‘If you don’t believe in God then you really can’t have the same response to a religious work of art as someone who does believe in God,’ she announced.
It was late summer, and I was sitting in the drawing room of a writers retreat on a sunny afternoon, yellow light pouring in through the long windows, the kind of afternoon that makes you feel mellow and benevolent towards all humankind. Until my companion said that.
We’ll call her Catherine, after one of the saints. She’d like that. She was a woman who reminded me of a high school principal I once had, one much admired by the girls, but rather forbidding if she carpeted you for not wearing your hat and gloves, or for hitching your tunic a few inches too far above the knees. Catherine had come to the retreat to work on a book and I’d been asked to talk with her about it. I was suitably surprised when she announced her aim was to refute the arguments in Richard Dawkins’ recent book The God Delusion, since she possessed no relevant qualifications for such a task, even if such a task had been feasible.
She was, it became clear, an offended Catholic.
Was it true, I thought, that I couldn’t feel the same about Giotto’s frescoes in Padua or Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi if I didn’t share Catherine’s beliefs?
In the way we do, I forgot about her statement for a while and then it suddenly came back to me when I was sorting through my messy book collection one day and came across an old copy of the New Testament. And that book then reminded me of my father’s book of famous paintings that my sister and I had loved as children, and which had contained quite a few works of art with religious subjects.
I tried to remember what I’d thought about God and Jesus and the other characters in the story back then. As a child I was both fascinated and alarmed by my Scripture classes. ‘How could they burn people?’ I asked my father. ‘Didn’t Jesus say we shouldn’t kill each other?’
My father shook his head. ‘I don’t think the church took much notice of what he said.’
Back then we weren’t regular church attendees—except for my sister who sang in the choir. My father hardly went at all (Christmas and Easter) except to oblige my mother, who happened to have a nice collection of hats. Women wore hats to church in those days as well as to the races. In fact, quite often the same women, and the same hats. Although Anglicans were less likely to be found at Randwick. Catholics were the real gamblers, my Aunt Virginia said. They wasted huge amounts of money while their children went hungry, and then went to confession to apologise for it, and get absolution just like when they committed adultery. (I can’t recall when I first heard about adultery, but I discovered there was quite a lot of it in the Bible.)
Absolution was also an interesting word. My father had explained that Catholics got a lot more fun out of sin than Protestants because of confession. You could basically do whatever you liked and God would forgive you. Anglicans clearly thought their God was a less forgiving character and rather straitlaced, a bit of a teetotaller too. Catholics were dreadful drunkards as well as gamblers; Anglicans had the occasional tipple, my sister informed me—she was a few years older, and knew about these things—mostly from the sherry bottle, she said, or maybe a bit of port. But Methodists and Church of Christ-goers and Baptists thought drink was the ruin of families and would bring about the eventual downfall of Western civilisation, unless communism did it first.
‘They’re puritanical,’ my sister said, ‘but you mustn’t say that when Aunt Virginia is around.’
I rather liked my Aunt Virginia but my father always looked a little gloomy when an invitation arrived to one of her many children’s weddings, even though he looked forward to going back home, as my parents called it, to the north coast of New South Wales where they had grown up and to which they still felt deeply attached. We all were, in a funny kind of way. Even my sister and I called the old farmhouse ‘home’. It was bliss for kids—paddocks down to the river, mountains at the back of you, orchard, horses to ride—and all that lovely fresh farm food. If my father believed in a god it was this place.
But Aunt Virginia’s weddings were always dry, you see. Ginger-beer-and-lemonade affairs, and tea with cream cakes and scones after the sandwiches and the cold turkey and ham. For a while I didn’t understand the sly grins shared among the women when my father and his brothers disappeared about halfway through the afternoon and returned a short time later, distinctly elevated in mood and full of jokes.
I consulted my sister, the oracle. ‘They’ve been at the pub, that’s where,’ she whispered. ‘But we’re not supposed to know.’
My conversation with Catherine came and went in my thoughts, and for a while I lost contact with it until late in 2008 when I spent a couple of months in Italy and France and found myself visiting every church and cathedral and museum that I could fit into my schedule, especially of the Romanesque and Gothic varieties. And at one point in this journey I had something of a revelation, although not of the orthodox religious kind, and not one that Catherine would have approved of.
It happened in Autun, an old Roman town in Burgundy, where I discovered the sculptures of the medieval artist Gislebertus in the Cathedral of Saint Lazarus. The revelation concerned the importance of religion as culture rather than belief. One can be totally seduced by medieval sculpture and painting, the beauty of Romanesque and Gothic, and the advent of the sumptuous style of the Renaissance, without being in any orthodox way religious. Just as we can appreciate the sculpture of ancient Greece and the architecture of ancient Persia without any religious attachment to the mythologies that gave rise to them, so the great works of medieval and Renaissance Europe, in particular, have their appeal in a pervasive sense of humanity. Like literature, art connects us to each other in a psychological and emotional way. One might make no distinction between Botticelli’s Venus and his Madonna except in terms of the aesthetic qualities. You might like one more than the other, for particular reasons of your own artistic sensibility.
My pre-school artistic sensibility experienced a bit of a shock when I first saw Botticelli’s Venus in my father’s book of famous paintings. If the Catholics were given to drunkenness and gambling, the Protestants were given to a kind of prudery about the body, especially when it appeared without the kind of apparel my Aunt Virginia believed every decent man and woman should be wearing. I wondered what she’d think if she saw Venus coming out of her oyster—was it an oyster?—shell? Or a large clam, perhaps.
The first time I saw Botticelli’s work in a gallery there were at least five or six rows of Italian school children in front of me. The end of winter, and still snowing a little on the hills. It was in the Pitti Palace, and I was prepared to be patient. That was the first time I’d been in Italy. Later I sought out modern art and avoided the religious, which at that time simply reinforced for me everything that history showed us was authoritarian, sexist, racist and contradictory about religion.
But on my latest journey I fell in love with cathedrals and churches everywhere I went in Italy. The cathedral at Orvieto, high above the Umbrian vineyards, is a delightful building, a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, and one of those rare churches—St Basil’s in Moscow leaps to mind—that makes you smile. Its colourful facade, fine-pointed towers and pleated arches reminded me of a children’s picture book, the kind that might contain wonderful pull-outs of gold and silver and blue. Adding to the sense of light-heartedness it creates, the local schoolchildren played soccer on the grass outside, a nice conjunction of the monumental and the small rituals of everyday life.
We reached Autun in autumn—hawks hovering, and cranes in muddy streams, ducks above the forests, the occasional horse, and fields of spent corn and hedges of blackberry and yellowing plane trees. The villages with their irresistible charcuteries selling tubs of pâté de campagne; boulangeries with bread that nobody but the French can make. And the vines, turning orange and red now the harvest had come and gone; the treasure of Burgundy.
Those who have been to this part of France will know that it abounds with fine Romanesque and Gothic architecture at places such as Fontenay, Vézelay and Cluny. But it was the Cathedral of St Lazarus that brought me face to face with Catherine’s pronouncement. The figures Gislebertus had carved on the capitals in the nave of the church back in the twelfth century connected me to the book of paintings that had provided my first relationship with European art.
I can’t remember how old I was when I first discovered this book of my father’s but it seems always to have been there in my early childhood. It was not a spectacular book as art books go; it had lost its dust jacket and was red, plain and rectangular and was simply called Famous Paintings. My sister has it on her bookshelf, so if I need the details I know where to find it.
I would lie on the floor in our lounge room with its flowery carpet and start right at the beginning. My parents might be reading or listening to music, or writing letters ‘home’. My sister might be in her bedroom listening to some other music entirely. She might be polishing her fingernails. Or translating bits of Horace or Virgil for her Latin class next day.
The book began with Giotto. The colours were always surprising: they were much friendlier and lighter than most of the medieval painting that followed, there were pinks and blues and mint greens and even apricots. And I hadn’t thought about it for years until I was standing in the cathedral and it returned to me in its red cover.
Could I be a painter when I grow up? I had asked my father. Of course, he’d replied. Though it helps if you have talent.
I have spent a great deal of my life wandering art galleries, hopelessly in love with paint, bronze and marble and occasionally with more unconventional materials, a result of that early love affair with Giotto and then those who followed with their astonishing rich reds and deep burnished browns and the apparently impossible magic of the light—Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and all the way to here and now and Emily Kngwarreye’s gorgeous pink painting in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
You can walk past dozens of Renaissance pictures in the Uffizi, for example, and be aware of their fine execution, but one painting will leap out and grab you. Why? It will be to do with our personal preferences for shape and colour and design that we probably aren’t even aware of; it will be to do with the emotional force of the picture for us.
And I thought about Catherine then, and her ideological approach, and how it stifled spontaneity, because painting is all about the senses—it is about colour and rhythm and sensuality. The best medieval painters are those who capture a sense of life and vitality. The worst are those stuck in the stylised inert reproductions of the old Byzantine style. The painters who continued in that style—the most talented of them—turned it into something different, like the icon painters in Russia—Andrei Roublev’s icons are wonderfully vivid and escape from their stylised structures because of his mastery.
(Aunt Virginia said that Catholics are so full of contradictions they could say one thing and do another thing entirely. Look at all those women they painted who seem to find it impossible to keep their clothes from falling off them!)
As I came to know the paintings in my father’s book, I wondered why all the painters, except for a woman with a name I rather liked—Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun—had been men. He struggled to give me an acceptable history lesson and tried to put a good face on it. Women were doing other important things, he said.
Catherine hardly responded to my polite enquiry about the role of women in the church. She raised her hand and shrugged, as if to say it was not an issue. On cathedrals, however, she was prepared to give opinions. As well as not having an experience like hers architecturally I would also fail to respond to the music in the same way. Bach, for instance.
Was humility, I thought, not one of the Christian virtues? I couldn’t help pointing out that Bach was a Protestant.
But he believed in God, she replied.
He certainly believed in the income the church gave him to support his rather extravagant number of children.
There are few cathedrals lovelier than St Madeleine at Vézelay. It is endowed with a particular beauty of lightness and grace; its sunny nature is enchanting. A very feminine church, as if the architect and the craftsmen wanted to capture the character of Madeleine herself. There is a luminous quality about its interior quite different from other great cathedrals of the time. Vézelay was designed to let in as much natural light as possible, and its restoration by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc in the nineteenth century maintained this original feature. Its striped-stone arches
in the nave and the absence of stained glass and ornamentation contribute to the sense of naturalness, its relationship with the sky and landscape outside. (Fontenay, though less graceful, is also alluring in its spareness, the economy of both exterior and interior, and the seductive, faintly pink stone of its cloisters; and St Philibert in Tournus has a wonderful Romanesque exterior. But you could take a book or drawing utensils and spend a few hours in St Madeleine while you munched your baguette and drank your burgundy, absorbing the cathedral’s beauty.)
Richard Dawkins’ book, which was everywhere being read and reviewed and provoking discussion, had upset Catherine. Particularly because it had singled out Catholicism for its sexism, misogyny, brutality and its psychological manipulation of children from an early age. Dawkins is puzzled by how an intelligent person could believe in a supernatural entity. He struggles to understand the psychological need in many people to believe. Religion does make sense as an emotional response to human existential loneliness—though it’s unfortunate that it becomes a vehicle of political power and indoctrination and social control. Dawkins does not grasp that emotional pull felt by many human beings towards something that is more powerful than a mere human. It’s why children love magical stories and it’s why teenagers love superheroes—the idea that we have special powers, and can undo some things and make others happen. I suspect he hopped over the superhero/godlike phase and went straight to science, and realism.
Why was I so interested in what Catherine had said? Was it just because her superior attitude annoyed me? Or was it because it’s impossible to quantify a person’s appreciation for a work of art. It depends on so many delicate and invisible and uncertain variables. And it isn’t a matter of knowledge of painting, either: you can know everything about the history and methods of Western painting, but someone may come along who has never had a lecture in her life or never read Vasari and couldn’t define chiaroscuro but might have a life-changing moment in that viewing. Like religion, art is about the indefinable emotional response; the woman—or man— may have a whole set of memories touched off by the fold of a robe or the way the light catches a fine piece of porcelain in the corner of a room. It’s the suggestiveness of art that is powerful and unpindownable, like poetry.
I had never heard about the capitals in the nave at Autun made by Gislebertus. I wished they weren’t quite so far above me. I wanted a ladder so I could get as close as possible to the figures carved in fine relief on the capitals. There were sculptures of various biblical stories but it was the carving of Flight into Egypt that I found so surprising. The reason for that was simply how amazingly present and natural and endearing the figures are. They are extraordinary in their ordinariness and in their freshness. Centuries drop away when you look at them. Almost ten centuries, in fact. There is nothing reverential about Joseph and Mary, Jesus and the donkey. They were probably modelled on members of Gislebertus’s family. They might have been his next-door neighbours. If you had no knowledge of the biblical reference it wouldn’t matter. They are endearing figures: Joseph has his eyes fixed on the road, attentive, holding the donkey’s rope in one hand; Mary is looking rather wistfully at some object above the head of her baby, whom she holds close to her on the donkey’s side; she is thoughtful, a bit philosophical, questioning, even; Jesus is a sweet-faced toddler whose hand rests on his mother’s for security. But it is the donkey that is a revelation with its expression of such benign dutifulness; he is just as much a personality in the carving as the human figures. I wondered if he was the donkey that drew the artist on his cart to work at the cathedral each day; only a man who loved and cared for animals could have made such a creature.
That’s the feeling of the whole of this little piece: it is suffused with ordinary humanity and affection; these people might be any family going on a journey. Who they are, in one sense, doesn’t matter, yet because one does know who they are it’s all the more remarkable to find such a lack of religious pomposity and self-importance. There is nothing remotely divine or other-worldly here. These figures are the embodiment of what it is to be human: they are vulnerable, searching, hopeful.
The single figure of a naked and sensual Eve, which once sat above the original north portal, is even less reverential; it is regarded by many art historians as the most erotic of all Romanesque works of art. How Gislebertus got away with creating a figure of such deliberate sensuality is unknown, but it is certainly a piece of sculpture that provokes in the spectator the very feelings the church seeks to condemn.
Similarly, when you look at the madonnas in the Uffizi, the ones that reach out and draw you in are real women who might, conceivably, live next door: they have life, vividness, energy. The models themselves are usually the wives or mistresses of the painter. The religious aspect is irrelevant in the best of these painters—Raphael, Botticelli, Lippi. These are secular works of art presented as ‘religious’ work because, in many cases, the church commissioned them. The best Italian painting comes directly from that secular life of the sensual and the human rather than any notion of divinity.
Kant believed, in relation to art, that there was a measure for beauty; something that might be beautiful to one person was not sufficient. Something could only be beautiful if everyone agreed it was: that is, if they agreed to adopt Kant’s particular theory of beauty. We have left that notion far behind, along with Romanticism and any idea that education, status and wealth confer any superiority of judgement. In the nineteenth century it was believed Art would have an improving effect on the masses, and give them a dose of culture. I was amused when Peter Garrett told the press that the exhibition from the Musée d’Orsay headed for the National Gallery of Australia would give ‘Aussies…the biggest dose of culture ever imaginable’. Well, thanks, Peter. Just like medicine, is it? Shall we, as Kant believed, be morally elevated by this ‘dose of culture’? Or shall we simply enjoy it for its aesthetic pleasures? Will Catherine enjoy any possible religious works more than the rest of us?
We could measure the responses of people in the Uffizi as they stand in front of some of those paintings of Mary. First, despite the fact that they carry titles such as The Virgin and Baby Jesus or The Annunciation they are simply paintings of beautiful young women holding a baby that is, I must say, less likely to be as beautiful as his mother, and often very unlike a real baby at all, although one startling exception is Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola: it is a gorgeous painting and the child—a toddler rather than a baby—is as adorable as his mother. Lippi’s Madonna is exquisitely beautiful but the baby less so. (I can’t help feeling that many of these painters never saw a real baby, or if they did they didn’t take too much notice of what it really looked like. Did they never look carefully at their own children?)
Aunt Virginia may have observed that the baby was not nearly so interesting to paint as his mother, especially if she was possessed of that condition which caused her clothes to be constantly slipping off.
I wonder what Catherine would think about that? Not what I might once have imagined. After all this time of conducting a silent conversation in my head about this subject with the saintly Catherine, I’ve just learned she’s left her husband and run off with a woman. They’re going to raise goats and write poetry and make art together. They might even paint a naked virgin or two.