Tag Archives: Life

Raphael: Creative Optimism

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"St. Michael Vanquishing Satan." Raphael, 1518.

Raphael was “gentle” and “humane,” says Giorgio Vasari in Lives of the Artists. (Which was published in 1550 – Vasari had seen vast changes in art within his own lifetime, and thought somebody ought to write this down.)  Full of “natural modesty and goodness and good-fellowship,” he avoided “savagery” in life and in his work. His figures, like St. Michael in the painting at left, possess “grandeur and majesty.”

Prof. Richard Brettell describes this St. Michael as serene and calm, even though he’s in the act of fighting Satan. Here, we see Raphael’s idealism and optimism about humanity. Raphael conveys a kind of hopefulness, that we can understand the universe and ourselves.

One of my favorite quotes is from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Raphael prefers to make a heaven. His St. Michael, in vanquishing Satan, pushes aside the dark, devilish corners of the human mind, the shadows, the evil. Raphael’s ideal: the good, achieving, creating mind can conquer the bad parts of human experience.

As a 21st-century writer, I tend to think like Raphael. Yes, I know of war, genocide, famine, disease, cruelty, stupidity, ignorance, environmental destruction. And yet I create visions of the world in which humans are almost gods: creating marvelous technology, accessing all the knowledge of the past, using modern science to understand the universe like never before. It’s not that I ignore the presence of evil. Rather, I choose, like Raphael, to imagine how we might overcome it.

Raphael lacks the dark, lurking danger of Leonardo (more on this here). I’m not saying that Raphael is better, or worse, than Leonardo – simply that they represent different styles of creation. Maybe we, as creators, could have both options in our “tool kits.” Sometimes, we might need a dark, pessimistic picture of humanity and the 21st century. At other times, we might need a positive statement of human potential. Or a mix of both.

What do you think? Do you tend to share Raphael’s optimism, or do you prefer a different view of the world? If you’re an artist/writer/musician, are your creations idealistic, pessimistic, or something in between?

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“Mona Lisa”: Opening New Worlds

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"The Mona Lisa." Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06.

I was sick of the “Mona Lisa.” It was old and tired, I thought; so iconic that it ceased to have meaning. But that was so wrong! What’s new in the “Mona Lisa”? A wealth of ideas, ripe for transformation.

I’m still listening to my “Masterpieces of the Louvre” lectures, so I’ll share an insight from Prof. Richard Brettell. The “Mona Lisa,” he says, fascinates us for two reasons. One, that mysterious, knowing smile. (Which seemed too  popular, too fixed in the one painting to mine for re-creation.) Two, “the wild beauty of the Alpine landscape” behind her. Aha! Here’s the key.

For this, in fact, is no real place. It doesn’t exist. An ocean cove cuts to the middle of spiky mountains, which don’t look like anything in Europe. Rather, Brettell notes, they look like something you might see in Japanese art, except Leonardo didn’t know of it. The curving road, red and raw, seems to have been only recently carved from the rock. It’s a strange, fantastic landscape.

How are we supposed to process this? Brettell asks. It’s a clash of two realms: the human, knowable and familiar, against the incomprehensible. Granted, the lady is at the very edge of the knowable – centuries of interpreters have puzzled over the meaning of her smile – but she is still human. The landscape, on the other hand, is completely fantastic. Typical of a Leonardo painting, it has “intensity and lurking danger,” suggesting darkness, turmoil, even evil.

I think the weird landscape belongs to the imagination (after all, it’s not a real place). What strange new worlds we create in the journeys of the mind! And look at the lady – she is confident, knowing, set in front of this landscape as if she controls it. She is not afraid of strange new worlds.

In the Italian Renaissance, people questioned the traditional pillars of meaning as science opened up new vistas. The same is true in our 21st-century Renaissance (more on this here). In Leonardo’s time, it was the world of the Church against the emerging power of the human mind, of logic, of the scientific method. Now, the overwhelming explosion of new technologies and ideas often makes the world seem fragmented, unknowable. People are often pessimistic, confused, or anxious about the future.

Why don’t we take a cue from the “Mona Lisa”? She exists confidently in front of the unknown. Whatever strange new vistas that science opens up, she stands in the foreground, refusing to give in to anxiety. Reaching to the utmost of the human realm, she returns with a knowing smile, telling us that everything will be fine in the end. We have power over strange new worlds.