Saturday, September 03, 2011

Pope Benedict XVI: A Christian Symposium

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)
Alcibiades Interrupting the Symposium
Pen and brown ink, over black chalk
26.7 x 36.7 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Rubens' labelled the left figure as Alcibiades, the centre one as Plato (who would have been in his early teens at the dramatic date of the Symposium), and the balding figure as Socrates.

For a detailed analysis, see Professor Elizabeth McGrath, "The Drunken Alcibiades: Rubens' Picture of Plato's Symposium," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v.46 (1983), 228-235.

Print made by Pietro Testa 1611 - 1650
The Symposium of Plato, with Alcibiades interrupting the discourse of Socrates and the philosophers in a portico with a metal vase and an incense burner. 1648
Inscription Content: With four lines of dedication by Testa to Fabrizio Cellesio in panel lower left, dated 1648
258 mm x 380 mm
The British Museum, London

Testa was born in Lucca but worked primarily in Rome. He was a member of the intellectual circle of Cassiano del Pozzo, best known as an early patron of Nicolas Poussin

As well as having close connections to the world of Poussin, he also had links to Domenichino and Pietro da Cortona (for both of whom he worked)

He could not get established and was found drowned in the Tiber, possibly as a result of suicide.

A Symposium is simply a Banquet. In French, Plato`s Symposium is simply called Le Banquet. As usual the French have got it right. Why in English, Spanish and Italian we continue to use a Greek based word for the work no doubt would be the subject of a long dissertation. It is a very academic and intellectual type word, "high-falutin`" some might say. There is usually precious little alcohol at modern symposia

Plato's Symposium tells of a dinner party (or would we now as T S Eliot would say a "Cocktail Party" ?) at a crucial point in Athenian history at which the guests decide that they will each in turn deliver a speech in praise of Love. The work points the way towards all Western thinking about Love.

The party was hosted by the poet Agathon on the occasion of his first victory at the theatre contest of the 416 BC Dionysia. The celebration was upstaged by the unexpected entrance of the toast of the town, the young Alcibiades, dropping in drunken and nearly naked, having just left another symposium.

The kind of relationships which typically took place at symposia was an important way in which young men learnt how to value and desire the right kinds of things, and in the appropriate manner.

They were, in short, a way in which Virtue was transmitted to the young.

The guests reclined — one or two to a couch— in a room designed to hold seven to fifteen couches with cushions and low tables. The guests were bedecked with garlands

The Symposium amongst other things contains Plato's analysis of Beauty.

Socrates claims to be quoting his teacher Diotima on the subject of love, and in the lesson attributed to her she calls Beauty the object of every love's yearning.

She spells out the Soul's progress toward ever-purer beauty, from one body to all, then through all beautiful souls, laws, and kinds of knowledge, to arrive at Beauty itself (210a–211d):

"For he who would proceed aright in this matter should begin in youth to visit beautiful forms; and first, if he be guided by his instructor aright, to love one such form only - out of that he should create fair [Good ?] thoughts; and soon he will of himself perceive that the beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another; and then if beauty of form in general is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty in every form is and the same!

And when he perceives this he will abate his violent love of the one, which he will despise and deem a small thing, and will become a lover of all beautiful forms; in the next stage he will consider that the beauty of the mind is more honourable than the beauty of the outward form.

So that if a virtuous soul have but a little comeliness, he will be content to love and tend him, and will search out and bring to the birth thoughts which may improve the young, until he is compelled to contemplate and see the beauty of institutions and laws, and to understand that the beauty of them all is of one family, and that personal beauty is a trifle; and after laws and institutions he will go on to the sciences, that he may see their beauty, being not like a servant in love with the beauty of one youth or man or institution, himself aslave mean and narrow-minded, but drawing towards and contemplating the vast sea of beauty, he will create many fair and noble thoughts and notions in boundless love of wisdom; until on that shore he grows and waxes strong, and at last the vision is revealed to him of a single science, which is the Science of Beauty everywhere. ...

"He who has been instructed thus far in the things of love, and who has learned to see the beautiful in due order and succession, when he comes toward the end will suddenly perceive a nature of wondrous beauty (and this, Socrates, is the final cause of all our former toils) - a nature which in the first place is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, not fair in one point of view and foul in another, or at one time or in one relation or at one place fair, at another time or in another relation or at another place foul, as if fair to some and-foul to others, or in the likeness of a face or hands or any other part of the bodily frame, or in any form of speech or knowledge, or existing in any other being, as for example, in an animal, or in heaven or in earth, or in any other place; but beauty absolute, separate, simple, and everlasting, which without diminution and without increase, or any change, is imparted to the ever-growing and perishing beauties of all other things.

He who from these ascending under the influence of true love, begins to perceivethat beauty, is not far from the end.

And the true order of going, or being led by another, to the things of love, is to begin from the beauties of earth and mount upwards for the sake of that other beauty, using these as steps only, and from one going on to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is.

This, my dear Socrates," said the stranger of Mantineia, "is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at them and to be with them.

But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty - the Divine Beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life-thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine?

Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.

Would that be an ignoble life?"

From Plato, The Symposium, (360 BC) Translated by Benjamin Jowett

This passage has down the centuries been interpreted (and applied ?) in countless different ways and used to justify all sorts of conduct and ways of life: many good and noble, some not so

Every year at Castel Gandolfo the Pope conducts his Ratzinger Schülerkreis with his former students. This year was no exception. It was on the new Evangelisation.

Perhaps with that topic in mind, on 31st August Pope Benedict XVI devoted his public catechesis at Castel Gondolfo to the subject of Beauty as a Way to God, and in particular the role of Religious Art on that journey. He said:

"Today, I would like to consider briefly one of these channels that can lead us to God and also be helpful in our encounter with Him: It is the way of artistic expression, part of that "via pulchritudinis" -- "way of beauty" -- which I have spoken about on many occasions, and which modern man should recover in its most profound meaning.

Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another -- before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music -- to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter -- a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds -- but something far greater, something that "speaks," something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

A work of art is the fruit of the creative capacity of the human person who stands in wonder before the visible reality, who seeks to discover the depths of its meaning and to communicate it through the language of forms, colours and sounds.

Art is capable of expressing, and of making visible, man's need to go beyond what he sees; it reveals his thirst and his search for the infinite. Indeed, it is like a door opened to the infinite, [opened] to a beauty and a truth beyond the every day.

And a work of art can open the eyes of the mind and heart, urging us upward.

But there are artistic expressions that are true roads to God, the supreme Beauty -- indeed, they are a help [to us] in growing in our relationship with Him in prayer.

We are referring to works of art that are born of faith, and that express the faith.

We see an example of this whenever we visit a Gothic cathedral: We are ravished by the vertical lines that reach heavenward and draw our gaze and our spirit upward, while at the same time, we feel small and yet yearn to be filled. … Or when we enter a Romanesque church: We are invited quite naturally to recollection and prayer. We perceive that hidden within these splendid edifices is the faith of generations.

Or again, when we listen to a piece of sacred music that makes the chords of our heart resound, our soul expands and is helped in turning to God. I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach -- in Munich in Bavaria -- conducted by Leonard Bernstein.

At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt -- not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart -- that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: "Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true" -- and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God's truth.

But how many times, paintings or frescos also, which are the fruit of the artist's faith -- in their forms, in their colours, and in their light -- move us to turn our thoughts to God, and increase our desire to draw from the Fount of all beauty.

The words of the great artist, Marc Chagall, remain profoundly true -- that for centuries, painters dipped their brushes in that colored alphabet, which is the Bible.

How many times, then, can artistic expression be for us an occasion that reminds us of God, that assists us in our prayer or even in the conversion of our heart! ...

Dear friends, I invite you to rediscover the importance of this way for prayer, for our living relationship with God. Cities and countries throughout the world house treasures of art that express the faith and call us to a relationship with God.

Therefore, may our visits to places of art be not only an occasion for cultural enrichment -- also this -- but may they become, above all, a moment of grace that moves us to strengthen our bond and our conversation with the Lord, [that moves us] to stop and contemplate -- in passing from the simple external reality to the deeper reality expressed -- the ray of beauty that strikes us, that "wounds" us in the intimate recesses of our heart and invites us to ascend to God. "

Religious art can be a step on the ladder to, or a door or an invitation leading to a Spiritual Banquet where the Host is none other than Our Lord, God made Man. All we have have to do is look around us and listen. Keep our eyes and ears open. We should not have to look very far. There are invitations to the Feast in every place, nook and cranny.

Of course, Christians have always had their symposia on Earth: agape feasts, very different from the symposium described by Plato. We now call it the Mass. No Alcibiades, Agathon or Socrates. Just the true Beauty simple and divine