Sunday, January 2
or, The Long-Expected Bill Moyers and Sandro Botticelli Neo-Platonist Christmas Special
“Oh yeah. Venus on the half-shell.” The girl sitting in the South Bend Airport lounge was talking about Botticelli. She approved. But then she was able to summon a peppily generic enthusiasm about nearly everything. It was an enthusiasm which distanced rather than united, including a vague, excited “oh, that’s cool” for the CD of medieval Czech folk music I had brought along with me for the plane trip. She wasn’t bad looking in a freckled, harmless sort of way: another archetype of the Notre Dame kore in sweatshirt and jeans.
A veiled reference to The Da Vinci Code popped up in the next sentence, though the sacred feminine was curiously absent. Fortunately.
While the Da Vinci Code ruckus had died down on campus at long last, Venus on the half-shell, with her anatomically impossible round shoulders and her flying autumn-tawny mane, had kept following me around for the last couple of months. She’d been dogging my mental steps most of the semester ever since she’d popped up on the projector screen in History 430 sometime in mid-October. And then—
“But I told my professor, ‘Look at her, that’s the face of Eve in Eden before the Fall.’ ” It was Lauren talking, fellow blogger and Catholic Nerd, on the phone, just back from a fall studying abroad in Italy, homeland of Botticelli and his near-identical procession of Madonnas, martyrs, virgins and goddesses with their impossibly white skin, their snub noses, their placid, quizzically hooded gazes. But was his vision of the birth of Venus hanging in the Uffizi the ikon of a proto-Christian saint or a neo-pagan sinner?
We’d both talked art before, so it was no surprise this little philosophical Chinese puzzle-box had come up again. The conversation had taken this fork when I mentioned that my final essay question for Hist 430 was in re Michelangelo (The Agony and the Ecstasy, not the mutant ninja turtle) “explain to Pope Julius why there was a naked man painted on his ceiling.” Adam, to be specific.
Face of Eve in Eden. That’s darn good. “Wow, did you just make that up, Lauren? I like it.”
“You better like it. That’s what you said about her the last time I called.”
Wow, I better write that down. I’m good. “Oh. Nice. But, what’d she say?”
“She was skeptical. I think it was something like, ‘Well, if you were walking ’round a Renaissance palace how often would you be likely to see a big painting of a naked woman?’ ” What would your average Joe Schmoe—Messer Giovanni Schmomini, whatever—of the Renaissance think about a big nude chick? Get real.
Lauren thought that what he said was a cheap shot. It was.
I grew up watching Sister Wendy Beckett on public television, a gaunt, graceful, buck-tooth-smiling scarecrow in an imposing black habit that could have come off the set of The Sound of Music. She was a nun art expert: a superstar in some circles. She was an odd, lisping creature who’d entered a teaching order at age sixteen, gone to Oxford, and, her epilepsy worsening, ended up in 1970 as a part-time anchoress in a battered trailer (worth seventy-five dollars) on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery at Quindenham in Norfolk.
She had never seen a TV set before she got on one, and that otherwordliness, that curious medieval otherworldiness even carries over into her private life. She spends seven hours a day in prayer and six months a year in seclusion and survives on a birdlike (or perhaps Catherine of Siena-like) rationed diet of skim milk, crackers, and two potato chips per day.
Her name used to be Sister Michael of St. Peter, but after Vatican II she changed it back. She says, “I did it as a humiliation, and it pleased my dear mother. It's a silly name and I don't like it. But I am silly! I am a Wendy.” Humilitas.
She’d wander the stucco shadows of Urbino or the gilded halls of the Louvre, and stop in front of some grand canvas, the camera framing her lean, black-draped silhouette as stark as a piece of conceptual art. And then she’d proceed to take to bits everything modern man had gotten wrong about the human body in an English-accented voice so acerbically gentle, so subtle that she’d slipped onto PBS without any of the powers-that-be raising the alarm. She was harmless, she was cute, aw, she was old, with those huge silly glasses—
But she was dangerous, in the best of ways.
I remember they had her on with Bill Moyers once, in a big, airy library, sitting on green leather chairs. He was asking her how a consecrated virgin like herself could stand there and talk about naked people in paintings. The Church, that kaleidoscope of history emblazoned with flagellants and penitents, virgin-martyrs and repentant prostitutes, “I am dark but I am comely,” divine guidance and human failure, Adam innocent in the garden and Cain killing Abel, Mary squirting milk across a room for a saint, fanatics kissing rotting relics and murmurs of “thou art dust,” debauched cardinals with robes flaming like bonfires of vanities, saints smearing quicklime on their faces to blot out their beauty and an incarnate God sucking at a girl’s breast, how could She find room under her golden mantle for—
For paintings of nekkid people.
You took our job. We sophisticates are supposed to like artsy nekkid people. Especially if we can make it into a big dirty power trip. Of course, he didn’t say that. But he could have.
It came out in his drawl sounding like a Blue Stater caricature of a slightly smug, slightly shocked Baptist minister trying to close down a dance-hall or a Faulknerian Susanna and the Elders. I can’t remember what her exact words were, but she slipped through Moyers’s web of imagined Manichaenism.
The truth was she could talk about everything and anything, sex and sense, death and drama, TV and humanity, with a face straight and serious because she was shut up in a trailer for six months at a time on potato chips and prayer, shaved her head and married Jesus as a teenage virgin. Her chastity was one of praise, not fear, not fear of humanity’s naughty bits like every movie and anti-Catholic ranter would have you believe. She was pure, and for her, the world and all its creatures had retained its prelapsarian purity.
This alien emissary from the pre-modern world could look on human perfection—nekkid or no—and see who and what God had wrought, and see it was good. Or could see when twisting it forms a sham, a parody of God’s good creation. As a writer at Envoy magazine has it:
Such reactions [of prudery from liberals] perplex Sister Wendy. “Why does [anyone] think that anybody should not delight in the creative work of God? ...This suggests that...He’s done these shameful things and we must do our best to cover them up. This is not the Faith.” While Sister Wendy believes that modesty demands a certain “appropriateness,” she doesn't believe we have any “nasty bits.”She, she, the eighty-year-old-virgin, could sound well-adjusted and relaxed and poetic and beautiful and—honest about this strange thing that men and women are and that stranger thing they do, imaging the Divine in the marriage-bed. It was Homo televisificus who was left there as lonely and sexually weird (who, in their right mind, asks an eighty-year-old nun if she regrets never having had sex?) as all those repressed stylites ought to have been in a just world—in Moyers’ case, a world without God.
For others, this frank delight in the human form is a unique witness. It is obvious that her celibacy is not rooted in a fear and repression, but joy. “Im an outsider to sex,” she admits. “The fires of it mean nothing to me.” While she is happy for the gift of sexuality for others, she considers her “solitude with God” a “bigger gift.”
(When Moyers asked her if she thought she had become a paradox as the first cloistered nun on TV, she did not deny it: “Yes, [it is] bizarre. It’s the kind of thing only God would do.” Moyers, a man of the world comfortable in the highest echelons of politics and art, was dumbfounded.)
In the earliest days of the pagan world, sex was everywhere, but the sanctuary of an Etruscan temple, bristling with Priapic accessories, however much it looked like pre-Giuliani Times Square, was an entirely different thing. Sex was a force of nature, was the wheelwork that drove the course of the seasons, and frankly it was something scary. It was depersonalizing—take a look at the Venus of Willendorf sometime, a faceless crone all broad hips and pendulous breasts, a totem rather than a human. Or, in the British Isles, there was the hideous gnomish sheela-na-gig with her evil, almost idiotic smirk, looking all the world like a sexually-depraved ancestor of Spielberg’s E.T. One flick through a book on pre-Christian Ireland, that paradisical pagan island so beloved of today’s free-and-easy Wiccan wanna-blessed-bes would give even Don Juan nightmares. There are worse succubae than Sheela. I can’t talk about them in a family forum. Trust me here. (Rememebr Ungit in Till We Have Faces? Kid stuff. Much worse than that.) The earliest pagans knew sex was something powerful—not necessarily pleasurable, not even necessarily good—and they brandished it in the face of the thousand natural threats that closed tight upon them in the dark prehistoric night.
They were wrong to dehumanize it, and there is a horrible, ugly wrongness to that world you can see in the awkward wooden gods that post-Christian archaeologists have pulled from the depths of Hibernian bogs. It is a far different sort of ugliness than mere modern fornication, though I cannot say which one is worse when you get down to it. At least some of the pagans, in their own warped way, recognized there was more than mere pleasure at stake.
Christianity raised the world from a frightening wilderness populated by capricious gods and made it the work of the one good God. Christianity also took marriage from the natural realm, and lifted it into the supernatural, and something once sacred and terrifying, yoked to the terrifying gods of the world and exposed to ward off the elements, became a sacred and beautiful thing, a veiled thing. Because you veil good things. Who wraps mud in beautiful gauze? You veil virgin brides in purest white. You veil nuns. You veil tabernacles, the home of God on earth. The immodesty of the prehistoric tribesman was out of a desparate fear of power—and it was the modesty of Christ that brought true freedom. No longer did pagans had to throw smoking carcasses on the sacrificial pyres of voracious Aphrodite. The unknown God, the loving God, He had given us His son as a final sacrifice, and we could be free from fear. No longer was sex about power—until, perhaps, our own soft-core neo-pagan days. But that’s another story.
The naked goddess of the Renaissance, however pagan she looked, could probably not have risen from those softly-lapping waves of Cyprus without Christianity to make her body something transcendent rather than a mere engine for fertility rites. To the most ancient of Greeks, let us recall, the whole tale of the birth of Venus started with Uranus getting castrated, a detail we have mercifully forgotten. This softened, beautiful, rounded version of the myth is one which owes perhaps more to the Christian imagination than the pagan. After all, it is to the Song of Songs, not the lyric poetry of Sappho, that Baldassare Castiglione, the Renaissance’s best-selling neo-Platonist Emily Post, appeals in his Book of the Courtier when he invokes the contemplation of Beauty as a road to the Divine:
I name not unto you the fine wittes that are nowe in the worlde, and here present, whiche dailye bringe furthe some noble frute, and notwythstandynge take their grounde onlye of the vertue and beawtye of women. See whether Salomon myndynge to write mysticallye verye highe and heavenlye matters, to cover them wyth a gracious veile, did not feigne a fervent Dialogue full of the affection of a lover with his woman, seeminge to him that he coulde not fynde here beeneth emonge us anye lykenesse more meete and agreeinge wyth heavenlye matters, then the love toward women: and in that wise and maner minded to gyve us a litle of the smacke of that divinitye, whiche he bothe for hys understandynge and for the grace above others, had knowleage of.A gracious veile. I remember once, myself, passing a poster tacked up on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, of Botticelli’s Pallas and the Centaur—beauty and brains taming the man-beast—and sighing to myself, O Virgin Mother, surely You are even more beautiful than Athena!
The pagans did get some things right, though they never knew how right. (Homo naturaliter Christianus.) The eighteenth-century Hermeneia or Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna—son of the priest Panagiotos Chalkia, and the author of eighteen epigrams, four surviving letters, and two hymns, one to the martyred Seraphim of Phanarios and the other to the Virgin of the Zodochos Pege—explains in elegant calligraphic Greek, spattered with trailing crossbars and accent-marks like cartoon eyebrows the correct ways of applying gesso to an ikonostasis, how to melt a ducat, how to paint the nine choirs of angels and what sort of beard St. Simeon Thaumastooreites possessed.
It also notes how to paint the narthex of the Church with images of the Greek philosophers clutching scrolls of prophesy.
Apollonius; an old man with a long beard, divided into two points wearing a veil on his head, says on a scroll: “I, even I, proclaim one God alone in a Trinity, ruling on high whose imperishable Word shall be conceived in an innocent Virgin. For He will fly through space like a purple ark, and subjugate the whole universe, and will bring it as a gift to his father.Plato, Solon, Aristotle, Sophocles, Plutarch, the wise Sibyl, even the Egyptian Thothmosis, they’re all there, and probably still are. The prophesies sound a little too good to be true, and some spoil-sport folk say the extant Sibylline Books are palaeo-Christian forgeries, but whatever the case, certainly Thomas had room for the Philosopher in his theology. A footnote claims it started in the sixteenth century in response to the Turks, and cites an incomprehensible German article entitled Darstellungen altheidnischer Denker und Autoren in der Kirchenmalerei der Grichen and published in some yellowing scholarly journal back in 1923.
Plato, an old man with a long, wide beard, says: “The old is made new and the new is made old; the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father; unity is divided into three and trinity is in unity.
Botticelli would have approved. But what of his howling contemporary, black-robe Savonarola—in whose profile the crackpot mystical populist Ignatius Donelley saw the face of a bloodstained Mayan pictogram—silhouetted against the fires of his book-burnings? Savonarola, the excommunicated heretic burnt at the stake, Savonarola the blessed seen in visions by St. Catherine of Genoa who lies still incorrupt in her tomb, Savonarola the saint who prayed in cloisters frescoed by Frá Angelico, Savonarola the wicked, Savonarola the Machiavellian politico caught unawares—
Wouldn’t he have burned milk-white Venus if he had the chance?
Botticelli and Michelangelo themselves were among his followers, and while Botticelli was (supposedly) never quite the same afterwards, certainly Michelangelo went on to populate the world with more paintings of nekkid folk. Some say that Savonarola’s blaze consumed inestimable treasure, others claim all that was lost were a handful of unmemorable and undoubtedly smutty paintings and a few wigs. Some may have seen smut when they saw Venus on the half-shell, but what did the Florentines see? What did Botticelli the artist see?
The Florentine neo-Platonists were omnivorous scholars, sometimes too omnivorous for their own good given Savonarola’s fire-and-brimstone, for all his humanist education. But sometimes their far-too-catholic explorations, their Hellenic tastes and their dabblings into odd corners of Chaldean myth unearthed something unexpectedly glorious. They were fascinated by the myths of the old-time Platonists, who had spoken mysteriously of how, at the beginning of time, Beauty had emanated down to the solid, real world of the everyday from the realm of the Forms, and how beauty in earthly things, beauty herself—or himself?—personified, could lead us back to the heavenly spheres from whence it had come. Had some deep archetype of what was to come, some stamp of the blueprint of Salvation History within their souls lead them to this prophesy of the Incarnation? God is Love—Christ is Love—Christ is Beauty, thought the Renaissance scholars in their scarlet silks and their newly-translated parchments.
It even looks like a baptism, and Venus—in the pose of shy Venus, modest Venus shielding herself, veiling herself with her hair—stands atop the cockle-shell we see worked in brass every time a priest murmurs amid the splashes, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Thus, the myth of Venus’s foam-birth—matter fertilized by divinity—became, for Botticelli and his friends, something more than a pretty myth, an excuse to paint a pretty girl. It became in a way, the prefigurement of God’s birth in a chill, muddy stable, and suddenly the Gospel tale, familiar and too-comfortable, was thrown into a wild and radical light.
The human body is a thing of beauty, and things of beauty can be twisted and scarred. Sex can become a pagan power-struggle or neo-pagan self-centered gratification. The human body can be and is defamed daily through smut—but that should not stop us from recalling when we look upon this masterpiece of Botticelli it was made by the hand of God, and dare us to expect more from ourselves. Let us dare to see Eve’s pre-fallen glory—let us dare to see the Incarnation in every face we behold.