In his chapter "Academic Theology and the Catholic University," [in Teaching the Tradition: Catholic Themes in Academic Disciplines, Oxford, 2012] Professor Lawrence Cunningham calls attention to the particular emphasis the Old Testament authors placed on God as Creator. He goes on to say that some theologians even go so far as to describe creation as a kind of "primordial sacrament":
Both Judaism and Christianity resist identifying creation as divine; it is created. However, creation reflects the work of the creator. This is a critical affirmation because the Catholic theological tradition has always taught that we learn something about God from the sheer fact of creation. Some theologians have insisted that creation is a kind of primordial sacrament, i.e., a visible sign that mediates grace (God’s love) to us. For that reason, the Catholic tradition can praise God with the psalmist: “O Lord, how manifest are thy works/In wisdom you have made them all” (Psalm 104:24). Saint Paul makes the same point more prosaically in his letter to the Romans when commenting on the religious ideas of pagans: “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) stipulated that part of Catholic faith is to hold that humans can come to knowledge of God through the use of their powers of reason.
The notion that creation mirrors its creator has special resonance for Catholics; it has long been at the heart of our tradition, both explicitly and implicitly. It even has provided a basis of proof for the existence of God, the so-called cosmological argument proposed by the great Thomas Aquinas a millennium ago. The idea of a spontaneous creation ex nihilo without any agent, that is to say, without a Creator, is difficult for most mortals to imagine--however plausible it may be in principle to contemporary cosmologists. It runs counter to human experience. Our first appreciation of God, as we gaze up to the heavens, is as an Artist. Whatever else the universe may hold, its created shape and reflected glory suggests a vast canvas comprising a multitude of masterpieces.
The theme of creation has given rise to some of the greatest achievements by human creators in the realm of art. Arguably the most famous sacred work of art in Christendom is Michelangelo's great Sistine Chapel Ceiling, known to students and tourists alike long before they see it in the flesh. In his television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark said "it is possible to interpret the whole of the Sistine Ceiling as a poem on the subject of creation." Thanks to its thorough cleaning and restoration two decades ago, it may now be experienced afresh, as it was when first unveiled to the impatient Pope Julius II. After five centuries of grime, candle smoke, and clumsy touch-ups were dissolved and wiped away by the Vatican restorers, we may view that ceiling once again ablaze with color--no longer "through a glass darkly," in the vivid words of St. Paul, but "face to face."
If one individual, and only one, could be chosen to epitomize our notion of artistic genius it would be Michelangelo. Not only does he personify the Renaissance Man as a Bildung, to invoke Professor Rausch's elegant term--three dimensional, well rounded, like a sculpture--but he towers over the history of art just as his youthful David, the marble embodiment of heroic virtue and virility, has loomed over Florence for half a millennium.
Michelangelo was a prodigy. Yet unlike the prodigies Bernini and Mozart, the source of his technical prowess has remained shrouded. Both Bernini and Mozart had professional artist/composer fathers to instruct them from the time they could walk. Michelangelo's father--too patrician to labor and too poor to provide any meaningful support--failed even to offer encouragement to the aspiring artist. "I sucked in chisels and hammers with my nurse's milk" is the only explanation Michelangelo was to offer in later years. As an infant he had been farmed out to a stone cutter's wife as his wet nurse. A teacher, Henry Adams once wrote, can never know the full extent of his influence: "a teacher affects eternity." That anonymous instructor who taught Michelangelo to wield a chisel indeed made a vital contribution to Western art.
Michelangelo was destined to live an extraordinary long and productive life--eighty-nine years, almost two generations beyond the normal expectancy for that time. Yet what if our Florentine prodigy had survived no more than Mozart's thirty-five? He would still have left behind enough masterpieces to guarantee his preeminence in the annals of art. Among these we would find the Vatican Pietà, the Bacchus, the David, and most of the Sistine Ceiling. The last would surely then be viewed as his Requiem, the masterpiece that, reluctantly undertaken, hastened the demise of its creator, who had protested in vain that he was a "sculptor, not a painter." (Fortunately, Pope Julius was unconvinced.)
Vita brevis, ars longa. In Michelangelo's case, both life and art were long--and of enduring significance. It is nigh impossible to overestimate the influence of Michelangelo on later artists. While writing my books on Rubens and Bernini, the Castor and Pollux of the Baroque age, I found myself constantly invoking the name of Michelangelo--as did those artists themselves in both word and work. (A biographer of Rodin would say no less.) Arriving in Rome for the first time in 1601, the twenty-four-year-old Rubens proceeded to sketch figures from the Sistine Ceiling, rendering Michelangelo's heroic forms as sensuously and vividly as though they had been drawn from studio models, not copied from century-old frescoes some sixty feet overhead. A few years later, the painter Annibale Carracci advised the ten-year-old Bernini to study Michelangelo's Last Judgment for a full two years in order to get a firm grasp of anatomy.
"He was a good man, but he did not know how to paint"--El Greco's appraisal represents the minority. The founding fathers of the Baroque--Carracci, Caravaggio, and Rubens--owed Michelangelo an incalculable debt, and paid him homage with their brushes. Poussin, Velazquez, even Rembrandt may be cited among the beneficiaries of "the Homer of painting," as he was dubbed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy. In his last discourse in London to his fellow academicians in 1790, Reynolds concluded: "I should desire that the last word which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of Michelangelo." A few years earlier, the German poet Goethe confessed in his Italian Journey that he had become so enthusiastic about Michelangelo that he had lost all his taste for Nature, since he could not see her with the same eye of genius. Sir Thomas Lawrence, the British portraitist, supplied in 1819 a more biblical explanation: "God gave the command to increase and multiply before the Fall, and Michelangelo's is the race that might have been."
Steeped as he was in Neo-Platonic philosophy, which to the Renaissance mind was wholly compatible with Christianity, Michelangelo pictured mankind and divinity alike in idealized human form. "His people are a superior order of beings," concluded Reynolds. The prototype is Original Man, naked Adam, that sensual revision of a classical river god who reaches out, languidly, to receive from his Creator the spark of a divine soul. Yet the artist's mind that gave immortal form to that perfect male remained conflicted and tormented, a soul yearning to escape the shackles of human flesh.
L'amor mi prende a la beltà mi lege ("love seizes me and beauty binds me")--so Michelangelo described in verse, as in stone, his soul's struggle against its earthly chains. We are reminded of his unfinished marbles, those human forms that barely emerge from the confines of stone. Surely no artist in history has bequeathed so many unfinished masterpieces to the world. Far from being depreciated, those incomplete metamorphoses reveal, as no polished Pietà could reflect, the lifelong psychic conflict that fueled his creativity. Such pain was the touchstone of Michelangelo's artistic growth. It was the process of creation, not the finely chiseled product, that progressively engaged his fertile imagination. In the Sistine Ceiling he gave the very subject of Creation--beginning and end--its definitive epic form for our eyes to behold. These he did complete.
But Michelangelo was not alone in recomposing Creation. Almost three centuries later he was answered in the thunderous chords, evocative harmonies, and soaring lines of an oratorio--The Creation by Franz Joseph Haydn. Composed by the prolific maestro well into his sixties, it represents Haydn's response to Handel's Messiah, which so overwhelmed Haydn upon his first hearing in 1791 at Westminster Abbey in London that he wept during the "Hallelujah Chorus." "He is the master of us all" was Haydn's verdict. Yet six years later he began to compose his own sacred masterpiece of comparable scope and power. A prequel of sorts to Messiah, Haydn's Creation sets to music an assemblage of texts derived--by an unknown librettist--from Milton's Paradise Lost. Then in Vienna, that great patron of Baroque music Baron Gottfried van Swieten (who had earlier introduced Mozart to the music of Bach and Handel) provided a German translation for Haydn to set arguably the greatest music he ever wrote. In his own words to his biographer, "I was never so religious as during the composition of The Creation. Daily I fell on my knees and asked God for strength."
The oratorio was hugely successful from first hearing--so much for the mistaken notion that all great art must go unrecognized by contemporary society--and was repeated countless times throughout Europe. Haydn's last public appearance was at a performance in 1808 in Vienna--his former pupil Beethoven was among the listeners--shortly before he died. At the climactic moment of Creation-- the thunderous, exalting fortissimo of chords that accompany and overwhelm the words of God's command "And let there be light"-- Haydn was himself so deeply moved that he confessed, "It was not I, but a Power above who created that."
Ever since I was a school-boy soprano, my favorite chorus in all music was Haydn's triumphal setting of the opening of Psalm XIX, the climax of part one of his Creation: "Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, und seine Hände Werk zeigt an das Firmament" ("The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork"). Almost fifty years later, this music still conveys, as no mere words alone can, the Creator behind creation, just as Handel's soprano solo in Messiah, "I know that my redeemer liveth," redeems the suffering of Job as well as our own and points forward, as an aural prefiguration, to Christ our Redeemer, our Messiah. As the Composer in Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos rightly proclaims, "Musik ist eine heilige Kunst"--Music is a Holy Art. But she is, fortunately, in good company throughout that worthy endeavor.
When my elder son, Charlie, was two years old I took him to kneel before the crèche set up for Christmas at our parish church of St. Vincent Ferrer. Gazing in wonder over the finely carved figures of the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the Magi gathered at the manger along with attendant animals, he finally sang out, "Ee--eye--ee-eye--oh...." My son may have mistaken the ownership of the farm, but he had no problem with animal iconography! Images speak with immediacy to the very young, as to us all.
I was reminded of another Charles, the narrator of Evelyn Waugh's most Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited, whose magnificent translation to film I watched with my wife and newborn on PBS a generation ago (now available on DVD). In one early, idyllic summer scene on the terrace of Brideshead, Charles challenges his eccentric and much beloved new college friend Sebastian over the latter's troublesome convictions as a Catholic. Charles--played to the hilt by Jeremy Irons in the television series--dismisses it as "an awful lot of nonsense," but Sebastian retorts, "Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me."
But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all.
I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.
Oh, yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea.
But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea.
But I do. That's how I believe.
What brings us to the Manger, time and again? To the Mass? To faith? What about Sebastian's claim to believe something because it is a "lovely idea"? Is that nothing more than the intellectual equivalent to his beloved teddy bear, Aloysius (named after the young Jesuit saint)? Is truth more likely to be lovely? A theological argument might be fashioned in favor of this "lovely idea" based on the claim in St. John's gospel that God is both absolute Truth and absolute Love--an equation, as it were, that supports Sebastian's point. In retrospect over the two millennia of Christianity, it appears that the Church implicitly adopted this notion in so far as it encouraged and commissioned artists to present its stories and theological claims in the most attractive and "lovely" fashions. By the time Christianity emerged free into the light of the Roman Empire, it decked itself and its core beliefs in the splendid raiment of visual art--architecture, painting and sculpture.
St. Luke, evangelist and author of the book of Acts, was known to be a physician and hence became the patron saint of doctors and surgeons --as well as butchers and students, an arresting combination! But he was also the patron saint of artists, owing to an old tradition, unsupported by fact, that he painted the first icon, from life, of the Virgin Mary. Hence the many artists’ guilds "of St. Luke" down the centuries. But that honor perhaps should have gone to the Apostle Paul, for it was Paul's wildly successful mission to the gentiles throughout the Roman Empire that ultimately converted that empire and brought Christianity into the realm of its painters and sculptors, something that would have appeared alien to the first Jewish Christians, steeped as they were in the iconoclastic tradition of Judaism and its prohibition of "graven images" (a tradition that later took root in Islam and in the stricter sects of Protestantism).
The first known Christian paintings date from two centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus--in the house church at Dura Europas in present-day Syria. There we find beautifully preserved frescoes, 235 AD, of Jesus as the Good Shepherd--the oldest image of that most popular Early Christian symbol--along with miracle scenes of Peter healing the paralytic and Jesus walking on water, and the Three Marys at the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, among others. But the first full flowering of Christian art would have to wait another century and a major military victory, that of the emperor Constantine at the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.
Before battle, Constantine had a vision of a huge cross appearing in the sky along with a Greek inscription: "by this, conquer" (later rendered in Latin in hoc signo vinces--"by this sign you shall conquer"). He ordered his troops to display on their shields the Christian insignium of chi-rho (first two Greek letters for "Christ"). The next year the grateful, victorious emperor issued an imperial decree of tolerance--the Edict of Milan--for Christians throughout his empire, an end of persecution, and the restoration of confiscated property; in time he went further, declaring Christianity its official religion. The Catholic Church had finally become Roman--beyond all dreams.
During his transformative reign over both Empire and Church, Constantine not only presided over the Council of Nicea, which adopted the Creed we recite today at Mass, but also sponsored a huge program of magnificent church building, from St. Peter's in Rome to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. These huge basilicas--the term comes from the Greek word for king, basileus--provided splendid gathering places for the Christian faithful, now liberated to worship above-ground. The catacombs along the Via Appia Antica had small chapels decorated sparingly, if poignantly, by frescoes of Christ and his saints; but the basilicas of Constantine spared no expense in celebrating the once-persecuted faith that was fast becoming the official religion of Rome and her sprawling empire. The new temples of the Christian God represented, in effect, the pagan temples of classical antiquity (think of the Parthenon) turned inside out.
Those pagan temples, reflecting ancient worship, proclaimed their sacredness externally: the exteriors, facing the public, were sheathed in marble columns and adorned with relief sculpture brightly painted. The Christian basilicas, by contrast, were designed to house congregations that assembled inside to worship their God in a participatory fashion. Hence the rows of magnificent marble columns were moved inside to reinforce the ceremonial procession from entrance to altar, while the wall surfaces were dematerialized by glowing mosaics and frescoes and punctuated by windows to illuminate this New Jerusalem, a symbolic heaven on earth.
Imperial trappings of royal power were transferred to the worship of the new King of Kings. The emperor's throne room became the hall of the New Emperor, Christ. Whereas Roman emperor sat under a baldachin at the rear of his hall, filled with adoring subjects, Christ appeared, liturgically, in the Sacrament under the baldachin or marble ciborium at the altar at the climax of each Mass. Altar replaced throne for this new heavenly emperor, who ruled from a cross. Lest there be any doubt, monumental images of Christ now appeared in apses, from Sta. Pudenziana in Rome to San Vitale in Ravenna , wherein Christ was bedecked with full imperial regalia--Christ as Emperor, Pantocrator, Ruler of the World. At the same time the Pope, his vicar on earth, likewise assumed imperial trappings as Pontifex Maximus and over time he assembled a ceremonial court that would rival--and ultimately outlast--the secular emperor's, thus sowing the seeds of perennial conflict between Church and State down the ages to its climax in Napoleon's attack on the Papacy. But that lay many centuries in the future.
The crowning glory of Early Christian celebrations of Christ as Emperor are still preserved today in the mosaics of Ravenna, the seaport town on the Adriatic that for one brief shining moment served as capital of the Roman Empire in the West. Unrivaled in splendor and glittering detail, its 5th and 6th-century mosaics--from San Appolinare Nuovo, to the Baptistry, to San Vitale and the mausoleum of Galla Placidia--belie any erroneous notion of artistic decline in the period of the so-called Dark Ages.
Even in the West, where the Pax Romana of a bygone empire had long given way to tribal warfare and warlords had little use for architects and artisans, civilization--that is to say, the classical heritage of Greece and Rome--was preserved for later revivals by those diligent monks in Iona in western Scotland and in Ireland, who kept vast libraries of ancient manuscripts and piously copied them while adding their own illuminations of fantastic decorative shapes and colors. (For a lively and unabashed treatment of this thesis, see Thomas Cahill's book How the Irish Saved Civilization. A more modulated yet persuasive view is offered by Kenneth Clark in Civilisation.) The epitome of these manuscripts is The Book of Kells, now preserved at Trinity College in Dublin and visited by countless tourists. Its maze-like geometric patterns foreshadow the art of Frank Stella, the American abstract painter and sculptor who was influenced as a college student in Princeton's Department of Art & Archaeology by such early medieval art.
On Christmas Day in the year of our Lord 800 the pope crowned Charlemagne--or Karl der Grosse, or Carolus Magnus, depending on one's preferred tongue--emperor (Imperator Augustus) of a revived Roman empire in the West to rival the eastern emperor enthroned in Byzantium, the former Constantinople. Charlemagne is rightly considered the father of both the German and French monarchies, but also in a larger sense the father of a united Europe. His palace in Aachen stands as a magnificent medieval successor to the 6th-century emperor Justinian's San Vitale in Ravenna, which Charlemagne saw and admired on his way back from Rome. His reign marked the first artistic renewal in the West, a consciously classical revival we know as the Carolingian Renaissance.
Charlemagne presented several relics to the Abbey of St. Sernin in Toulouse, which immediately established it as a worthy site for pilgrims to visit en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which housed the head of the apostle James and lay at the hub of pilgrimage routes in Europe. Three centuries later the abbey church of St. Sernin was completed in 1120, only forty years after it was begun in 1080. It rises as a magnificent monument to the style known as Romanesque, its towering nave crowned with a barrel vault--think of an inverted half pipe from the Olympic snowboarding competition--supported by massive round columns directing the thrust of tons of stone downward to earth. It is called a basilica, but it bears little resemblance to those of Rome. Rather, it epitomizes the "pilgrimage plan," a practical arrangement of side chapels radiating off a semicircular aisle behind the high altar and apse, to accommodate queues of passing pilgrims gaining valuable indulgences through their veneration of relics--a spiritual World's Fair pavilion. Two years into construction, the architect--or his best pupil--began work on the new Spanish pilgrimage church of Santiago de Compostela at the end of the line.
But high noon in the Middle Ages was to yet come, along with the full flowering of the Gothic style epitomized in France by the cathedral of Chartres, begun in 1194. The technical innovation of rib vaults and flying buttresses--to direct the downward forces outwards, beyond the exterior walls, as well as downwards--allowed builders to scale new heights and to dematerialize the walls with luminous stained-glass windows. Kenneth Clark called Gothic cathedrals "hymns to the divine light." High Gothic was, in every aspect of the word, all about light, the Shadow of God. It achieved and reflected in all media, fully coordinated, a parallel spiritual universe, a retreat from the mundane world, a vision of Heaven on Earth.
Nowhere is this achievement of "sermons in stone" or "frozen music"--as Gothic cathedrals have evocatively been dubbed--better described and explained than in Emile Mâle's The Gothic Image. But others too have captured the magic. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell muses about Chartres: "I'm back in the Middle Ages. I'm back in the world I was brought up in as a child, the Roman Catholic spiritual-image world, and it is magnificent...That cathedral talks to me about the spiritual information of the world. It's a place for meditation, just walking around, just sitting, just looking at those beautiful things." And as Albert Finney, playing an architect, says to Audrey Hepburn, his wife in the 1967 film Two for the Road, "Nobody knows the names of the men who made it. To make something as exquisite as this without wanting to smash your stupid name all over it.... All you hear about nowadays is people making names, not things." Plus ça change....
By the fourteenth-century, the twilight of the Middle Ages offered a glimmer of a new dawn--the Renaissance. Heralded in Italy by Giotto, it rose to new heights of humanism in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in the art of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. "Man is the measure of all things," that famous proclamation of the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, became a new credo for artists and architects alike, as the ideal of the human body was revived from classical antiquity and applied to architectural theory as well: buildings should evoke bodies. The new basilica of St. Peter's in the Vatican, designed to replace the now crumbling Constantinian original, was to be crowned by a dome symbolizing the Head, or Crown, of Christendom.
The Renaissance life of the mind brought forth countless treatises on humanistic theory, which spelled out a Christian Humanism wholly compatible with Catholic faith. There was no "Da Vinci code"--in fact, no "Da Vinci" (he was always Leonardo). Any contemporary passerby would have recognized (from countless Early Renaissance precedents) the young, beautiful disciple with long tresses beside Christ in the Last Supper as the future Evangelist John, the "beloved disciple." But they would surely not have posited, like perennial schoolboys, so many erections beneath the folds of drapery in images of the Dead or Resurrected Christ: Brilliant scholar though he is, Leo Steinberg illustrates (in his Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, cited above in Professor Rausch's chapter) the pitfalls of post-Freudian interpretations that conjure up overly erotic interpretations of such drapery folds and of Christ's "slung leg" over his Virgin mother's lap (another salacious Steinberg inference) in Michelangelo's Pietà.
It may not be necessary to be a Catholic in order to understand faithfully the masterpieces of Christian art; but it is necessary to think like a Catholic and to shun anachronisms that obscure our understanding of the masters. The model here is D. W. Robertson's classic A Preface to Chaucer, wherein the great scholar applied the lessons of medieval iconography to re-interpret the satire and sense of the Canterbury Tales in the light and context of their time, not ours. Fidelity to the author or artist is as essential to today's scholars and teachers as fidelity to the composer is to conductors and singers. However challenging and contrary to our contemporary notions of spontaneity and creative deconstruction, it is required.
Within a few years of the unveiling in 1512 of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, the high noon of the Renaissance was eclipsed by storm clouds: in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Though no one, least of all Luther, would have foreseen it at the time, this act was to set in motion a full-scale revolution that engulfed the Church and eventually most of Europe--the Protestant Reformation. A decade later, in 1527, Rome was brutally sacked by Imperial troops and German Protestant mercenaries. The religious crisis sparked a parallel crisis of faith among artists who soon retreated into fantasy and a style we now call Mannerism--that most self-conscious and progressively stylish of styles that divorced art from nature in the works of Pontormo, Rossi, Parmagianino and their northern Flemish followers Goltzius, Spranger, and Cornelis van Haarlem. But as in the case of post-war Abstract Expressionism four hundred years later, it was only a matter of time before a counter-reaction took root, a return to basics, in this case a return to nature and naturalism that followed in the wake of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.
As a deliberate response to the wave of iconoclastic Protestants who stripped Catholic churches and cathedrals of their altarpieces, sculptures, and stained glass windows, the Council of Trent called upon the Church to enlist an army of artists to defend doctrine through the alluring propaganda of their creations. As in the Middle Ages, art was once again to be the handmaid of the Faith. The Age of the Baroque, the zenith of overt Catholic spirituality in art, was about to dawn, and where more appropriately than in Rome?
No single artist did more to revolutionize and reform religious art than Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). He was literally a "second Michelangelo" and aware of the weight of his Christian name. He did not disappoint. This powerful genius from northern Italy broke into Roman art at the dawn of the Baroque like a bolt of lightning, electrifying his age and sending a current down through the art of the entire seventeenth century. He lived only thirty-nine years, his career confined to two decades and a few dozen major commissions; he had no workshop, no students or studio of assistants; yet he left an indelible imprint on artists to come--Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velazquez, to name just three of the brightest lights.
Caravaggio was controversial. In a Who's Who of painters his police record would take first place; his antisocial behavior ranged from throwing a plate of artichokes at a waiter to killing a man on a tennis court (for which he had to flee Rome and travel in exile from Naples to Malta to Sicily). He was equally controversial in his art: few painters have provoked such extremes of praise and condemnation from their contemporaries. No major religious painter had so many altarpieces rejected--only to be snatched up by some of the most discriminating connoisseurs of the day. He was praised and damned for the same thing: his bold and often brutal naturalism, his revolutionary aim to paint the people and objects of the natural world as he saw them; to do otherwise, he claimed, would be but "bagatelles, child's play." He was admired, but begrudgingly, considered a useful reformer who restored naturalism to art--who brought it back down to earth after decades of flights of Mannerist fantasy--yet a revolutionary who went too far.
The seventeenth-century biographer and critic Gian Pietro Bellori labeled Caravaggio a mere "imitatore della natura," an imitator of nature who often "degenerates into low and vulgar forms." Among the paintings Bellori singled out as "failing in decorum" is the brilliant masterpiece painted around 1600,The Supper at Emmaus, today in the National Gallery in London, a tour de force of technique and innovation by the artist approaching thirty years of age. Bellori castigated "the rustic character of the two apostles, the Lord who is shown young and without a beard, the innkeeper's failure to remove his cap, and a basket of fruit out of season" (for a biblical scene that took place the day after Easter, in springtime). Yet three centuries later the American abstract painter Frank Stella (one of the few with a degree in art history) wrote in the New York Times: "abstraction today wants to make sure it can have everything Caravaggio served up in The Supper at Emmaus, a painting filled with projective gesture, psychological presence, and pictorial import."
Caravaggio followed St. Luke's account of the post-Resurrection appearance (24: 13-35) and the Venetian artistic tradition of showing the startled disciples recognizing Jesus at the moment he blesses the bread at their evening meal in an Emmaus inn--a pictorial variation and condensation of Leonardo's famous Last Supper in Milan. The resurrected Christ's far-reaching gesture of benediction is framed by the thunderstruck disciples, the right one flinging his arms outwards in the form of a cross as though to exclaim, "But Lord, you were crucified!" The Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti wrote that the movements of the body reflect those of the soul, and therefore thought and feeling should be conveyed through outward gesture by artists. Here Caravaggio already reveals himself as a master of psychological and dramatic rhetoric: his gestures speak louder than words.
But what of Bellori's complaints? Let's cross-examine him. First: the youthful beardless Christ, so unlike the familiar face of Jesus. (The great Bernard Berenson called him "against all tradition and precedents, a boy preacher startling the yokels out of their wits.") Yet this face--of a resurrected Christ who does not look like himself--reveals Caravaggio's brilliant solution to the mystery of why these disciples had failed to recognize him--an original solution he based on scripture. Saint Luke never fully explains why the disciples had failed to recognize Jesus after he joined them along the walk to Emmaus; he mentions only that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." But at the end of St. Mark's gospel there is a brief reference to the appearance (16:12) that is both explicit and explanatory: he states that Christ appeared to the disciples in alia effigie, as the Vulgate renders it, "in another likeness."
Evidently this single phrase suggested to Caravaggio a solution to the problem of recognition. It also offered a biblical sanction for showing Christ in a different guise, in alia effigie, as the Evangelist describes him. Yet by following Mark's lead and adopting a new face for Christ, Caravaggio intended not only to rationalize the miracle of recognition but also to sacramentalize it. This appearance at supper was traditionally interpreted by theologians as a confirmation not only of Christ's physical resurrection but also of his bodily presence in the Eucharist, a doctrine of paramount importance to the Church of the Counter-Reformation. The doctrinal controversy between Catholics and Protestants over the nature of Christ's identification with the sacrament had by this time led to an intensified Catholic emphasis upon the centrality of the Eucharist and the belief in Transubstantiation. The Church reaffirmed this tenet of faith by every available means, including artistic representations of Eucharistic subjects such as the Supper at Emmaus. In the Jesuit book of engravings, Geronimo Nadal's Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1593) the Supper at Emmaus was illustrated as a prefiguration of the Mass, wherein Christ, as Priest, distributes the broken bread to his two disciples. Caravaggio intended his painted version to be no less sacramental; he merely sought a more visually persuasive way of conveying the same idea.
For Caravaggio, the disciples' recognition of Christ is achieved solely through the Eucharist. To underscore this point he deliberately removed all other clues to Christ's identity: we look in vain for the nail prints or the side wound (later revealed to the doubting Thomas). His hands are so arranged that it is impossible to determine whether the wounds are there or not, and the garments cover his side. Most striking of all, Christ's face is not that of the Crucified, even at the moment of recognition. That recognition, therefore, is the result of his gesture alone, the extended hand blessing the bread, an allusion to the priest's act of blessing at the consecration of bread into the Body of Christ during the Mass. (Beside the loaf of bread are the vessels of water and wine, as on an altar.) Christ's sacramental gesture becomes the sine qua non of his self-revelation to his disciples, as if to stress that only through the Eucharist does Christ reveal himself physically and spiritually to the faithful, now as then.
The particular likeness Caravaggio chose for this alia effigies harks back to the earliest type in Christian art, young and beardless, as found on the Junius Bassus sarcophagus, unearthed in Rome in 1595. The Early Christian status of this Apollonian type (as distinct from the later, mature and bearded Zeus-type that took hold in art) provided historical justification for its adoption here at a time when the Counter-Reformation Church engaged in a general revival of Early Christian sources to buttress its historical and sacramental claims and to counter Protestant assertions that they were the true heirs to the Early Christians. This type was revived occasionally during the Middle Ages and Renaissance; two important examples may have served as actual sources for Caravaggio. One was a devotional painting (Galleria Borghese, Rome) based on a lost Leonardo of the Salvator Mundi; now attributed to Marco d'Oggiono, but then thought to be by Leonardo himself, it hung in the bedroom of Pope Paul V as his most cherished painting. Like his counterpart at Emmaus, the young "Savior of the World" is shown in the act of blessing, a gesture of salvation with clear sacramental overtones. This iconic image of an eternally youthful Christ offered to Caravaggio an esteemed prototype for his Savior at Emmaus--one who likewise reveals himself in a gesture of blessing.
According to Catholic doctrine, salvation is inseparable from the Resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ; so it is singularly appropriate that an even more famous source for Caravaggio's Christ was the most prominent scene of Resurrection and Judgment in Rome--by his namesake Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel fresco, where high above the altar Christ appears at the end of time as a youthful beardless deity. The two images share not only the facial type but also their crucial, contrapuntal gestures. In Michelangelo's fresco Christ's right arm is raised while the left and less active one reaches across his side as if to point to his side wound. Caravaggio lowers the dramatically extended right arm as he transforms a gesture of judgment into one of blessing. But the left arm, relatively unaltered, recalls what is no longer visible: the side wound. These formal allusions to Michelangelo's Christ of the Last Judgment suggest a deeper link between the two subjects: the idea that Christ's appearance to his disciples at Emmaus anticipates, proleptically, his final appearance to all mankind. Both artists represented epiphanies of the Resurrected Christ.
Caravaggio's three primary sources for his Christ in alia effigie--the Early Christian type, the Leonardesque Salvator Mundi, and Michelangelo's Judge--all share a common referent: the image of the eternal, divine Savior; not the earthly, historical Jesus but the heavenly, glorified Christ of the Second Coming. To answer another of Bellori's complaints, the innkeeper has failed to remove his cap in the Lord's presence precisely because he remains outside this miraculous revelation, illumined by metaphysical light, the light of enlightenment. Yet his head casts a symbolic shadow--a negative halo, so to speak--above Christ's head, where we might expect a more traditional one, perhaps signifying that even those ignorant of Christ may yet honor him unconsciously. Likewise the basket of fruit, admittedly "out of season," is richly symbolic with Eucharistic grapes, the apple of Adam's fall, and a pomegranate, an emblem of resurrection. Perched precariously at the table's edge, it casts a shadow in the form of a fish, the ancient symbol for Christ (since the letters of the Greek word for fish, Ichthus, referred to "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior"). These symbolic shadows reinforce the metaphysical nature of Caravaggio's chiaroscuro, the juxtaposition of light and shadow, recalling the Latin maxim Lux Umbra Dei--"Light is the Shadow of God."
The disciples are deliberately rustic, common humanity realistically rendered but dignified in their humility. One wears a cockle shell, symbol of a pilgrim, as though to say: we are all, even the lowliest of us, pilgrims on the way to Emmaus. Caravaggio was repeatedly criticized for populating his religious pictures with such ordinary people (most scandalous was the claim that he used a body of a drowned prostitute in Rome for the model of the Virgin Mary in his later altarpiece The Death of the Virgin.) One wag once remarked to me that he was sure Caravaggio would feel right at home on the New York subways. Yet he infused sacred subjects with a power and conviction, a humanity that is confrontational but reasonable: the disciples, after all, were simple folk, unlike the high priests and Pharisees, the Establishment in Roman-occupied Palestine.
In his first Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio reinterpreted a favorite subject of Renaissance art as a vivid confirmation of the Resurrection and the efficacy of the Eucharist. Basing his deceptively "unorthodox" representation of Christ in alia effigie on a verse in St. Mark's gospel, he fused in one image the earliest visual expression of Christ's divinity, the Salvator Mundi, and the Christ of the Second Coming, whose triumphant revelation is accompanied by a stark reminder of the Crucifixion--two expansive gestures that break into the viewer's own space. Here in one of his very rare miracle scenes, Caravaggio confronts us with nothing less than an affirmation of salvation.
Among the artists who experienced in Rome Caravaggio's groundbreaking work first-hand was a young Fleming named Peter Paul Rubens. Like so many others from the North, he had journeyed to Italy to finish his training as a painter. He arrived in Rome in 1601. The timing could not have been more propitious. The Eternal City was being transformed by the Counter-Reformation popes into the artistic capital of Europe, a propagandistic assertion of their spiritual primacy. Caravaggio was completing his wall paintings of St. Matthew's life for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, an overpowering public debut of his dramatic chiaroscuro which was to leave its mark on Rubens. An early sheet of sketches (Getty Museum, Los Angeles) for a Last Supper by Rubens reveals quotations from Caravaggio's Calling of St. Matthew as well as from his Supper at Emmaus, as the young Rubens (six years Caravaggio's junior) compiled his vast visual vocabulary. Whether Rubens actually met Caravaggio in the flesh must remain conjectural; what is certain is that he was profoundly impressed by his art and translated it into his own idiom, a blend of Italian and Flemish sources.
Upon his return home, Rubens transformed his Netherlandish heritage with reflections of antiquity, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio in the first of his two great Antwerp triptychs, the Raising of the Cross, commissioned in 1610. Rubens broke the triptych boundaries as his heroic Crucifixion extends beyond the central panel to embrace the two flanking wings in his dramatic affirmation of redemptive suffering. His second triptych, begun a year later for the Harquebusiers (or Musketeers) Guild altar in the cathedral, was the Descent from the Cross. By contrast, and in keeping with its biblical subject, it expresses a stately serenity, poignancy, and classicizing equilibrium. As in the Raising, that famous ancient sculpture of Laocoön provides the central quotation from antiquity, as Rubens here adapted the figure of the suffering Trojan priest--in reverse--to the Priest/Victim Jesus being lowered from the cross by his disciples. (Nicodemus, on the ladder, is a quotation of Laocoön's elder son.)
The wings illustrate the Visitation, on the left, and the Presentation in the Temple on the right; the outside shutters illustrate the medieval legend of St. Christopher and the Hermit. The unified iconographic program celebrates the guild's patron saint, Christopher. (The holy giant is based on an antique sculpture, the Farnese Hercules.) In keeping with the meaning of his Greek name Christophoros ("Christ-bearer"), he is shown carrying the Christ Child across a river at night, illumined by a lantern held by a hermit. Each of the three biblical subjects on the inside panels likewise illustrates the bearing of Christ: In the Visitation, the Virgin carries Christ in her womb as she visits her cousin Elizabeth; In the Presentation, the high priest Simeon holds the Christ Child as Mary raises her arms to receive him, a gesture poignantly varied in the central panel, wherein as Mater Dolorosa she reaches up to hold her dead Son. Together the three panels present a gradual rightward descent in counterpoint to the central leftward lowering of the Dead Christ along a suspended sheet of incomparable whiteness. At first viewing, Sir Joshua Reynolds commented that "none but great colorists can venture to paint pure white linen near flesh." A century later, Eugène Fromentin summed up: "Everything is restrained, concise, laconic, as if it were a page of Holy Scripture."
The central Eucharistic doctrine of the Counter-Reformation had affirmed both the reenactment of Christ's sacrifice in the Mass and the physical presence Christ in the sacrament received by the faithful at the altar. Nowhere were those beliefs conveyed with such conviction and pathos as in Rubens's triptych that opened over an altar in Antwerp's cathedral, where it still bears eloquent witness today.
After the Eucharist, the sacrament of Penance--the ritual confession and absolution of sins--was of foremost concern to Catholics during the Counter-Reformation. The rejection of sacramental confession by Protestants led to an insistent promotion by Catholics through every available means--sermons, treatises, and the visual arts. Following the doctrine's reaffirmation at the Council of Trent, images of penitent saints proliferated in altarpieces, prints, and paintings for private devotion. In his brilliant Christ and the Penitent Sinners (Alte Pinakothek, Munich), the work that first converted me as a college student to this artist, Rubens combined two of the most popular penitents, Mary Magdalene and St. Peter, together with the less frequently illustrated Good Thief and King David in a sacra conversazione of extraordinary grace and lyricism. This glowing picture represents the culmination of the artist's Antwerp decade (1609-1620) of religious paintings for public commissions and private patrons.
The composition is defined by the diagonal S-curve of the radiantly blond Mary Magdalene kneeling before the Risen Christ, recalling their previous juxtaposition in the Descent from the Cross. In both, he emphasized the Magdalene's long Titianesque tresses, with which she had dried the Savior's feet before the Passion. Christ is presented in classical perfection like a Greco-Roman god--a combination of Apollo and Jupiter. His brilliant red toga contrasts with the Magdalene's yellow-white garment. Arms crossed over her breasts, she is identified as the woman taken in adultery whom Jesus saved and admonished to "go and sin no more." Behind Mary stand three biblical penitents, bridging both testaments and beckoned by Christ. Closest to the Savior, Peter, weeping and with hands clasped, reenacts his repentance for thrice denying his Master. The background rock symbolizes Christ's promise to him: "You are Peter and upon this Rock I shall build my church," an image and text invoked by the Roman Church in defense of the primacy of its first bishop and his papal successors. Identifiable by his crown is David--king, psalmist, and penitent adulterer. At the far left, holding a cross parallel to Christ, is the Good Thief, to whom Jesus at the Crucifixion promised a place in Paradise. His pose is an evocative quotation of Michelangelo's statue of the Risen Christ in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
Rubens's emphasis on the encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalene derives from the iconography of the Noli Me Tangere ("Do not touch me"), the Risen Christ's first appearance to the Magdalene on Easter morning, as recounted by the Evangelist John. Close as they are, they do not physically touch. Rubens's stress upon the visual experience reaffirmed the function of religious art as prescribed by the Council of Trent: to evoke a lively sense of faith in the beholder. Here Rubens's emphasis is not so much on the act of penance as on the receptive gesture of the Risen Christ, a confirmation of Job's faith: "I know that my Redeemer liveth." Rubens combines heroic forms and sensuous surfaces to affirm, most invitingly, even seductively, his own affirmation of salvation.
Nowhere does Rubens offer more inventive variations on a religious theme than in his several Adorations of the Magi--a series of Epiphanies that reach a High Baroque climax in the 1624 altarpiece for the Norbertine (Praemonstratensian) Abbey of St. Michael's in Antwerp. His first version, also his first major commission in 1609 upon his return to Antwerp from Rome, was for the Staatenkammer (Chamber of States) in the town hall-- a nocturnal procession with shades of Caravaggio, Elsheimer, and the Venetians that provided a stately backdrop for the signing of the Twelve Years' Truce between the two Netherlands, North and South. For the high altar of St. Michael's, where Rubens had earlier provided an altarpiece for his mother's tomb, he shifted the time to midday for his most joyous--and liturgical--interpretation of the biblical subject. Rubens is said to have painted it in a week--surely an exaggeration. Yet the lively brushwork reveals a new fluidity and breadth, as though he had adapted the style of a spontaneous oil sketch to a full-scale painting. However rapid the execution, the composition was carefully prepared by an oil modello (Wallace Collection, London) wherein he introduced a powerful centripetal grouping around the visually arresting Moorish king. The host of worshippers descends in a reverse S-curve from camels that allude, as Julius Held noted, to the liturgy for the Feast of the Epiphany: "Multitudes of camels shall cover thee, dromedaries of Midean and Epha." (Isaiah, 60.6)
Rubens's iconography--his language of images--reflects the liturgical function of the altarpiece as backdrop to the celebration of the Mass. Unlike the artist's earlier versions and his preliminary modello, the foremost king no longer offers gold; he is now robed in splendid ecclesiastical vestments, as though he were a priest kneeling before the sacrament on the altar. The Virgin is rotated to a frontal view as she displays the body of Christ, whose reclining pose prefigures a Pietà. The close association of nativity and death was common throughout early Netherlandish altarpieces, which likewise employed "disguised symbolism" in the straw (bread), the ox (sacrifice), and the wooden crate with white cloth (altar), together alluding to the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass.
Rubens's Counter-Reformation imagery extended to the original marble frame and sculptures, dismantled two centuries later, but still preserved in the parish church of St. Trudo (Groot Zundert, Netherlands). The pediment was originally crowned by three alabaster statues designed by Rubens, each symbolizing the triumph over evil and heresy. St. Michael defeats Satan; the Virgin crushes the Serpent underfoot; St. Norbert stands victorious over the prostrated heretic Tanchelm, who already in the 12th century had denied the sacrament, church hierarchy, the paying of tithes, and ritual. It is precisely these proto-Protestant denials by Tanchelm that Rubens reversed in his resolutely Catholic epiphany. In the painting, Ancient Rome is personified by two soldiers beside a Corinthian column entwined with ivy, symbolizing its supplanting and renewal by the Church; the universality of the new Roman (Catholic) Empire is embodied in the assembly of witnesses--including an African, an Indian, and an Asian--from the knight on horseback to the beggar below him. In this Flemish Baroque feast for the eyes Rubens re-orchestrates his Netherlandish heritage and Italian influences with operatic grandeur. Centuries later, we can almost hear Handel's joyous chorus from Messiah "For unto Us a Child is Born" resounding through the paint.
Rubens is an artist's artist; his influence down the centuries is legendary: Van Dyck, Jordaens, Watteau, Boucher, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Delacroix, Renoir--each paid him homage with their brushes. Even such unlikely heirs as Cézanne and Matisse studied him and painted copies of his masterpieces. Yet the painter's Rubens represents but one side of this multifaceted genius. His contemporary and friend General Spinola said of him, "Of all his talents, painting is the least." Renowned throughout Europe as a diplomat, Rubens negotiated peace between England and Spain, for which he was knighted by both kings. He was also a dedicated scholar and Christian humanist, a learned classicist and antiquarian, a prodigious correspondent (in several languages), an amateur architect--in short, a true Renaissance man. His nephew described his life as "but one long course of study." The court chaplain at Brussels eulogized him as "the most learned painter in the world."
Rubens was also a devout Catholic, loyal subject of the Spanish Hapsburgs, devoted husband, father of eight children, a prosperous, energetic, life-loving, thoroughly balanced man who lived in harmony with his society and, we may assume, with himself. No one could be further from the modern conception of the struggling artist who pays dearly--economically, spiritually, and socially--for exerting his genius. We must admit: the very qualities with which Rubens was blessed tend to detract from his popular appeal today. Modern society prefers to find genius in a tormented Michelangelo, a rebellious Caravaggio, a withdrawn and introspective Rembrandt. Hollywood has yet to project Rubens's exemplary life onto the big screen.
There is another issue: because Rubens was, like so many Christian artists down to the nineteenth century, a literary artist--that is to say, a visual artist who faithfully interpreted and translated texts into images--the student who would strive to understand his achievements within the Catholic tradition must at least be biblically literate. One need not have a graduate degree in theology, but one must know both Testaments as well as the fundamentals of the Faith: the core beliefs, the saints, the liturgy, and basic church history and structure--the very things that fifty years ago every elementary school pupil knew before receiving confirmation. Times have changed, but the ground work required for an educated appreciation of timeless art has not. One cannot read French poetry without knowing French; one cannot read an old-master religious painting without having a basic literary and religious knowledge.
As impresario of vast decorative programs and multi-media productions, Rubens was without peer in northern Europe; for his equivalent we must look south, a generation later, to the great Italian maestro Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini personified the Baroque style and era. He dominated the 17-th century. His audience comprised Europe's leading patrons, prelates, and princes, but Rome was his stage --and stage enough. Bernini's monumental presence throughout the Eternal City remains as resonant as the ancient ruins. In marble, travertine, bronze, stucco, and gilt; in paint, through glass and shimmering water, sculptured space and channeled light, Bernini left his imprint on the Catholic capital, the indelible stamp of genius. Within its walls he created another realm, one of imagination incarnate, which centuries later still shapes our experience of Rome and transfigures it.
According to his earliest biographers, Bernini was "the first to attempt to combine architecture, painting and sculpture in such a way that together they make a beautiful whole (un bel composto)." To this end, he would "bend the rules without actually breaking them." This unification of the arts was Bernini's own concept. Though he wrote no treatise, he left a brilliant illustration of his theoretical views and their fulfillment in a small chapel of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. There in 1647, Cardinal Federigo Cornaro commissioned a memorial chapel for his illustrious Venetian family, which had supplied six cardinals and a doge; five years later it was completed--Bernini's most famous, and telling, masterpiece.
Cornaro's close ties with the Discalced Carmelites and his special devotion to their founder gave rise to the central subject, St. Teresa's vision of an angel piercing her heart with the flaming arrow of Divine Love--an event that had been cited at her canonization in 1622. The white marble altarpiece, executed by Bernini's own hand, is enshrined within polychrome decoration that transforms the shallow chapel into a multilevel depiction of heaven. Bernini has grouped the eight Cornaro figures four on a side--spanning two centuries--and shows them discussing and meditating about an apparition set deliberately beyond their sight lines: "Blessed are they that have not seen, yet believe." These animated, marble "donor portraits" are set against illusionistic reliefs of colonnaded and vaulted transepts (or perhaps heavenly corridors--they are surely not theater boxes, as so often described) directly above the wooden doors of Death.
Two colorful roundels of inlaid marbles in the pavement below show skeletons arising from the crypt. In the vault, overhead, frescoed clouds and angels spill over the architectural fabric of the chapel and stucco illustrations of Theresa's life--a metaphysical intrusion into the viewer's space. The heavenly aura, painted by Bernini's collaborator Abbatini, is realized below by sunlight passing through tinted glass before materializing into gilded bronze shafts. These descend upon the cloud-borne Teresa and angel in a metamorphosis of reflected light, "the Shadow of God." The bronze altar relief of the Last Supper at the worshipper's level marks the Eucharistic significance of this re-created miracle, as the transubstantiation of earthly matter into divine substance completes the meaning of Bernini's bel composto.
Sculpture and painting are complemented architecturally by the tabernacle in which Teresa's transverberation is exposed, suggesting a gleaming Host suspended in a bejeweled monstrance. With its hidden source of filtered light, this miniature temple anticipates Bernini's full-scale oval church of San Andrea al Quirinale, “the work which displeased him least,” where Bernini himself used to pray each day to find peace and solace. Through the interplay of concave and convex shapes, the pediment of heaven's portal bows outward as if in response to the spiritual force within. The divine text, recorded by Teresa and here spun into the timeless shape of illusion, is inscribed on a banderole suspended by angels above the entrance: Nisi coelum creassem ob te solam crearem--"If I had not created heaven I would create it for you alone."
Within the columned aedicule of variegated marbles, Bernini admits the viewer to an intimate vision of this sixteenth-century Spanish mystic: the moment at which the beautiful young angel has withdrawn his golden arrow from Teresa's breast. Filled with the love of God, Teresa swoons, unconscious, elevated on a cloud, her lips parted, her limp hand dangling at her side. As befits the founder of the Discalced (unshod) Carmelites, she is barefoot; but there is nothing naturalistic about the flood of drapery that expresses the turbulence of her soul, while the angel--pure spirit (if perhaps modeled after Bernini's firstborn son)--is dematerialized in folds that crackle like flames. Nor do Teresa's features conjure up that indefatigable founder of sixteen convents, who declared that "God walks among the pots and pans." There is nothing mundane about Bernini's depiction of her mystical transport; his hard marble achieves an irresistible seduction of the senses.
Bernini's artistic combining of the spiritual and the sensual has elicited mixed responses down the centuries, especially from the neoclassicists and prudish Victorians. Taine and Stendhal raised critical eyebrows at what they considered unabashed eroticism. Even in his own day an anonymous diatribe accused Bernini of "dragging that most pure virgin not only into the third heaven, but into the dirt, to make a Venus not only prostrated but prostituted." Yet the great majority of the clergy applauded his achievement wherein he "conquered art." Those who were scandalized simply missed the point: Bernini has faithfully translated into three dimensions the saint's own words in her autobiography. They had been read aloud at her canonization ceremony in St. Peter's:
"Beside me, on the left, appeared an angel in bodily form....He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire....In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it--even a considerable share."
Since the time the early Church fathers allegorized the Old Testament's erotic "Song of Songs," the vocabulary of earthly love was understood as the best approximation of the incomparable, ineffable ecstasy of mystics in total communion with God. Just as such an encounter was couched in physical terms, so Bernini fused in the sculptural ensemble of angel, saint, and billowy cloud (all carved from a single block of stone!) several layers of meaning drawn from episodes in Teresa's life. His three key innovations in representing Teresa--her reclining pose, her elevation on a cloud, and the infusion of sensuality--allude, as Irving Lavin has shown, to her death ("in ecstasy," as reported), her frequent levitations (usually following communion at Mass), and her mystical marriage with Christ (whom she addressed, in her last words, as "spouse"), respectively. Bernini's literary source was penned by no less an author than the late pope, his patron Urban VIII: his liturgical hymns to Teresa called her transverberation "a sweeter death" and the saint herself a "victim of love" who heard "the voice of her Spouse" beckoning her to "the wedding feast of the Lamb," where she was to receive her "crown of glory." It was left to Bernini, who credited God alone as the author of his inventions, to merge traditional iconography, orthodox theology, and human experience into a unified image of Divine Love.
Bernini returned to the theme of a full-length marble figure of a holy woman in ecstasy a quarter century later, a commission for another small chapel, this time a combined funerary monument and altar work: the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (San Francesco a Ripa, Rome). Ludovica was an ancestor of the reigning pope, Clement X (Altieri). A widow, she had devoted her life to prayer and to serving the poor. At her death in 1553 she was granted an ecstatic vision, which Bernini staged above her altar in the family's burial chapel. Conceived in 1671, following her beatification, the work was finished in 1674.
Ludovica lies on her deathbed and at the threshold of eternity. Carved in the form of a sarcophagus, the marble altar is wedded with the tomb sculpture in a luminous apparition at the end of the small, dark chapel. The walls converge as though wings of a huge triptych have been opened to reveal Bernini's most painterly tableau. With head thrown back, in extremis, lips parted and eyes upturned, she clutches her breast. Physical agony and metaphysical "movements of the soul" resonate through the folds of her dress. White cherubs float like snowflakes down streams of daylight from concealed side windows; at the top of the vault the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers as its symbolic source. Behind Ludovica, Bacciccio's paradise painting of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne, to whom the chapel was dedicated, provides a window into Ludovica's vision.
The day before her death from fever Ludovica received the sacrament and then ordered everyone out of her room. When her servants were finally recalled, "they found her face aflame, but so cheerful that she seemed to have returned from Paradise." The intimacy--if not the spiritual intent--of the scene to which Bernini admits the viewer was appreciated by the novelist Adlous Huxley, to whom Ludovica's experience seemed so private "that, at first glance, the spectator feels a shock of embarrassment." Allusions to both her physical death and her mystical dying (her ecstatic transport of the previous day) coalesce in a single image, and Ludovica's consummation of death through divine love is shared sacramentally by all who partake of the Eucharist at her altar/tomb.
A comparison with the St. Teresa illuminates the artist's profound revisions over a quarter-century. A tactile apparition has modulated into an ineffable transfiguration--from body into soul. Architectural isolation (Teresa's monumental tabernacle) yields to dramatic immanence as Ludovica's jasper pall cascades toward the spectator like the overflowing stage of Bernini's play The Flooding of the Tiber--his special effects anticipate De Mille's or Spielberg's. Diagonals are resolved in sustained horizontals. No family effigies are here introduced as eternal witnesses. Even the choir of cherubs is reduced to a chamber ensemble. The Blessed Ludovica--the embodiment of "the good death," to which Bernini devoted his final meditations six years later--is contemplated by the viewer alone. "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them." This is Bernini's Requiem.
The next year, for the Holy Year (1675), Bernini completed his most widely visited chapel, the Sacrament chapel in St. Peter's, Rome. Flanked by two exquisite, larger-than-life bronze angels kneeling in prayer, Bernini here provides for all time a vertically staged drama: Christ's sacrifice, liturgically reenacted at the altar during the Mass, is superseded a level higher by the gilded bronze tabernacle--the symbolic site of his burial and resurrection. A masterpiece of miniature architecture, its ribbed dome is a revised reduction of Michelangelo's at St. Peter's.
Crowned by a gilded statuette of the Risen Christ (in lieu of a cupola), its drum is encircled by a rhythmic ring of Corinthian pilasters; at the front, two dark windows flank a sunburst of the Holy Spirit (recalling Bernini's miracle in stucco, amber, and light above the Cathedra Petri in the apse of St. Peter's). The gold and lapis columns of the portico are surmounted by bronze statuettes of the twelve apostles, "pillars of the Church," while Faith and Religion take their place over the main portal. The richly symbolic form of the tabernacle, epitomizing Bernini's architectural ideal for churches, refers both to the Early Christian Anastasis formerly erected over Christ's tomb at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and to Bramante's tempietto outside San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, on the nearby Gianicolo. As in his first great altar work for St. Peter's, the towering bronze Baldacchino over the main altar, Bernini has fused references to Christ and his first Vicar in a sculptural hybrid: Jerusalem has been spiritually transferred to Rome.
"If you want to see what a man can do, you must give him a problem," Bernini once said. Here he confronted an "obstacle," Pietro da Cortona's background altarpiece, and exploited it by converting it into an integral part of his composition. In this final reconciliation of painting and sculpture, Pietro's colorful angels now frame the heavenly dome of Bernini's tabernacle (which symbolically eclipses Pietro's globe) while Bernini's sculptured angels are coordinated in scale and placement with the Trinity in the painted heaven, their implicit source. Twice human-scale, these exquisite apparitions, modeled by the maestro himself, direct the worshipers to the sacred mystery they embrace. One turns in rapture toward the tabernacle while the other beckons the viewer to partake of the eternal.
In his first altar work for St. Peter's, Bernini had raised a huge, sculptural baldachin over an altar, itself above a tomb (of the Apostle Peter). Now in his old age he retranslated sculpture into miniature architecture--a bronze tabernacle in the form of a tomb and raised above an altar. Form and function are equated in this late work that radiates its creator's faith. Bernini repeatedly credited God as the source of his ideas; nowhere did he offer more inviting evidence of this belief. The striking realism of the former child prodigy was transfigured, in the end, by the ethereal vision of a genius for whom life and art were as inseparable as fact and faith.
George Bernard Shaw wrote: "You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul." But for the Catholic tradition, the works of art --or more precisely, their medium--may shift over time. By the end of the seventeenth century--that is to say, after the death of Bernini--the rich tradition of Baroque religious art, wherein the depth of meaning matched the height of illusion, took off into a late flight of decorative fantasy: the Rococo of the 18th century. Kenneth Clark aptly titled this chapter of Civilisation "The Pursuit of Happiness." From the pilgrimage church of Vierzehnheiligen near Bamberg--a wedding cake of delicious confections in gilded stucco and paint--to the Venetian frescoes of Tiepolo, the last painter in the "grand style," who rendered every Virgin Mary a Queen, the visual arts sought to delight the senses but rarely to stir the soul with any profound insight. Yet despite the dawning of the secular and skeptical Age of Reason, the Catholic tradition remained vital in the realm of music.
The greatest music of the 18th century was religious. Though he was a Lutheran not Roman Catholic, Johann Sebastian Bach composed sacred masterpieces in the Catholic tradition that reveal a musical equivalent to the Sistine Ceiling. His monumental biblical oratorios, the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion, rival the most profound altarpieces of all time. Indeed, that impeccable German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who called herself an Augenmensch (a visual person), said she would picture in her mind Grünewald's famous Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece while singing the Matthew Passion in order to convey in sound its true feeling and colors. In addition to so many cantatas--again sung to perfection by Schwarzkopf in her early recordings--he also composed the magisterial Mass in B-Minor: it has no peer. Compared with that seasonal favorite, Handel's Messiah, Bach's Christmas Oratorio is more ecclesiastical than operatic; it glows with the flickering of church candles, not the blaze of chandeliers--or footlights. There is a magic to Bach that never stales; it becomes more miraculous at each hearing. He is the master of all sacred music.
But Bach was not without worthy successors. The masses of Haydn and Mozart rank high in the heavens of sacred sound. The devoutly Catholic Haydn has never been underestimated in this realm: His Seven Last Words of Christ, originally composed as instrumental counterparts to the biblical readings on Good Friday and then later reworked as a choral piece, may indeed offer the last word on this theme. But Mozart was not so fortunate. What bad luck, illness and a tragically untimely death (at age 35) did not do, modern authors have wrought with a vengeance. Will future generations be able to picture this genius as other than the crude caricature of Shaffer's play and film Amadeus? A drunken imbecile with a God-given talent and a dippy wife? The common wisdom used to be that Mozart's religious music was merely "for hire," something he knocked off to earn a living so that he could write the music--operas, symphonies, chamber pieces--he really loved. What a surprise then to read that his widow, Constanze, said that his favorite genre of all was church music.
A close study of Mozart's sacred music confirms Constanze's claim. For instance, his Vesperae solennes de confessore, with its twilight "Laudate Dominum," was as carefully composed as anything Mozart ever wrote, and reveals that he paid close attention to the texts of the psalms and canticles that comprised the chanted sequences of these vespers. They should be heard in their liturgical context--ideally in an Austrian Rococo church by candlelight. His glorious Coronation Mass in C Major offers a telling footnote and glimpse into Mozart's creative process. The soprano's hauntingly beautiful "Agnus Dei" calls to mind its later recapitulation (and reworking) for the Countess's poignant aria in act three of the Marriage of Figaro: "Dove sono i bei momenti?"--where have all the sweet moments of love gone? So much for the myth that Mozart recycled bits of opera for his church music; here it was precisely the opposite. Both arias begin sorrowfully (as befits the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world") and then are suddenly transformed into a joyful conclusion. For Mozart, the peace of "dona nobis pacem" is not a passive one; not the absence of pain or conflict, but the consummation of joy.
In the nineteenth century, the Romantic Century, artists took to the garrets and painted no longer for church or court--with rare exceptions--but for private collectors, and for themselves. Their doctrine of "art for art's sake" took root and replaced the idea that art was the medium for conveying religious truths. (How many Rodins or Monets are to be found in churches?) But the Catholic tradition continued to flourish in music--through Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Schubert's richly melodic Masses, Berlioz's Te Deum and Requiem, down to the Masses --and triumphant Te Deum--of the late Romantic (and profoundly Catholic) Anton Bruckner at the close of the century.
Even the anticlerical Verdi was not immune. His Requiem, performed and recorded in modern times perhaps more than any other composer’s, has rightly been proclaimed his greatest opera. Yet its “Dies Irae” captures in sound the impact and terribilità of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment more faithfully and powerfully than anything before or after. Its history is one of musical resurrection. As originally planned, it would have been but a fragment of the eventual masterpiece. After the death of Verdi’s operatic predecessor Rossini in November 1868, Verdi proposed as a memorial to that great Italian composer a Requiem Mass to be composed sequentially by a group of Italy’s leading musical lights. Verdi’s own contribution was the Libera Me, that impassioned prayer for absolution: “Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda, quando coeli movendi sunt et terra, dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem” (“Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death in that awful day, when the heavens and the earth shall be shaken, when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire”). But the project was scuttled by administrative bickering, and Verdi’s contribution lay in limbo for several years.
In May 1873 the great Italian novelist Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi, died. Verdi considered him not only “one of the finest [novelists] of all ages” but also “a comfort to humanity.” As a heartfelt memorial to his literary hero and friend, Verdi completed the Requiem, adding all the liturgical movements that lead up to his concluding Libera Me. Performed at the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death, on May 22, 1874, at the Church of San Marco in Milan, it was then repeated at a packed La Scala. The opera house venue permitted wild applause and encores that would have been unseemly in church; at the end Verdi was given a silver crown.
The Austrian poet and opera librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal once wrote of art, “Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface.” (“Die Tiefe muß man verstecken. Wo? An der Oberfläche.”) That insight has aptly been applied to the deceptively simple and delightfully “superficial” yet profound masterpieces of Mozart. Yet it may also explain the enduring achievement of Verdi’s Requiem. It all rings true, right up to that hushed final repeated prayer “Libera, me . . . Libera, me.” With a subtle stroke of genius, Verdi has the orchestra end quietly on a C Major chord, as if to affirm that the prayer has not been in vain. The late music editor and author George Marek summed it up best: “The Requiem is one of those rare religious compositions which are loved both by the faithful and the agnostic. It is also one of those pieces of music which appeal both to the musically literate and the musical beginner. Its beauty lies deep and on the surface.”
A word about recordings: I am not surprised to find that I own more recordings of Verdi’s Requiem than any other piece of music. There is such room here for a variety of interpretations, and a cornucopia of records to prove it. All the great conductors tackle this work. Yet after decades of listening I find myself drawn closest to that of an Italian maestro. But it is not the obvious one, Arturo Toscanini, who recorded it several times. Rather it is Carlo Maria Giulini, who recorded it with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s definitive rendition of the soprano’s Libera Me. In the words of the priest and critic Alec Robertson, “Toscanini’s unforgettable interpretation was, at any rate in the ‘Dies Irae’and ‘Libera Me’ full of the visionary fervour and fire of an Old Testament prophet. Giulini’s belongs to the New Testament. There are stern words in the Gospels about the Last Judgment but the keynote of this [Giulini’s] less austere interpretation is compassion—the compassion of Christ.”
The musicologist Richard Osborne adds: “It is not necessary to be a practising Catholic in order to conduct Verdi’s sacred music supremely well, though in Giulini’s case a fiercely held faith has always been a factor to reckon with, the gentle manner disguising the fires stoked up within.” Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who had earlier recorded, to my ears, the consummate Nozze di Figaro under Giulini’s baton, commented to me just a few months before she died, “I liked him [Giulini] very much. We all know he fought great battles inside himself to make it right, you see, to find the expression; you could feel it—that he was giving his utmost to do the right thing and never felt safe that it was the right sound; he battled for it all the time, and that brings forth great expression from a human being.”
A decade later Verdi composed the most hauntingly plaintive Ave Maria in the history of music: Desdemona’s bedtime prayer, charged with the foreboding of danger, indeed doom (just moments before she is strangled by her jealous husband) in his late opera Otello. It conjures up in sound the Blessed Virgin with more power and presence than any spoken prayer or painted altarpiece. Music and words are here perfectly matched to evoke beauty and simple faith, a pair of velvet gloves. There is an irony here that must be faced: so often Verdi is described as fiercely anticlerical and agnostic, and indeed he often presented himself this way. Yet his final work, composed when he was approaching eighty-five, was his Quattro Pezzi Sacri (“Four Sacred Pieces”) that included along with two a cappella hymns to the Virgin (Ave Maria and Laudi alla Virgine) his late masterpieces of choral writing, the Stabat Mater and Te Deum. Compared with the equally “operatic” version of the Stabat Mater by Rossini, Verdi’s is distinctive in his care to underscore with meaning every phrase of that thirteenth-century medieval poem about the Crucifixion. The poem itself is uneven, and Rossini had farmed out to an assistant those verses he considered weaker: the result is an operatic alternation of arias and choruses. Verdi’s is one seamless garment of intense narration, bringing into focus the heroism and horrors of the Crucifixion that begins with Jesus’ Mother standing full of grief by the Cross on which her Son has been hung (“Stabat Mater dolorosa / Juxta crucem lacrymosa / Dum pendevat Filius”) and concludes its long sequence of images and prayers with the intercession “When my body shall die, grant that my spirit may be given the glory of Paradise. Amen.” (“Quando corpus morietur / Fac ut animae donetur / Paradisi gloria. Amen.”) The prayer is full of drama, but equally of divine compassion and humanity. The series of four pieces ends with the thunderous and glorious Te Deum, which Richard Osborne rightly claims as the “Requiem’s true sequel, a setting which ponders the heights, and scales the depths, of human yearning.”
How, then, are we to describe, if not explain, Verdi: brilliant agnostic or ultimately, if paradoxically, Catholic composer? The question is as old as St. John’s account of the Doubting Thomas, and as modern as those complex characters in the novels of Graham Greene (especially the “whiskey priests” of lost faith in his novel The Power and the Glory and his play The Potting Shed). How often those very people who believe they have lost belief end up praying and giving witness, perhaps more persuasively through the power of doubt, to the last word of faith. Often they end up being the ones who offer others the greatest inspiration, especially if they are touched by divine genius. Like Leonardo, another famous doubter, Verdi gave precise instructions for his Catholic burial. In his case, “one priest, a candle, a cross.”
What of the next, our immediate past, century? Religious painting and sculpture offer a few exceptions that prove the rule: the sacred oils of Rouault evoking stained-glass images of devotion and the minimalist Stations of the Cross by Matisse at the Rosaire chapel he designed in Venice. As the twentieth century traveled through Expressionism and Cubism to Abstraction, the Catholic tradition seemed left behind. Even in music, despite the occasional choral work of merit—above all, Poulenc’s soul-searing opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites—the tradition has waned. Think of the much touted Mass by Leonard Bernstein that opened the Kennedy Center in 1970 and brought its composer to tears. It is really a theater piece, a “deconstructed” Mass, complete with doubt-ridden celebrant. It fit the times to a T. Where, then, is the Catholic tradition to be sought? In the century’s new medium: film. Ours is the age of new technology and electronic recordings; perhaps these will provide new media for transmitting the tradition.
One masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above all biblical films is Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964). It is stark, minimal, haunting, and hypnotic. The controversial communist and agnostic director cast a Jesus who was utterly convincing, unlike so many Hollywood fantasies. In the bleakness and aridness of the black-and-white setting, Pasolini’s Jesus conveys a gaunt, frail physicality charged with spiritual magnetism. His Christ is both real and Reality. The moment of his nailing to the cross is pure pain distilled by acceptance and love, unbearable to watch but impossible to ignore. The grand Technicolor epics of Hollywood do not come close to capturing the faith conveyed by that self-proclaimed doubter director. Only a Graham Greene could have put it into words. But the simple subtitles of Matthew’s own text already said it all.
As for audio recordings, the past century has at least succeeded in preserving for posterity the masterpieces of music (just as film, and now digital technology, has preserved the visual arts of both past and present). These recordings are themselves works of art, performing art. Arguably the most prolific and painstaking in recorded classical vocal art, the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf once described her many long sessions at the EMI studios a matter of “sculpting in sound.” In that she proved the vocal successor to Michelangelo and Bernini. She set a standard, just as artists and composers have done in the visual arts and music. As for the present state of the arts, it is hard to be optimistic, yet one must remain hopeful. In the words of John of Salisbury, “We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.” Yet our artistic, as well as spiritual, mantra must surely remain “Onward.”
A Note about Notes
Because this chapter represents a personal overview, an essay rather than an academic treatise, I have decided to forgo endnotes. Yet I owe the reader a few signposts. For more on Michelangelo, see Hibbard (below); for Haydn and Mozart, I am especially indebted to H. C. Robbins Landon, from his record notes on Haydn’s Creation (for Vanguard’s Everyman Classics, 1967) to his brilliant book of myth-breaking, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (New York, 1990). My full study of Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus may be found in chapter 6 of Art, Creativity and the Sacred (below). My discussion of Rubens and Bernini is largely drawn from my two books below, which contain the relevant source notes. The best analysis of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, together with a brilliant study of that artist’s creation of the Baroque Gesamtkunstwerk, remains, three decades later, Irving Lavin’s masterpiece of art historical scholarship, Bernini and the Unity of the Visual Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980). George Marek’s notes for the 1954 recording (for RCA, under Toscanini) offer an inviting introduction to Verdi’s Requiem, with further insights by Richard Osborne found in the current CD set of the 1964 Giulini recording by EMI. My repeated citations—always forte, never piano—of the late soprano Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf admittedly reveal a personal prejudice; they may indeed be colored by this author’s affection, but she was my vocal standard of perfection long before she became my friend and, some might claim, obsession.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane, ed. Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. Revised ed. New York: Continuum, 1995.
Clark, Kenneth. Civilisation. New York: HarperCollins, 1990
Graham-Dixon, Andrew. Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. New York: Norton, 2011.
Hibbard, Howard, Michelangelo. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
L’Orange, H. P. Art Forms and Civic Life in the Late Roman Empire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971.
Mâle, Émile. Religious Art: From the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Centuries. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
Scribner, Charles. Bernini. New York: Abrams, 1991.
———. Rubens. New York: Abrams, 1989.