The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, 1437-46
Fra Angelico is the artist we are studying for the first term of our homeschool. By far, The Annunciation
is my favorite painting of the ones we studied. This is a fresco on the wall at the top of a staircase in the Florentine monastery, San Marco. Imagine walking up the stairs to retreat to your cell (perhaps it’s time for a few hours of prayer on your knees), all the while gazing at beautiful Angel Gabriel revealing to Mary that she will be the mother of God’s Son. Mary’s expression is intense and focused–a good expression to go to prayers with. We watched a short video showing San Marco. The architecture in the painting is similar to the architecture in the monastery, so the painting really brings the viewer into the scene. We also learned that the angel’s lovely wings are even more lovely in person: something in the paint causes them to sparkle.
Now look at the painting while listening to some of Hildegard von Bingen’s music. Hildegard was our composer of the term, a nun who had visions, wrote books, composed beautiful, haunting songs (such as The Origins of Fire). She was a mystic, and I’m not sure what to think about mystics, and a bright, burning light in the dullness of the Middle Ages.
I wonder what she would have thought about this painting if she could have seen it?
In a family, what isn’t spoken is what you listen for. But the noise of a family is to drown it out.
– from We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates, 1996
I read this book twice, both quite some time ago. I have a history with Joyce Carol Oates’ writing. It is only a history. I’ve given up on her current work. The reason I thought about this book again is because I was surprised to see it in a church library (not mine; it wouldn’t be in mine). Joyce Carol Oates can be very dark, delving deep into atrocities such as murder and rape. This book, We Were the Mulvaneys, is not free of this darkness. However, it is tempered by the story of a family. When there is a family involved, an honest-to-goodness family, struggling to remain a family, something shines out of whatever darkness might otherwise exist. Because families mean love, long-suffering, patience, and all the other fruits of the Spirit. God meant us to be families. Too many stories, both real and fictional, portray broken families as if that is the way they inevitably become. We Were the Mulvaneys shows very vividly that it is difficult and complicated to be part of a family. But it also shows how valuable a family is, and how precious family loyalty can be.
The ladies’ Bible study at my church met today. The ladies had done their homework, and the discussion was lively and deep. At one point, we were discussing Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” That is the ESV version. The NKJV reads a little differently. We read the last half as meaning the Lord has a willing spirit (as in attitude), the Lord’s Spirit is willing and generous, OR the psalmist (David) wants to have a willing spirit. We consulted the pastor because he can read the original Hebrew. We thought that he would give us a definitive answer. Come to find out… he couldn’t give us a definitive answer because it could be interpreted differently in the Hebrew as well.
So why am I mentioning this? I don’t think it really matters how I read Psalm 51:12. All of our variations hold truth. I do find it striking that we can dig so deep into one line of Scripture and never hit bottom. I can see how that might be frustrating at some point. But it is also amazing. God’s Word is so full of meaning and wisdom. There is no end to our learning. The Holy Spirit can open up door after door when we read the Bible, and there will still be more and more doors to open. I hope I remember this the next time I open the Bible and think “same old, same old…”
Evening Reverie, Alphonse Mucha, 1898
I wrote to someone that I often read poetry when I’m in need of sophistication and beauty. Here I look at this beautiful, sophisticated woman, first asleep and then waking up, and I think this must be a poetic painting. I could tell you what it is like to sleep peacefully. I could explain the loveliness of a new day after you have slept fully and deeply. But there’s no need. This painting shows more than what I can write.
May we sleep so beautifully tonight!
It’s not September anymore, but I like this poem. It hums and sings about the autumn season.
Lyric night of the lingering Indian Summer,
Shadowy fields that are scentless but full of singing,
Never a bird, but the passionless chant of insects,
The grasshopper’s horn, and far-off, high in the maples,
The wheel of a locust leisurely grinding the silence
Under a moon waning and worn, broken,
Tired with summer.
Let me remember you, voices of little insects,
Weeds in the moonlight, fields that are tangled with asters,
Let me remember, soon will the winter be on us,
Snow-hushed and heavy.
Over my soul murmur your mute benediction,
While I gaze, O fields that rest after harvest,
As those who part look long in the eyes they lean to,
Lest they forget them.
– “September Midnight” by Sara Teasdale, 1914
Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo, 1508-1512
I knew this subject would eventually come up in my blog. I just didn’t know when I’d have the nerve to address it. I recently watched the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy for the second time (I’ve read Irving Stone’s novel by the same name an equal number of times), so Michelangelo and his Sistine Chapel ceiling are fresh in my mind. A recent Sunday school class also reminded me that God is a spiritual God, meaning He is Spirit and does not have a bodily form like a man does. My church, in fact, believes man ought not to make pictures of God (and therefore Jesus, because He is fully God). The little kids’ books in the church library have been weeded through to remove books that contain pictures of the Deity (or someone covered up the pictures). I grew up in a Reformed church, but I did not grow up knowing about this brand of respectfulness to God. This is something I encountered after I fell in love with such works as Michelangelo’s Pieta and Raphael’s Madonnas. How do I reconcile this in my heart? I have not reconciled anything. I am only thinking these things through.
Michelangelo viewed God as he viewed almost every human being: manly, very human, muscular, alive. I cannot agree with that. God is spirit. However, the Bible itself uses figures of speech such as “the arm of God” or “the eyes of God” to help us understand things we cannot otherwise understand. Is Michelangelo divinely inspired as were the writers of the Bible? No, I don’t think so. Michelangelo was a man who had his own unique view on everything, and so he created things through that unique lens. Is it wrong of me to look at his painting of God? I don’t know. I’ve already looked at it. It’s in my mind. I can’t erase it. My husband would argue that I am not worshiping the God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, therefore it is fine to look at the painting. I want to submit to my husband’s ideas on this point. But something nags at me. What if God is really offended by that particular image of Himself? What if He is offended by all images of Himself? I don’t think it’s any accident that Jesus was born at a time when cameras were not invented. It’s no accident that Michelangelo never actually saw Jesus in his lifetime. Perhaps it is really true that God is not to be imaged in any shape or form.
So, I could look at the Sistine Chapel and remind myself that this is Michelangelo’s view of God and it is wrong. I can look at his Pieta and remind myself that it is his view of Christ and it is disrespectful. But in the Pieta, it’s only the earthly body portrayed; His soul had gone to heaven! You can see how this wars on in my mind. I have twice weeded through my own kids’ books and thrown out books that contained pictures of Jesus. And then I bought a Bible story book with beautiful, classically-painted illustrations because I did not want to buy a Bible story book that had comical images. I thought the pictures set an appropriate tone for the seriousness and beauty of the storyline. There are pictures of Jesus, and we look at them. We are studying Fra Angelico’s religious paintings for our artist study this term. They contain pictures of Jesus. At the moment I am not honoring my church’s desire to rid ourselves of images of God. But, at the moment, I don’t honestly think that I’m displeasing God. I’m not going to try to justify my reasons because my reasons are only human. I can only conclude that I need to pray about it because any human I ask is only human. His interpretation might be wrong.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
— from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman, 1855
So many parts of this famous long poem cause me to wince and read even faster so as to get past the uncomfortable part. Even the fast pace of the poem is somewhat offending to my poetic ideals of taking time to savor each word in a poem. And yet, I can’t deny Whitman’s genius (neither can he!). He may not be humble. He may not be careful. He may be long-winded and wild and drafty. But still, he excites. His words tumble and roll along the page like thoughts and feelings inside his head. His images are clear and grand. And he loves nature as much as he loves himself. I would like to find out someday that running blackberry really does adorn the parlors of heaven.