Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Art in Lent 2: Contemplation

Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Pope Julius II and began work when he was 33 years old, completing it 4 years later in 1512. The Creation of Adam is part of nine scenes from the book of Genesis, that itself forms the centerpiece to a complex series of paintings involving around 300 figures. Michelangelo undertook this great work somewhat reluctantly, even running back to his favoured medium – sculpture – until the Pope demanded that he return to work on the Sistine Chapel. This image is one of the three most famous paintings of all time – the others being Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper – and like them it has spawned many playful reworkings of the scene.

The Creation of Adam shows God the Father reaching towards a reclining Adam. The fingers are not touching, and it is unclear whether the spark of life has already passed from God to Adam; Adam is clearly ‘alive’ yet strangely vacant. If it is ‘pre-spark’ as it were, then Adam is engaged in the act – actively receiving the force of life. True life is absent until the Father’s touch kickstarts not just Adam but the succession of events depicted across the rest of the ceiling.

Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo’s interest in and study of human anatomy informed his painting and sculpture. Take ‘David’, the renowned gigantic sculpture of the shepherd boy-king that he completed 8 years prior to finishing the Sistine Chapel; the hand alone is perfect, in its rendering of each vein and fingernail. David’s hand and that of Adam are very similar; beautifully elegant, graceful hands, that are relaxed in their pose. God’s hand, in contrast, is a strong workman’s hand, straining to reach forward and close the gap. It is tempting to think that Michelangelo chose one of the scaffolders who helped with the practicalities of the work as the life model, rather than the more delicate model used for Adam. God is busy about his work, getting things done, making it happen; life is no accident for him.

We are used to seeing that tantalizing gap between the fingers closed by a bolt of lightening, as in the title sequence from the old South Bank Show. It has even been postulated that Michelangelo’s knowledge of anatomy stretched to an understanding of the synapses between nerve cells, where the gap between two cells is breached by chemical messengers. This seems fanciful to me, as does speculation that the material on which God rests is the shape of the uterus, or the human brain. Did Michelangelo imagine such a bolt of lightening? I like to think that he instead imagined a gentle prod – after all, he was painting the equivalent of the breath of God, itself an inherently gentle image. God is prodding Adam awake, as a Father might do to a sleepy child – and a touch from such a father, however gentle, has the most overwhelming consequences. No wonder Adam looks vacant: he is in the process of awakening, not from a dream, but from oblivion. And yet the gap remains, between God and Adam. God strains to meet Adam; Adam has only to reach a little to close the gap, and receive the life-spark. In this way this image is perhaps a better depiction not of creation but of our new birth in Christ, when God asks of us that we turn towards him and reach but a little so that we might receive all that he offers.

Within the shape of the cloth that God inhabits exist other beings, including, in the crook of God’s arm, the figure of Eve. This is woman existing yet not created; she exists only as an idea and an intention, in the imagination of God. Perhaps after all this cloth does represent the mind of the Divine Being. Both Adam and Eve, man and woman, are depicted in this moment, at different stages of their creation through to awakening realization of the presence of God.

During Lent it is often a goal to take time out to notice God: in the actions of the day, in the time set aside, and in the wonder of nature around us. In this process we may also notice our own lack of animation, our spiritual lassitude. We are like the dry bones of Ezekiel, rattling around but with no life and breath. To take notice of the beauty around us, to stop and stare and appreciate, is part of what it is to be human. It is also part of what it is to be divine – so in this way we are reflecting the nature of God. As Adam mirrors the position of God as painted by Michelangelo, so we too mirror his image, and reflect back his nature as Creator and sustainer. God gazes on Adam, seeing that his creation is good, and contemplates him even as he breathes life into him; Adam breathes in that life, and then goes on to his task, the naming of the animals – in which he looks, appreciates and stewards them.

Adam’s appreciation of all that God had made took the form of naming, because that was what was required of him, and what was in his heart. It was, in a sense, his spiritual gift. When searching for a definition of a spiritual gift I came across this:

A spiritual gift is the God-given capacity of every Christian to carry out his function in the body of Christ.

I would alter that slightly: A spiritual gift is the God-given capacity of every Christian to carry out his function with flair, where flair denotes something of our individuality and the joy that the exercise of that gift brings. Adam was bringing all that he was to God’s service, with joy.

Each of us will appreciate what is around us in a way that both reflects the image of God in us and the unique take on life that God has granted to us. I tend to turn to words, to poetry, and to photography; those with a background in mathematics may be more likely to contemplate the intricate simplicity of the Fibonacci sequence – the numbers that are repeated again and again throughout nature, dictating its order and beauty. However you contemplate, it should be something that is innate and true to you; not borrowed words, or borrowed sentiments, but something real and unique.

This Lent is an opportunity to wake from the slumber of everyday life, and to catch a glimpse of God-life – life in all its fullness. In order to do this we, like Adam in Michelangelo’s painting, should make a move towards God – reach out our hand, even as he strains towards us. In contemplation of the wonderful things around us we make such a move. Contemplation of creation is never an end in itself, but a gateway to the Creator. It is, if you like, an icon – an image of the one who draws us to himself. Contemplation of the Creator is a fundamental practice of those believers who wish to develop relationship with God.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Art in Lent 1: Wilderness

Jacob and the Angel: Jacob Epstein, 1941

Depicting a mighty struggle, it stands nearly 7 feet tall. The translucent qualities of the stone give a depth to the piece, as if one is able to look through the flesh to the structures beneath – the muscles and sinews that strain and pull the other figure into their grasp. Some critics see this as a representation of  the struggle that the artist, himself a Jacob, had with his materials – in this case a 2½ ton block of flawed alabaster. Other view this as a comment on Epstein’s Jewish race – he came from Polish immigrants - and particularly their struggle at the time when this was carved.

Epstein has not depicted a gentle angel, a guardian or messenger. This is the moment spoken of in Genesis (Genesis 32: 22-32), when Jacob wrestled with a man until daybreak. In Hosea this man is identified as an angel.

At the time when this happened Jacob was afraid for his life. Esau, the brother that he had tricked out of his birthright, was coming to meet him after many years. As so many times before, Jacob’s reaction was to scheme and plot. He had surrounded himself with the accumulated wealth of the intervening years – the wives and children, the flocks and herds and servants. Now he chose to separate himself from them, and to wait alone in the darkness. And in the darkness a figure came towards him.

The Bible says that Jacob and the man wrestled. There were no blows struck, until the final moment; nor were any weapons involved, other than the strength and cunning of their own bodies. This mimics the birth of Jacob when, following an uncomfortable pregnancy for Rebekah – whose children ‘struggled together within her’ - the younger twin was born clinging tenaciously to the heel of his more passive brother. Despite a mismatch of strength between Jacob and the wrestling man, he refused to yield; and so they wrestled on until daybreak.

Epstein’s angel is no ethereal creature, born of air and light. This is a solid, unyielding figure. The wings are more like the tablets of the commandments than flesh and feathers. Many other artistic interpretations of this account have Jacob warding off the blows of a near-triumphant angel; or else they seem to waltz together in an unending dance. This is a fully-committed wrestle, with both parties sweating and striving for victory. And yet, it is obvious that the angel is holding back; he is not standing tall, but instead is bending his knees to accommodate Jacob’s inferior height. If he were to stand straight, he would instantly lift Jacob off his feet. As it is, this grasp mimics a fierce hug, one which threatens to squeeze the breath from the lungs even as it comforts and protects.

What was it Jacob wanted when he left his family and walked out alone? He had met with angels before, and had received comfort and guidance from them; maybe he sought such comfort again. Perhaps he had no idea that he would meet with God, but needed space and time to consider the next step in his ongoing battle with his brother. Perhaps he felt some guilt for the birthright he had stolen, and with the evidence of his accumulated wealth surrounding him had found it difficult to breathe. It seems unlikely that he expected an adversary, one who would match his strength but not exceed it.

And what of God’s motive? Was the intention to destroy Jacob, or embrace him? In matching his strength to that of a mortal man God deliberately comes in the guise of a human being, with all their frailties and limitations. There is never any doubt that God will win the fight; but he seems to do so by reverting to dirty tactics, leaving Jacob the trickster looking like the fair fighter. It seems only right that Jacob should demand of such a God his birthright – the blessing of God. Yet when Jacob asks the name of his adversary, he is refused. God, not Jacob, is in charge; and Jacob is put in his place, even as his rightful place as the heir of Isaac – a position first won dubiously, now granted by God as a right reward for his tenacity – is granted.

There are moments in our lives when we consciously carve out time to be alone with God; in contrast there are moments when we find ourselves alone and bereft, with none but God to turn to. Both of these can be thought of as wilderness experiences, and in these God may seem especially present or very far away. The conclusion of such an experience can seem ambiguous; in the midst of desolation, what did we really learn of God?

Perhaps the message we most truly learn is that, in his engaging with us, God never becomes less than himself; and that this being is not ours to command. At the end of his encounter Jacob gains a blessing, and that blessing goes with him into the next stage of his journey: yet still he does not learn the name of God. As Moses will discover in the years to come, even Israel cannot know the essence of God’s being, but must simply be content to know that ‘I am who I am’.