I am a modern person. Even when I purposely seek inspiration in old art, I can’t help but come up with modern ideas for my own creations. I have a tendency to twist, to subvert, to play. I should probably give in to these tendencies: follow what comes natural to me. That makes sense. After all, I am a modern person working for a modern audience. And perhaps a modern twist can make ancient sentiments more palpable to my contemporaries.
I can enjoy art that emerges from such tendencies. I like how already in the late renaissance and definitely in the baroque era and the 19th century, artists interpret traditional themes in very personal ways. But none of those make me feel what the work by the Flemish Primitives and some other medieval and early renaissance artists do. I delight in the spectacle of the baroque and even salon painting and sculpture. But I am deeply moved by the sincerity and mystery in -slightly- older work.
So I have decided that, at least for the diorama of Archangel Michael that I am creating for Cathedral-in-the-Clouds in the context of the Synthetic Image research project, I will attempt to delve deeper into the mystery. To reject my modern tendencies and to follow my passionate heart (not my clever brain), even if I don’t understand where it is taking me. Curiously this requires me to think less, to invent less, and to accept traditional ideas about depiction.
The one huge caveat in this idea is that our times are drastically different from the Middle Ages. Particularly with respect to faith. Being so intensely immersed in a mysterious religion must have been a tremendous help for artists to imbue their work with sensitivity and depth. We don’t live in such times now. We have no solid shared belief in an immaterial world of gods and angels. Saints have become freaks that fascinate rather than models we admire. We think of ourselves as cartographers of the universe. Rather than of the universe as an unknowable whirlpool of which we know we form a part in an order that exceeds our understanding.
We live simultaneously in more emotional and less emotional times. We respond quickly to extreme stimuli but are insensitive to things that are hard to grasp, that escape us, that are so vast that their slowness makes them almost unperceivable to us. But if we find the silence in ourselves we can sense in the very tips of our capacities our connection to it.
I want to create work that helps us find this stillness. Work that is not extroverted, or clever, or ironic. Work that is not personal, that does not seek admiration for its creator (it is no coincidence that the name of many medieval artists is not even known to us). Work that is still. Majestic in its modesty. This does not mean distant, or cerebral, or ethereal. Physical sensuality is very much a part of this experience. We have bodies. We know fruits, the air, the landscape. We know stories, places, we are connected, not only to the spiritual world but also to the material one.
The concept of Paradise might be key here, the Garden of Eden that we forever seek to return to, but that we never really left. It is still there, underneath whatever we have created with our Knowledge of Good and Evil. The plants, the animals, humans, the wind. Our voices, our poems, our music. We are still in Paradise! And we can find it again through art. Not as an escape but as firm ground.
Maybe that is what faith is. Firm ground. The gods, the myths, the legends, they are all true. They are ways to imagine the unimaginable. Like three-dimensional realities drawn on a two-dimensional plane. Not fantasies, not even symbols. They are true. They are doors, pathways, connections. Without them we would be lost. Without them we are lost.
Mystery is an inadequate word because it implies vagueness, a lack of knowing, a lack of familiarity. But what I feel in the presence of great art is the exact opposite. Mystery is clarity. To know is but a game on the surface. Mystery is solid and strong and we are very closely and intimately connected to it. We are children of this mystery. And like children we don’t need to understand why or how. We accept. We love.
This is not the easiest path. It leads away from success, away from applause, away from sympathetic smiles and fond expressions of gratitude. I know I could make something cool and contemporary based on ancient themes. And there will be opportunities for that too. But in this particular case, I have chosen the path of mystery, the one that is even hard to see and impossible to know where it leads. Not for adventure, because I’m not expecting any of this to become clear at any point. But for devotion, as a prayer, as an exercise in submission.