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Yesterday I went again to the wonderful Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, long the largest cathedral in the world, and still number three, after St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. When it was built, all of an admittedly smaller Florence could gather within its walls. This time I went inside, and a guide, a young woman from New York, took us on a quick tour of the first floor.
Most everything about the cathedral is impressive, and it will long rank as one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, especially on the exterior. A multi-colored façade of marble that on a smaller structure would look busy gives an impression of soaring sacredness I have never experienced before in the human world. I haven’t figured out how to put photos in this blog yet, but go here and here and here for a sense of the place. No photo can do its justice.
During the tour I was fascinated by the how our guide described the merging of religion with the crassest of politics. To give but one example, in the interior portrait of Dante (himself once exiled from the city) a depiction of Hell lies behind him. Brutus is one of the sinners condemned to be in Lucifer’s mouth for eternity. Had Machiavelli written instead of Dante, Caesar would most likely have taken Brutus’s place. Machiavelli supported the Florentine Republic and regarded the likes of Julius Caesar as destroyers of Roman liberty.
I pondered the relationship between great works of art, depictions addressing sacred events, local politics, spite, and the ecclesiastical corruption that financed so much of the Renaissance – though the Duomo was in fact initially financed by the Florentines themselves. It seems to me our desire for contact with the sacred, and to honor it, can bring out much of the best in human art despite mixed motives. Thus a Pagan like myself can be blown away by the magnificence of these buildings and the art within them, while deploring much that enabled their construction.
At the same time, our guide spoke of the artistic rivalries behind the building, the squabbles that seemed big at the time but from a vantage of hundreds of years, appear more humorous and foolish than worth taking seriously. It was easy to laugh, until I reminded myself that for these people it had been no laughing matter. I still laughed, but more quietly, and for different reasons of how small much that intensely irritates us becomes when viewed from a larger context. I wondered how much that applied to me.
It seems to me that from human imperfections, imbalances, and lack of harmony can come great beauty. No person is perfect by a long shot, but the best of us transform the irritants and shortcomings of our lives into enduring beauty, not necessarily by creating wonders like the Duomo, only a few of us manage that. But perhaps instead by indelibly improving the well being of another, or in service to our community. Our motives will likely never be perfect, but the results when done with an on balance appropriate attitude can be an inspiration for us all.
We are like oysters, the best of us, and turn the problems of our lives into pearls.