Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Paradoxical Portraits

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Paradoxical Portraits

Article excerpt

Paradoxical Portraits Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints BY ROBERT KIELY YALE, 288 PAGES, $40

What I discovered," writes Robert Kiely in this sumptuously illustrated book on Italian Renaissance paintings of the saints, "were images often infused with tenderness, exquisite sentiment, erotic vigor, but also ambiguity, irony, even humor, and not necessarily less inspirational because of this." His analyses emphasize the mystery of Christ's incarnation and the often paradoxical ways in which the saints recapitulate that image.

Mary, for example, is, like Jesus, "often spoken of in terms of paradox: humble/regal; weak/strong; maiden/ mother." Kiely, a professor of English at Harvard, notes that in the vivid, tactile art of Caravaggio, Mary is portrayed as both womanly and holy, as "a flesh-and-blood Mary with a gusto and pleasure that do not preclude reverence." The artist's Madonna dei Palafrenieri shows her as "a figure of enormous dignity and beauty. In leaning slightly to support her son, she reveals the full breasts of her womanhood. Her sexuality and sustaining presence seem, for a precarious split second, in perfect balance."

Throughout the Italian Renaissance, Mary's beauty is always emphasized, whatever the experience. Her beauty is portrayed as a threeyear-old child, ascending the Temple stairs at her presentation at the Temple (described by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend), but also when she is the Mater Dolorosa beneath her crucified Son, descending into the arms of her grieving comforters, and revealing "the compelling (potentially healing) nature of empathy."

St. John the Baptist's paradox emerges in his contrasting portrayals, be it as Donatello's gaunt ascetic or Titian's physically vigorous man of the desert. Temporally, he stands as the last of the Old Testament prophets, prefiguring Christ yet misapprehended by some as the Messiah, and deferred to by Christ himself when he receives baptism. In paintings by Leonardo and Caravaggio, "It seems to be John's lot to be double but not duplicitous; not quite this, not quite that; some of both - Jew and Christian, rival and friend, Elijah and Bacchus, Isaiah and Narcissus, diva and doorman."

Such tensions emerge even more starkly in St. Mary Magdalene. Although there is no scriptural evidence of her sexual sin, Donatello sculpts a penitent "wraith withering away from fasting," chastely draped by rags, and Titian paints a nubile nude with flowing hair. In Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli's version of the Resurrection scene in the Convent of San Marco, "the elegant postures and pleasant exchange of looks suggests a minuet in which each partner knows his or her role. This is not a shocking, disturbing scene in which Mary overreacts but a quiet beginning of a heavenly dance." In contrast, Titian's version is markedly erotic, but, for theological as well as artistic reasons, reflecting the belief that the risen Christ "revealed his full humanity to individuals according to their needs and abilities to 'see': to Thomas through touching his wounds, to Peter and John through feeding them breakfast, to Mary Magdalene through exposing enough (not all) of his male flesh."

St. Augustine provides an especially complex instance of incarnational tensions. In his Confessions, he describes how he came to renounce the Gnostic dualism of the Manichees. He recognized the limits of Platonic thought in which he found the Logos but never the Logos made flesh, yet he consistently privileges spirit over flesh, even as he poetically, sensually renders the distracting plenitude of creation. …

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