Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thoughts on a Thoughtful Book, and Other Things

Last week I started a new book: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.  My mom has been trying to get me to read it for ages, telling me I would never understand Italy until I did.  I think I kept waiting for a trip to Italy so that I could legitimately read the book in preparation...

Even without the Italian voyage, though, I did fall in love with the book.  I learned so much about the life of Michelangelo, about the Renaissance, about Italy, about the famous Medici family, about Popes.  It also got my brain turning a lot more than many books have recently, and I love that feeling!  For example, I got hooked on Michelangelo's theology of man.  Michelangelo was one of the first and most influential figures of the Italian renaissance, a movement which broke free from the Medieval theology that man was base and vile, and that human life was a mere shadow of existence always waiting for salvation in the next life.  Michelangelo was influenced by wise priests and philosophers who believed that man was noble, with a free, vigorous and creative mind – “one of God’s most magnificent” creations (195).  One Benedictine Father told him, “We insist that our students remain free to think, inquire, doubt.  We do not fear that Catholicism will suffer from our liberality; our religion is strengthened as the minds of our students grow more mature” (194).  Basing his biography on hundreds of Michelangelo’s letters, Stone writes that as Michelangelo envisioned his impressive David, he wanted to project man as “a glorious creation capable of beauty, strength, courage, wisdom, faith in his own kind, with a brain and will and inner power to fashion a world filled with the fruit of man’s creative intellect” (389).  I love that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Michelangelo's impression of man and his capacities is correct, especially when we seek to empower our minds and creativity through the power of the Holy Ghost.  

I think this world in which we live is so magnificent!  I am inspired by the words of the Doctrine and Covenants:

“The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.  Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power” (88:45, 47).   

They remind me of a favorite quote by a guy named Carl Sagan, who was an American astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist and author.  He said:

In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe.  How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought!  The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said—grander, more subtle, more elegant.  God must be even greater than we dreamed’?  Instead they say, ‘No, no no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’  A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths” (Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 50).    

Sigh.  Love that!

Another favorite part of The Agony and the Ecstasy regarded Michelangelo's commission to build the tomb for the still-living Pope Julius II.  Julius asked Michelangelo to stop work on the tomb to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Though Michelangelo's most famous work now, Michelangelo had only been a sculptor up to that point and had no desire to paint.  As a free-minded artist, he had little problem arguing openly with the Pope, and Stone depicts the conversation going somewhat as follows:

“Let me carve the Moses, Victors, Captives.  Many would come to see the statues, offering thanks to Your Holiness for making them possible. 
“In short, snapped Julius, "I need your sculptures to assure my place in history. 
“They could help, Holy Father.  There was an audible gasp from those around the throne.  The Pope turned to his cardinals and courtiers. 
“Do you hear that, gentlemen?  I, Julius II, who recovered the long-lost Papal States for the Church and brought stability to Italy, who have cleansed out the scandals of the Borgias, published a constitution abolishing simony and elevated the decorum of the Sacred College, achieved a modern architecture for Rome ... I need Michelangelo Buonarroti to establish my historical position (500).  

The delightful thing about the Pope's protest was how prophetic it turned out to be!  Other than scholars of Italian or Catholic history, who has ever heard of Pope Julius II?  If anyone has, it is because Michelangelo designed his tomb, on top of which sits his famous horned Moses!  And that long list of achievements Julius rattles off to his court? Gone.  Completely irrelevant and forgotten in the annuls of history.  After reading this passage, I allowed my glee for Michelangelo to run its course, then started pondering on the relative obscurity of man.  One thing that I learn every time I read a new biography is that civilization has always meant societal strife of one kind or another.  Over the last few years, I have become increasingly concerned about the polarization between parties and the vicious nature of partisan politics.  In my worry, I start thinking that such polarization is somehow unprecedented or leading to exceptional political consequences.  Paradoxically, I feel refreshed and reassured when I learn how fragmented Washington's congress was during his second term in office, or how consequential the feuds were between leading families and city-states in sixteenth-century Italy.  The problems seem so completely monumental at the time, but so much of it fades throughout the years.  Consequently, it is not only failures that fade, but also achievements.  I suppose such musings are fundamentally cynical, but I prefer to think they are merely perspectivizing.  We can do much good in our capacities and strive continually to “lift where we stand,” brightening the world around us.  If we are caught up too much in our own achievements, we might start sounding a bit like Julius II: prematurely confident in our lasting impact.  

In brief other news, I have three things to share:

  1. Dave and I watched The Pixar Story last night.  Fascinating stuff!  It was such a pleasure listening to a few guys talk about the hectic, blind, trial-and-error start to computer animation, story-finding and Pixar studios.  Those guys had no idea the kind of impact they would have on the world.  The wonderful thing is, they still seem like terribly down-to-earth, fun fellows.  I was reminded of how much I love Disney. May I have the full animated collection one day, please?  
  2. I have picked up watercolor for the first time since 7th or 8th grade...I can't even remember.  I painted a very good picture of a bird once, and thought it would be fun to try again.  My goal is to paint some of the scenes of Cambridge.  I'm a long way off currently, but it's been a delight to try my hand at something new.
  3. Sometime today a new nephew will be born.  Congratulations Laura and Dave!  We wish you all the best in bringing New Baby Boy into the world.  We love you!         

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Thanks for your comments, Amy! I loved this book too!

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