Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

When I visited this church some years back, it intrigued me because it was the only Gothic church in Rome, and it was also the burial place of Fra Angelico and St. Catherine of Siena. From the outside, it's nothing special. In fact, it doesn't even look like much of a church. What's even weirder is the the stone elephant carved by the Renaissance master Bellini, carrying an authentic Egyptian obelisk on its back!

Once inside, however, it's a lovely space, with a glorious side chapel painted by Filippino Lippi in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas.

It took me a while to realize, however, that this mishmash of styles and artists, mystics and theologians, was a Counter-Reformation propaganda statement. The Catholics were, in effect, saying, "We're not dead yet, and we're on the upswing against you Prots." The two popes who contended with Luther, Leo X and Clement VII are buried here, and there is the famous Carafa Chapel, dedicated to the über pope Paul IV (d.1559), who presided over part of the Council of Trent. To get even more intense, there is a chapel commissioned by none other than Torquemada...of Spanish Inquisition fame! (Monty Python sketch: "No one ever expects the Spanish Inqusition!).

Thankfully, such sentiments have all died down, and the more important lesson, at least for me, is that art in the service of God is a healing instrument, and that long after the dust settled on the 16th century polemics, one can enter this building and literally touch the work of the greatest of masters. For example, there is an athletic Christ holding a cross, done by Michaelangelo. It is yellowish in color, except for one of his toes, which remains as white as the day it was polished - why? Every pilgrim coming to the church touches Christ's little toe. They do this to connect with Michaelangelo, to touch something he touched. I know I certainly did!

Within this peaceful space, there lies a mystic, an artist, and a chapel devoted to St. Thomas, the greatest of the Medieval theologians. That's a remarkable combination, and one which fills me with comfort and hope. For Santa Maria Sopra Minerva is a nexus, an intersection for art, spiritual communion, and the sanctified mind. Oh, and it was built over the ruins of a temple to Minerva, hence the name, so take that you old pagans! If you are ever in Rome, why not visit this obscure church and get away from the tourists gaping at the usual sights. For here is truly a temple to Ars Theologica.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Jedi Calvin

Jedi Calvin
Originally uploaded by neopuritan.
As I long suspected, the greatest theologian in history was also secretly a member of the Jedi order. In this recently uncovered portrait of Jean Calvin (1509-64), he is clearly holding a light sabre. His index finger on his right hand is pointing to the stars.

Where do I sign up?

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Currituck Lighthouse

Currituck Lighthouse
Originally uploaded by neopuritan.
I spent a week's vacation on the northern end of the Outer Banks, in Corolla, NC. Outside our window was this lighthouse. At night it shines every 15 seconds (yes...I counted). It was over 240 steps, and my wife climbed them all and earned a sticker! I, on the other hand, sat and read three books. Ian McEwan's "Amsterdam" (I rate it an "A"), Stanley Kunitz' "Collected Poems" (also an "A"), and "The Rule of Four" (a B+).

Now it's back to theology and Plato!

Monday, July 11, 2005

"Madonna and Child"

by Duccio Buoninsegna, ca. 1300, in Siena, Italy (approximately 8.5x11"). It resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City.

My thoughts on this sublime little picture are below.

The Duccio "Madonna"

Not long ago my wife and I drove to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (one of the benefits of living in Northern NJ) to see the Duccio "Madonna" before it was removed for a quick cleaning. It will be back in its place of prominence July 13.

There is an interesting article of how the painting was purchased in the current "New Yorker" (July 11). I was quite impressed with the little 8.5 by 11 painting (ca. A.D. 1300 - see picture above). It arrests the eye with its bright, clear colors, and with its tenderness of form. When you contemplate the picture, you recognize that you are seeing a transitional moment in art - from the formality and stasis of the Byzantine, to an attempt at capturing a real moment in time, which is a hallmark of post-fourteenth century Western painting. The infant is clearly Byzantine (a little "adult"), but he clings to the Virgin's mantle with tiny fingers, as she lovingly gazes at him, instead of looking outward toward the viewer. It is also easy to not notice the parapet below them, placing this image in an Italian 14th century setting.

The painting costs $45 million, which doubles the previous Met purchase - and I think it's worth every penny, and I'm a Calvinist! Which brings up an important point: how do faithful Reformed folk justify appreciating images of Christ in art without violating the Second Commandment or their Standards (e.g., Q.96 of the Heidelberg Catechism)? I think the answer lies in the word "worship." Unlike Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, the Reformed Christian does not allow a picture of God into the sanctuary, or worship God through such a representation, either privately or publicly. Yet in the sanctuary of the church which I pastor, there are two stained-glass windows depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd, and risen from the grave. The images of Christ fall into a different category, in that Christ was not only God, but also fully human, so our depictions of him are permissible, as long as we do not worship Christ through such pictures: that is, no kissing of icons, no praying to statues.

My appreciation of the Duccio "Madonna," or for that matter, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is not only one of aesthetic enjoyment, but also involves appreciating (or criticizing) the theological message(s) being communicated. God has given sublime gifts to men, and our hearts are lifted up in joyful thanksgiving for allowing us to share in His creation. Art is medicine for the soul, and this little teaspoon by Duccio is one I will gladly swallow.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Ad Fontes

One of my goals this summer is to read two of the foundational philosophical texts in the Western canon - Boethius' "The Consolation of Philosophy" and Plato's "Timaeus." I finished Boethius the other day, and frankly, was disappointed. For a book which is said to have had an incalculable influence on Medieval philosophy and theology, I expected some lightning and thunder. Perhaps at least one "aha!" moment. Alas, the wisdom offered the imprisoned Boethius by the personified Philosophy was mostly commonplace reflection on the futility of being happy with earthly things, with vain triumphs, and with a life free of trouble. Philosophy's advice is merely an echo of Proverbs 4:7:

"Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, get understanding."

Boethius is considered to be the last of the "Church Fathers," although I found nothing particularly Christian in the "Consolation." It seemed more of a last gasp of pagan wisdom, influenced by Christian monotheism. In any case, I am hoping for better things from Plato, who has never disappointed me. Why is it that the "Timaeus" is never in the cheaper versions of Plato's works? One must buy the Loeb version, which I did this morning, or Edith Hamilton's large and expensive edition. I'll report more on the "Timaeus" later this summer. I wait with baited breath!

The above-mentioned seminal works were the fountains of Medieval theology, that is, they inspired the Christians of the pre-Reformation period to such an extent, that a "great thaw" occurred (to borrow the art critic Kenneth Clark's phrase). The Dark Ages (ca.550-1050 A.D.) grew progressively lighter with the discovery of texts from the classical world (for which we must offer gratitude, hard as it is lately, to Islamic civilization for preserving the works of Plato and Aristotle). Too many evangelicals believe that the Reformation emerged from a vacuum, with Luther and Calvin, etal., "discovering" the Bible and the gospel as if they had found manna laying about. More accurately, the Reformation was a further outgrowth of the great thaw which occurred in the 12th century. It was a similar movement in that the Reformation sought its own "fountains" - no longer the works of Plato or Boethius, but the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible. We call this impulse "ad fontes," meaning "to the sources."

"For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9).

This impulse to return to the sources blesses the church in that it leads us to the Holy Spirit, who inspired (breathed out) the Bible, and as the "pneuma/ruach", the wind or breath of God, continues to lead desiccated souls to Christ, who is himself the ultimate fountain of living waters (cf. John 4:13-14). The fountain is ever-flowing, refusing to be stagnant, and washes away our idolatrous traditions. Which is why when we say "ad fontes!", we are also saying, "sola Scriptura!"

Monday, July 04, 2005

W.G. Sebald

I am reading W.G. Sebald's "Austerlitz." If you have never read or even heard of Sebald, that is a tragedy. He was a German writer, who taught in England, and wrote several pieces of fiction which won him worldwide literary acclaim, including the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sadly, he died in an automobile accident in 2001 in his fifties.

His work has a haunting, elegiac quality that remains with you long after you put down one of his books. He often uses the genre of a travel narrative, where he describes in great detail odd or quotidian bits of British or European life. His capacity for description is almost unequalled in modern literature.

Describing a seascape on the Welsh coast, for instance: "But on bright summer days, in particular, so evenly disposed a luster lay over the whole of Barmouth Bay that the separate surfaces of sand and water, sea and land, earth and sky could no longer be distinguished. All forms and colors were dissolved in a pearl gray haze; there were no contrasts, no shading anymore, only flowing transitions with the light throbbing through them, a single blur from which only the most fleeting of visions emerged, and strangely - I remember this well - it was the very evanescence of those visions that gave me, at the time, something like a sense of eternity" ("Austerlitz," p.95).

I believe this passage to be an interpretive key to much of Sebald's work, and his interpretation of life in a post-Holocaust world. For it is the Holocaust which hovers indirectly over everything Sebald writes. When reading his work, there comes over you a sense of dread, that an innocent description of a railway station will begin to evoke time-tables to Auschwitz, and trainloads of doomed Jews. Truth is veiled by the fog of the common-place, and therefore so is justice and accountability. By reminiscence, the links between action and consequence are revealed. This comes close to a Platonic epistemology of "anamnesis," i.e., we learn by remembering what we have forgotten. In Sebald's fiction, we learn by remembering what we have deliberately ignored or covered over.

His fiction has a prose-poem feel to it. There are no chapter breaks in "Austerlitz," and even more remarkably, almost no paragraph divisions. This same style is present in slightly adjusted form in his other works, "The Rings of Saturn" (another ostensible travel guide), and "The Emigrants." What is present in all his fiction, are numerous black and white photographs, which are used to create both the illusion of factuality - as if the work were non-fiction, but they also forge a connection of mood and sympathy with Sebald's sense of desolation and bemusement at a world so bent on destruction and killing.

As a pastor and theologian and Christian, I am compelled to see the parallels with our own moral ambiguities, and our own passive guilt as the slaughter continues unabated.