Tag Archives: Reflections

Tintoretto: The Huge Scale of Creation


"The Coronation of the Virgin." Tintoretto, c. 1580.

No way was this painting going to fit to the left of my text, as usual, so I just stuck it at the top. It’s still too small to see properly. But I put it here because it gave me an important idea – creation can be vast. Sure, “creation” in the traditional sense of God’s creation, the world, is big. But I’m talking about the creation of the human mind – art, music, literature, ideas. How can we make vast creations for the 21st century?

Detail from Tintoretto, "Coronation of the Virgin." Some of the spectators.

I discovered this painting in my “Masters of the Louvre” lectures. The artist, a Venetian known as Tintoretto, won a contest to replace a burned-out fresco with this scene. It’s huge in scale, bold, fantastic. At the top center, the Virgin is re-united with Christ and crowned in heaven. Many Renaissance painters worked with this scene, but Tintoretto’s creation is superior in its overwhelming sense of scale.

Look at all the people he’s packed into the clouds! Hundreds of them watch from the distant, ever-rising layers. A nice achievement, to create a huge world filled with triumph, or any other emotion. But for the 21st century, this painting needs to be even bigger…

An infinite universe, more than 13 billion years old… The history of Earth, life emerging from the oceans, continents crashing together and ripping apart, humans evolving to understand the age of the rocks and the scope of the stars…

I’m writing about some of these ideas in my current novel. But I’m still learning how to create a sense of vastness, so I only have paltry descriptions: when describing a starry sky, for example, I might say something about the age of it. Or I might have a character or the narrator mention the lightning brilliance of the human mind. Maybe someday I’ll write a vast epic that traces back to the beginning of the universe and ends with 21st-century man. For now, though, I work with smaller things.

In the Tintoretto painting – Who gets a seat to see the spectacle? Only a few are important enough to be in the foreground, which is rather discouraging. What about individual achievement? It’s rarely noticed in our age of billions, where the scale is at 7 billion people, and rising. Yet that is the world in which we create: colossal, overwhelming, unimaginable, just like this painting. Tintoretto shows us the scope needed – or rather, the scope possible – in a creative work.

How about you? Do you ever think about the vastness of the world? If you’re an artist/writer/musician/philosopher, does it ever figure in your creations?


“Mona Lisa”: Opening New Worlds


"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.