Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Notes from Spain, part IV

October 3

We've completed our itinerary through Seville and Granada, including the Alcazar and Alhambra; along the way we were treated to the architectural inspirations of the ancient collaboration between Christianity and Islam—a moment in time that, although distant, attests to both the potential for harmony and the value of man's better side. 

There's a much greater flowering of beauty in cooperation than in discord; a lesson often forgotten in the shouting of the discontent.

Plunged into the intricacies of the Alhambra and other Spanish palaces—whether medieval, renaissance, or baroque—one all too often forgets that almost of this grandeur was accomplished on the backs of slaves, whose history in nations other than the United States is obscured by the absence of a definitive race. 

Such slavery has always been there, nonetheless; and it is, I think, equally obscured within ourselves, where the tyranny of our own fears and anger all too often obscure the precious nature of our Being. We erect great palaces in our lives; but they are palaces of our own egos, built on the backs of other parts of ourselves. 

The course of a man's or woman's outer and inner life mirror the course of civilization. In the process of building this kingdom we live within—both inner and outer—we continually have to choose between creating harmony and waging war. The reason civilization at large reflects the same choices and values is because it is created by individuals. Before societies create people, people create societies. We get the nations we deserve, whether inner or outer, because we make them ourselves.

Have attained the tender age of 61 during the course of the trip, I look at my own kingdom as a skeptic. 

Inwardly and outwardly, the flow of associations in me is subjective; the impulse of stimuli is organic; the power of emotion is reactionary. The blend of these elements produces what I call a life; yet I am still not sure of how to measure it. I was more certain when I was younger; far too certain, probably. But laying out the course of my own life against the long lines of time and history increasingly underscores its temporary nature, and the question of exactly what—if anything— any of our achievements mean.

On that note.

Yesterday we stood at the grave of Goya at the Hermitage of San Antonio. It is an extraordinary chapel, and possibly Goya's greatest work. I would argue it is among the most sublime and greatest creations ever achieved in fresco painting, rivaling and even exceeding Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, which beside it begins to look overstated and overblown, not to mention gaudy. 

Goya's masterpiece displays a restraint and sobriety lacking in the majority of frescos; his pallette, muted and intelligent, speaks not of the exuberance of life but the length, breadth and depth of the grave itself. It thus serves as a memento mori, a reminder of our own death; this is all too fitting, given its subject matter, and one has to presume, given Goya's own intense personal involvement with the question of mortality and death (his disasters of war stand as the definitive testament in this matter) that he fully intended this effect. Depressing it isn't; it's uplifting, but intelligently uplifting. In the end, the story being played out around the cupola seems less important than the legions of angels in the arches around it, as though the whole world were being held up by angelic forces: a powerful argument indeed, and one achieved indirectly enough that we are wooed by it, rather than having it forced, as is the case with so many ceiling frescoes of renaissance and post-renaissance provenance.

Instead of Homer's endless darkness, there is an illumination in Goya's death. No matter how bitter his cynicism may have been after surviving a near-fatal illness and witnessing the horrific procession of Napoleon's war machine through Spain, the angels in his frescoes are still creatures of light. His genius shines most here, in the temporal and even tentative nature of their condition: hovering above the abyss, beating their wings to hold back the ever-present danger of eternal darkness. An ancient and subliminal echo of Homer's underworld, in other words, still lurks here. 

Standing there yesterday, I got the impression of angels poised much closed than comfort to the realm of the fallen; still in danger of being drawn away from that light whose only source in the fresco emanates from above the altar, where angels gather just above the esoteric light of the cross.

If I embrace salvation, I do so, like Goya, warily—ever mindful of the darkness in my lower nature that would so eagerly consume me. 


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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