Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Eyes Wide Open in Italy: From Jupiter to Jackson Pollack

Just back from Italy with husband and 14-year-old granddaughter, I feel as if I have come through a Time Machine – from Caesar’s Rome, to Michelangelo’s Renaissance Florence, to Peggy Guggenheim’s Jackson Pollack paintings in Venice.

What did I least expect? How close God (s) seemed to the Roman and Renaissance people, compared to how people look at God today.

For instance, the Pantheon was built by the Romans to honor all seven of their major gods. It was a deeply spiritual place to visit, because of its symmetry and order and the way that the architects planned for light to pour through the skylight. (The church claptrapped it up, not enhancing its spiritual ambience but not eliminating it, either.)

The storytelling on the walls proclaimed the Gospel to the masses. If anyone on this trip didn’t know their Bible stories at the beginning of the trip, they were familiar with the primer by the end. Over and over, we saw selections from the Old Favorites – the creation, Adam and Eve, the expulsion from the Garden, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau or Jacob and the ladder, Samuel anointing David, David and Goliath, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Flight into Egypt, the Miracles, the Passion Week culminating in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Last Judgment. Six to sixty of these scenes were plastered in gold or bronze on the doors or facades of the churches, timeless Sunday School “handouts” to a population that could not read, nor could it understand the Latin being preached.

It was a time when Christians were persecuted on all levels, as when I saw – in the Florentine Santa Maria Novella – a painting of a hapless saint being boiled in oil. Add that to the drama conjured up by standing in the Coliseum looking down at where Christians and lions met each other in the arena, or on the stone in Florence marking the spot where Savonarola put fire to Botticelli paintings in the original Bonfire of the Vanities and was, in turned, burned alive there – and you got a gut-level sense of how theology was not just a Sunday subject here.

On the day we visited St. Mark’s in Venice, we joined two families on a trek to Venice’s Jewish ghetto, where we visited three of the five ethnic-based synagogues, some in the same building. On the exterior wall were huge tribute wreaths from the city of Venice, acknowledging that almost the entire Jewish population was wiped out in World War II.

I had brought a lightweight Bible (no Gideon freebies in Italy) and pages ripped from my group's meditations, which helped to keep me centered amidst the splendor. And we had just spent lots of time with our friends from Ghana, who had added an extra level of spirituality to our every day life. Plus, we were traveling on this tour with folks who could think about these tough subjects – several Catholic families, an evangelistic Christian couple, a Jewish family, and a family with mixed faiths.

I wish I had instigated more discussions, but am glad for the times when we did talk about, for instance, the potential for Michelangelo’s leaving a secret message on the Sistine Chapel ceiling – that Jews deserved more credit than they were getting in Christian Italy for producing Jesus (that’s a bad translation of the most recent theory but you get the picture). And it was our granddaughter, who wears a Christian dog tag around her neck, who answered a Jewish girl’s question about Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (pictured above). She said, bottom line, that she did not think that meant that Jews were going to Hell.

As for Jackson Pollack – well, according to some Christian theologians, Pollack and his Abstract Expressionist friends were destined to go straight to Hell for their godless depiction of nothing. I “get” most of modern Art and some Abstract Expressionists but I must admit I have a real problem with Pollack. Again, our granddaughter showed the way. She thought it was fascinating, at least partly because she is intrigued by the idea of sponge painting her bedroom wall in similar fashion. It’s the act of creating Art, I suppose, that matters.

We came home with precious few souvenirs, minimal chotchkas, a paucity of presents for friends and relatives (sorry, folks) but lots of memories and so much to ponder. Our real souvenirs are the pictures. Click here for some of them.

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