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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monet

Last Friday, I spent a good five hours in an art museum, and it was beautiful. Fantastic. My goal was to find somewhere to “study” (and I did do some work in the café/ impressionist portraiture room), but the works in the museum were amazing as well. I was going to go back today, too, but the rain that had been threatening all morning finally arrived in all its dreary glory, and walking thirty minutes in the rain sans umbrella didn’t seem like the best idea.  So about an hour of Mock the Week later (funniest things…), I’m still indoors… Back to art.

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Anyway, I was privileged enough to see a triptych of Monet’s water lilies and ended up sitting in front of them for a good, solid hour.  Just looking, and then writing:

At first, I couldn’t really tell if I was impressed by the art or the artists’ names – by my own judgment or the opinions of others.

But this… this is strange.

I’m sitting in front of Monet’s Agapanthus, and the longer I look, the more amazed I become.  The colors, the strokes, the size… and suddenly, I have an enormous lump in my throat, and I’m astounded and a little confused.  I don’t know what it is.  But in this moment, I am dwarfed by the painting and his artistry.

It feels wrong to do work here.  I was thinking about it… but no.  This… the thing about art is that it preserves a tiny piece of that person who created it for everyone else to see and observe.  Looking at these pieces made by long-dead hands, I feel somehow connected to these men of different cultures and eras.  When I saw that van Gogh made those paintings right before his suicide, I couldn’t help but be moved.  That poor, dear, underappreciated man.  But he left behind a part of himself- a piece of his soul­- for us to know him.

And almost as interesting (if not as interesting) as the art are the people around me looking as well.  Passing through, changing, milling about.  Since I’ve been sitting in front of this work, the room has already changed almost entirely several times.

There are a lot of couples who seem interested, or are trying to be.  Some listening to the guided tours.  Several elderly folks who truly appreciate this beauty – more than I do, I know.  One solitary old man who looks like he’s stepped straight out of the impressionist era minus the straw hat.

And the ones who just stop and stare, smile, gasp, point, trace with a finger in the air the curves of the art to their children, their other, themselves.  I’m witnessing the power of this dead paint to move someone.  Of course it’s not the paint, but a capturing and reflection of the soul who placed it there.

There’s still a lump in my throat.

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Read this“For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”  ~John Milton.
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