Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

In my other life as a math professor and artist, I'm getting ready for my first public exhibition. For your viewing pleasure, therefore, O loyal reader or Google-search user, here is my most recent piece: Santa Maria sopra Minerva, 8" x 12", watercolor on Arches hot-pressed paper.

I began it in 2008, but the combined pressures of completing my doctoral dissertation and having a newborn baby with serious nourishment problems caused me to forego it. Then inertia set in. But, as I said, I'm preparing for an exhibition, so I have a fire under me.

It depicts the façade of the Roman church Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Saint Mary over Minerva), so named because it stands on the site of a pagan temple. I visited it while on pilgrimage in 2007. Saint Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) and the artist Fra Angelico (1395 – 1455) are entombed inside. Catherine, who was the twenty-second child born to her parents, became a lay Dominican as a young woman, nursed plague victims, wrote books on prayer (after being taught by the Holy Spirit how to read and write), and undertook a letter-writing campaign to end the Great Schism and bring the Pope back to Rome from Avignon.

Saint Catherine of Siena
watercolor on clay ground
2.5" x 3.5"
She died at the age of thirty-three. Fra Angelico is, of course, the great fresco painter, most famous for his Annunciation.

Anyway, Santa Maria sopra Minerva is pretty much the only Gothic church in the city, though the façade doesn't tell you that. It stands within sight of the Pantheon. The elephant statue, which is Bernini's, is known as Pulcino della Minerva; it supports an Egyptian obelisk brought to the city by the emperor Diocletian.

Click for a larger view.
(You knew that, right?)
(If you're a reincarnated Egyptian priestess, don't look too closely at my transcription of the hieroglyphs.)

It's unusual for me to return to a painting after having left it aside for so long. Actually, I've never done it before. If you want to know the truth of the matter, the Blessed Virgin asked me to finish it, and promised me the skill to do so. To wit:
Most people make a practice of embellishing a wall with golden tin, because it is less costly. But I give you this urgent advice, to make an effort always to embellish with fine gold, and with good colors, especially in the figure of Our Lady... As the old saying goes, good work, good pay. And even if you were not adequately paid, God and Our Lady will reward you for it, body and soul. [Il Libro dell'Arte, Cennino Cennini]
Anyway, it's been six years since I painted with watercolors on paper, so I was rather nervous. When I started last Thursday, I only had the façade itself done, but somehow I was able to work more quickly than I usually do, and with greater confidence and boldness in my use of colors, probably because I've gotten used to oils, which are much more forgiving.

With that I'll bid my adieu, leaving you with a couple excerpts from Maritain's Art and Scholasticism, which heavily influenced me at the time:
In the powerfully social structure of mediæval civilization the artist ranked simply as an artisan, and every kind of anarchical development was prohibited to his individualism, because a natural social discipline imposed upon him from without certain limiting condition. He did not work for society people and the dealers, but for the faithful commons; it was his mission to house their prayers, to instruct their minds, to rejoice their souls and their eyes. Matchless epoch, in which an ingenuous folk was educated in beauty without even noticing it, as perfect religious ought to pray without being aware of their prayers; when doctors and painters lovingly taught the poor, and the poor enjoyed their teaching, because they were all of the same royal race, born of water and the Spirit!
      More beautiful things were then created and there was less self-worship. The blessed humility in which the artist was situated exalted his strength and his freedom. The Renaissance was destined to drive the artist mad and make him the most miserable of men—at the very moment when the world was to become less habitable for him—by revealing to him his own grandeur and letting loose upon him the wild beast Beauty which Faith kept enchanted and led after it obedient, with a gossamer thread for leash. 
Consider Saint Catherine of Siena, that apis argumentosa who was the counselor of a Pope and Princes of the Church, surrounded by artists and poets and leading them into Paradise. Perfectly prudent, but set far above Prudence, judging all things by Wisdom, which "in regard to all the intellectual virtues is architectonic," and in whose service Prudence is "like a door-keeper in the service of the king," the Saints are as free as the Spirit. The wise man, like God, is interested in the effort of every life.

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