It all started again when I visited the Fra Angelico (1395-1455) exhibit at the Met last December.1
Behind the splendor of the Christmas cresche, I entered the back hall of the Met. Surprisingly, there was no line (as opposed to the van Gogh drawing exhibit – 45 minutes). But there was a hushed gathering of many, moving about in the darkly lit halls.
I entered the halls and the golden aura of a diminutive Virgin Mary painting greeted me, with her azurite robe, and the Christ child’s supple body, reflecting her humanity — a simple work full of weighty colors. Then I had to close my eyes, after a few seconds of pondering the saturated surface. I realized this was too much to behold, all at once. As I staggered about looking for a blank wall to stare at, almost feeling ashamed to be in the presence of such greatness, I had a “500 year” question pop up in my mind.
What is the five hundred year question? Well, it’s a historical look at the reality of our cultures, and asking what ideas, what art, what vision affects humanity for over five hundred years. It’s the opposite of the Warholian “15 seconds of fame.”
Contemporary art does not encourage such thoughts. Except for a few notable exceptions, like video guru Bill Viola or the minimal zen of Agnes Martin, contemporary artists want to compress time, rather than stretch time. We are immersed in a visual culture that squeezes life into 15 second commercials with instant gains. Chelsea galleries are full of art that screams for attention, as if to say they are the twenty first century version of Willy Loman. “Attention, Attention must be paid to such an art,” gallerists dressed in their designer fashion calls out. Rather than profundity, they pine after instant recognition and fame. Just like Willy, we peddle our goods to find significance and survival, all the more as the grey world all around us passes by.
Meanwhile, artists who labor to develop their craft, artists who are committed to a longer view of their art, suffer. I can name many mid-career artists, in their 50’s who deserve much attention, but galleries do not pay attention to them, and give fresh-out-of-art-school artists solo exhibits. But of course, they are replaced the next year by the next round of twenty year olds.
Nothing wrong with twenty year olds, by the way: Fra Angelico was one, and two years into his twenty’s he entered the Dominican order. That’s where his gift was discovered, in the long lasting tradition of art. He was trained as an apprentice, and his first notable piece was a visual echo of Lorenzo Monaco, which suggests that he studied under him.
If Fra Angelico was born today, he would have a hard time finding anyone to teach him their craft, to be apprenticed, let alone to join an Order. The church would not be the first place a creative genius would look for to be trained in art. That statement alone reveals how much Christians have abdicated our responsibility to steward culture.
If you spoke with people staggering about in the Met with me, having a similar reaction to looking at the glory of Fra Angelico’s paintings, you may find them to be Enlightened secularists who also grieve today over the fragmentation, the loss of a spiritual anchor in the contemporary art scene. They may be even atheists who by the very essence of their denial may have to appreciate the sheer weighty anchor of Fra Angelico paintings. Atheism demands a language of belief to wrestle against. Fra Angelico’s paintings are undeniably Christian to the core. Enlightened secularists would be staggering because the spirit has left them. Atheists stagger because they have lost the defining opposition. I stagger and grieve because, as a Christian, I realize I do not see anyone on the horizon who could create and paint today who would rival Fra Angelico’s angelic weight.
In short, we are all staggering about, or should be…those who have eyes to see. That is precisely how we should react to Fra Angelico and the five hundred year question. We stagger because we have lost even our ability to ask that question.
So I took the subway home and I Googled “1500” :
The Tudors ruled the early Renaissance, having ended the War of the Roses in 1484. In 1503, da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo created David. Not a bad start. The Sistine Chapel, and The Last Supper, of course, would follow.
Christopher Columbus was sailing to sites unknown, trying again to get to Asia. Magellan noted the global shape of the earth. Martin Luther posted his 95 thesis on the Wittenberg door (1517). And very significant for me, Tohaku Hasegawa, the Michelangelo of Japan, was born (1537).
I closed my eyes again, and the angels of Fra Angelico re-invited themselves in.
Would we see another Renaissance in the days to come? Would we have another chance to steward our culture, without losing our identity and faith in the process?
You might be saying “gee, how can we think about 500 years from now if we have the capacity to blow ourselves up a thousand time over…aren’t you being a bit optimistic?”
Recently, I had a conversation with a Japanese art student. She asked me “How can you paint if you know that you may not be around ten years from now?” The look on her face told me that she was deadly serious. Japanese youth grow up, apparently, with the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even after all these years.
So I guided her to the ages that led up to 1500’s, and I shared with her about the period of world history in which Fra Angelico painted.
It was not a cozy time in history. The stenches of Black Death hovered all over Europe and Asia. Remember that the plague killed a half, yes a half, of the population in Europe. The swords of assassination were drawn (striking the Dukes of Surrey and Exeter, and then the Earls of Kent, Huntington and Salisbury for Richard II), the church was in turmoil (two Popes resigning, and one being excommunicated in the span of four years). The Ottoman Empire invaded Constantinople, ending the Byzantine age, through Muslim invasion. No, it was not an age to have hope, or to think of the next five hundred years. In fact, the list of events seems to have remarkable echoes of our times (the first entry of this web site is Baghdad being “sacked”).
So how did Fra Anglico manage to paint these indelible images? Perhaps the more pertinent question is: “To what hope did he cling to in such a dark time?”
After my third visit to the Fra Angelico exhibit, I allowed myself to drink deeply of that hope. It is not only the hope of an individual genius, but also of patronage, of society and the church. Then I realized, in order to create today, in fact, in order to live today, I desperately needed Fra Angelico in my imagination: when the Angelic faces would fill my heart as I pondered Aquinas in my mind. I would consider the life of St. Francis (who appears over and over in the Met exhibit), the saint/artist of two centuries past who ushered in the resplendence of the Renaissance via his humanity, re-gifting creativity and theatre back into theology. I wondered if, had I painted with Fra Angelico, I would hear about the dangerous teenage heretic in France named Joan of Arc (executed 1436). Perhaps then, I would turn to the last panel of my own “The Last Judgment”, and paint her face (secretly) as she danced up the stairs of heaven, her rich cinnabar robe with golden calligraphy, a design fit for a Queen.
Can such Eternity refract through our earthly visions? Can my children’s world birth generations of geniuses, as did Fra Angelico’s heirs, whose splendors would fill the Earth, as well as Heaven?
- Actually, the seed of the 500-year idea was planted deeply in my heart when James Romaine, an art historian, and I were speaking soon after 9/11. “This is a once in a life time moment in our history: it could even be once in a five hundred year moment.”