Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Italian Baroque (pt. 6)

I feel as though I have already provided sufficient depth of inquiry (at least for the time being) on the subject of paganism as an artistic element in Westernized or Christian art, literature, and especially poetry.  C. S. Lewis has written most extensively on the topic of Myth's power to encompass both the "sacred and profane," the divine and base, the Christian and pagan.  However, much of this writing was done in my other, literary blog, and so I shall allude quickly to it again here now with this next artist, Titian.  Let us observe the Bacchanal.
Remember Titian?  He was the artist who painted The Concert and the Venus of Urbino.  He alludes often to Greco-Roman ideals in his paintings, but that does not make them pagan, as is the case here with the Bacchanal of the Andrians.
A bacchanal denotes a raucous party held by Bacchus, who was the pagan god of wine in Ancient Greek mythology.  As tradition follows, these pagan celebrations were of the wildest nature in perhaps all literary history, almost always including drunken orgies and other rowdy "romps," as C. S. Lewis famously termed them in his Chronicles of Narnia.  In his time the professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, Lewis saw prevalently in his studies of Malory, Chaucer, and other subjects of Medieval study the infusion of pagan aspects into Christian stories.  Perhaps most notably this begins with Beowulf and continues on to this day with books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Lewis believed that paganism and Christianity were in a way connected.  How else does one explain the prevalence of pagan elements in otherwise predominantly Christian texts and paintings during this time?  Western literature has often borrowed from the pagan as a sort of foundational, ancestral root-point from which could stem the holier, more definitive doctrines of Christendom.  Lewis suggested that the idea of Bacchus, the god of wine, was "the first, faint whisper" of something that Christianity later became literally.  Bacchus represents wine in a mythical sense where Christ turned water into wine in a literal sense.  The connections spring from this line of thought.  With this view in mind, we ought not be surprised to see paintings like Titian's Bacchanal here appearing during the Counter Reformation (the Catholics' response to the Protestant Reformation).
Though this painting features lewd images not literally promoted by the Catholic Church, this was nonetheless a painting to convey Catholic messages.  The allusion being made here is to something larger than the church itself.  It harkens back to the archetypal celebration held in tradition from the earliest ancestors of Ancient Greece.  The same idea is being communicated, just in different rites, through the passage of time.  No longer do people strip nude and get drunk on wine to party, but the partying still occurs, to put it simply.  Joy is felt through different means, but joy still exists, timeless joy that transcends contemporary custom.  Titian's painting is one of joy and celebration, hinting at the vivacious splendor and gaiety (…ha) of the Catholic Church at this time as well as the happy welcome home party awaiting any Catholic converts (recall Murillo's Return of the Prodigal Son).  Here we see some very strange things going on, but the core idea behind it is one that is still familiar to us today as it was during the 16th century.  It is the timelessness of the Greek myth, the Greek culture, often held as utopian, which resonates most powerfully, being most ancient.  Being expressed in this painting is the fundamental concept of joy, joy which is implied to be available on a divine level for those who would join the Holy Roman Empire.
It's often a difficult connection to make.  One almost cannot imagine a painting like this one or Botticelli's Birth of Venus being put on display in such a celibate and legalistic place as the Vatican.  The reason is that the actual, physical practices of the paintings are not being regarded (i.e., the nudity, drunkenness, and…you know…whatever else is going on here…); rather, the age-old ideas being expressed by those practices is the core of these works of art.  C. S. Lewis did the same thing in The Chronicles of Narnia when he added such scenes of "romping" and partying, often including literal references to the Greek and Roman gods.  He is not suggesting we all participate in specifically pagan rituals.  It is to say that Christians experience joy as well—that joy is not a monopolized experience to be held by one people, but that someone else can come along, take that concept, and make it his own.  Lewis made the pagan bacchanal celebration almost Christian by placing it under the very Messianic character of Aslan.  The ancient myths of parties were fulfilled in Aslan, and the reference to the classical myths merely work to show the historical totality of the concept.  Here, too, joy is tacked under the name of the pope in the Vatican to assert the joys of embracing Catholicism.
If this doesn't make sense, don't worry; we will get more into it later on.  As we will see, there is some trend for whatever reason for art through the ages to consistently revert back to Greco-Roman ideals, as if to idolize that time period and that historical culture.  Greek myths, Roman architecture, etc. will appear again and again nearly as often as Keira Knightley appears in movies these days (seriously, she's in all of 'em).

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