Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A window through which the winds of heaven blow...

A good article from our Ortho friends about why beauty in sacred art is an absolute requirement for the life of faith.

"Despite protestations to the contrary, it is not the icon which is so offensive to Gnostics and iconoclasts, it is the message which the icon represents which cannot be tolerated."

It's not the thing itself that the Soviets were so keen to burn, but the reality it represented. It is why Muslim militants destroy and forbid religious art.

The Sacred Icon - and as a Latin I would expand this to other forms of true sacred art - is an indispensable sign of incarnational religion. In our time, not creating sacred art is a form of idolatry:

"When a religion rejects images of God, it confirms the message that God is only a spirit, and that He has no physical body. Before the Incarnation, that was true. After the Incarnation, it is false, and is therefore, as false worship, idolatry. Idolatry is worshipping false gods, or worshipping the True God while misrepresenting Him."
Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish Temple signified God’s presence, and His people bowed down toward it. Before the Incarnation, it was impossible to make an image of the invisible God, a heavenly reality, without misrepresenting Him. Once, however, God became flesh in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, the invisible God became visible, the immaterial God was suddenly approachable. 

Pic from "Anglicans Ablaze"

Traditional iconography has been described to me as a kind of window onto heaven. The figures of Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints are always idealised, and always presented with exactly the same details to symbolise the absolute unchanging perfection of the life of the blessed in heaven. Heaven itself is symbolised by the colours, particularly the use of gold which never perishes or dulls.

The Icon is not a ‘holy picture’ designed to increase piety. Neither is an icon something spiritual in itself, as it does not depict “God” in general. The icon is a dogmatic expression of a theological truth. It is, therefore, not variable as artists would claim by ‘artistic license’ – a term I, as an artist, have always found to be a cop out for lack of talent or lack of vision.
Just as one cannot translate the Bible any old way one wishes to and still remain true to the text, one cannot paint an icon any old way one wishes to and still remain true to the prototype.


"Come higher up and further in!"

I've long been fascinated by the concept of a door or other opening between this world and another, better more magical, more significant world. It appears too many times to count in mythology and children's stories. I've described my own spiritual efforts with the metaphor of a lifelong search for the Door to Narnia. Many times Narnia uses this image of a magical door - that opens only at the will of Aslan and not yours - that allows you to leave this ordinary, uninteresting and unimportant world behind and go to spend time in the more real, more beautiful and often more perilous world of Narnia. This is a world where the stakes of life are incalculably higher because the Realness there is incalculably more real.

And if you get to go there, the more-realness of that world changes you to become more real yourself. The very air of Narnia has magical properties, bringing out the best, the bravest, strongest and most noble aspects of our characters, allowing you to achieve great feats of sacrifice and self-conquest. Once this air has worked on you for a while you are altered interiorly, making it possible for you to pursue the adventure that Aslan sends, whatever it may be and however difficult. And once you have been there and returned, you will never see this world the same way again - you will have been changed forever. Even if you fail, even if, as sometimes happens, you betray that change and try to forget it, even if you turn your back on it willingly to embrace the old world and the old you as you were before, it will never leave you. You will never be able to un-know what you know.

Lewis described the difference between that world and ours as being like looking at a beautiful scene though a screen door, and then someone opens the screen and all the details are sharper, the colours more vibrant. It is like the difference you see in a garden on a dull overcast day when the sun breaks through, and for a moment all is gleaming, the colours flash and every drop of rain becomes wonderful. Once you know it's there to be sought, you can't stay still, you can't be satisfied with even the beauties of this life. Like trying to be content to stay forever in the Wood Between the Worlds, a pretty enough place but where nothing ever happens and there's no reason for anything.

I suppose the idea of a magic window is similar, one you could put on your wall and look through and remind yourself what is and isn't real... Imagine what a window to heaven would be like. Or, if this is too difficult, imagine a magic window that would allow you to sometimes see through the barriers between the worlds, to catch a glimpse of the Narnian countryside. Maybe if you left that window open in your home, the Narnian wind could sometimes blow through, bringing its scents and magic with it.

You can't get through that window, not yet anyway, but you can at least look, you can gaze through and remember. And you can yearn. I would soon forget about everything else if I had one. Wouldn't you?

C.S. Lewis described the notion of "Joy" as this yearning, this intense longing that one feels all one's life after the merest glimpse of that other, more real place. Once you had seen it, even only for a moment, you would give up everything, every dull and colourless and pointless thing this world offered, to go and spend the rest of your life seeking it.

You could along the way perhaps sometimes lose the feeling of refreshment it gave you, and you could become distracted. But then you would be granted another glimpse, or even a scent that would bring the memory and the longing back as sharp and painful and sweet as before. Or it would come back to you in a dream and you would wake to find everything shiny and lovely in this world returned to its greyed and faded state and you would resume your search, distractions forgotten.

You would wander your whole life, attached to nothing because nothing in it ever came close to what you were seeking. The grandest waterfall, the sweetest fruit, the most delicate flower, would only serve to increase your longing for the more Real things in the more real place. The ripples of fields of summer wheat would only remind you of the wind in the Lion's mane.

We all  know the longing for home, because in a real sense we all leave our home when we are no longer children. That earthly home was the one that we could not have forever. But the yearning to return to it, as impossible as we know it is, is what will compel us forward. There is a home, but it's not here.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

Spring in Umbria

First sunny day in a couple of weeks here. I should have realised it was going to be nice when I heard the wind that has blown away all the clouds.

I've got some deadlines to chase today, but thought I'd share some pics of the garden, and a few ideas I'm working on for the spring. (That is apparently happening right the heck now!)

I've become enamoured of the idea of creating a medieval herb and flower garden in what I can really no longer call The Big Dry Patch. Building beds is rough work though.

Annamaria has pruned her olive grove and there's a small mountain of olive cuttings that aren't doing anything. I've already started wattle fence experiments.

Gathering data for a series of articles - haven't decided where I'm going to flog them - on the concept in medieval mysticism of the "Hortus Conclusus" - the "garden enclosed". It shows up starting in the mid-14th century in the manuscripts, where Mary is often depicted sitting (frequently on a "turf bench") in a lovely garden, surrounded by all manner of flowers and animals, and often accompanied by ladies in waiting like a courtly medieval queen, entertained by minstrels. There's a lot to unpack.

Also gathering garden ideas. I'd like everything to be documentable from primary sources. Fortunately, there's a LOT of stuff uploaded, and the medievals seemed to really love painting their gardens into the manuscripts.

The turf bench shows up again and again in the manuscripts, most often set in front of a trellis with red or red and white roses. Apparently one was supposed to put on one's best clothes and go out in the summer and weave little bonnets with the roses. All very symbolic. I'm working out how to do a turf bench with the materials at hand.

Here's my first trellis, taken a few weeks ago. The side supports are an old wooden ladder that's lost its rungs. The space behind it is just the right size for a melon and squash patch. I'm planning another trellis, made of much sturdier materials, that will be an a-frame for the viney plants to climb. This will create some shade for things that like a bit of shade like lettuces.

New beds, lots of mulch to treat the clay soil and keep the water in when it gets hot; in the background are rows of brassicas in the orto (and Henry, guarding his territory from the farm cats). I got about 25 nice Romanesco broccolis - now all packed away in the freezer for summer - and still have some cauliflower and red cabbage to go. I've planted lots and lots of garlic too, as well as red onions and a few white ones. 

Everything looking a bit grim and grey this time of year, of course, but it's perfect weather for getting out and digging and building. Couldn't do it in the heat. 

Unfortunately, after the very bad drought and unusually hot summer, the loquat tree decided that autumn was spring, and produced all its flowers in November, which were subsequently killed by the frost. A few of the flowers that were a bit sheltered survived and there will be a little fruit. But droughts are bad for so many reasons. 

New beds to protect the beginning grape vines, all planted around with garlics. I'm only about half way done. You can see the big stack of tufa stones in the background along the base of the jasmine hedge. Got plans for all that. In front is my first go at making an obelisk trellis out of bamboo uprights and olive branch twists. It's for sweet peas.

 Here it is in the bed, and the sweet peas are all planted.

That beautiful black soil all comes bucket-by-bucket from Annamaria's family compost heap. It's got to be at least a hundred years old, and covers an area the size of three parking spaces. She's said I can help myself to as much as I like.

Pippy loves to help in the garden.

The apricot in blossom.

My neighbour Franco's almond tree blossoming as it towers above my still-bare fig tree.

Magnificent botanical accuracy in a detail from one tiny corner of the great Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck. You can clearly identify every species. So much research to do.

Monday, February 12, 2018

It's no wonder that Italian politics is the way it is.

Nosing about today into the local history of Umbria in the Spoleto-Perugia area, the big horseshoe valley of the Tiber.

My local village church, San Martino, was rebuilt in 1815, as were most of the parish churches of this area. It's a really lovely building, and of course was built in the same spot as the older church from the 13th century. But I wondered why that particular date and why all the rebuilding around here, since all the churches up and down the country road here were all about the same date and by the same architect.

As it turns out, there's a very sound historical reason. Of course, I live in what was once the Papal States. And that's kind of where the problem begins.

The history of the Church in Italy is not a happy one, and of course has a lot to do with the 1000 year conflict between the Pope and the Emperor, that spilled over into various iterations through the ages, culminating in the catastrophe of the secularist/freemasonic revolt of 1870 and the disastrous farce of unification, an artificial construct that has little actual social reality.

But as Rome and the Papal States flipped back and forth between rule by France, rule by Naples/Sicily, rule by the pope, like an oscillating sprinkler, there were brief moments of peace. One of these was at the end of French rule in this area, the département Trasimène (prefecture of Spoleto) ended in 1814. I expect after Napoleon had finished imposing his weird ideas of religion and the relations between Church and State, there wasn't much in the way of Catholic life left around here, so rebuilding was a way of reviving Catholic culture. Look particularly at the dates 1815: Rome changed hands three times in a single year. Hardly surprising that steps were taken in the provinces to try to establish some kind of ecclesial order.

Later in the 19th century the secularist Italian rulers had another go at the Church, in much the same way and for much the same reason as the English Dissolution: a kind of national possession of odium fidei...

Here is a little blurb about the decree of the governor Gioacchino Pepoli of 1860 in which all the convents and monasteries in this area were stripped of their possessions.

The Italian Suppression in 1866

With regard to the religious suppression decreed by the Italian Government in 1866, there is no specific mention in the Records of the Convent.

It is known from other sources, though, that the first decree of expulsion was issued by the High Commissioner of the Government, Gioacchino Pepoli on November 1th, 1860, after the occupation of the regions of Marche and Umbria. Such decree contained a clause which stated that all mendicant friars could remain in their cloisters of residence, provided that they expressed their intention to do so. They then provided to do such request. The definitive decree arrived nonetheless on July 7th, 1866.

Leafing through the Provincial Records in S. Maria degli Angeli, we have found a historic document sent to the General Ministry by the Provincial B. Stefano from Castelplanio, in 1882: “S. Antonio of Paccian Vecchio”, diocese of Città della Pieve – The Friars were expelled from this Convent as well, on March 24th, 1864”. The Church remained closed, and the building as well as its surroundings were rented to third parties.

Who was this Pepoli guy, and how could he have had the power to just wipe out Catholic religious life with the stroke of a pen?

This was the period of the beginning of the great disaster that Italy is still suffering from today. This comes from the 1935 (Mussolini-period) Italian Encyclopaedia...

Note the little ting of approval...

"Well accepted to Napoleon III, he was among the most valid cooperators with him to make him benevolent to Italian politics, especially to the Piedmontese one. Liberate the Romagne (1859) and appointed governor of them L. Cipriani, the P. assumed the posts of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Finance, of which he was an expert connoisseur. Member of the Romagne assembly, governor of Umbria, when he was occupied (September 1860) by the Italian government, he administered the region with wisdom..."

The blurb comes from the historical notes of a former Franciscan convent that is now a swank agritourismo near Trasimeno (a common fate of many, many monasteries and convents in Italy, and increasingly so...)
The Convent of Sant’Antonio of Padua Pacciano Vecchio, situated in the diocese of Città della Pieve, dates back to 1496. Its construction was authorised on July 16 that year by Pope Alexander VI, addressing the inhabitants of Pacciano Vecchio and Panicale. He affirmed the importance of this authorization based on the need of the presence of priests who would spread God’s Word and celebrate the Holy Misteries. He therefore gave his permission to build the Convent (“which would have the indulgencies and privileges of all other churches”) with a Church -consecrated to Saint Antonio of Padua- a bell tower, the cemetery, a dormitory, a refectory, a cloister, vegetable gardens and the smithery.

There is a Memorial, found in the Parish Archives of Panicale which says: “The Convent of the Fathers of Sant’Antonio of Paccian Vecchio was founded at the expenses of people from Panicale and Pacciano in 1496, in the site of the prisons of the County of Pacciano Vecchio, granted by the Counts Baglioni”.

It's no wonder that Italian politics is the way it is. They've had hundreds of years of this or that foreign or domestic ideological power declaring itself to be the rulers of this country. It's not surprising that the ordinary people have developed their unique Italian form of mental stoicism, a kind of aggressive indifference to politics at the national and international level, and the instinct to simply ignore the larger issues and preserve the family and one's private holdings, to be concerned exclusively with the local area, to protect the local interests.

It is also enlightening to see where the current suppression of the Catholic Faith within the Church's own institutions came from. It was, of course, in part the work of Modernist and Neo-Modernist theologians mainly from northern Europe. But a study could be usefully made of how the anti-clerical and secularist suppressions of the 19th century affected the situation in Italy, France and Germany to generate a kind of episcopal hopelessness, a sort of culture of ecclesiastical despair in response to the apparently unending stream of catastrophes of the modern period in Europe.