LIFE AS MYTH

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COMING AUTUMN 2014
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ON NESTS

The madonna of the roses, Stefan Lochner. 1448.  Wallraf Richartz Museum, Koln, German.

If we return to the old home as to a nest, it is because memories are dreams, because the home of other days has become a great image of lost intimacy
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

My mother has a rose garden. On cooler summer mornings you can find her there, gingerly working her way around the rose canes, her head enveloped by a large straw hat.

My mother's garden has evolved over the years, largely due to her desire to wean herself and her roses off pesticides and fungicides. For a while it seemed this choice meant fewer and smaller roses, more plentiful mildew and aphids. But my mother is very patient and she persisted with her garden.

Over time and through experimentation, she soon discovered that by replacing her showy (and high maintenance) hybrid teas with heirloom and "antique" varieties, her tiny garden developed a natural immunity. By simply adjusting the composition of her garden it slowly became more disease, pest and drought resistant. And quite surprisingly, none of the aesthetic was sacrificed. In fact, the rambling beauty of her garden is now far more rich, the experience of its perfume more sweet.

I know why you are here.

Let us leave my mother's garden for a moment and consider an evening many years ago in a brownstone on the east side of Manhattan. The instructor began the evening by saying, "I know why you are here." He then picked up a small index card and read,

"There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of man where the divine used to be. Sartre."  And then he looked at us for a moment before adding, "That is what brought all of you here tonight."

I did not realize then that a God-shaped hole was the reason I had selected that seminar but maybe he was right. The "God-shaped hole" is just another way of saying -- we are a society that has lost our myth. We are a society that has lost our relational compass and we are trying to find our way. We know that something important and fundamental is gone. And to describe that as a "God-shaped hole . . . where the divine used to be" seems pretty spot on. That God-shaped hole, our lost myth, whatever you choose to call it, plays out in all of our relationships and I am going to reflect on one dimension: the way it is playing out in our planet garden.

Is this the end of the world?

Drought and famine and disease. Species extinction. Civil instability due to compromised and limited resources. Katrina and Darfur are only just the opening chapters to an unfolding epic that is straight out of end times mythology. And just how much we can do depends on how quickly we act.

How did things get so out of hand?

There are many ways to answer that question but I will offer my own perspective: the planet is the expression of our myth. Remember myth is the system for meaning and relationship and the myth we are living is based on the monomyth. The monomyth is a mythological framework which places a premium on the individual, conquest of the environment and personal reward. When creation is seen through that lens, creation ceases to be part of us. Creation becomes somehow outside of us, something to be conquered and exploited. When our human numbers were smaller, this paradigm served us well without long term consequences. All that changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, extraordinary advances in science and technology catapulted humanity forward. But the post-industrial monomyth had a darker side as well: hazardous waste and pollution, the depletion of natural resources, ecosystem exhaustion. Change was not confined to science and technology. There were also major socioeconomic and cultural changes which reflected a valuing of thought over feeling, science over mystery, technology over Nature.

And now, just two hundred years later, we are on the precipice. The life-sustaining balance between Nature and Humanity is in jeopardy and, as if that weren't bad enough, it would seem there are a whole lot of us walking around with a God-shaped hole in our heart. But the crisis at hand provides us an extraordinary opportunity. An opportunity to re-enter the garden, the original garden, and the myth that was lost. Alice Walker wrote:

I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible--except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have.

When Alice Walker contemplates her mother's garden she laments what might have been. She observes her mother in the garden and sees an icon for all the women who, because of their color and gender, were limited in their personal and creative expression. Women who might have been great painters and poets and writers but for a racist and patriarchal system that enslaved, exploited and silenced them.

The same mythic underpinnings that exploited those women, exploit the earth. Nature has long been associated with the mythic feminine. For thousands of years, while the sacred feminine dominated, civilization was centered around a life in harmony with the natural world. In modern times, the patriarchal myth has eclipsed the matriarchal one, resulting in a world where Nature and Humanity are at odds. The consequence is a planet approaching freefall.

Yet, as the world receives the grim news from throughout our planet home, a message from the past has provided us with a blueprint for the future. Near Stonehenge at Durrington Walls (UK) a recent archeological dig brought to light a society in harmony with natural cycles. I am hopeful that while we consider the global crisis at hand, guidance has actually come up out of the earth. Paradise lost and found, side by side.

It is certainly not necessary to abandon modern science and technology in order to bring our relationship with the planet and each other back into balance. The paradigm shift that is necessary here requires both our present and our past myths to inform our future one. And this makes the memory of our mothers and their gardens more than a story, it makes it an essential part of a unifying vision. A vision of how to be in relationship with the earth. As Creator: hand and eye. And it is only through this relational approach to the planet that we can address the challenges at hand and fill the god-shaped hole in the heart of our collective myth.

 

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SUMMER 2014
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A VOCABULARY OF GRACE

The Ghent altarpiece (clockwise from top full interior; exterior gates; detail of Deesis, Mary as Queen of Heaven) also known as Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or The Lamb of God. Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. 1432. Cathedral of Saint Bavo. Ghent, Belgium.

But the obvious dynamism of these extravagant figures lies in the fact that they come alive in the dialectics of what is hidden and what is manifest.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

Jan Van Eyck [c. 1395 - 1441] was a Flemish painter, considered one of the finest artists of the 15th century and also known as the "father of oil painting". Though the use of oil-based painting predates Van Eyck by several centuries, he and his brother, Hubert, were the earliest to use it for panel painting and to create extraordinary effects through the mastery of glazes, wet-on-wet and other painterly techniques. The earliest source on Van Eyck is a biography [1454] by Bartolomeo Facio. He describes the painter as one of the best artists of the 15th century and an educated man grounded in the classics.

Van Eyck's most celebrated work, The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as The adoration of the mystic lamb, was a commission from Jodocus Vijdts and his wife Elisabeth Borluut for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. There is some question as to which Van Eyck, Jan or his brother Hubert, can claim credit for the this masterpiece. Hubert began the commission but died in 1426, long before the work was complete.

A clue to the dual partnership was in the original frame, subsequently destroyed during the Reformation.  Jan Van Eyck often signed and dated his works on their frames. In the case of the Ghent altarpiece, records indicate that the frame bore an inscription which read that Hubert maior quo nemo repertus [greater than anyone] began the piece and Jan arte secundus [second best in the art] completed it. The "signature" is ambiguous as to the exact contribution of each brother and art historians are in disagreement.

Van Eyck died in 1441 and was buried in the Church of St. Donatian. Unlike his brother Hubert, a substantial amount of Jan Van Eyck's work survives him.

 

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SUMMER 2014
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A THRONE OF WISDOM

The madonna of the roses, Stefan Lochner. 1448.  Wallraf Richartz Museum, Koln, Germany; Virgin and child, 1175-1225.  Walters Art Museum. Le Mans, France; Isis and Horus (center), Macedonian-Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC).  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

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SUMMER 2014 
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MADONNA DEL PARTO

Madonna del Parto. Piero della Francesca. ca. 1459. Museo della Madonna del Parto, Monterchi.  Photograph of a Buddhist sculpture showing the birth of Buddha, from Lorian Tangai, taken by Alexander Caddy in 1896.

Madonna del parto [Madonna of childbirth] is a fresco painting by Piero della Francesca, completed in seven days while the artist was in Sansepolcro for his mother's death [1459]. The motif of Madonna del Parto is one found in Tuscan art beginning in the 14th C. In these paintings, the Madonna usually stands alone and holds a closed book over her belly, signifying her embodiment of the incarnate word. Here Francesca reveals her within a pavilion, with two angels opening its panels. This opening is then mirrored in the panels of the Virgin Mary's robes. One interpretation describes the pavilion as representing the original Ark of the Covenant. In this context, the pregnant mother of Christ then becomes the vessel for the new covenant.

The painting features a liberal amount of blu oltremare, also known as ultramarinum [beyond the sea], obtained from imported lapis lazuli. Popular with Italian painters in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, blu oltermare was also very expensive, at times exceeding gold in cost. Artists were sparing in their use of it, reserving the color for the robes of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child.

 

The Hindu tradition of THE BIRTH OF BUDDHA (Prince Siddhārtha) teaches that his mother stood upright and held on to a branch during delivery.  The infant Buddha emerged from her side, took seven steps, and said that he would achieve enlightenment and end all suffering in the world.

Throughout his childhood and into young adutlhood, his father the king sheltered him from all hardship. It was not until he was twenty-nine that a pivotal encounter changed the course of his life.  Prince Siddhārtha went out to meet with his subjects.  Until this day his father had barred all sick and aging people from the royal audiences.  On this occasion, however, the prince looked into the face of an old man for the first time. This was his first encounter with mortality and suffering. It was also the beginning of a personal pilgrimage that led to his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five.

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SUMMER 2014 
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HODEGETRIA

Hodegetria. Berlinghiero Berlinghieri. 1230. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Hodegetria [Greek, she who shows the way] is an artistic motif which features the Virgin Mary pointing to the infant Christ whom she holds in her arms. This traditional composition conveys the idea of Christ as the vehicle of salvation. Church tradition identifies Saint Luke as the artist of the first version of the Hodegetria. That icon was a full-length, double-sided version which featured an image of the crucifixion on the reverse. There are many copies of that work but it is likely that the original is now lost.

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SUMMER 2014 
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MADONNA DELLA MISERICORDIA

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(from top to bottom) Misericordia Polyptych [Madonna della Misericordia]. Piero della Francesca. 1460-62. Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro. This painting contains a self-portrait of the artist, third from the left, kneeling at the feet of Mary; Madonna of the Franciscans. Duccio di Buoninsegna. 1280. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena; Madonna of Mercy. Sano di Pietro. ca. 1440. Private collection.

A polyptych [Greek poluptukha/having many folds] is a work of art composed of multiple panels, usually four or more. Diptych refers to two paneled pieces and triptych refers to those with three.

Madonna della Misericordia [Virgin of Mercy] is a traditional motif in Christian art which displays the Virgin Mary with an outstretched mantle. In the image, she uses her mantle to protect her worshippers. Artwork commissions with this theme were often made by groups [e.g., families, convents, guilds] who then were incorporated into the piece. Usually, the group is represented kneeling and of a smaller scale than the Madonna. Martin Luther scorned the image, likening it to "a hen with her chicks".

The oldest extant version is a small 13th Century piece by Duccio. The most famous example is The Madonna della Misericordia or The Polyptych of Misericordia, an altarpiece by Piero della Francesca in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Sansepolcro. Here Francesca features the Madonna as the centerpiece of the polyptych, flanked by the Virgin of the Annunciation, various saints, and images of the life of Christ. The piece was commissioned in 1445 by the Compagnia della Misericordia and was completed in 1462.

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COMING SUMMER 2014
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MADONNA ELEUSA

Madonna eleusa (Virgin Of Tenderness). ca. 1450. Andreas Ritzosa.

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SUMMER 2014
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THE PIETA

The Montefeltro altarpiece also known as Virgin with child, saints, angels and Federigo II da Montefeltro or The Brera Madonna [detail], Piero della Francesca, 1465. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; The lamentation, Simon Marmione. 1470. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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