A Writer's Views on the Arts, Literature, Culture, Life, and Humanity

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Renaissance: Reject or Respect?

Sandro Botticelli from his painting
Adoration of the Magi
I have enjoyed teaching my Humanities class immensely. Being able to teach not only my own specializations in theatre, film, literature, and playwriting, but also the visual arts, music, etc., it's just delightful.

In the visual arts section of the class, I focused on Van Gogh, the Impressionists, and the Renaissance. To be able to dig deeper into art history has been fascinating. I've flirted with the visual arts a good deal of my life, but other focuses took priority, so it's felt like I get a second chance to really explore an alternate reality I could have been a part of. With the research I have been doing to teach the class, I feel like I am learning as much as I am teaching, which is always a thrilling place to be as an artist and an educator.

No matter how thrilled I have been learning more about art history, however, I have come to learn that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. In the essay section of the test I administered to my students yesterday, one of them articulately explained how she had "lost all respect" for the Renaissance after learning more about it. Her essay was actually very well argued, with persuasive language, logic, and history to back her up. She criticized the Renaissance for being "godless" (ironically, since most of the world's greatest religious art comes from this period), chipping away at society's morals, and indulging in pagan fancies. She took particular issue with artists like Sandro Botticelli and Donatello, as well as the Medici clan, the most powerful patrons of the Renaissance. Part of this criticism, in part, came from her reaction to a section of a documentary we watched in class about the Medicis from the Empires series produced by PBS (which I highly recommend).

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli
Now although I strongly disagree with my student's conclusions about the Renaissance and its worth to human history, I was actually quite admiring of her essay, as it took a strong point of view and backed it up with passion, intelligence, and conviction. We all need people in our lives who will challenge our assumptions and show an opposing point of view. Also, frankly, there is a great deal in the Renaissance that doesn't live up to its ideal of "rebirth," but rather (like any point in history) reveals more than its fair share of the unpleasant underbelly of human nature. This was particularly true with the rise and fall of the Medici family, who had their own fair share of triumphal figures (Cosimo d'Medici, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" d'Medici, etc.) who, through their patronage and power helped push through some of the greatest progress in the arts, architecture, and science in human history; but who also had figures of tyranny and despotism (Pope Leo X, etc.) mar the family's reputation.

Looking specifically at Sandro Botticelli, it's easy to see why strongly religious students like this young woman who wrote the essay may have conflicted feeling about the Renaissance. Although Botticelli did religious paintings, some considered him insincere. If you take in account paintings like Adoration of the Magi,  in which Botticelli paints the Magi coming to adore the infant Jesus and his holy family, then its tempting to see it as pure religious fervor. However, when you know that the multitude of people surrounding Jesus (and who are in the forefront of the painting) are the Medici clan and all their most prominent friends (including Botticelli, who paints himself as part of the Medici's inner circle), then the painting seems less like devotion, and more like sucking up to a powerful patron.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
Also, if you are the strongly Christian sort, when you consider that Botticelli seemed more interested in painting Greek and Roman mythology, and pagan celebrations of Spring like Primavera, The Birth of Venus, or Mars and Venus, rather than the more prominent and pious Christian scenes of the day, then, yeah, an artist like Botticelli doesn't come out smelling so rosy. And let's not forget one of the major scandals of the Renaissance painters--nude figures! Botticelli's commentary about the desire of those who wanted to keep his figures covered seems pretty clear in The Birth of Venus.   

Now, like my student, I am a religious person. However, religious people incorporate different elements of their faith in different ways, and I feel no obligation to take the hard stance my student did. It's true that the Renaissance artists, patrons, and thinkers were pushing the envelope for their day, and scandalized many of their more conservative contemporaries. However, it's telling that even a religious figure like Pope Julius II staunchly supported Michelangelo's use of nude figures in the Sistine Chapel, celebrating God's creation, not being ashamed of it. For many years Christian society had rejected the works of the "pagan" Greeks and Romans, with art and architecture suffering greatly during the Christian Middle Ages because of the knowledge that was rejected. It was because he sought out the architectural knowledge of "pagan" antiquity that Filippo Brunelleschi was able to build the largest, free standing dome in the Christian world, crowning the glory of the Florence Cathedral. 

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo
The inclusion of the intellectual bravery of the pagans created some of the greatest works of Christian art and architecture in the world. God is no respecter of persons when it comes to achievement, spurring wisdom and knowledge in all cultures, religions, and people. I see God's finger touching these great Renaissance figures, just as surely as Michelangelo represents God touching Adam's finger.  However, I do have some empathy for my student's position. As a teenager, my view of things was probably not too far different than hers. When I was a writer for the school newspaper, our journalism teacher asked who was willing to defend Brigham Young University's decision to censor Rodin's The Kiss (by the way, NOT a Renaissance painting) from the traveling Rodin exhibit that was being held at their Museum of Art. The article would be for our Point/Counterpoint column where two writers took opposing views every month. I looked around, seeing that no one was willing to take that position, so I tentatively raised my hand. It was an unpopular stance to take, even in Utah. My mother is a very talented amateur artist and she had always expressed her belief against the excessive use of nude art, so I had tentatively inherited some of that belief at the time. Although my article argued more for the right of BYU to present or not present whatever pieces they wanted, rather than an argument against nude art itself, I was surprised at the resistance and persecution I received from my fellow students. I was aggressively challenged and mocked. The culminating trauma of the experience was when I was reading some homework out in the hall, and I heard some of my fellow students doing the paper's layout in the journalism lab. They made fun of me in some pretty vicious ways, unaware that I could hear them. I was devastated and burst into tears. Fortunately, one of those mocking me, the one who had written the counterpoint article, apologized to me years later with a very sincere and beautiful letter. Yet it was a tender point for me for years. As a result, although I don't hold the position on the issue I once did, I don't ever want to treat anyone cruelly for their beliefs, as I had once been treated. The best compliment I received on any of my journalistic writing in high school was when I was sitting on the bus that was taking us to the see State football game and the chaperone came up to me and said something to the effect, "I read your article. Although I didn't agree with it, it was one of the best pieces of student writing I have ever read."  I would like to pay my student a similar compliment. Although I didn't agree with the essay, it was eloquently argued, and was an excellent challenge to my thinking.   But I also feel like we need to be careful not to push too hard to other extreme, either. There was a Dominican monk, Friar Giro Savonarola, who was preaching hard damnation against Renaissance thinkers and artists, believing they were on the slippery slope to hell. This led to the infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities" where books, artwork, makeup and many of the other supposedly damning materials were thrown into a great fire, to show the that "sinners" rejected these vain and terrible items. Ironically, Botticelli, who my student so criticized, was one of the people so caught up in the rhetoric, and shamed into participating in the event. Making a reversal on the view of his own art, Botticelli threw some of his own paintings into the fire. I shudder to think of what great pieces of art we lost that day.  


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