Thursday, September 17, 2009

What makes a masterpiece?

This is a story set in Rome, burdened as it by the past, a storehouse of artifacts, less a city than an open-air museum, an ornate, overstuffed theater, its inhabitants laboring under the impossible weight of their history, despite their snazzy clothes, homicidal driving, and animated conversation, confronted by carved stone at every turn, practiced at stagecraft, trying desperately to carry on as though they really inhabit the twenty-first century. It used to be eternal, they say, but that's over. There is no eternity here, only the works of man thrown up into the face of absent gods.

You looked around at its repulsive wedding cake fa├žades and its marble paeans to temporal power, commercial glory, and imperial grandeur and thought to yourself, yes, here it is, everything Christ railed against. How can you avoid it? You crossed the river to Vatican City. St. Peter's. Monumental, way beyond good taste, its crazy bulk meant to make humans feel like ants, an echo-chamber wherein one listens for the beating heart of the living church in vain. You wished you were wearing steel-tipped boots so you could scuff the damned travertine. Once outside, you were able to breathe again and give thanks for Italian bread and Italian wine.

One time you felt okay in Rome, when you strolled in the little orange grove close by Santa Sabina, up on the Aventine Hill. And you would never have thought to make a visit there except for Henry James's brilliant description of the ancient church in his
Italian Hours.

But this is not about Santa Sabina. It's the story of a painting, to be found in its own room in the Vatican Museum. Let others make a mad dash through gallery after gallery to beat the crowds to the Sistine Chapel.
Get there early, enjoin the guidebooks, so you can find a place to sit on one of the benches. Then crane your neck and let yourself be overawed by the genius of Michelangelo. Float among those powerful figures and marvel at their sheer muscularity. Suffer vertigo if you must. Then let your eyes fall on the altar wall whereupon the artist has given us his vision of The Last Judgment. It is a fearsome desecration that the body-hating church proudly displays, the great tormented artist's desperate attempt to beat the demons out of his own flesh. To rid himself of mortality. But these are all thoughts you carry with you into and out of the painted wall which itself remains mysterious and terrifying. You ask, who was this man? The painted surface asks, who are you?

Somewhere else nearby another painting hangs on a wall. A big painting, more than thirteen feet tall and nine feet wide, too big to see all at once if you get close.
The Transfiguration by Raphael, his last painting, likely completed by a pupil. You were completely unprepared for what you saw. Upon entering the hushed room -- this painting is the only thing in there -- you felt yourself go slightly dizzy and you had to catch yourself. Christ the Beautiful, the divine man hovering above the dark earth, radiant, beneficent, open-armed, the very definition of transfigured. And a boy, possessed by demons, standing on the earth below. Stricken, the youthful sensual beautiful body twisted around itself, held tight by the band of believers trying to drive the demons out. This boy, so obviously repulsed by the Christ above yet needful of deliverance, anguished, sculpted, sick but beloved, this boy is perfectly composed. Everything is perfectly composed. Between the light and the darkness, these bodies are arrayed for eternity. Transfigured Christ, so hard to bear, so impossible to believe. A thrumming in the ear, palpitations, a sense of exultation, disgust with oneself, and, finally, an acknowledgment that there exist demons that no one on earth can expunge.

You stood there weak-kneed for a long time and emptied yourself before the painting and wept. Later on you thought to yourself, what happened in there? As you walked through the streets of Rome, forgetting yourself, falling in and out of a dream, wondering if the change would hold.

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