Features

Different strokes

"Different strokes" Continued...

Issue: "Tiananmen massacre," June 6, 2009

The view that life in the world has significance is clear in Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel's "The Harvesters" (1565), a vast panorama of people-some industrious, some lazy-going about their everyday activities, with God's bounty to be enjoyed, and a church as one part of the landscape but not the center. Bruegel produced earthy, unsentimental, but benevolent depictions of peasants rather than lords, and his landscapes showed that the earth had value and beauty not merely as a backdrop for depictions of sainthood and warfare.

Zeller wanted to show one more artist before we concluded. He explained that painters in parts of Europe wherever the Catholic Church retained control tended to stay conceptual rather than perceptual. They tried to reconcile the classics with Christian scholasticism by painting saints in terms of Platonic ideals of beauty and perfection. Zeller criticized that tendency: "If you don't paint 'warts and all,' you have to wonder how Christian it is."

And then came Caravaggio (his birth name: Michelangelo Merisi). Zeller sees him as "revolutionary in two major respects: his dynamic use of light and shadow in creating a ­composition, and his use of 'commoners' in depicting the saints instead of using idealized portraits that were classical or aristocratic in nature." Some Catholic church leaders disliked Caravaggio's gritty realism, but they admired his drama and his use of light and darkness. Caravaggio received commissions but also garnered lots of rejections.

"The Denial of St. Peter," which Caravaggio painted using oil in 1610, reversed the idealization by which good guys were always handsome and bad girls ugly. "Peter looks like a bum on Skid Row" Zeller said: Meanwhile, his "accuser is beautiful, with a face usually reserved for the Virgin Mary, but her motives are evil. She wants to get Peter arrested." Caravaggio was showing the real world, one in which books cannot be judged by their covers. When Mel Gibson planned The Passion of the Christ, he asked his cinematographer to make the movie look like the paintings of Caravaggio.

All of these artists-Sassetta, van der Goes, Cranach, Bronzino, Bruegel, Caravaggio-educated broad publics in how to look at man and God. Visual artists today play much less a role in educating the public, Zeller noted, "and mainly by choice. Artists now mainly seek not to be understood by the public at all. [They] want to carry on a rather exclusive conversation with their fellow artists" and others who share the same language and ideas.

Zeller has received foundation grants, exhibited in galleries around the United States, and founded a classical art school, so he could do well in exclusive company, but he's not happy with the state of art or the response of some fellow artists: "What saddens me is that many artists who are Christian maintain and participate in that culture of exclusivity. I don't think such a worldview is reflective of a Christian calling.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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