9th Grade: Art, Myth, and Truth

Greetings,

This week we continued our look at Renaissance art through two main lenses and questions.

As Umberto Eco once argued that the Renaissance was a society made by merchants, made by money.  The influx of money into Italy would surely change society in many ways.  Fashion changed, art certainly changed, customs and mores changed, and morality changed.  You cannot have one without the other.

How should Christians react to this, and how did they?

Of course many Christians went along happily with the changes, some of them quietly resisted them in their own ways.  Few had stronger criticisms that the famous/infamous monk Savanarola.  Some see him as a saint, a man of the people, a forerunner of the Reformation.  Others saw him as a man filled with anger and bitterness, a man far from God, who, if not a heretic, certainly was a model for no one. Artists of his time had the very same differing opinions.

Savanarola

For him, we can say the following:

  • He was a strong opponent of the D’Medici family, who had transformed Florence from a republic to an unofficial dictatorship by the eminent Lorenzo D’ Medici.
  • He took an uncompromising stand against the incessant corruption within the Church, and fearlessly took on all comers, even the Pope himself.

Against him, we note that

  • His sermons seemed to consist of diatribes and anger.  He judged, condemned, and warned from the pulpit.  But rarely did he show compassion or sympathy, rarely did he speak of grace.
  • He believed that God spoke to him directly, which may or may not have been true.  But this sense of divine guidance led him to drift into occasional self-righteousness.

Savanarola, Florentine Portrait

He is perhaps best known for the “Bonfire of the Vanities,” when he encouraged many of society’s elite to burn their dresses, jewlery, and yes, much art deemed “unholy.”  Renaissance art not only involved nudes, but also used subject matter from mythology, which many felt betrayed art’s true purpose of glorifying God.  This led to a discussion on the question, “What makes art Christian?”

Let us take a famous Renaissance work by Botticell, The Birth of Venus, as an example:

One can argue that this is not a Christian work because it portrays a scene from pagan mythology.  We know that Venus does not and did not exist, so how can the art declare truth?  At best, it’s a meaningless diversion, at worst, a seductive lie.

The other side could argue that the painting does proclaim a Christian message through myth.  Botticelli does not make Venus an object of lust.  Rather, Venus, sees her inadequacy — she covers herself and is about to be covered more fully.  The myth’s meaning gets transformed into the message that for lust to be love it must be conquered with virtue and modesty.

Another aspect of this discussion is the role of myth itself.  Are pagan myths lies in the sense that declaring the sky to be green is a lie?  While Christians disagree on this, I would not agree with this.  I think J.R.R. Tolkien’s view of myth deserves consideration.  As C.S. Lewis neared conversion to Christianity, he had a crucial conversation with his friend Tolkien about the nature of myth. . .

Myths, Lewis told Tolkien, were “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” Far from being lies they were the best way — sometimes the only way — of conveying truths that would otherwise remain inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily toward the true harbor, whereas materialistic “progress” leads only to the abyss and the power of evil.

“In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology,” wrote Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, “Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Silmarillion.” It is also the creed at the heart of all his other work. His short novel, Tree and Leaf, is essentially an allegory on the concept of true myth, and his poem, “Mythopoeia,” is an exposition in verse of the same concept.

Building on this philosophy of myth, Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. Whereas the pagan myths were manifestations of God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their “mythopoeia” to reveal fragments of His eternal truth, the true myth of Christ was a manifestation of God expressing Himself through Himself, with Himself, and in Himself. God, in the Incarnation, had revealed Himself as the ultimate poet who was creating reality, the true poem or true myth, in His own image. Thus, in a divinely inspired paradox, myth was revealed as the ultimate realism.

 

So — does the painting convey a Christian message or not?  Is art “Christian” if it conveys truth about ourselves, the world, or God?  Then certainly non-Christians could create Christian art, just as non-Christians can know true things.  Some students felt that this mean that any art could qualify as “Christian.”  Surely, they felt, we must have another standard, but if we do, what should it be?

Or — let’s say that we agree with Tolkien.  We may say that this gives Christians great inspiration to continue to create great stories, like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and so on.  Does that mean, however, that we should use pre-Christian myths as a reference point now that “the truth has come?”  Or now do we have all the more reason to use those myths as they can be truly understood even more in the light of Christ.  Renaissance art gives us much to consider.

The issues go beyond art to the idea of Truth itself.  What makes something true?  If we say that 1 + 1 = 2 for reasons that do not involve God, then we assume that a realm of Truth exists that exists apart from God’s existence.  If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life then all thing cohere in Him, even 1 + 1 = 2, or the meaning inherent in a photograph of a tree.

But back to the Renaissance. . .

I have always believed that one of the best ways to know a culture is through its artistic expression, whether that be in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on.  How we look interpret Renaissance art will determine a lot of what we  think of the Renaissance itself.

One school of thought sees the Renaissance as glorifying mankind, of making man the center of all things.  Scholars like Francis Schaeffer see mankind portrayed in outsized, godlike fashion, with no sense of sin or humility left.  He pointed to the outsized hands on Michelangelo’s “David” as exhibit “A” for his argument:

Others see it differently.  Some see the Renaissance making man aware and responsible for his time in creation.  Art now places humanity in a real context, with real consequences, as opposed to what some might call the “over-spiritualization” of man in the Middle Ages.  They point to the Brannacci Chapel, and the painting of Adam and Eve.  Here we have feet planted firmly on the ground, and real people in a real world.  Having a portrayed them in reality, they have to do deal with the consequences of their sin. The skeletal nature of Eve’s face foreshadows her death and ours as well. One commentator suggested that the angel does not drive out Adam and Eve so much as their sense of sin and shame motivates them to drive themselves out of the garden.

These two competing views of the Renaissance might each have their place — the Renaissance was multifaceted.  But in the end the students will need to choose what they see as the dominant spirit of the time, and what primary influence the Renaissance will pass onto the era that follows.

Finally, we looked at this magnificent 3-D image of the Sistine Chapel, surely one of the greatest artistic creations of the last 500 years.  Use the cursor and fly around it, and try and not make yourself dizzy, as I did to the students!

Here is the link:

http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html

Have a good weekend,

Dave

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