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When, some weeks ago, David P. Goldman invited me to become a contributor to this blog, I began to make lists about issues about which I might have something worth saying. They still sit in a note on my iPod touch: biblical texts, thoughts about theology or comparative religion, issues inspired by something I heard in church, an idea that arose in a Sunday School class, but didn’t fit in that venue. I had no idea that the first thing to motivate me to write was something that I know very little about. Perhaps I will display my ignorance rather than my knowledge.

Here my recently purchased iPod touch was the proximate cause—a fascinating piece of technology. In 3 months, I already have two complete study Bibles (NIV and ESV)—handy for checking up on the preacher; finger tap access to several dozen novels—right now I’m enjoying Great Expectations; 3 newspaper apps; 3 weather apps; 2 recipe apps; apps to check the Yellow Pages and find chain stores of every description; an app to keep track of my gas mileage. Sunday I used an app to remotely control a sermonette on my laptop computer, a little, cutely illustrated, piece on 1 Samuel 17, if I may say so myself.

But the app that inspires these thoughts is “Love Art,” a sophisticated multi-media presentation of some of the most important paintings in the National Gallery of London. “Love Art” presents a novice with a detailed look at the historical and critical issues surrounding 12 great paintings. Take for example da Vinci’s “The Virgin of the Rocks”: Luke Syson describes the importance of the painting, Colin Wiggins explains how da Vinci’s knowledge as a naturalist contributed to his painting of the background, and Rachel Bilinge shows us the traces of an earlier sketching behind the present painting. This particular virtual “room” in the museum then shows us 16 other paintings of the Virgin and Child, so one can see how the theme is developed throughout the history of the art of Europe. One can either look at each individually, or scan them as an automated “slide show.” The other 11 paintings are treated in the same detailed manner. “Love Art” is a tour de force integration of picture, audio recording and “Youtube”-style movies. (However, full appreciation requires ready access to larger-scale reproductions of the paintings. I found myself controlling the iPod touch with one hand, and perusing examples of the paintings on the web on my laptop.)

I have always known that knowledge of painting was thought to be part of the heritage of an educated person. Nonetheless, while I had enjoyed classical music since adolescence, “art” was a cultured medium that I neither knew how to understand or enjoy.

If we start with “The Virgin of the Rocks,” and the 16 other Madonna paintings, one can see the spirituality behind western art: as Syson says, da Vinci “makes the mysterious human and the human mysterious.” Is that not of the logic of the Incarnation, the central spiritual fact of the last two millennia in the west? Most of the Madonnas are, at least in some measure, iconic: They do not re-present nature, but transform it. They regenerate the eye, convert the temporal into the eternal.

Until, that is, we get to Sassoferrato’s “The Virgin and Child Embracing.” The blue garment of the Virgin dominates the picture. It saturates the vision. One suspects that Sassoferrato’s central point was to show (off) how much of the precious ultramarine pigment—as precious as gold, derived from the crushing of lapis lazuli—he could use. (The painting was later “restored” using modern cobalt pigment; I don’t know how much of the effect is due to this later paint.) The portrait projects an atmosphere of luxury and indulgence. This luxury (in the modern sense of the word) becomes luxuria (in the medieval sense of the word). The aura surrounding the Madonna is not one of holiness, but of sensual indulgence. The embrace of the Virgin by the Child is no longer the chaste embrace of the divine Son for his self-sacrificial mother (“be it to me according to thy word”), but is passionate, almost Oedipal.

Then we have Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait”. The initial presentation is ironically called “ordinary people,” since they are not “ordinary” at all. They are very affluent: the fur-lined fabrics, the little puppy, the brass chandelier (the nearest thing to a well-lighted room in that day), the enclosed bed. What is the point of such a painting? It has no religious value. It does not present some awe-inspiring landscape that others might appreciate. The young wife is with child. This is the first in what would today be a long line of couple portraits, school pictures, family portraits.

Western, “Christian” art is possessed by a moral and spiritual instability. Art is no longer about the spiritual realm. The glorious blue of the Madonna’s garb—hopefully in Sassoferrato’s mind representing the glories of heaven—became the visual coin of human desire and pride. The luxuria placed at the disposal of the spirit now became appropriated by the flesh. The dignity injected into the human spirit by the Incarnation now slips its moral bonds, and becomes pride and narcissism.

Included in the virtual gallery accompanying the “The Arnolfini Portrait” is a film short imagining a contemporary portrait. The photographer finds the address, an large “flat” in the city and sighs. He apparently knows the type. This is a purely pecuniary transaction. It has nothing to do with “art.” He has set up in the living room; the male of the couple is still practicing his putting game. It is not going well. The female picks up the golf balls while he primps one last time. He sits down. Just as the flash goes off, his cell phone rings. He jumps up, interrupting the shot. The photographer looks at the woman is an mixture of disgust and exasperation. While her mate is on the phone, she pulls out some photographs and peruses them. The photographer readjusts the reflective umbrella which the man, in his careless haste, moved. Drawn presumably by professional interest, he looks at the photographs—they are all about her. He then cocks his eyebrow, as if to ask, what do you need me for?

But has not visual art always been about the creators—whether those who paint it or those who pay for it? Diego Velazquez’ “Venus in the Mirror,” “La Venus del espejo,” completes the circle. Dawson Carr puts it directly: “it was made for the male gaze.” But then so is a centerfold in Playboy. The voyeur—what else could we call him?—sees the back and thighs of a perfect female nude. The woman looks at herself in a mirror; Carr says that since we see the face (very obscurely), she knows we see her. He adds that the painting was originally called “A Nude Woman with a Child,” in spite of the wings on the child. It is as if Velazquez wanted to deny the pagan inspiration of his visual imagination.

But pagan it is. One can see it already in the kouroi and korai of ancient Greece—dedication statues of humans to the gods. The korai—females—are always sedately dressed in what one assumes is proper Greek style; whereas the kouroi—males—are usually nude. Their worship of the gods was magnified worship of themselves, in their ideal social roles (women in the household; men in the gymnasium and on the battlefield). In sacrificing to the gods, they worshipped themselves in these seemingly-eternal reminders of their own transcendent bodies.

And so it has always been. And the splendid beauty of the art of Europe alters that not one iota. All the Madonnas in all of Europe’s museums could never finally convert the paganism in this display of the human form. Art has finally prostituted the Madonna. Virginal surrender has become whoredom.

But then, we were warned, were we not?

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me;.... (JPS 1917)

On Sunday, I will enter my plain meetinghouse, adorned only with a simple wooden cross. In the past, I had wished for more visual stimulation, something, I suppose I would have said, to pull the eye and mind upward. But in place of luscious stained glass—I have in my mind the little jewel of Bond Chapel, next to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School—there is only the transparent openness to the light of day. The stimulation is that of the solemn Word proclaimed.  I will be remember and be grateful.

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