Light From Without and Within

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Piero di Cosimo – Detail of St. Antony the Abbot from Visitation

 

Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth.  No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica.  Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters.  In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery.  We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school.  Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque.  I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.

Ottorino Respighi, Composer
Ottorino Respighi, Composer

Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO.  Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore.  The orchestra presented excited  listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic.  Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.

Three levels of light pervaded the day.  Most superficially, the sun itself.  DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light.  In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too.  Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed.  It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary.  Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi.  I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.

So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal.  Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves.  Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within.  Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?

Where do I find light in my life?  To what degree is that light satisfying?  How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?

Picturing Mary on her Feast Day

Caccia, "St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio" (ca. 1625)
Caccia, “St. Luike the Evangelist in the Studio” (ca. 1625)

Today, January 1, 2015, Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God… what a perfect day to consider the National Museum of Women in the Arts’  (NMWA) big hit exhibit, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea”.

I visited the museum for the first time a few days ago, and while my only goal was to take in the Mary exhibit, I was impressed by the museum as a whole.  The facilities are beautiful, the location ideal and (and this is always important) the gift shop was up to snuff.  The NMWA’s raison d’être is to educate people about the role played by women in the arts.  As the founder of the museum, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay acknowledges in her Forward to the gallery book on the exhibit, Mary is of such importance to the western artistic understanding that “Picturing Mary” was conceived at the same time as the museum itself.  How beautiful then to see both come to fruition this holiday season!

Three reflections… First on the exhibit itself, second what I personally gleaned from the exhibit, third a brief response to the one critique I’ve read about the exhibit:

Vast libraries have been created to house people’s reflections on Mary, and the art inspired by her.  There’s just too many good things to say about Mary and this wonderful exhibit dedicated to her.  Briefly then… The quality of the pieces displayed was superb. I found myself beaming throughout… my only sadness being that eventually most of these exquisite works will have to return to their European homes.  I was also happily surprised to find that the explanations for each piece of art were generally accurate in presenting Mary as she has always been loved by the Church.  Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE should take an opportunity to see this exhibit.

For myself, just having celebrated Christmas and preparing for today’s feast, this exhibit really hit home.  I have an intense relationship with Mary. I’ve studied her in the Gospels, prayed with her in our chapels, visited her great shrines… Despite all this I’m always discovering new deep realities about her and consequently about my own relationship with God.  What did I take away from the NMWA exhibit?  Mary loved Jesus.  It might seem obvious… but look to each work and see the Blessed Mother holding a mystery in her hands.  She loved him, contemplated him, protected him… She drew her very being, her reason for life from him, and then something happened.  At a wedding in Cana they ran out of wine.  Mary directed the stewards to her son, the as yet little-known Jesus.  She pushed him out of the nest… she gave him to the world knowing full well that one day “a sword would pierce her heart,”… and so it did.  Two or three years after that wedding miracle, Mary held in her arms the dead body of the son she once nursed at Bethlehem.  “Picturing Mary” taught me in a new and deeper way than before that the only way to show you treasure someone beyond all price is to share that person with the world, for the sake of others, even if it means you will suffer.  Mary embraced such suffering because it allowed Christ to come to the fullness of his glory, and that joy was worth it for her and for us.  As a human being it’ll be good for me to consider what treasures I have that I need to be more generous about… or question whether I really treasure them.  As a Christian and a priest, I know my greatest treasure is my relationship with Christ (just like Mary)… How am I doing at sharing him with the world?  What would I be willing to sacrifice in order to share him that much more effectively?  How can I more effectively “Picture Mary” and so imitate her.  Visiting this exhibit was a great start.

Finally… Philip Kenicott of the Washington Post and Kriston Capps of City Lab are both fine writers and commentators on art, architecture and all things urban.  I often enjoy reading their articles and tweets.  Both have [separately] reviewed “Picturing Mary,” and I concur with much of what they’ve written.  Their one critique raised by Mr. Kenicott is that exhibit doesn’t consider a modern (19th-21st century) secular feminist critique of traditional depictions of Mary.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a critique as a reasonable question, “Why doesn’t the exhibit address the secular feminist critique?”  It’s a reasonable question, partially answered: the curators simply weren’t concerned with it.  I suppose if someone else wants to mount an exhibit on secular feminist critiques of Mary they’re welcome to do so… “It’s a free country.”  Given the proliferation of ably supported women’s studies programs in schools, universities, think tanks and other institutions, It’s hard for me to question let alone fault the NMWA for leaving that worthy discussion to others at this time.

Separately from these two reviews, questions about Mary and feminism often lead back to a deeper root question, “What’s with Catholicism and women?”  It’s a question that the Church has addressed with exhaustive energy over the last several decades.  St. John Paul II wrote beautifully about the dignity of women in his letter Mulieres Dignitatem (and many other places)The reflections of two of our greatest intellectuals,   Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar are expressed beautifully in “Mary the Church at the Source,” (Ignatius, 1997).  More broadly speaking, the Church’s universal teaching about her equal esteem for men and women can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” (Chapter 3) assembled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and published by the Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 2005.  Certainly Pope Francis has spoken beautifully on the subject.  All are great reads, easily available, that might help those left with questions after visiting “Picturing Mary.”  My only personal contribution to the conversation would be point out that among human beings there are only two before whom I would happily prostrate myself… one is the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ… the other his his totally human, totally woman, totally awesome mother, Mary.

Visions of the City: Part I “The Architectural Image”

National Building Museum Atrium
National Building Museum Atrium

 

Optics are so important… those lenses through which we see objective realities.  Do I see life through rose-colored glasses?  Do I see principally through eyes of revolution and discontinuity (i.e. Marx)?  Do I see through a lens of deconstruction, as might a physicist? or through a transcendent holistic lenses as might an impressionist painter?  Two exhibits currently on view at the National Building Museum (NBM) offer starkly contrasting lenses for viewing city life.  Both are powerful, and very much worth a visit.  Today we’ll cover The Architectural Image 1920-1950.  Tomorrow I’ll offer reflections on the second exhibit Investigating Where We Live: DC Now and Next.

Howard Cook - "Harbor Skyline"
Howard Cook – “Harbor Skyline”

The Architectural Image 1920-1950 – gives us an impressive array of cityscapes that show the King Kong-like mark made by the rise of the International Style in architecture.  The prints, mostly black and white, represent several twentieth century evolutions:  The artistic medium of etching (see an earlier post on J.M. Whistler’s 19th century contributions to this same art form), the growth new architectural and engineering techniques which birthed the skyscrapers that characterize most of these works, and finally (perhaps most intriguing of all) an evolving urban vocabulary.

Turner - "The Fighting Temeraire" an old sail warship is dragged to scrap by a steamboat
Turner – “The Fighting Temeraire” an old sail warship is dragged to scrap by a steamboat

The NBM’s prints represent a cap on an exhibit I saw in London ten years ago. In the summer of 2005, the Tate Britain mounted a beautiful historical retrospective.  Paintings of the UK from the 17th through the 20th century were presented, showing the evolution of the island.  Predominantly pastoral scenes from the agricultural era gave way to the development of 18th and 19th century technology.  At first, the shift was benign, almost romantic: a blacksmith teaching his son the trade amid bucolic splendor.  Benign gave way to intriguing ingenuity as railroads and lone steamboat cut across later landscapes.  Eventually the full flowering of industry replaced the lilies of the field  and smoke stacks from Dickensian workhouses rose where forests once stood.

Turzak - "Palm Olive Building"
Turzak – “Palm Olive Building”

At the NBM, characteristic human words like “pastoral,” “romantic,” or even, “inventive,” are wholly blotted out in the displays of Howard Cook, Louis Lozowick, Leon Gilmour and Carles Turzak.  They’ve been replaced by  more modern descriptors: “Hard,” “Indomitable,” “Mechanical,” characteristic of Gotham.  Sky scrapers dwarf citizens, trees, even earlier technological innovations (automobiles, elevated trains etc.)… The buildings have become the new citizens, the new focus of the city.  Also interesting, the role of light in these prints.  So many of them are set at night when spot lights struggle to illumine the mammoth proportions of the sky scrapers.  Consider that for a moment… when even light itself struggles to encompass something you know that thing is BIG.  Note also that both sun and moon have been replaced by man-made spotlights.  Note most of all… that man is nowhere represented among these man-made things.

Gilmour - "The Cement Finishers" Are they more men or machines?
Gilmour – “The Cement Finishers” Are they more men or machines?

The Architectural Image reveals a disturbing reality of the twentieth century: that in our engineering genius, our creations have perhaps overcome us.  Mensch and ubermensch have been dominated by “uberskyscraper.”   In some ways it makes sense.  These prints were being developed at exactly the same time as the atomic bomb… No other technology has so threatened to overcome its creators.  St. John Paul II addresses such concerns in his Encyclical “Laborem Exercens,” on the dignity of human labor.  There, he reminds us that ultimately, man is the subject of labor… he is its originator, and his good is its ultimate goal.

I know next to nothing about the artists who made these powerful architectural images.  Today’s reflections should in no way suggest that Cook, Lozowick et al. were intentionally promoting man’s subjugation to his creations.  But as the holiday season comes to a close and we return to the daily routines that we sometimes describe as the “rat race” “daily grind” or even “hamster wheel” the images at the NBM might be a timely reminder to reflect on our priorities and ask, “Is my labor working for me… or am I working for it?”  See this exhibit.  It’ll make you think.

Travel: a voyage without and within

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Travel, one of life’s great experiences, opens us.  Exposing us to different palates of color, sound and taste, travel challenges us to navigate, not only across geography but across the contours of the self.  What does the place I’m visiting have in common with me and my life?  What differences seem to be of value?  Can I incorporate useful diversities into my own life and sense of self?  Washington is a traveler’s city, to be sure.  Not only is our home a destination, but from here our neighbors go to the four corners of the world for civil, military, humanitarian, or commercial purposes.  So travel seems a worthwhile subject for meditation when we look at DC through eyes of faith.

One way to engage in such meditation is a visit to the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries.  To begin with both galleries are dedicated to Asian arts, subject matter that is foreign to most Americans’ experience… Beyond the art, the very design of the [Sackler] building is wholly different: the entire gallery is subterranean.  It’s a wonderfully wrenching way to open one’s mind, leaving not only the “West,” but even the surface of the earth to be immersed in a culture that is so “other” than one’s own.

Two exhibits, currently on view at Freer/Sackler focus specifically on the power of travel travel art: “The Traveller’s Eye,” and “Fine Impressions.”

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Unlike many exhibits of travel art, which look at other parts of the world through western eyes, The Traveller’s Eye shares travel art by Asian artists about voyages on their own continent.    Abstract East Asian miniatures, painted with single-hair brushes populate some incredible silk scrolls.  There’s also a collection of brilliantly colored photos by Indian photographer Raghubir Singh that, for the first time in my life, made me think, “Maybe I should visit India.”  To see these works is to be transported, to question all one’s own aesthetic assumptions, and, arrive at newer deeper understandings of them.  I visited the exhibit a week ago and I’m still chewing on how to incorporate what I saw into my own understanding.

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Fine Impressions is -for me- more familiar.  It’s James McNeill Whistler’s Venetian prints.  Having studied in Italy for five years, Venice is one of my favorite places in the world.  The curator’s praised the artists’s ability to capture light in black and white IMG_0306etchings.  For me though, examining Whistler’s prints, I was struck by how – with ink and paper -he could communicate the “creakiness” of the city.  I could hear the squeak of doors opening, the rustle of long-withered canopies in the breeze and the aged yawning of gondolas plying the canals.  Perhaps the greatest witness to Whistler’s ability is that these prints inspired Charles Lang Freer to begin his collection art from overseas, eventually expanding into Asian arts… and bequeath it to the nation as a gift for all citizens.  Behold the power of travel!

For more on The Freer and Sackler Galleries, visit their WEBSITE.  For more on American artists who studied/worked abroad, consider reading David McCullough’s excellent work: The Greater Journey.  For classic books that demonstrate the power of travel and travel art try: The Italian Voyages (by, Goethe), The Stones of Venice (by, Ruskin), The Voyage of the Innocents (by, Twain), likewise works by Frances Mayes, and Bill Bryson.

El Greco? El Great-o!

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Ask anyone if they know who Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614) was, you’ll get a blank stare.  Ask anyone who El Greco was, you might get a few less blank stares.  Ask anyone who’s been to the El Greco exhibit at the National Gallery of Art and you’ll get a stare, but it won’t be blank, it’ll be filled with awe.  El Greco was a Greek painter (from Crete) whose talent with the brush led him to begin an artistic career in Renaissance Rome before leaving the Eternal City for an artistic career in Spain.  Combining oriental piety, with stylistic trends from the Venetian and Roman schools, El Greco’s achievements in Spain are a credit to his name Theotokopoulos (“God Bearer”).

Libraries have been written about El Greco’s work.  What most interested me about the NGA’s exhibit was his synthesis of Greek Italian and Spanish influences into style all his own.  Looking at the eternal truths of Christ’s life through this artist’s singular lens made me think about them in new ways… And isn’t that what sacred art does at its best?  In the words of St. John Paul II,

“Art renders visible the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and traveling companion to all men and women in their search for God.” (JPII, Letter to Artists)

When it comes to El Greco’s style, it was all his own, but was it perhaps something more: a gift… could something that is both so unique and so true be a gift from God?

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature and eagerly desires and is able to accomplish things beyond human thought, it is the bridegroom [Christ] who has smitten them with this longing.” (Nicolas Cabasilas, Life of Christ, II.15 )

So there are two forces in play: eternal truth and seeing eternal truth in a new way that nevertheless preserves that truth.  From a Catholic point of view, this is the essence of what Vatican II tried to do… and what new evangelization is trying so desperately to do.  Whether you’re Catholic or not, the concept of presenting transcendent truths for the respectful consideration of ones neighbor is never a bad idea.  In this regard, maybe all of us could take a lesson from Domenikos Theotokopoulos.

PS: Also of note in El Greco’s work: the influence of Toledo, Spain – his adopted home.  A number his works include the architecture of Toledo in the background… a testament to the enduring power of good public architecture.

Note: I found the exhibit much more rewarding after seeing the 30min video in the conference room on the lower level of the Gallery.

Imagining Happiness

J. LaFarge - Fisherman Spearing Fish (1895)
J. LaFarge – Fisherman Spearing Fish (1895)

A visit to Tahiti would exciting, but on the off chance that you’re not going any time soon, you can find this painting at the National Gallery of Art.  I enjoy strolling the impressionist wing from time to time.  The hazy (not quite the right word) quality of impressionist art gives me the feeling that I’m inside someone else’s imagination peering at distant locales.

The Gallery has a GREAT website (www.nga.gov) where you can find pictures to fire your imagination and launch you to far off places  before returning refreshed to your day’s tasks.  What is it about using our imaginations that’s so restorative?

St. Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics spoke beautifully and frequently about the importance of the imagination as a place where we can engage mysterious or unseen realities.  Theres’ nothing more human than spending time with God.  Taking time to use our imaginations in positives ways during the day (dreaming of: vacations, positive plans for family, future successes at work) can whet our appetites and drive us to achieve worthwhile goals… or even to make needed course corrections in life.  Consciously engaging our imagination can also be a pro-active part of what is all too often a reactive day.  A few moments when we give our will permission to run after the truest and deepest yearnings of our heart.  If we do this in honesty with ourselves then the exercise of imagination can strengthen us to pursue our truest good: happiness through self-gift.  Don’t discount the power of your imagination to play a wonderful role in guiding your life… to Tahiti or otherwise.

Seeing more than stone, steel and streets

Walking through the streets as a kid, my imagination used to run wild.  Light posts were never just light posts, they were potential laser canon hiding places… the clump of trees in the park wasn’t just a clump of trees, it was an enchanted grove… columns and building features were, of course, remnants of long lost civilizations.  Like I said, my childlike imagination ran wild in a very C.S. Lewis sort of a way.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child.  (I Cor 13:11)

Today I still see more in the buildings, parks and other features of daily life… No longer through a child’s imagination, nor through rose-colored glasses of adult escapism… Today I see through eyes of informed faith that excites everything.  There is more moving behind our world than meets the eye.  Take for example the DC metro.  It’s bronze color scheme is an intentional nod from designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli to our city’s monuments, especially the equestrian statues that mark our [in]famous traffic circles.  Behind these monuments we find not just biographies of individuals, but also monumental virtues: patriotism, self-sacrifice, honesty, fortitude.  All of these virtues represent “a more perfect union” that exists in our minds and we hope will one day exist in our world… but for the moment that bronze tone keeps firing our imagination and our will to keep working for it.

Paul-Signac-Place-des-Lices-1893-1024x822Christ , Mt.Athos, 13th century

A similar dynamic exists in Christian art.  Classical icons always have a gold leaf background reminding the viewer of heaven: a world beyond for which we can strive.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a similar dynamic in modern art at the Phillips Collection.

The gallery’s current exhibition, “Neo-Impressionism and the Dream of Realities” beautifully explores pointillism and other forms of neo-impressionist art.  Often, the backgrounds of these paintings are marked by arabesque patterns of foliage, clouds, water etc. The curators remark that the style has “a capacity to move ‘beyond the real’ and to ‘fix the dream of reality’… Canvasses maintained roots in reality, but infused this naturalist ground…to yield a kind of ultra-reality.”  (More about the Phillips Collection in “Touring Tips”)

Walking through DC what do you see?  If the plain appearance of stone, bronze, paint and glass isn’t satisfying, consider looking to the virtues, the histories, and the striving behind them.  You may find a more beautiful sense of our home… and perhaps even a nobler self-conceit.

Hillwood, where Magnificence Lives

 

The Hillwood Museum, Estate and Gardens has a motto, “Hillwood, where Fabulous lives.”  Enjoying this typically DC experience through the eyes of faith yields a far deeper reflection.  I humbly submit that Hillwood could well amend its motto to, “Hillwood, where Magnificence lives.”

Hillwood is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post.  Heiress to the Post cereal fortune, Mrs. Post had a passion for collecting French decorative arts.  When her husband Joseph Davies became ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s her taste expanded to include Russian imperial art, both decorative and liturgical.  In 1955 Mrs. Post made Hillwood her home.  It also became home to her vast collection of French and Russian art.  Everything from icons to paintings to furniture to jeweled easter eggs (Faberge) and gold-thread liturgical apparel is displayed in Mrs. Post’s neo-Georgian mansion.  Throughout her life Mrs. Post was dedicated to philanthropic works.  She gave generously (ofteimages-2n anonymously) to the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center, and the Washington Ballet Guild, as well as other charities.  Mrs. Post was also a patriot and opened her home to wounded Vietnam veterans from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to ease their convalescence.  She wanted Hillwood to be a place where true beauty could be experienced in a livable atmosphere.  To this end, she arranged for Hillwood to become a functioning museum after her death.  At first the museum was privately run by her heirs, and later established as a public institution.

The estate’s gardens, greenhouses, gallery space, even its cafe can only be described with superlative adjectives: sumptuous, splendid, opulent.  Its latest exhibit displays Mrs. Post’s personal collection of Cartier jewels; each piece fit for a queen.  Where do such overwhelming riches fit in a Christian vision?  Where can such overwhelming riches fit?  Here we arrive at the core of our reflection: the virtue of magnificence.

Magnificence is the virtue of doing of great things (cf. Aquinas, ST II-II,134), which St. Thomas describes as participating in the greatness of God.  St. Thomas asks very specifically (art. 3) if this “doing” requires great expense, and the answer is “yes.”  Expense is not always a matter of money, but it is a matter of overwhelming, total gift.  One can be magnificent in love, magnificent in humility, magnificent in humor and joy.  Money may not be necessary to magnificence, but it can help, as we see at Hillwood.  The joining of Mrs. Post’s exceptional wealth and her exceptional generosity, as well as her life-long commitment to beauty make Hillwood a truly magnificent gift to our Washington community.  Experiencing such a total and gratuitous gift, walking through it, letting that gift dazzle the senses, I want to be generous  myself,  to be a doer of great things within my own circumstances.

Experiences of splendor, like Hillwood can inspire us to virtue… then we can say with regard to our own hearts, “here is where magnificence lives.”

Check out the “touring tips” page for more.