Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni
Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
So what is this inward teaching, imparted through harmonious form (in this case, art) which nonetheless leads us towards the formless?
It's a tricky point of philosophy, an innate understanding within the form itself...
or is it outside of it?
Harmonious form expresses what we would call beauty.
Now, to be sure, just as there are rates of vibration in all things, there are rates of vibration in visual images. Another way of putting it is that images, despite their attachment to and embodiment of form, absolutely contain an internal element that emanate a different quality: the quality of beauty.
That quality, which is actually (like its partners intelligence, compassion and so on) one of the rays of emanation of Divine Love itself, has no equal and cannot be known by, or through, form. Beauty can be emanated by form, but it does not consist of form. The intuition—inward teaching, inward payment— of objective art conveys this inexpressible higher principle.
The most interesting thing about beauty is that we do not know what it is—of itself, it express the mystery of the Divine. Even from the most secular perspective imaginable that mystery remains undefinable and unapproachable—so much so that even the antithesis of beauty, we understand through our instinct, somehow becomes beautiful. Leonardo da Vinci recognized this fact and devoted significant time to the depiction of grotesquely ugly persons, as though asking this exact question: what is beauty? We see it in Goya's riffraff in the Hermitage of San Antonio; we see it in Leonardo's grotesques; yet we see it equally in Ghirlandaio's exquisite portrait. It exists everywhere and nowhere at the same time; it wears all faces. Beauty is the embodiment of all form, even becoming its own opposite (think of the majestic, glorious beauty of warfare and death, to Homer's Achilles).
Yet any quality like this one, which so effortlessly embodies all form, must lie forever beyond it.
In this way, the embodiment of all form, when it is undertaken through an artistic intuition—undertaken through the "effortless effort"—gives birth to this formless perfection which I often refer to as the Perfection, since there is no other. Edifices such as the Alhambra, which is all about form, even in its own insistent manifestation of the denial of it (no images of things are permitted in Islamic art) embody this contradictory approach to the immaterial through the material.
I shouldn't do it thus; I cannot do it thus; yet I must do it thus.
I am thereby oddly led through a path of shame (Gurdjieff's organic shame, of which far too little is ever said) towards the divine, since the roads that harmonious development takes us down are all, in the end, still inadequate to the task.
I need, I am quite certain, to end all this and arrive at a new beginning: an inward path of utter trust in Grace and absolute abandonment of self, before there can be any receiving place for the divine.
We feel our way together through darkness towards this unknown.
That darkness is framed by the arches of an intelligence and a compassion informed by all things; we pass through the vaulted chambers of not only our own inner histories, but the history of mankind itself, as we march forward into that great Being.
Perhaps, then, Evagrius and, later, Meister Eckhart, call us to this intuition of abandonment, a calling which simultaneously both embodies and discards form. It's a peculiar contradiction that places us in uneasy places.
It is here and now, in the cold light of our collected outer histories and my experienced inner ones—all fragments of an unknown teaching—that I trust my own discomfort.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.