Saturday, July 25, 2009

Two Allegories

Juan de Valdés Leal 1622-1690
In Ictu Oculi
Oil on canvas, 220 x 216 cm
Hospital de la Caridad, Seville

Juan de Valdés Leal 1622-1690
Finis Gloriae Mundi
Oil on canvas, 220 x 216 cm
Hospital de la Caridad, Seville

These two paintings stand above and opposite the entrance to the Church of the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville. They are known together as The Hieroglyphs (or Allegories) of Death or the Last Days (Los Ieroglificos de nuestras postrimerias o Los muertos)

The present Hospital and the Chapel were commissioned by Miguel de Mañara, a curious 17th-century sevillano often likened to Don Juan. After a scandalous youth of seduction and deceit he reformed completely after seeing a vision of his own death and dedicated himself to a life of charity and religion. See below

Juan de Valdés Leal 1622-1690
Don Miguel de Mañara leyendo la Regla de la Santa Caridad
Oil on canvas. 196 x 225 cm.
Hospital de la Caridad. Salón de Cabildos. Seville

In Ictu Oculi (“In the Blink of an Eye”) depicts a leering skeletal Death with a scythe, putting out a candle with one hand while trampling over objects that represent wordly wealth, power, and knowledge.

Finis Gloriae Mundi (‘The end of wordly glory’) depicts a crypt in which a dead bishop and knight are being eaten by worms. Above, a balance is borne by the hand of Christ. On one side are symbols of the seven deadly sins, on the other side symbols of a holy love of God and Christ. “Neither more nor less” read the words on the scales.

The face of the knight is thought to be that of Mañara

Both are meditations on the Day of Last Judgement.

The Brotherhood which was responsible for the Hospital and the Chapel were responsible for many acts of charitable works in contemporary Seville. (Indeed the Hospital still functions today as a charitable institution)

One of their main functions was the burial of the dead. In those days, often the poor who died were left lying in the street, unmourned for and unburied. In 1649, the city of Seville was afflicted by an outbreak of bubonic plague. Death was not the unknown unseen hygienic event that it is today in modern Western societies.

Both works are amongst the finest of the religious painter, Juan de Valdés Leal and are amongst the finest of the Spanish baroque.

Inside the chapel were and are great works by Juan de Valdés Leal, Murillo, Pedro Roldán and Bernardo Simón de Pineda. The works inside depict works of charity by saints, and from the Life of Christ.

They show Love given and Love received. At the place of the reception of Charity, they were meant to inspire the members of the Brotherhood and others to give Love.

The gentleness that suffuses Murillo's eleven canvases, depicting acts of Christian charity contrasts sharply with the two paintings at the entrance to the Chapel

One cannot really contemplate the pictures without knowledge of the context. Without some explanation, the masterpieces of Juan de Valdés Leal may appear to some as simply ghoulish Gothic horror stories equivalent to today`s horror comics or horror films. They are certainly chilling works and leave nothing to the imagination.

If they were taken away and put in a Museum or Art Gallery, their significance would be greatly diminished. They might be at the most regarded as vanitas or momento mori works.

Ictus oculi is the Latin expression for the time taken to blink. It is the Latin equivalent of the Greek atomos. In medieval times the atomos was the shortest possible unit of time. It was indivisible and was calculated at 15/94 of a second.

The phrase evokes Paul’s description of the general resurrection on the Last Day, which will happen in ictu oculi (1 Corinthians 15:52).

1 Cor. 15.50-54, reads:

`hoc autem dico, fratres: quia caro et sanguis regnum dei possidere non possunt neque corruptio incorruptelam possidebit.

(51) ecce mysterium vobis dico: omnes quidem resurgemus, sed non omnes immutabimur

(52) in momento, in ictu oculi, in novissima tuba: canet enim tuba, et mortui resurgent incorrupti: et nos immutabimur.

(53) oportet enim corruptibile hoc induere incorruptionem: et mortale hoc induere immortalitatem.

(54) cum autem mortale hoc induerit immortalitatem tunc fiet sermo qui scriptus est, “absorpta est mors in victoria.” [Is. 25.8]'

“50Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

51Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

52In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

53For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

54So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”

St Augustine in his Confessions uses the phrase at the one of the most important points in his narrative of his life. It is at his intellectual conversion in Milan when he “sees” or recognises or appreciates God`s invisible nature: when he hears the voice calling out to him “tolle lege” and his subsequent reaction to reading of another passage from St Paul (pervenit ad id quod est in ictu trepidantis aspectus (Confessions 7.17.23)).

In describing what happened in Milan, the phrase “ictus occuli ” is used at the apex of the pilgrim`s ascent when he touches God (or God touched him) but only for the briefest of moments.

The soul is left yearning for deeper union. Later books and chapters include the account of Augustine`s second and more important vision in Ostia (Confessions 9.10.25). The first nine chapters of the Confessions are the story of Augustine`s ascent to God. The Confessions go on further after that.

Boethius in De Cons. 5.2 said that “ictus oculi` described the speed of God` mind which can see all things in a blink, taking in past, present and future

The two references in St Paul and St Augustine were well known. The First Letter of St Paul to the Corinthians was and is quoted at Easter time masses and in funeral Masses. The story of St Augustine in Milan was a frequent subject of religious art. His Confessions were read widely.

A year after his works in the Hospital de la Caridad, de Valdés Leal had an opportunity to return to St Augustine but in an indirect way: to depict the Baptism of St Augustine. The painting now hangs in St Louis. See below. The painting is part of a series of Life of St. Ambrose, part of the Spinola Altarpiece, commissioned for the oratory of Archepiscopal Palace in Seville. But one does wonder if the proper title has been adhibited to this painting. Did St Ambrose convert St Augustine ?

Juan de Valdés Leal 1622-1690
St Ambrose converting and baptising Saint Augustine
Oil on canvas 165 x 109 cm.
The Art Museum, Saint Louis

Mindful of the references in St Paul and St Augustine, Petrarch in his letter regarding The Ascent of Mount Ventoux (Epistolae familiares (IV, 1)) used a similar expression.

The outer world may have motivated Petrarch to climb Mont Ventoux, but the inner world is what he discovered when he reached the top and read the passage from Augustine's Confessions.

On the trip down, Petrarch reflected on the vanity of human wishes and the nobility of uncorrupted human thought:

“As if suddenly wakened from sleep, I turned about and gazed toward the west. I was unable to discern the summits of the Pyrenees, which form the barrier between France and Spain; not because of any intervening obstacle that I know of but owing simply to the insufficiency of our mortal vision.

But I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of Aigues Mortes, although' all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.

While I was thus dividing my thoughts, now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes, it occurred to me to look into my copy of St. Augustine's Confessions, a gift that I owe to your love, and that I always have about me, in memory of both the author and the giver.

I opened the compact little volume, small indeed in size, but of infinite charm, with the intenition of reading whatever came to hand, for I could happen upon nothing that would be otherwise than edifying and devout. Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself.

My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine's from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: "And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not."

I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself.

Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again. Those words had given me occupation enough, for I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them. What I had there read I believed to be addressed to me and to no other, remembering that St. Augustine had once suspected the same thing in his own case, when, on opening the book of the Apostle, as he himself tells us, the first words that he saw there were, "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”...

I thought in silence of the lack of good counsel in us mortals, who neglect what is noblest in ourselves, scatter our energies in all directions, and waste ourselves in a vain show, because we look about us for what is to be found only within. I wondered at the natural nobility of our soul, save when it debases itself of its own free will, and deserts its original estate, turning what God has given it for its honour into dishonour.

How many times, think you, did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation, - when it is not immersed in the foul mire of earth?

With every downward step I asked myself this: If we are ready to endure so much sweat and labour in order that we may bring our bodies a little nearer heaven, how can a soul struggling toward God, up the steps of human pride and human destiny, fear any cross or prison or sting of fortune? How few, I thought, but are diverted from their path by the fear of difficulties or the love of ease! How happy the lot of those few, if any such there be! It is of them, assuredly, that the poet was thinking, when he wrote:

Happy the man who is skilled to understand
Nature's hid causes; who beneath his feet
All terrors casts, and death's relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.

How earnestly should we strive, not to stand on mountain-tops, but to trample beneath us those appetites which spring from earthly impulses?”

The paintings stand at the entrance of the chapel. The paintings and their visions are at the beginning of the contemplation which starts the ascent of the viewer to God. The paintings and their location outside the Chapel of Charity may be compared to Milan or the top of Mount Ventoux . By entering inside the Chapel of Charity, one advances towards Ostia and beyond. In their locations, they are a reminder that conversion may not be a “one off”. It may be part of a journey which lasts a lifetime.

On Wednesday, 27 February 2008 Pope Benedict XVI said of St Augustine:

“Today, it is still possible to trace St Augustine's experiences, thanks above all to the Confessions, written to praise God and which are at the origin of one of the most specific literary forms of the West, the autobiography or personal expression of one's self-knowledge.

Well, anyone who encounters this extraordinary and fascinating book, still widely read today, soon realizes how Augustine's conversion was not sudden nor fully accomplished at the beginning, but which can be defined rather as a true and proper journey that remains a model for each one of us.

This itinerary certainly culminated with his conversion and then with baptism, but it was not concluded in that Easter Vigil of the year 387, when the African rhetorician was baptized in Milan by Bishop Ambrose. Augustine's journey of conversion, in fact, humbly continued to the very end of his life, so much so that one can truly say that his various steps - and three can be easily distinguished - are one single great conversion. “