 19th C. conquests, followed by socialist and marxist critiques of the distribution of power which led to the modern transformation of our society rather than souls.

we became political, literary and consumer characters instead of religious, mystic or symbolic beings. we have filled our lives with opportunities to transform our immediate worlds instead of preparing for the next one.


or i may be speaking of my own world and reflecting it upon the larger one in which i live...

this is just to say that i find this christian art magnificent. magnificent not just as art but in the life of the spirit and the soul's natural longing for understanding it's coming and going, it's past and future, the before and after, the alpha and omega...

all that religion and religious truths try to convey.

these are the feelings i have when standing in front of giotto's crucifixtion in the scrovegni chapel or the bellini mother and child in santa maria gloriosa dei frari in venezia. not the profound elevation into the christian belief in the resurrection of christ, but the profound humanity of these individuals, these people, these historical figures, people like you and me, people who have known the truth of life, the birth of a child, the sufferings of our human world and the death that is our final mystery...

as i asked dr. harpolani in florida two years ago when my father died. 'dr. harpolani, where is my father now?' i was teasing and i was profoundly serious. dad was dead. where was my father? where was the person, that elusive being, this more real and insubstantive identity? where was the soul, the being that animated the person?

who are we?

this is what i feel as i stand in awe before these paintings in northern italy from the 13th to 16th centuries. the transformation of western christian art from ciambue to giotto to the brilliant artists of the renaissance whose names are known by students and adults alike.

the mere and full humanity of our lives. the phases through which we live. the love of a mother for her child. the pain we must observe in living. the decay of our bodies and the death of those we love. the spirit which animates us and uplifts us. the sacred which calls to us and reaches deeper into our lives than we can understand.

this world so exquisitely recreated in this european christian art moves me...

through these images i pause to reflect...


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