Thursday, September 17, 2009

Monastery Landscapes

Joseph Anton Koch 1768-1839
Monastery of San Francesco di Civitella in the Sabine Mountains 1812
Oil on panel, 34x46 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Alexey Savrasov. (1830-1897)
Monastery Gates. 1875.
Oil on canvas.
The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

In his recent study of art displayed in contemporary American homes, David Halle discovered that landscape pictures are the first in popularity in all various social classes he surveyed. Importantly his study shows further that almost all the landscape pictures he sampled are about "a sedate and tranquil nature" with few or no human figures, and that people's general reason for preferring landscapes to other genres is "above all the tranquillity of the subject matter," because "they are 'calm', 'restful'; they offer 'solitude' and 'quiet'; they soothe." (David Halle, Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home (Chicago, 111.: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 59-72)

Without doubt, as Halle himself has concluded, this contemporary taste for tranquil landscapes is not unique to twenty first century Western society. Similar artistic and cultural choices are also found in earlier periods and other nations.

In Richard Turner's book. The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, we see that Renaissance Italians also had a similar preference for landscapes of peace and quietude (A. Richard Turner, The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), Chap. 10.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson considered the "necessity of solitude" as being “organic." (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, Twelve Chapters (Boston: Fields, Osgood & Co., 1870), p. 7.

A pictorial expression of solitude is the representation of secluded scenes of landscape with hermit saints and monks and nuns, which became popular from the Renaissance on. Images of St. Jerome in the Wilderness by Joachim Patinir (1485-1524) were among the best examples of the landscape. In sixteenth-century Rome, many small landscapes with solitary scenes were produced for the decoration of churches and palaces.

But as Pope Benedict XVI explains in the following passage, monastery life is not the pursuit of this romantic ideal. It is very hard work, involving both great physical and mental effort:
“It was commonly thought that monasteries were places of flight from the world (contemptus mundi) and of withdrawal from responsibility for the world, in search of private salvation.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who inspired a multitude of young people to enter the monasteries of his reformed Order, had quite a different perspective on this.

In his view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world.

He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish ...”[12].

Contemplatives—contemplantes—must become agricultural labourers—laborantes—he says. The nobility of work, which Christianity inherited from Judaism, had already been expressed in the monastic rules of Augustine and Benedict.

Bernard takes up this idea again. The young noblemen who flocked to his monasteries had to engage in manual labour. In fact Bernard explicitly states that not even the monastery can restore Paradise, but he maintains that, as a place of practical and spiritual “tilling the soil”, it must prepare the new Paradise. A wild plot of forest land is rendered fertile—and in the process, the trees of pride are felled, whatever weeds may be growing inside souls are pulled up, and the ground is thereby prepared so that bread for body and soul can flourish [13]

[12] Sententiae III, 118: CCL 6/2, 215.
[13] Cf. ibid. III, 71: CCL 6/2, 107-108.”

From Pope Benedict XVI Spe Salvi (30 November 2007) paragraph 15