Sunday, November 20, 2011

Goethe on sacred art

How do so many magazines pile up unread beside the bed? Today I'm trying to go through them quickly and toss them out. As always, there is at least one article or essay that I linger over, thus not getting through the stack at all. Today it was an article on Christ's genitalia by Dianne Phillips in the December issue of First Things. Entitled "Leo Steinberg's Artistic Vision," it reviews the somewhat radical publication on this subject, in 1983, by Steinberg. "Radical" in the sense that no art historian had ever written on it, despite the fact that there are a number of Renaissance paintings in which Christ's genitalia are depicted. Thus, the title of Steinberg's book: The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion.

According to Phillips, Steinberg (a Jew, but very sympathetic to Catholic theology as "probably the greatest, most coherent, most elaborate, most wildly imaginative system for the human mind") not only drew attention to an under-explored topic, but also attempted to re-theologize our understanding of Renaissance art. As Phillips writes, Steinberg was interested in the positive theological meaning that could be conveyed by a virile Christ." Though I was raised Catholic and imbibed a great deal of religious art, most of my experience has been in museums, not in churches. Indeed, that is the experience of most Americans, which facilitates, Phillips writes, the "aestheticization" of medieval and Renaissance art and makes us incapable of understanding them "as religious objects with precise theological meaning."

How does Goethe fit in here? Phillips writes that Goethe plays a major role in such aestheticization. It was a review by Goethe of a book on Leonardo's The Last Supper by the very learned Giuseppi Bossi that "established the modern interpretation" of that painting: "the sacramental significance of the meal was deemed incidental" to it.Here is a link to that review. Because the review is by Goethe, it comes off as incredibly pedantic, and in truth it could have been written by any art history student today. Goethe begins with Bossi's background and his suitability as restorer. He then tells us about Leonardo and his genius. We also learn that Leonardo's abilities were bestowed on him "by nature" and that his penetrating mind

soon began to be aware that behind the outside of objects, which he succeeded so well in copying, there still lay concealed many a secret, the knowledge of which it would be worth his utmost efforts to attain. He, therefore, set about enquiring into the laws of organick formation, the ground of proportion, the rules of perspective, the composition and colouring of his objects, the effect of light and shade in a given space.

When Goethe finally arrives at a discussion of the painting, it is to discuss the setting: "The place where the picture was painted is first to be considered." This is the Dominican refectory at the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Goethe's description makes it sound as if the painting was part interior decoration.

Opposite to the entrance, at the bottom, on the narrow side of the room, stood the Prior's table on both sides of it, along the walls, the tables of the monks, raised, like the Prior's, a step above the ground; and now, when the stranger, that might enter the room, turned himself about, he saw, on the fourth wall, over the door, not very high, a fourth table, painted, at which Christ and his Disciples were seated, as if they formed part of the company. It must, at the hour of the meal have been an interesting sight, to view the tables of the Prior and of Christ, thus facing each other ...

And so it goes, with analyses of the gestures of the hands and heads, of the postures of the disciples, and so on. It is thorough, but it leaves out of consideration any sacred meaning that even Leonardo surely intended.

Thus, Steinberg addresses, according to Phillips, such sacred meanings, in this case the theological paradox represented by the representation of the genitalia: namely, Christ's dual nature, both human and divine. Phillips ends by saying that Christian conversion has often been said to mean "falling in love with Christ." Thus, Catholicism (unlike the iconoclast Protestants) always recognized that "beautiful pictures and sculptures of Christ can be both a prompt and a magnet for the lover's gaze." At the same time, the eros that leads us to the divine "requires purification and healing to fully realize its telos." While the Renaissance imagery relates to concupiscence, it is concupiscence that is purified because "the innocent naked baby is vulnerable." The same can be said of images of the dead Christ that show traces of the genitals. Herewith a couple of paintings by Mantegna on this subject.

Now that I have said something about Goethe's all too familiar aversion to much Catholic art, what remains to be explored are the sources of this aversion.


Juan Carcache said...

I find it interesting that Jewish people also collect Christian Sacred Art.

There was recently something in the news, here in Florida, that a painting coming to an exhibit was detained by customs because of a claim by a Jewish family that the painting was taken from them by the Nazis.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where to start--this is such an interesting post. I recall the lecture from decades ago about the "real subject" of, say, Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer." Indeed. How much of Aristotle or Homer either one is really "inside" such a painting? My prof's disappointing point was that the painter is typically interested in the usual issues of form and content, considered as a whole. But these issues, if carried out, and carried away, by genius, involve that very form and content, don't they? Professor N once said, on Rembrandt, "this painting is really about light, about advances in the rendering of light." OK. Then the devout Catholic would say: OK. Let's pursue that...Hegel said that the owl of Minerva begins its flight at dusk, meaning here that we can interpret Goethe and Steinberg as follows: imagination equals the divine. James Hillman once said (in context of course): Jesus is the imagination. Well, one supposes that that could well be pursued as well. I know that Hegel, Goethe's contemporary, would love it. Come to think of it, both giants would be "on the same page": interpretation does not have to be an either/or proposition. The point of the critical mind is that powerful "readings" can be, indeed should be and are: BOTH. (To make a little leap of faith here: both God and man vis-a-vis, e.g., faces, and other aspects, of Christ in art history.) Another favorite professor commented, once, on Saint Peter's Basilica and other masterpieces that these works honor man, not God. Again, one might well wonder, Why not both? This way, the face of Christ in Leonardo's "Last Supper" can be both man (and woman) in all their complicated humanity...and our Lord and Redeemer.