Something about good food, wine, art and the charm of the Italian people here in Tuscany has kept me from writing the last two weeks. For that I am a bit sorry– but admittedly not very much. In the last two weeks, while my husband teaches a summer program in Montepulciano, I have had the opportunity to see more of Rome and Florence and visit beautiful Cinque Terra, Siena and Orvieto. Tomorrow I return home and hope after a couple days of routinization to meet you again more regularly here at this intersection between God and life.
Today I leave you with the imagery from my favorite of the great cathedrals we toured. Signorelli and Fra. Angelico’s well-preserved frescoes in the Duomo at Orvieto– supposedly the inspiration for Michelangelo’s more famous rendition of the same theme– depict with vivid imagination, brilliant artistry and quirky, all-too-human humor, the scenes of “The Last Judgment” of Christ.
The artist Signorelli, clearly still bitter from a break-up with his former mistress, paints her in as a prostitute in the scene of the Anti-Christ, and then later, as one of the poor damned souls being carried off by demons to the fiery pit of Hell. Signorelli’s “Resurrection of the Dead” seems like a precursor to later Surrealism: skeletons emerge from the glutinous earth to take on flesh; in the corner of the picture, the artist leaves another humorous flourish in the way of a newly resurrected human being conversing with six skeletons. (He might be fielding questions about where they get their new bodies.)
One might view the rich imagery left here for millions of the faithful and the curious to admire across the centuries as more evidence of the pre-Reformation church’s obsession with apocalyptic themes of heaven and hell and divine judgment. But I am struck by the narrative imagination at play here, too; on display is a bold willingness to see one’s own life within the broader framework of eternity and the biblical story. To step into the world of these artists requires setting aside our largely materialistic sensibilities and our modern-day captivation with the here and now (often at the expense of the weight of eternity).
Looking up at these brilliant works of art, their crown jewel Fra. Angelico’s sovereign Jesus Christ on his throne of judgment, I could not help but meditate on the depth and breadth of the Christian tradition. To ponder this is to be reminded that the twenty-first century church in America is but one small rivulet in a great stream; and that we impoverish ourselves when we neglect the contributions of this great heritage. “If today we see farther than those who come before us, it is only because we stand on their shoulders,” it has been said. I cannot disagree.