Monday, February 12, 2007

Annibale Carracci

The other day I went with a friend to an exhibit featuring the Baroque painter Annibale Carracci. For now, the exhibit is located in a Renaissance cloister connected to the church of Santa Maria della Pace. The church itself has an interesting story of its own, but that’s for another post. Carracci’s paintings reminded me, once again, just why I love Baroque art. Its dramatic emphasis on creation is so refreshing. The infusion of tense drama and stirring movements remind me of the theological reality of divine grace’s infusion in the material world...and it’s clear that was the point of the movement. Carracci’s sacred artwork depicts Christ’s humanity so boldly that, ultimately, it serves to highlight the transcendent bond between God and man. Many of his paintings depict Christ in the arms of his mother, either as a newborn child or cradled in the same maternal arms as the perfect Sacrifice, just removed from the cross. The expressive, sacred art found in the Baroque period is a powerful, and thoroughly enjoyable, lesson in theology and human anthropology. It can serve to remind us of our own vulnerable condition and elevated dignity as a persons created in the image of God.

Afterward, we stopped in a café that is connected to the same building, just a few steps from the gallery’s exit. The café is situated inside a brilliant courtyard designed by the Renaissance virtuoso Bramante between 1500 and 1504. Often passed over by the hordes of tourists, this architectural gem is a perfectly proportioned cloister and embodies the Renaissance ideals of elegance, simplicity and proportion.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Leo the Great

Ensconced in the back of Saint Peter’s Basilica is a side altar that serves as the final resting place for Pope Saint Leo the Great, who reigned as Vicar of Christ from 440 until 461. As one would expect with the rare title of “Magnus”, Leo’s achievements are many. At the Council of Chalcedon, he authoritatively clarified the Church’s teaching regarding the human and divine natures of Christ. In addition, he relentlessly defended papal authority and theological orthodoxy in times of upheaval and uncertainty as the Western Roman Empire was crumbling. But Leo the Great is also beloved by Catholics for a unique intervention in the history of the Church; an intervention that saved the city of Rome from savage destruction at the hands of a merciless barbarian horde led by Attila the Hun. Directly above the altar containing Leo’s revered mortal remains is a breathtaking, larger than life marble rendition of the Pope’s famous encounter with Attila in 452. Against all odds, Leo’s dramatic intervention was successful, and Attila turned his fury elsewhere, giving the Eternal City a temporary respite from the onslaught of fifth century sieges. In this stunning eruption of Baroque intensity, set majestically above Leo’s sarcophagus, Attila’s gaze is fixated not on the resolute Pope, but on two sword-wielding Apostles, Peter and Paul, hovering above on a cloud and accompanied by an army of angelic escorts bursting forth from heaven. Attila is frozen in mid-motion just before turning away from Rome. His head is bent upward while his Herculean body is twisted away from the Pope. Apparently, the fearless king has had enough and decides it would be best to leave Rome in peace. The work of art is a brilliant case study in potent contrasts. At the level of sheer physical strength, the aged Leo is clearly outmatched by the burly Attila. But what he lacks in brawn Leo makes up for through the fervor of his resolution, captured magnificently in his steely gaze. Attila’s expression is a delicate mixture of timidity and incredulity. The nervous countenance etched on his face, coupled with his massive arm, elevated in the defensive position shielding him from the Apostles, diminishes the obtrusive impact of his muscular body. In contrast to Attila, Leo’s arm is gracefully outstretched before him, ready to halt the advancing army. Leo’s steady hand appears as a strikingly gentle sign of rebuke, considering the high tension of the moment. The Pope’s generous and elegant accoutrements juxtapose well with the crude military garb donned by Attila. Behind the imposing figure of the Pope, a young man is crouching, perhaps in fear of the mighty king. But surprisingly, his face is defined with a decidedly confident glare. Maybe he symbolizes the population of Rome or the faithful of the universal Church in general, sheltered securely behind the successor of Saint Peter.

At another, more symbolic level, I believe this work of art is highly relevant for present times. While the days of dramatic showdowns between Popes and belligerent tribal leaders have long since passed, there are, at present, new dangers faced by the Church; forces that gravely threaten her moral authority and by extension, the dignity of the human person. We have another great pope in Benedict XVI, whose peerless force of mind and intellect is matched only by the fervor of his profound spirituality. And he is just as determined to face down nefarious enemies of truth and to defend the prerogatives of the Church as Pope St. Leo the Great was in facing down Attila the Hun. Only now, the enemies are not foreign armies or tribes but rather, and perhaps more ominously, seductive, newfangled ideologies and cultural pathologies touted by the disciples of moral relativism.

The human person and the family are threatened routinely by ideologies rooted in either the utilitarian or sentimental and the free reign of political correctness in today’s society makes it extremely difficult to discuss these issues outside the cramped template of these two creeds. On the front of science and research, destructive embryonic stem-cell exploitation has become perhaps one of the most highly controversial and cutting-edge issues of the day. Should unethical research on nascent human life be sanctioned and bankrolled by the state, all in the name of “progress” and in the misplaced hope for medical cures? So long as it may yield a bounty of good results, should one unethical act, which would set the whole business of alleged cures in motion, be given the go-ahead? Utilitarians would enthusiastically respond, “Yes! The greatest good for the greatest number.” The Church answers strongly with a “Yes!” to the dignity of the person and, for that reason, a firm “No!” to any and all unethical means that would sabotage that dignity.

On the front of culture and society, the question of the nature of family life has also been a heated topic for discussion. Since time immemorial, the family has been recognized by humanity as the fundamental unit of a healthy society. Nature has arranged it that one man and one woman partake in a union and thus become co-creators in the formation of new life. Marriage is the oldest natural institution in human history. Today well-organized movements, fueled by characters who are militantly hostile not only to the Church but to societal mores once accepted by virtually everyone, have waged a full fledged attack on marriage and seek to redefine it out of existence by sapping it of its essence. In a remarkable display of irony, these self-proclaimed advocates of tolerance seek to impose their distorted vision of love and marriage on society via judicial fiat, despite an overwhelming public mandate against them, as witnessed in election after election. The advocates such of policies and practices, whose ultimate goal is to extirpate any commonly accepted recognition of objective truth, shirk rational discussion and rely heavily on rhetorical tricks and emotion-tugging (or clouding) platitudes to advance their cause. The result is often an embarrassing tumble toward an unseemly but logical conclusion. For example, if there are no limits as to what marriage actually is, then why can’t eight or twenty people who “love” each other marry, live together in a sexual relationship, adopt children and claim benefits from the state? To deny that such conclusions must be reached, after having accepted the premise of gay “marriage”, is to commit what George Weigel aptly calls “rational bigotry”, that is to say, bigotry against reason.

A superficial overview of the situation may at times show sparse chance of success for a “simple and humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard” and for those aligned with him. The modern manifestations of Attila, powerful and numerous, often seem difficult to confront, let alone overcome. But just as in the sculpture, divine assistance and hope always lay on the horizon, even as things seem on the brink of collapse and despair. As we too take shelter behind the successor to Peter, we also glean strength from Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against his Church. Keeping that in mind, we can confront with confidence the maelstrom of moral confusion and the often-violent aggressions that are concomitant. The enemies of the Church, seemingly as omnipotent and unstoppable as Attila and his army, will be confounded and forced into an ignominious retreat just as they appear on the verge of a final march on Rome.