caravaggio, plato, and seeing face to face

We were in Vienna’s art museum, and as soon as you walked into this Italian painters’ room, you could tell which three were his.  The first one was some commissioned scene of Mary handing out rosaries, and it was enormous. The people were beautiful. And as they reached up, their hands all congregated together beautifully and expressively, and their feet were dirty, and it was lovely.  The next, David and Goliath. He held the giant’s head (a self-portrait, again, by Caravaggio… the cad), but he didn’t look happy or victorious, like many of the other Davids. He was quiet, and pensive, and maybe a little sorry to have killed someone, or uncertain of his future.

The last was arguably the most beautiful.  Maybe beautiful isn’t quite right, since it was Christ being beaten and given the crown of thorns… but it moved me.  I started tearing up.  It was so bright and so vivid, and the shadows and the contrast were dramatic and striking, and the way Jesus just bowed his head, didn’t retaliate, and was just so filled with love

There was a girl with braided hair, curly and ribbon-bound, who had set up an easel and was just standing and painting. [I’d smelled her oil paints when I first walked in the room and felt, for a disorienting moment, that Caravaggio had just finished painting these works.]  And she was talented, too – it looked so much like the painting. But then again, it didn’t…

Although the forms were all the same, it lacked something.  The colors were dark and dingy compared to the brightness of the original, and there was an aliveness in Caravaggio’s work that the copy lacked.  It was so interesting.  In comparison, the copy wasn’t spectacular.  The longer you looked at it, though, the better it did look, and the more you saw its merit.  But that was shattered the second you turned your gaze back to Caravaggio’s, which shone with the mark of a master.  And I did that, and thought of the verse where we’re mere shadows, [1 Corinthians 13:12 – For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.] And of the very end of Narnia, when our world is proved to be a shadowy copy when compared with the next.

Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among the mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the glass there may have been a looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different — deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked like it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.

Last week we finished reading Plato’s Republic in one of my classes.  Now, Plato’s a little crazy.  I don’t agree with him on a good chunk of those writings.  But the section where he talked about the four realms of being and the Cave made a lot of sense.  This theory was explained to me in ninth grade as “if you have a stapler, the idea of a stapler is more real than the stapler itself”, so of course I wrote it off as stupid.  But that’s not quite it.

In Plato’s Republic, he talks about the four forms of reality.  “Forms” comes from the Greek word “ἰδέα” (idea), but I’ll call them “things” or “Things”.  Here is a handy diagram that I made.

Basically, realms A and B are the visible realms – physical things.  A is a realm of shadows, reflections and impressions of real world objects.  B is the objects themselves.  And you can’t really know these things, because they’re ephemeral and pass away as this earth does.  You can’t know them in a lasting way because they are mutable.

C and D, though, are Things.  Just as A is the shadow of B in the real world, the visible world is a mere shadow of the invisible.  These are Things that can be known because they are Things that never change.  Everything in the visible world stems from a greater Thing in the invisible – all good things stem from Goodness, and all beautiful things from Beauty itself.  There is something greater – a higher authority – from which the things in the physical world derive their value.  If you know things, you can try to figure out the larger Thing from these qualities, but you might not be able to.  But.  If you know the Thing, you will be able to discern the things that come from it and the things that do not.

Most people, Plato says, are trapped in this realm of visible shadows, but some can escape the Cave, where people watch shadows on a screen and think it’s reality, into the real world.  Even though he wants to stay there, he must go back down into the Cave in order to bring his fellow humans to the truth.

You probably see where I’m going with this.  Plato was so, so close with this theory of a higher something.  He just didn’t make that last step: when we know God, our eyes are suddenly opened to the true vastness of reality.  God is Goodness and Beauty, and so we can see these shadowy beautiful things in this world and know from Whom they stem.  When we try to cobble together aspects of his nature without knowing Him, we fail to reach God.  But God, in His unending mercy, pulled us out of the Cave and into the reality of His magnificence.  When we know Him, in His immutability, we’re then able to discern the things that come from Him and the things that don’t.

“Once they’ve been up there and had a good look, we mustn’t let them get away with what they do at the moment,” Plato says.  “Staying there… and refusing to come back down again to the prisoners”.   We have, in part, seen the Real World, the Higher Realms, the Caravaggios.  And now we must bring the truth of it back down to this Shadowy Place and tell the prisoners to sin of reality.

God is the God of all things visible and invisible, and eventually, we’ll be able to move from this world of shadows into his truth, life, and presence for eternity.  Further up, farther in.

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Read this: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:15-17

 

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mumford and sons and knowing something well

I was listening to Mumford and Sons for the billionth time in the car, and as the first plucked notes of Sigh No More came through the speakers, I was struck with this feeling.  It’s hard to put into words, but I’m going to try.

It was a feeling of comfort, like something you know so well that it never fails to wrap its arms around you, hold you tight and close to its heart, and soothe you, whispering.  Folds of melodies and harmonies slowly pull me in, wind their way around me, and settle me down in their familiar fabric.

Sigh No More is a favorite shirt that you got years ago and can’t stop wearing, no matter how faded the dyes on the T-shirt become and how thin the fabric wears between your fingers.  You rub the corner of it, and it’s so comfortable and familiar that it makes you smile.  You’ve worn it so long that it has more than become your shirt.  Friends know it well and it reminds them of you easily.

Or it’s a figurine that someone carved for you out of wood.  You know it so well now that you’ve almost forgotten the story behind it, but not quite.  You trace its figure between your fingers and you know that every inch of it is wired into your tactile memory.

Or, most accurately, your favorite book that you’ve read so many times that the binding is starting to break, the pages are turning yellow, the ribbon bookmark has frayed at its edges, and the corners of the cover have bent and rounded.  You know every word, trace them with your finger, find the places where you’ve annotated with pencil, the eraser marks.

I remember the joy of first hearing the CD, and the countless loops I subjected my family to.  I remember first reveling in the voice and the passion behind it, listening to the CD again and again until I learned each line and strum.  Catching the references to literature and history, grinning at the lines from Shakespeare, trying to unravel Mumford’s spiritual state and battles through the lyrics, frowning at times and being moved by his own struggle.  Thinking it over and turning it around in my mind, deciding what I agreed with and what I definitely didn’t.  Learning to love certain songs, like Dust Bowl Dance, that I’d hated upon first hearing them.

And still the songs never grow old.  I never tire of hearing them.  Your shirt will fade and thin, and the figurine will wear away under the pressure of your fingers, like the stone stairs of a well-trodden castle staircase or the constant beating of waves against a cliff.  The songs do not physically change.  They’re recorded forever in the same state, the same notes, the same lyrics, the same breaths.

But my perceptions change.  As I grow, the songs change and touch my heart in different ways.

And today, as I was sitting at work with my headphones in, I finally recognized the few words that had been previously ambiguous in one of the songs, I Gave You All – “brass wires”.  I didn’t know that I hadn’t known them.  I found something new in the middle of something I knew so well – another whittled facet to the figurine, a tiny tag on the inside of the shirt that you hadn’t noticed before.  And that’s the fun of getting to know something complex.  It will always surprise you.  Caravaggio’s masterpiece reveals something new even after years of drinking it in with your eyes.  Your best friend of fifteen years pulls out a talent you never knew they had.  A single Bible verse shows you something different when you need it the most.  Even though you know every single line of your favorite movie, you finally see something in the background that foreshadows the end from the very beginning.  Every time you read that novel, something new jumps out at you, arrests you, and draws your attention.  A harmony finally clicks for you, you hear an instrument that had hidden from you in the depths of the song, and you find a reference that you didn’t understand before.

It changes as you do.  That’s why it’s worthwhile to do things again, to re-read, re-view, re-listen, re-touch.  That’s why the most beautiful and complex things can never be fully understood or known – while we’re stilll earth-bound, anyway.  That’s why it pays to pay attention, and that’s what’s so lovely about loving something.  So I’m going to get back into my car, turn up the volume, and sink down into the undulating waves of sound and word.

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Re-read this: something you haven’t read in years that impressed upon you.

Hear this: Sigh No More ;

I Will Wait, the new single:

Hoo.  I’m already moved to near-tears by the lyrics. Okay.

self-portrait of an artist…

Although it’s a fabulous novel by James Joyce, this post doesn’t actually have anything to do with dear, searching Stephen Dedalus (although he may be referenced in the future).

In my Irish literature class a few days ago, we discussed O’Connor’s short story, “Guests of a Nation”.  Basically, some Irish soldiers are holding British soldiers, but they’re friends with them.  Eventually, the Irish recieve the order to execute their “chums” and regretfully do so.  The interesting part is this:  Frank O’Connor’s real name was Michael O’Donovan, and he gives the name “Donovan” to the most detestable character in the story.  That Donovan is ruthless and actually looks forward to fulfilling his duty of killing the two British soldiers.

When O’Connor was in the Irish army, there came a point when he did not fulfill his duties to his superiors.  Was this self-portrait a mark of regret, or disdain for himself?  Or was he simply drawing from past experiences?

When we talked about this in class, it triggered several other memories of artists inserting themselves as less than flattering characters:

In his Persistance of Memory, Dali inserted himself as the centrally-located melting face.

In the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the disgustingly vulgar, self-centered, and lustful patriarch is named Fyodor.

Caravaggio painted himself into several of his works, including a broken and prayerful St. Francis (painted after Caravaggio himself killed a man) and as both David and Goliath.

Michelangelo painted himself into the Last Judgement as nothing but a flayed skin held by St. Bartholemew.

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So what does this tell us about these artists’ souls?  They were quite aware of their own mortality, that’s certain.  Is this a sign of humility and an admission of their own brokenness and need for salvation?  Does this show us that, despite their greatness, they are nothing more than men?  Are they projecting to the world, “I am fallen, and sinful, and not like you think I am?”

I’m not entirely sure.  But it’s very, very interesting.  Thoughts?

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Read this: “Guests of the Nation”, Frank O’Connor ; The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky ; “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5