Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Heart And My Flesh Cry Out

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together... And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
- Acts 2:1

This is one of my favorite works by the painter affectionately known as El Greco, The Greek (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). Simply called “The Pentecost” it is an oil on canvas, painted in the 16th century and housed in the Museo del Prado, in Madrid. El Greco came to Italy just about the time Michelangelo was dying, and the Greek is famous, or infamous, for later criticizing the work of the world’s best known artist. In a wave of artistic prudery, Pope Pius V threatened to destroy Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, streaming as it is with naked bodies of the redeemed and the damned. (Let’s recall that a later pope, our beloved John Paul II, called the Sistine Chapel a “shrine to the theology of the body”!). El Greco supposedly claimed he could paint it over again if such a thing happened, and he would do it in a more Christian, appropriate manner. The painters of Italy apparently drove El Greco out for his arrogance, and he never set up shop in Rome again. 

Perhaps El Greco, painting in an almost iconic fashion in the Greek tradition, did err on the side of prudery, but his gifts still shine. His figures are “spiritualized” in a rapturous swirl, as if the Spirit has wooed them and coaxes them up and out of themselves. The Spirit calls them beyond themselves, into a field of infinite possibilities and adventures. Such is the attraction of the fire above their heads in this work, that they flutter upwards like moths to flame. We too would be swept up if not for the anchoring gaze of one of the Apostles, who eyes lock in on us, the viewers. We are left to wonder who it is... Thomas, Peter, one of the James's? In our contemplation this month, let’s allow this work to draw us up into the Spirit’s embrace, but recall this lesson of art history about El Greco and Michelangelo. We are to be humble, and to remember our vocation is not to become angels, pure spirits without bodies, as if the flesh is a weight that hinders the spirit. But we are called to be divinized, body-persons in whom the angels rejoice for the wonders of God written out in our flesh. 

For more on that glorious vision of the human body, see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

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