Michelangelo’s Pieta & Saint Peter’s Basilica

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I have always been drawn to and moved by images of Michelangelo’s Pieta, his sculpture of the Mother Mary holding the body of her son in her lap after his crucifixion. Seeing it in person when I visited Italy last year did not disappoint. To me it symbolizes that  perfect all-embracing, unconditional love that transcends time and space. Her son is dead, beyond her comfort. And yet she holds him with such tenderness and devotion that I don’t feel despair or grief. I feel the power of an undying love and that spills outward, encompassing her and her son and all who behold them.

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The Pieta was commissioned to be “the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could best.”  It is truly that, even today, and is considered by many to be Michelangelo’s greatest work of art, even besting his sculpture of David, and his painting of the Creation of Adam.

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is a magnificent setting for the Pieta. Many masters of the Renaissance contributed to its creation, including Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Donato, and Giacomo della Porta.

After the narrow, crowded spaces of the Vatican museums, it was a pleasure to move within the spacious grandeur of the Basilica. I loved especially the lush details in the decorative grilles and arches, and all the beautiful and varied colors of marble found in the tiled floors and walls, as well as the stunning sculptures.

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Religious Art, Old and New at the Vatican

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Visiting the Vatican Museums while in Rome is a must if you love art and history. The vast richness and splendor of the long halls and chapels, along with the stifling crowds, is almost overwhelming. Too much to really take in. But I found a quiet refuge in the Modern Art gallery tucked away in the middle of the Vatican, where I was able to move at leisure, uncrowded. There I found religious art by Van Gogh, Chagall, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, Redon, Picasso, and so many others.

The place I was most excited to see was the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo”s painting of the Creation of Adam, with God’s finger touching Adam’s. But when I reached the place after being herded through so many countless rooms, I did not recognize it at all. While I found a place against the wall to actually sit and rest my poor feet, I gazed up at the magnificent paintings on the ceiling, not realizing I was in the Sistine Chapel. I was shocked to see the Creation painting, one small rectangle among dozens. Can you find it in the image below?

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For some reason I expected that to be the dominant painting covering nearly the entire ceiling. Not so, as you can see. It is almost lost among the others.

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Photographs were not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so the images of the Creation painting featured  above are not mine. The photos below are.

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The Sistine Chapel was not the only room where the ceilings and walls were covered in paintings.

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But for all the splendor of the long halls and chapels, my favorite rooms and artwork were more intimate and modern.

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Sometimes for me, the simplest drawings are the most moving.

These time-worn tiles below . . .

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. . . and this little faded alcove above also touched me.

But of course, my favorite is still the Creation painting. Even as small as it is and almost lost among the many, it moves me like no other.

A Taste of Rome, The Eternal City

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The last place we visited on our 30-day tour of Europe last year was Rome, the Eternal City. We only had a few days there, and there was so much to see. So I’ll be posting over several days to try to do justice to what we saw.

This first post will be just random photos of the city to give you a taste of what it’s like to just be there, in such an ancient and beautiful city. Most of these were taken within walking distance of our hotel. The most famous being the Trevi Fountain at the top of the post.

In my nest posts I’ll share photos of the Colosseum, the Public Forum, the Vatican museums, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

If you’ve been to Rome, I’m sure you’ve seen all this and will revel in your own memories. If you haven’t, I hope it will whet your appetite to go.

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Welcome Reminders from “The Writer’s Life.” Thank You, Annie

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I’m finding it harder to blog these days, harder to paint, to play piano, to clean house, to do most anything but write, rewrite, and write again.

And yet, despite this, I’m trying to keep the blogging going at least. The painting is on holiday until I start an acrylic and oil class this summer. But the piano, the poor piano! I feel guilty each time I walk by. She so wants to play.

And the house. Well, let’s not talk about the house.

I’m explaining more than complaining. I set this rigorous writing schedule myself. A “scaffolding” Annie Dillard calls it. A “blurred and powerful pattern.” It is all that.

Here is her full quote:

What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

She also writes about the writer’s precarious relationship to a work in process which I’ve found to be quite true:

I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This tender relationship can change in a twinkling. If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight . . . . As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

Another quote relating writing and dying strikes at the heart of the writer’s task:

Write as if you were dying . . . write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. What would you begin writing if you knew you should die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.

Who but an artist fierce to know—not fierce to seem to know—would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.

I read the above quote daily as a reminder: Push, pull, probe, go deeper, page by page. Leave nothing unturned. Don’t do what’s easy. Do what’s hard.

And finally, another reminder when the writing seems so slow and never-ending:

You are writing a book. . . . you do not hurry and do not rest. You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark. When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb. The sun hits you; the bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.

“Do not hurry and do not rest.” Yes. Got it.

“There is an end.” Thank God!

Photo credit: Mary Pickford, public domain.

Letters From Beyond the Grave on Memorial Day

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While neither of these poems have anything in particular to do with remembering those who have given their lives to defend our freedoms, they are reminders that death is not an ending but another beginning. So my heartfelt prayer for them is that they fell into the arms of that great Mothering and are being nurtured and renewed there.

Farewell Letter to My Son

She wrote me a letter
after her death
and I remember
a kind of happy light
falling on the envelope
as I sat by the rose tree
on her old bench
at the back door,
so surprised by its arrival
wondering what she would say,
looking up before I could open it
and laughing to myself
in silent expectation.

Dear son, it is time
for me to leave you.
I am afraid that the words
you are used to hearing
are no longer mine to give,
they are gone and mingled
back in the world
where it is no longer
in my power
to be their first
original author
not their last loving bearer.
You can hear
motherly
words of affection now
only from your own mouth
and only
when you speak them
to those
who stand
motherless
before you.

As for me I must forsake
adulthood
and be bound gladly
to a new childhood.
You must understand
this apprenticeship
demands of me
an elemental innocence
from everything
I ever held in my hands.
I know your generous soul
is well able to let me go
you will in the end
be happy to know
my God was true
and I find myself
after loving you all so long,
in the wide,
infinite mercy
of being mothered myself.

P.S. All your intuitions are true.

By David Whyte

To Leave One’s Own Name Behind

Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one’s own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one’s desires. Strange
to see meanings that clung together once, floating away
in every direction. And being dead is hard work
and full of retrieval before one can gradually feel
a trace of eternity. – Though the living are wrong to believe
in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living
they are moving among, or the dead. The eternal torrent
whirls all ages along in it, through both realms
forever, and their voices are drowned out in its thunderous roar

By Rainer Maria Rilke
from Duino Elegies, The first Elegy
translation by Stephen Mitchell

I found both of these poems and the photo by Edward Steichen on Beauty We Love, a wonderful source of inspiration I turn to often.

A Lovely Sip of Sorrento, Italy

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With summer around the corner I’ve been looking at all the photos I never shared from last year when I was in Europe with my cousins. Sorrento was one of my favorite places and I wish we had had more time to spend there.

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We arrived by ferry from the island of Capri which lies just off the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Sorrento is set upon a high, sheer bluff. We walked along the beachfront and the took an elevator in the cliff wall to the top, where we could look down on the boats and sunbathers.

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At the top of the elevator was a lovely plaza with old and new art, and a beautiful 14th century monastery which hosts events, such as this tribute to Sophia Loren.

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A short walk away is the famous Piazzo Tasso, lines with restaurants and shops, and with a view looking down at the winding road leading to the old port.

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A short block away, was a lush, sunken garden with the ruins of an old saw mill.

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A lovely lunch at a sidewalk cafe and a quick bus tour around the city rounded out our visit. Then we headed back to the waterfront to catch our ferry. I wish we could have explored more. Next time!

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Astonished, Opened at Last

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Stormy blue sunset in Morro Bay, California, United States.

Photo by Beth Sargent

Fallen in Love

by David Whyte

That day I saw beneath dark clouds
the passing light over the water
and I heard the voice of the world speak out,
I knew then, as I had before
life is no passing memory of what has been
nor the remaining pages in a great book
waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things
seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years
of secret conversing
speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert
fallen to his knees before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
as if to enter heaven
and finding himself astonished,
opened at last,
fallen in love with solid ground.

Art that Mirrors the Inner Essence

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Joyce Tenneson

I found this photo on the cover of Sun Magazine some years ago and fell in love with it. It’s from a book by Joyce Tennyson called Light Warriors, with photographs of 21 women from all over the world. The author writes in her introduction:

I was drawn to photograph the people in these pages because I saw something in them, an inner power or radiance that resonated with my unconscious. . . . By trying to reveal their essence, I want to celebrate the beauty and complexity of what it means to be a spiritual warrior–to offer oneself to the world authentically, to flex the courage muscles, to share what it means to be human.

The woman in this photo is Dasha, from Russia. She told Tennyson about a reoccurring dream in which a bird flew out of her heart. Tennyson had similar dreams herself. She tried to photograph the doves flapping their wings around her heart, but didn’t like the way it looked. Then unexpectedly the birds landed on Dasha’s shoulders and she was able to get one shot before they flew away.

Dasha says of herself: “I don’t know who I am, I’m just trying to figure it out. But for me, being a woman is about bringing warmth, beauty, and love from inside you to the those around you. In the United States, people don’t speak about the soul and the heart the way they do in my country. But they are always talking about the past now in Russia. There is sweetness and sadness and nostalgia all mixed together.”

This photograph, for me, beautifully expresses that warmth, beauty, and love inside her. I also see the courage, and vulnerability. I see her—the way she’s dressed and holds herself, the direct gaze, the doves—as an acolyte or priestess in training. Each photo in the book reveals some feminine archetype or psyche.

Tennyson did not pose the women. Instead she encouraged them to express themselves by providing “a safe place for them to be open, to let down their external shields, and to expose an essence or kernel of their being that is normally secret or hidden.” By doing this they were “holding up a mirror to the viewer’s own inner experiences.”

I was so taken with this photograph I saved it for many years, not knowing why. Perhaps because it did mirror some felt experience. But once I started painting I knew I would have to try to capture her in my artwork.

Recently I had an opportunity to do that for an art class project. While I always imagined doing so in soft pastel, I created the piece below in acrylic, not my best medium. Still I like the way it came out. The woman in my painting bears only a mild resemblance to the lovely Dasha, but for me she does capture the spirit of what I see in her and find so inspirational.

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Tennyson writes: “For me photography is a kind of visual diary–it allows me to probe emotions and inner realities that by their nature are invisible but are powerfully present in all of us nonetheless.”

I think that’s what I’m trying to do with my own artwork, my writing as well as my painting, and what I’m drawn to in other’s work.

Maybe we all are holding up mirrors to each other.

 

The Fabulous Island of Capri on the Amalfi Coast

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We spent several days on the fabled Island of Capri during our 30-day whirlwind trip to Europe last summer. It lies along Italy’s gorgeous Amalfi Coast, which I wrote about not too long ago. While fantastically beautiful, Capri seemed a little too polished and glitzy for my taste. Especially when compared with the old world charm of the city of Sorrento, which we visited by ferry while in Capri. I’ll be writing about that next.

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We start here with a few photos of the main harbor of Capri and then work our way up the narrow winding streets toward our hotel at the very top, with spectacular views looking down.

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Later we took a boat tour around the island, cruising through the landmark arches and stopping at the famous Blue Grotto, a playground for Roman emperors in times past.. The waters all around the island were fantastic shades of blue against the limestone cliffs.

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Here we are lining up to get into the Blue Grotto. Small skiffs would come out to the tour boats and take small groups of 4 or 5 through. We were all prepared to get out for a swim inside, but the trip through was just too fast and  crowded. While eerily beautiful inside, I felt like I was on a conveyor belt with all the boats moving so quickly in and out of the grotto with their passengers.

 

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One last wave goodbye to this fabled island with all its natural beauty, its fabulous riches, and its ancient history. Onward to Sorrento!

What Makes this Photo So Fascinating?

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Vivian Maier (1926-2009)

What makes a photograph great? What draws us to look again and again? What is it we see that fascinates us so?

These are the kinds of questions that haunt me, because they speak to the human condition, what makes us human, what inspires us and sets us on fire. Why we are drawn to some things, why do they whisper to us in a way that makes us feel that as if we could only ferret this out we will have drawn aside some mysterious veil that hides the secrets of our soul from us.

I want to get to the bottom of these things, to understand what excites me and why–in art, in music, in literature, in the simple objects that I find in my house that give me such pleasure when I look at them, take them in.

Where does this pleasure come from? Why am I drawn to look deep inside this mirror?

The photograph above by Vivian Maier fascinates me. Her story is fascinating as well. Maier is considered one of the finest photographers of our age, yet she was unknown in her lifetime. Her photographs of city life, thousands of them, were found after her death, as negatives, never developed, never printed. Yet it’s not her story that draws me to this photo. It stands by itself as an object of art, a moment forever stilled in time for our rapt attention.

I suppose what first captures the eye is the stunning beauty of the woman, like an Aphrodite of old captured in stone. We are drawn toward beautiful things, no matter what their nature: a woman, a man, a child, a sunset, a spectacular cathedral.

But there is so much more to this photo that captures and holds our gaze, that makes it exciting and evocative and a pleasure to look at, than the mere beauty of the woman’s face. There’s also the expression on her face, the sideways glance, the downward gaze, the dark arching eyebrows and melancholy mouth. Those eyes. There’s a mysterious Mona Lisa appeal that makes us look with wonder at her: who is she, what is she thinking, where is she going? We have some clues, and these too comprise in part what makes this photo so fascinating.

Behind her is an imposing edifice slightly out of focus, a courthouse I’m guessing, with steps leading down to the street, as if she has just vacated that space.  The strong central column leads directly to her, the soft pale gray stone in direct contrast with her shining dark hair. While the sharper, horizontal lines of the near stairs behind her also point provocatively toward her. She is caught at the apex of their meeting.

Surrounding her (almost like a parenthesis to enhance her significance) are the elderly women moving past and leaning toward her with their bent backs and grey heads. They too are slightly out of focus. Passersby in motion contrasting with her stark startling stillness.

Below her is a streak of white, slantwise and mysterious, a ghostly blur. It appears she is standing in the middle of the street, or perhaps on the curb, and the photographer is viewing her from the open window of a passing vehicle. That blur, that streak of passing time across her breast, of swift motion, contrasts sharply with her stillness and the sharp, clean details that freeze her in time: The pearl necklace and earring; the wings of her wide collar framing her face; the sharp, delicate sculpture of her collar bones; the dark hollow of her throat and gentle curve of her jaw; the feathering of the dark eyelash silhouetted against the white stone behind her.

She is a study of stillness against the motion that surrounds her, and without that surrounding motion, without all those revealing contrasts and details, she would not appear so alluring, nor would this photograph be so fascinating. Without all the lines leading toward her, framing her, setting her apart from all else; without her face being set like a polished diamond within the gray softness surrounding her; without that stunning stillness caught within a blur of motion, like a second in time frozen for all eternity, this photograph would lose its fascination. For me at least.

There’s poetry in this photograph, rhythm, rhyme, music. It speaks profoundly on the eternal nature of beauty and its fragility within a timescape that erases the very thing it  evolves. Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn, Shelley’s Hymn to Beauty speak no more eloquently to that theme than this single image does.

There’s tenderness here, love, compassion, heartbreak and pathos, as well as a beauty beyond knowing, beyond time. Something we feel deeply and speaks movingly to what it means to be human shrouded in so much mystery. And that’s what I find so fascinating. How a single image, flashed on the fly, can capture all that.