Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Vision of Heaven

Fra Angelico 1417 -1455
The Last Judgement
Oil on wood
1.050 x 2.1 m
Museo di San Marco, Florence

Jean Fouquet 1420 - 1477/81
Les Suffrages des Saints, la Trinité from Le Livre d'Heures d'Etienne Chevalier Ms71-folio27recto
Musée Condé, Chantilly

Jacopo Robusti [Tintoretto] (1518 - 1594)
Paradise: The Coronation of the Virgin/ Le Couronnement de la Vierge, called Le Paradis 1580
Oil on canvas
1.43 x 3.62 m
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Antonio Campi (c1523- c 1587)
The Ascension (detail) from Les Mystères de la Passion du Christ 1569
Oil on canvas
1.64 x 2.03 m
Musée du Louvre, Paris
(The entire tableau encompassing the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ was commissioned for Saint Cardinal Charles Borromeo`s "small oratory" in Milan)

Johann Boeckhorst (1605-1668),
The Resurrection of the Blessed
Oil on wood
1.197 x 0.934 m
Staatsgalerie Flämische Barockmalerei, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neubourg

William Blake 1757 - 1827
The Meeting of a Family in Heaven
Pen and black ink and watercolour over pencil
234 by 133 mm.; 9 1/4 by 5 1/4 in
Private collection

Koloman Moser (1868 - 1918)
Paradise 1904-8
Design for stained glass entry for the Church of Am Steinhof in Vienna(consecrated in 1913)
4.15 x 7.74 m
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Denis Maurice Denis 1870 -1943
Le Paradis / Paradise 1912
Oil on wood
0.500 m. x 0.750m
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7
Oil on canvas
Support: 2743 x 5486 mm
Tate Britain, London

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
The Resurrection: Port Glasgow 1947-50
Oil on canvas
support: 2146 x 6655 mm
Tate Britain, London

Séraphine Louis (1864-1942)
L'arbre du paradis / Tree of Paradise 1929
Oil on canvas
1.95 x 1.3 m
Musée d'Art et d'Archéologie, Senlis

Chagall Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985)
Paradise 1961
Oil on isorel
45.5 x 59.8 cm
Musée national Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice

This is one of many Chagall`s depictions of the Terrestial or Earthly Paradise of Eden before the Fall: a different concept from the Celestial or Divine Paradise after Death. It is strange that the word "Paradise" is used to describe both.

Max Ernst 1891 - 1976
The Marriage of Heaven and Earth 1962
Oil on canvas
116,2 x 90 cm
Private collection

The Papal Homily on this Year`s Feast of the Assumption at the Church of St. Thomas of Villanueva in Castel Gandolfo did not attract much attention

In so far as it was noticed, it did not unfortunately attract wholly favourable comment.

See, for instance, Sophia Deboick in The Guardian on Monday 23 August 2010

I can well understand where Miss Deboick is coming from.

In reflectiing on the Dogma of the Assumption when Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at her death, the Pope sought to explain what exactly "heaven" is. Always a very difficult (impossible ?) subject.

Here is what he said:

"In this connection, I would like to pause on an aspect of the dogmatic affirmation, where it speaks of assumption to heavenly glory.

All of us are conscious today that with the term "heaven," we do not refer to some place in the universe, to a star or something similar: no. We refer to something much bigger and more difficult to define with our limited human concepts. With this term "heaven," we mean to affirm that God, the God who has made himself close to us, does not abandon us, not even in death and beyond it, but that he has a place for us and he gives us eternity; we want to affirm that there is a place for us in God.

To understand this reality somewhat more, let us look at our own life: We all know that when a person dies he continues to subsist in the memory and the heart of those who knew and loved him. We could say that a part of that person continues to live in them, but it is as a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of his loved ones is also destined to end. God instead never passes and all of us exist because of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he has thought of us and called us to life. We exist in the thoughts and love of God. We exist in all our reality, not only in our "shadow."

Our serenity, our hope, our peace are founded precisely on this: on God, on his thought and on his love, it is not only a "shadow" of ourselves that survives, but that in him, in his creative love, we are kept and introduced with our whole life, with our whole being into eternity.

It is his love that conquers death and gives us eternity, and it is this love that we call "heaven": God is so great that he also has a space for us. And the man Jesus, who is at the same time God, is for us the guarantee that being-man and being-God can exist and live eternally in one another. This means that each one of us will not continue existing only in a part that has been, so to speak, wrenched from us, while the rest is ruined; it means rather that God knows and loves the whole man, what we are. And God receives in his eternity what now, in our life, made up of suffering and love, of hope, of joy and sadness, grows and comes to be. The whole man, the whole of his life is taken by God and, purified in him, receives eternity.

Dear friends! I think this is a truth that should fill us with joy. Christianity does not proclaim merely a certain salvation of the soul in some imprecise place beyond, in which everything in this world that was precious and loved by us is erased, but it promises eternal life, "the life of the world to come": Nothing of what is precious and loved will be ruined, but will find its fulfillment in God.

All the hairs of our head are numbered, Jesus said one day (cf. Matthew 10:30). The final world will also be the fulfillment of this earth, as St. Paul states: "creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

Understood therefore is that Christianity gives strong hope in a luminous future and opens the way to the realization of this future. We are called, precisely as Christians, to build this new world, to work so that it will become one day the "world of God," a world that will surpass everything that we ourselves could build. In Mary assumed into heaven, fully sharing in the resurrection of her Son, we contemplate the realization of the human creature according to the "world of God."

Let us pray to the Lord to make us understand how precious our life is in his eyes; may he reinforce our faith in eternal life; may he make us people of hope, who work to build a world open to God, people full of joy who are able to perceive the beauty of the future world in the midst of the cares of daily life and, with this certainty, live, believe and hope."

For some, heaven is very clearly defined as an afterlife reward. For others, heaven is a place or state of happiness achieved through more tangible and immediate pleasures.

Both visions are rejected

Perhaps the use of the word "Paradise" to describe the Earthly Paradise of Eden before the Fall has led to confusion with the Celestial Paradise or Heaven for the period after death.

On first sight, the Papal exposition of "The Beatific Vision" is abstract to the nth degree. For us, grounded in physical bodies, the vision of utter lack of physicality is meaningless and depressing. It is experience (sensory and otherwise) which underlies our ability to conceive and to know.

A vision of subsisting as an eternal fragment of perfect memory within and united with the mind and heart of an eternal and all loving Being is perhaps not a vision which would inspire men and women to love, hope, faith and action.

But the Pope`s reflection on the "something much bigger and more difficult to define with our limited human concepts" is worthy of careful study.

He is using language and expressly using very limited metaphors and similes

The belief in heaven is an expression of faith: in the existence of God, that God is close to us, that he loves us and the purpose of human existence is to be eternally united in and with Him

God is Love and He Loves us. This Love far exceeds any love which a human can feel towards another human. Human Love is a pale imperfect and impermanent shadow of what constitutes Divine Love.

Most importantly, this unity with Divine Love or the quest for it does not happen after death or in another place away from Planet Earth but here and in the now. "Heaven" is closer than you think or would like to think. As is anywhere else which is "not Heaven".

Mary who shared in the Resurrection of her Son illustrates that human beings can achieve and realise such union within "the World of God": the quintessence of human perfection in perfect and eternal union with God.

And how are we to work towards this ? Prayer and contemplation on the Divine Love. The Divine Love which holds how most precious "our life is in his eyes", how all human life and lives are "in his eyes".

It is fundamental to our conception of heaven, of union with the diviine that we realise and appreciate this unlimited regard of God towards his human creatures and of God`s creation. This realisation of being loved perfectly arouses in us love towards God and makes us people of eternal joy, faith and hope. And why the Christian is the messenger of what Pope John Paul II called, Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life. It is a timely reminder of why for the Christian the question of abortion can never be a question of the human rights of Woman. The matter of Abortion is a matter which goes right to the heart of the purpose of human existence.

It is perhaps unfortunate that our knowledge of the Pope`s words are partial.

The sermon was delivered as the homily in Italian at a Mass in a Church in Castel Gondolfo.

We read it in translation. We do not see and hear the speaker, the intonations and the conviction behind the words: much more convincing, much more persuasive

That is why the forthcoming Papal Visit to Britain is so important. We shall fully hear and see the messenger and his message.

And that is also why artistic conceptions of heaven are so important. Artistic works can go beyond the confines of language in Literature and speak to parts of us that the written word and even the spoken word cannot communicate. As also can music.

But in the history of art, a terrestial vision of Heaven as "another place" is not dominant. The subject of "Heaven" in the history of art is a large subject which would cover : The Resurrected Body; Notions of Paradise and the History of Heaven; The Hierarchy of Heaven; Angels and Mortals; The Communion of Saints; The New Jerusalem; Seeing God and the Beatific Vision.

But the above examples illustrated above show that the artistic conception of heaven are incitements and encouragements to prayer and the contemplation of Divine Love. Heaven is a place where the normal human laws of time and place are suspended and overturned, a place of wonderment, mystery and paradox.

The English artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was convinced of the relationship between Love and Heaven. For him, Love could transform the everyday world into 'a sort of Heaven'.

He wrote:

'Love is the essential power in the creation of art and love is not a talent. Love reveals and more accurately describes the nature and meaning of things than any mere lecture on technique can do'.

But the First World War intervened. It not only destroyed Europe . It led to the end of his early visionary period as well as the visions and beliefs of millions of others caught up or affected by the conflict.

He wrote:

'My ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything. When I came home (from the war) the divine sequence had gone. I just opened a shutter in my side and out rushed my pictures anyhow. Nothing was ever the same again'.

Spencer visited Port Glasgow, 20 miles from Glasgow, in 1940 to fulfil a commission to paint its shipyards and was attracted by the cemetery there. Many civilians in the town had been killed in the German Blitz, He planned a vast shaped canvas fifty feet wide which would portray the Last Judgement and Resurrection taking place in this cemetery. The painting above is the central section from the project and shows residents of Port Glasgow climbing out of their graves and greeting one another

The cemetery has hardly changed since the time of Spencer. Visiting the cemetery and the view from the cemetery of the Firth of Clyde and the mountains and lochs beyond, one can understand why Spencer may have been particularly struck by the cemetery. This time his reaction was not the same as that in the First World War. His Christian faith appears to have strengthened and led him to a different resolution.

Was it through the 'loss of Eden' in the First World War that Spencer through the difficulties and vicissitudes of the inter-war years able to come to a new vision and reality ?

The cemetery is about twenty miles by motorway from Bellahouston Park where the Pope will shortly celebrate Mass for the Catholics in Scotland.

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