Living with Art

A day spent among art can be more spiritual than a month of Sundays. Few become rich by being artists—in fact the opposite is society’s expectation. The masterpieces artists leave behind then become among the most valuable of all human creations when their often tragic lives end and it is recognized that no more genius is forthcoming. As a lifelong dabbler in the arts, I know that nothing like a perturbed state of mind serves to bring about the pieces I like best. Seeing the art of others, however, is a deeply satisfying experience. In a pre-Mother’s Day celebration, we met friends yesterday to revisit Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey. We’ve grown accustomed to gray skies this spring, so the fact that it was sunny and warm came almost as a divine sign that this was a day to spend outdoors among the artwork of both humans and nature.

As rational as we strive to be, emotion remains our main motive force. Psychologists and neuroscientists, approaching the human mind rationally, inevitably conclude that emotion and reason are hopelessly entangled in the psyche. Not only does this explain the persistent draw of art, but also of religion as well. If possible, pull back and try to listen to someone, anyone, describe their religion in rational terms. How quickly it breaks down! And yet, reactions against a purely scientific—and doubtlessly empirically correct—explanation of the origin and development of life on earth lead to very hostile reactions. For many such explanations are not emotionally satisfying. We need a little more magic in our imaginative diet. Art allows us to indulge without embarrassment in our need for emotional expression. In the art galleries I’ve seen, whether Edinburgh, London, Paris, New York, Milwaukee, Corning, or Hamilton, there have always been hundreds of others seeking something there as well.

What we are seeking can’t be purchased with money, and it can’t be grasped by greedy hands. It can only be held in receptive and hungry internal places—the space pre-scientific individuals called the soul. And there it will remain. The first time I saw the Mona Lisa and the statue of winged Nike will never leave me. Yesterday, wandering the acres of art called Grounds for Sculpture, once again artistic expression claimed another willing victim. In our money-fevered world where “real life” is squandered chasing material goods to outstrip everyone else, art, the spiritual quest, lies quietly awaiting the weekend. The time people value most. And those who spend that time among art will be the most blessed of all.

Bleached Angels

A friend recently asked why, in the canons of western art, angels suddenly made the shift from colorful to predominately white. What was behind this loss of color? The history of angel imagery is complex and a great deal of the complication derives from a generally iconoclastic sensibility in late Israelite religion. Images were frowned upon, so we do not get “Hebrew angels” recorded for us. The current-day perception of angels seems to go back to Mesopotamian Apkallu figures and Egyptian deities. In both ancient cultures various deities and demi-gods were portrayed as winged humans. The Egyptian figures, at least, were colorful. In the world of the Hebrew Bible angels are nowhere cited as having wings and they were likely imagined as being pretty much the same as humans in form. Many biblical characters mistake angels for people.

In Greek portrayals, Nike, goddess of victory, is a winged character. Eros, the god of love, also bears wings (and unlike Nike, he is generally bare all over.) In some vase paintings the Harpies are winged women. Since Greek pottery painting was generally monochromatic, we don’t have much color to go on. The earliest Christian angel portrayal comes from the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome. This angel is monochrome and wingless. The more familiar, and lavishly colored angels are Byzantine creations. Since my opinions on art history are not to be trusted, it is advisable not to make too much of this, but Byzantine art made flamboyant use of saturated hues to bring glory to God. This is part of the tradition behind Orthodox icon writing, and angels were simply following suit.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, angels were widely used to represent good and evil. It would stand to reason (if not to art-historical standards) that “good angels” would show their goodness by donning white apparel while “evil angels” would take on darker garb. This also fits with the growing tendency to represent Satan as dark red or black in color during this time period. As angels symbolized goodness, they became bleached of their former, Byzantine color. Symbolic value outweighed aesthetic sensibilities. Today angels retain their ancient legacy of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Wings fit the view of angels as messengers, although ancient ideas of their colors depended more on the artistic conventions of the culture than any attempt to be true-to-life.

The earliest Christian angel (left)