patience under humiliation

“Act as if everything depended on you;
trust as if everything depended on God.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola


(Christ the Redeemer, Michealangelo / Santa Maria sopra Minerva / Julie Cook / 2018)

“Our Blessed Lord, bound like a thief,
is conducted through the public streets of Jerusalem accompanied by a large body of soldiers
who indulge their rage and hatred by ill-treating Him in every possible way,
and surrounded by a multitude of people who overwhelm Him with insults and maledictions,
and rejoice over His misfortunes. Jesus advances,
His feet bare, and His strength utterly exhausted by all His mental and bodily sufferings,
offering up the ignominy and tortures He is now enduring, to His Eternal Father, for the salvation of my soul.
The soldiers render His position still more painful,
by inviting people to approach and see their renowned prisoner,
while Jesus proceeds on His way in the midst of them, with a humble demeanor and with downcast eyes,
to teach us what value we should set on the esteem and honor of the world, and the applause of men.
But a few days previously Jesus had passed through these same streets,
applauded and honored by the crowd as the Messiah, and now, abandoned even by His disciples,
He is followed only by perfidious enemies who seek His death,
and unite in deriding and insulting Him as a malefactor, and the last of men.
Such is the duration of the honors and praises of the world!
Learn hence to seek the good pleasure of God alone, to labor for the acquisition of a right
to the immortal honors of Paradise, and to practice patience under humiliation,
from the example of Jesus.”

Fr. Ignatius of the Side of Jesus, p. 79-80
An Excerpt From
The School of Christ Crucified

the Holy Spirit is on the move…

“Often, actually very often, God allows his greatest servants,
those who are far advanced in grace,
to make the most humiliating mistakes.
This humbles them in their own eyes and in the eyes of their fellow men.”

St. Louis de Montfort


(detail from an altar’s funerary tomb within the Chruch of Santa Maria sopra Minerva/
Rome, Itlay / Julie Cook / 2018)

On a warm October afternoon as my husband was back in the hotel taking a much
needed and long awaited nap—
I opted to step out into the streets of the madness which is synonymous
with the Eternal city of Roma…
Wandering with a purpose while drinking in both past and present.

Now I will say that ever since I was a wee child,
napping was just something that was never ever on my radar.
Mother would ‘put me down’ for my nap, gently closing the door, as I’d wail in protest…
Once I realized I was pretty much stuck, I would then defiantly stand up on the bed with
little elbows resting on a windowsill as I’d stare out wondering about the world outside.

What was I missing?
I wasn’t sleepy.
Why waste this precious time offered for living by sleeping??

And before all of you nap advocates out there begin to read me the riot act over the
glorious benefits of naps…
with those first protestors being my cats and my husband…
I will simply plead my defense to my odd wiring…
I am simply not a napper.

So on this early October afternoon, I chose not to nap but rather to explore, meandering
the overtly crowded streets near the frenetic sea of tourists milling in and around
the Pantheon in Rome.
And as usual, I found myself drifting off course.
I cut down a side street that gave way to a quieter and much smaller piazza.
The Piazza della Minerva.

Seeking peace amongst the madness.

I quickly realized I was standing outside of the Dominican Chruch of
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, or rather known to English speakers as
Saint Mary above Minerva—
The name is due to the fact that a Christian Chruch was built over an early temple
dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, or rather the Latinized version being
that of Minerva.

Nothing gives me a greater sense of peace when I’m visiting a large frantic historic city
then finding a hidden, off the radar, church…be it big or small…

Ode to the sacred that beckons me to come in…
Coming in to marvel,
to rest,
to wonder
to ponder,
to think,
to pray…

I am drawn in to such places like an iron ball is drawn to a magnet.
With my eyes open wide, usually adjusting to the dim flickering candlelight,
as my head tilts upward, all the while I try to find my balance as I take in the size
and scope of what it is I’ve been drawn in to.

I allow myself to bask in the utter majesty or rest in the pure simplicity of our
Christian roots.

Such was the case in this ancient gothic church constructed in 1320.

I’ll share more about this visit later as there is a beautiful statue of the risen Christ,
flanking the main altar, carved by Michelangelo…along with the beautiful frescoed altar
paintings by Filippino Lippi
(you remember I was an art teacher right??)

I reverently wandered in this cavernous church while the footsteps of both myself
and those who had also come inside..those who were both curious as well as seeking,
echoed throughout the massive sanctuary.

I stopped before each niche and each chapel, studying and soaking in what I saw.
Soaking in the stories, the emotions, the glory, and even the sorrow offered
to those who take the time to look, read, ponder and imagine.

When suddenly I found myself gazing upon what
appeared to be a large collection of various polished white marble statues.

It was actually more like one particular statue that was just one piece of a much larger
carved funerary tomb which held my gaze steadfast.

There were several statues of women and angels.
Large and imposing, they made me feel very small…both physically as well as metaphorically.

One figure, that of a woman who I initially assumed to be Mary, turned her body away from
the viewers, as well as from her fellow statues.

She was covering her face, turning her body, in what appeared to be a
state of anguish or perhaps even shame…
All the while, a small cherub, also known as putti, looked directly at her in a most knowing
and penetrating fashion.

What did he know about this woman?
What had happened?

Yet rather than being a statute of Mary, this woman was actually a portrayal of Justice…
And rather than being a typical blindfolded image of a woman, as Justice is usually depicted,
this statue, designed by Bernini, was portrayed as a woman who seemed consumed by grief.

There were suddenly a thousand thoughts racing through my mind as I gazed up at this somewhat
painfilled moment of time.
A moment that should have otherwise been private, was here on display for all to see.

No hiding her grief.
No mourning and crying privately.
The putti knew…and now I knew.

But what did I know?

I felt compelled to offer, albeit in some distant fashion, comfort.
I could feel the weight of her pain.
But why?
I had no idea.

Fast forwarding to yesterday morning, I was reading my morning devotions when I came to
the following excerpt from Father Jacques Philippe.
I had a similar reaction to his words as I did to that statue…
there was a sense of the deep weight of both pain and understanding.

Like I say, we will come back to take a deeper and wider look into the beauty and mystery
of Santa Maria sopra Minerva but for now…
The Holy Spirit is busy…
this much I do know…

“When uncertain about God’s will, it is very important that we tell ourselves:
‘Even if there are aspects of God’s will that escape me,
there are always others that I know for sure and can invest in without any risk,
knowing that this investment always pays dividends.’
These certainties include fulfilling the duties of our state in life and practicing
the essential points of every Christian vocation.
There is a defect here that needs to be recognized and avoided:
finding ourselves in darkness about God’s will on an important question . . .
we spend so much time searching and doubting or getting discouraged,
that we neglect things that are God’s will for us every day,
like being faithful to prayer, maintaining trust in God, loving the people around us here and now.
Lacking answers about the future,
we should prepare to receive them by living today to the full.”

Fr. Jacques Philippe, p. 55
An Excerpt From
Interior Freedom

chains

A christian martyrdom is never an accident,
for Saints are not made by accident.”

T.S. Eliot

“What Saint has ever won his crown without first contending for it?”
St. Jerome


(The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli / the Basilica of St Peter in Chains / Rome, Ialy /
Julie Cook / 2018)

So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

The night before Herod was to bring him to trial,
Peter was sleeping between two soldiers,
bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance.
Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell.
He struck Peter on the side and woke him up.
“Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.”
And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him.
Peter followed him out of the prison,
but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening;
he thought he was seeing a vision.
They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city.
It opened for them by itself, and they went through it.
When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.
(Acts 12:5-10)

The bonds, according to tradition, once held fast the limbs of St. Peter the Apostle
and have been cherished by Christians since the first century.

The story of their veneration first appears in the ancient Acts of Saint Alexander,
an early pope who died as a martyr in AD 115.
As he awaited his own execution, he received a visit from Quirinus,
the nobleman who oversaw the prisons in Rome.
The man’s daughter Balbina was desperately ill,
and he had heard that Pope Alexander had the power to heal her.
She was completely cured when the pope touched her with his chains.
Balbina wanted to kiss the chains in gratitude —
but Alexander instructed her to find the chains of St. Peter and honor them instead.

Balbina became a Christian–and, according to some accounts, a consecrated virgin–
and she arranged for the construction of a shrine for St. Peter’s fetters.
It would be rebuilt and moved and expanded through the centuries.

As Rome’s Christians honored Peter’s chains from the Mamertine,
so the Church in Jerusalem kept his chains from the Herodian prison.
In the fifth century, the Christian empress Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius II,
sent a length of Peter’s Jerusalem chains to St. Leo the Great.
According to tradition, Leo held it beside Peter’s chains from the Mamertine Prison,
and the two miraculously, inseparably fused together.

There are abundant testimonies to the presence of these chains in Rome.
St. Gregory the Great, who reigned as pope from 590 to 604,
was intensely devoted to the relic and often sent small filings as gifts to dignitaries–
to Constantina Augusta, the Byzantine empress; to a bishop named Columbus;
to King Childebert of the Franks; to King Rechared of the Visigoths; and to Theodore,
the court physician at Constantinople.
He would place the filing in a key-shaped reliquary–
the key representing Peter’s authority.
He sent each particle with a prayer
“that what bound [Peter’s] neck for martyrdom, may loose yours from all sins.”

The chains are today exposed for veneration in a gold and glass reliquary in the
Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli, on Rome’s Oppian Hill,
a church built in the fifth century during the reign of Leo the Great.
(Catholic Education Resource Center)

The Basilica of St Peter’s in Chains is what we consider, by Catholic Chruch standards,
as a minor basilica…meaning it is not one of the four Major Basilicas in Rome…
Rather it is a church of perhaps lesser significance but, in my opinion, it is still
significant none the less.

Say what you will about the Catholic Chruch, there is simply no denying that our roots,
our Christian roots, run deep in and through Rome.
That which had become known as the Latin West Chruch.

In the very dust of this city that is oozing with a vast array of sensory overloads,
rests the shadows of those who went long before us, all helping to create the history
we hold dear to this day.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, and eventual death, Rome was considered to be
the center of all that was and is.

A great and mighty empire who’s arms reached far and wide…even to the obscure
desert outpost of Judea.

The Roman Empire and the life of a Jewish carpenter were on a collision course.

Rome was considered the epicenter of this once mighty Empire…the seat of its government.

Scripture tells us that both Peter and Paul traveled to, preached throughout,
were each imprisoned in and were both eventually executed in this once important
center of all of humankind.

Yet today’s chaotic, trendy, chic and often very dirty city is a far cry from the city
that once “ruled the world.”

Just this past weekend there was a massive citywide protest as demonstrators took to
the streets showing their disdain for Rome’s crumbling infrastructure,
its overflowing trash and the fact that rats and even wild boar now roam this once
orderly city seeking out the overflowing trash.

Decades of inept and governmental corruption has taken its toll of what was once
Imperial Rome

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46003670

Yet Rome remains a rich treasure trove of our human history.
From art to architecture, from the sacred to the mysterious, Rome offers the curious a
fantastic feast.

The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is but one treat in this Roman feast.

Many people come here not so much to see a box of old chains but rather they wish
to see a masterpiece of marble and craftsmanship–
up close and personal, that of Michelangelo’s Moses.


(all images by Julie Cook, Rome, Italy / 2018)

The statue of Moses is only a part of what was to be the massive tomb for Pope Julius II—
the same pope who had a lifelong love-hate relationship with Michaelangelo

The Pope had charged Michaelangelo to construct a massive tomb to be used after his death.
Yet during the same time, the Pope had commissioned Michaelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel.

As Michaelangelo never considered himself to be a painter but rather a sculptor only, he felt
a deep sense of angst over having to work on such a massive undertaking of painting.

A painting that millions of people now flock yearly to see.

He actually ran away at one point, attempting to escape the demands of the man who history
now attributes to be the pope who brought St Peter’s to the glory that we marvel over today.
The Pope actually sent his soldiers to Florence to retrieve Michaelangelo…
bringing him back to finish his commission, of which they did and Michaelangelo in turn
eventually did.

Fortunately or unfortunately, however, Pope Julius II died before Michaelangelo could finish
the massive tomb. Yet luckily today for both the curious and the tourist,
we may view this lesser monument here in the Basilica.

The statue of Moses is the central figure that draws all attention.
It is a single massive piece of Carrara marble.

Looking closely one sees that Moses has what appears to be horns protruding
from his head. But the horns are due to a mistranslation.

Michelangelo’s Moses is depicted with horns on his head.
He, like so many artists before him, was laboring under a misconception.
This is believed to be because of the mistranslation of the Hebrew Scriptures
into Latin by St Jerome.
Moses is actually described as having “rays of the skin of his face”,
which Jerome in the Vulgate had translated as “horns”.
The mistake in translation is possible because the word “keren”
in the Hebrew language can mean either “radiated (light)” or “grew horns”.

(Rome.Info)

And whereas I will always stand in awe and marvel anytime I have an opportunity to stand
and gaze on a massive piece of marble that a seemingly otherworldly gifted man managed to
coax out an unbelievable miracle of vision and craftsmanship,
it is to the box of chains that held my fascination on this most recent visit.

Those who are jaded or who scoff over the significance afforded to something, that may or
may not be what it claims to be, may certainly be that way and question.

And whereas I cannot say yay or nay as to the authenticity of these chains…
Were these the actual chains that held Peter?
I don’t know if any of us can ever say, and  yet to me,
it is not whether they are or are not what they claim to be which is important
but is to where they direct my thoughts.

They have been on display since the year 115,
roughly 47 years following Peter’s execution in Rome.

I have sat in the Mamertine prison.

Sitting in the dark, on a small ledge, contemplating the fate of those who
were once kept in this underground dungeon.
It is, as it was then, a dark enclosed dungeon..an outcropping that now sits at the
foot of Capitoline Hill. A Christian church now sits atop this prison.

Prisoners were lowered by ropes down into this pit of a prison.
It is the prison said to have once held both Saints, Peter and Paul.

Peter was bound in chains when he held as a prisoner in the Herodian prison
as well as the Mamertine prison.

So as to this miraculous union of two separate sets of chains binding together as one,
again, is beyond my ability to say…

But what I do know is that these mysterious chains draw me back to scripture,
they draw me back to a mighty God who uses simple men and women to do mighty works.

No chain, no boundary, no weight, no limitation exists that can hold our Mighty God.
Small things such as a box full of historical chains are but a physical reminder of this.

Sometimes we need, I need, those physical reminders because my mind, our minds,
are so limited whereas our God is so limitless.

And so as Pope Gregory the Great reminds us…
“that what bound [Peter’s] neck for martyrdom, may loose yours from all sins.”

Amen…

prophetic spirit….

“I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me”
Jeremiah 33:8

09_1pr6a
(image of the prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel)

Despite the distress of our time, we have lost touch with this prophetic spirit.
In fact, the inmost nature of prophecy has become an enigma to us.
We no longer grasp its primary source anymore.

Eberhard Arnold

Where are the voices…
those strong, confident and defiant voices that portend the fate of man?
Those ancient distant voices which proclaimed, declared, lamented, warned and foretold…
Those quixotic ones, from the days of old, whose words spoke of both power and truth …

In this oh so modernly smug time of man, believers are left to silently wonder,
as the non believer ridicules and scoffs.
Taunting the faithful while arrogantly puffing their chests.
For modern man has declared himself his own deity and god.

As Eberhard Arnold pragamatically observes, we have lost touch with that part
within ourselves which allowed us to hear those prophetic voices.
We have grown cold to our spiritual nature…
As we have distanced ourselves to the point of total disregard,
For that innate piece of the Divine that was once very attuned…
Allowing rather the void to be filled by our haughty sense of self.

Those voices however have never been silenced…
Never stopped or cut short over the windswept history of time…
they have not grown cold as the hard stones of earth…
but rather it is man who has grown cold, having lost his ability to hear them.
For man has turned a deaf ear to the apocalyptical.

Yet it is in that same breath of disheartened resignation that
Arnold offers us a bit of hope…

“The attitude is [still] possible only when a different heart beats within us,
different from that which has been in us so far, and when God’s spirit dwells in us,
as Ezekiel promises for these last days (Ezek.11:19).

If the earth is to be filled with the glory of God,
then the triune Spirit must fill and pervade the people who dwell on it.
Only when the Spirit gains influence over us, a sovereignty thus
far completely unknown,
can we expect the social and moral transformation that Mary sings about…”

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

The Magnificat
Luke 1:46-55

“Maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always”
Hosea 12:6

Oh but to glimpse a mere wisp of your Being

“…My unassisted heart is barren clay,
Which of its native self can nothing feed:
Of good and pious works Thou art the seed,
Which quickens only where Thou say’st it may;
Unless Thou show to us Thine own true way,
No man can find it: Father! Thou must lead….”

Excerpt from Michaelangelo’s sonnet,
To the Supreme Being
as translated by William Wordsworth

DSCN1752
(looking off the shoreline cliffs of Gleann Cholm Cille out to the mighty northern Atlantic, County Donegal, Ireland / Julie Cook / 2015–a picture which cannot do justice to the sheer overwhelming and endless and uncontainable landscape which is this island Nation)

If we are fortunate enough, perhaps attuned enough, aware enough, enlightened enough, still enough, quiet enough, open enough, low enough, sad enough, hurting enough, joyful enough, mad enough, young enough, old enough, happy enough, skeptical enough, believe enough, doubt enough, love enough…
At some point during our lifetime we may actually find ourselves coming close within the very proximity of the sacred space of the very presence of the Divine.

“Oh rubbish” you incredulously scoff.
“For none of us are so worthy….
None of us so believe…
None of us so care…
That is stuff of mere legends and fairytales..
Gobblety gook of the weak-minded and illogical.”

Yet it happens.

Each and everyday, all over this planet, it happens.
God, The Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is felt, known, heard and or glimpsed.

And for those who have caught that rare and mystical glimpse of His Wonder, the resulting impression is palpably consuming.

To you my friend, this may all sound like mere poppycock and the stuff of mythes and fables, but to those who have bushed against such a Force, the moment was indeed very real, very overwhelming, very moving and dare we say, life changing….

Receptivity.

The idea or concept of our being open and willing to receive.

A.W. Tozer so skillfully explains this notion:
Receptivity is not a single thing; it is a compound rather, a blending of several elements within the soul. It is an affinity for, a bent toward, a sympathetic response to, a desire to have. From this it may be gathered that is can be present in degrees, that we may have little or more or less, depending upon the individual. It may be increased by exercise or destroyed by neglect. It is not a sovereign and irresistible force which comes upon us as seizure from above. It is a gift of God, indeed, but one which must be recognized and cultivated as any other gift if it is to realize the purpose for which it was given.
…Let us say it again: The Universal Presence is a fact. God is here. The whole universe is alive with His life. And He is no strange or foreign God, but the familiar Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose love has for these thousands of years enfolded the sinful race of men. And always He is trying to get our attention, to reveal Himself to us, to communicate with us. We have within us the ability to know Him if we will but respond to His overtures. (And this we call pursuing God!)”

For some of the receptive mortals among us, it comes from the simple lyrics of a song.
For others it is a passage from a book, a poem, a story…
Still for others it is a view, a sound, a slight touch of the arm…

It is however, whatever it may be, that which reaches down into a place that was thought to be impenetrable.
Down into a heart sealed off long ago to such “nonsense” and idle “feelings” of weakness and imagination.

I’ve known such a passing moment.
It has stopped me dead in my tracks and breeched the thick stone wall of my heart–
the one that was sealed from unnecessary hurt, disappointment, and disillusion.
The unworthy vessel which is full of the stuff of self centeredness, loathing and rebellion.
The wounded spirit of the abandoned baby who has spent a lifetime quieting the yearning need of being unconditionally loved, held and forever healed.

And for each time I have bushed near IT’s presence, the presence of the Holy, I AM, as IT passes by my mortal being, I am consumed but for a nano second in time. Everything and everyone stands still in that moment which is less than a breath or the beat of a heart.
Yet it is known and it is real…

Excerpt lyrics from the song The Calling
by Aaron Kamin and Alex Band

If I could, then I would,
I’ll go wherever you will go
Way up high or down low, I’ll go wherever you will go

And maybe, I’ll find out
A way to make it back someday
To watch you…..

Run away with my heart
Run away with my hope
Run away with my love

The Twilight Zone, Cortona and Luca Signorelli

As we continue forward with the events of Holy Week, culminating on Easter Sunday with the celebration and rejoicing of the Resurrection—Jesus’ victory over death, which, in turn is our victory as well, I wish to continue looking at this week through the lens of art.

In yesterday’s post I explained my fascination with Medieval art, as well as my love for the art of the Italian Renaissance. I shared with you a visit to the small museum of San Marco located in Florence, Italy. I recalled the beauty of the museum for both the fact that it has retained its charm as a once active Dominican convent dating back to the 14th century, as well as for the historic and yet simplistic beauty of the frescos that adorn the monastery and the cell walls of the monks who once called San Marco “home.”

Today I would like to share another visit to another small church turned museum. This time we travel a short distance south of Florence to Cortona, Italy—a small medieval hill-town in southern Tuscany.

CIMG0438

I will not recount the wonders of Cortona that I have previously noted in my post Feast and Fellowship. There I recall the good food found in this quaint town, as well as some wonderful local merchants, the tie to author Frances Mayes, as well as for the small Italian village hailing as the adopted home of the University of Georgia’s visual art students. I will however recount a bit of my visit to Cortona, as well as to the Museum of the Diocese of Cortona, featuring the works of hometown boy made good, Luca Singorelli.

When traveling I usually depend on trains as my main means of transport, whisking me from city to city, country to country. This is certainly where Europe has travel perfected to an art. The US can learn a thing or two about the efficient use of train travel but I digress…as usual…

On this particular trip, my aunt and I had taken the train, from Florence, south to Cortona. With the one glitch being that Cortona is a hill town, the train station is down in the valley—this makes access a bit tricky. For towns such as Assisi, Cortona, Montepluciano, etc. the train stations are usually down in the “valley” in a separate small town or municipality. Buses run from the station up to the main town.

This trip was to be no different—station, bus, town. The problem was that the conductor was not calling out Cortona as a place to disembark. He was calling out the town location of the station, of which was not on my map. Panic began setting in. Not speaking Italian made listening to the intercom a little troublesome. As the train nears Cortona, or what I think to be Cortona, I suddenly panic telling my aunt to grab her stuff and lets make our way to the door. The train doors open, we throw our bags off, hopping off ourselves, when I quickly tell my aunt to grab her bag and get back on—NOW! Seems this was the stop before Cortona’s stop.

We now came to the stop for Cortona.
A name I still didn’t recognize but hoped for the best. The train pulls into the station. The station however is so small that our train car stops well short of the buildng. The door opens and we find ourselves looking down at gravel. Not having much time at these small stops we hustle getting our luggage off the train, dumping it down out of our train car onto the gravel all before clamoring down the steps.

Here are now two women dragging their rolling luggage over gravel up to a now deserted tiny train station. I love Italians very much, but if you need some sort of help or assistance and it is the lunchtime hour, you can just forget it. . .as well as for the “siesta” hour following lunch.
The Italians do know how to live—but I digress, again.

The tiny station is closed up with nary a soul to offer directions or assistance. Panic sets in again as my aunt does have a tendency to panic a wee bit when things are not flowing smoothly as they should, especially in a country in which we do not speak the language. At least it was a sunny day.

We roll our luggage around to the front of the station to what appears to be a bus stop bench. I wander around a bit looking for some sort of sign. There are no taxis, no buses, no people—I’m starting to think of the Twilight Zone. I hated those wickedly twisted tales that I use to watch when I was young. They gave me the creeps and disturbed me. That’s why to this day I hate crap like that on TV—a good reason as to why children are not meant to see certain programs, but there I go digressing.
I was beginning to have those same uncomfortable feelings at this deserted train station…

Suddenly out of nowhere a young lady appears (see, Twilight Zone) and obviously notices two “out of towners” that must be lost, as we obviously look like two deer in headlights.
In quasi English/Italian, she lets me know that a bus will be by shortly.
I tell her we are going to Cortona, pointing upward.
She nods, telling us to wait.
A car pulls up out of no where, she gets in and departs.
We are alone, again (I’m telling you, Twilight zone).
A few more minutes pass and low n behold, a bus, more like a travel bus, like a greyhound, pulls up.
The door swings open and the driver looks at me announcing “Cortona.”

We pull (jerk) our luggage up the steps.
The air conditioning is a most welcomed relief, as we were really getting hot.
This was mid June— Italy + summer = misery.

We are the only riders on the bus…
are you now hearing the Twilight Zone theme playing in your head?
I am.
The bus wends its way up a narrow road of switchbacks eventually making its way to a “parking” lot area outside a massive and ancient stonewalled like fortress.
This is the old wall surrounding the town of Cortona.

CIMG0433

We practically throw our luggage off the bus, down on to the paved parking area.
The bus pulls off leaving us standing on a cobbled road leading into an arched entrance perched
between the large stonewall.
As we stare straight ahead at the archway, I muse how the bus is going to turn around in order to make its way back down to Twilightville.
Stepping forward, we our way into town on the cobbled stone road with our luggage loudly bumping behind us, announcing our arrival to all.
CIMG0443

There are groups of outdoor tables lining the sidewalks on either side of us full of patrons eating and drinking… making us feel a bit conspicuous with our clumping luggage.
As we begin seeking our hotel with our luggage trailing behind, we are grateful that Cortona’s main “strip” is as small as the town itself.
I have a map, the name of the street for our hotel…when bingo—our hotel…

The hotel, Hotel San Michele, is perched on a very steep side street. It is an actual old grand
palace / home converted into a hotel.
Our room was actually once the kitchen, complete with old large farm sink and ornate cooking hearth. It is a large and spacious room, well appointed and is truly one of the nicest and largest rooms we have ever had when traveling throughout Italy.

After getting checked in and situated, I decide I need to go to the Pharmacia I had noticed when we were bumping our way through town. If you’ve never been to a pharmacy in Italy, as well as throughout much of Europe, they are a treat in decorum and civility. The sales people wear white medical jackets. Much of the items you come to a pharmacy to purchase are behind the counter or in drawers that the sales people will help you with—none of the familiar shelves crammed full of “stuff” that we take for granted and grab like it’s going out of style. The sales folks/ pharmacy assistants are helpful and knowledgeable and can usually be most helpful to even the English speaker.

As we enter the store, we are warmly greeted. This particular Pharmacia is very nice and large. They even had a display of Dr. Scholl’s flip-flops—Ooooo. I’m always looking for shoes, especially when traveling, because the ones I would currently have on would most likely be giving me fits. Trust me, I do give much thought to what shoes I take on a trip, but with all of the walking, even tempurepedic shoes would hurt—but I digress….

As we look around the store, the sales lady makes for the door. She shuts the door and turns out the lights, putting her finger to her lips as to quiet all inside the store. We don’t know if the store is closing or if something bad is happening. She crosses herself and I start worrying that this “is it, the end.”
When I finally see what has her attention, I am most relived.
A hearse is driving past the store.
I think that is the only time I ever saw a car driving through Cortona, as it is primarily a pedestrian town.

As Cortona is a Medieval walled town the local cemetery is found well outside the city walls. I suppose the funeral is held in a local church, and then much like home, there is a procession to the graveside. It just happens that here the hearse is often the only vehicle; the mourners are often walking behind the hearse. As soon as the hearse and mourners pass, the sales assistant turns the lights back on and re-opens the door and it’s business as usual.
Interesting.

CIMG0477

There were many reasons I wanted to visit Cortona but one of the primary reasons was to catch a glimpse of one of Cortona’s homegrown stellar artists—it’s just that this particular hometown boy had been dead almost 500 years. He was a draftsman as well as a painter.

DSC00378

Luca Signorelli was born in 1445 in Cortona. I first “met” Signorelli while I was studying art history at the University of Georgia. I was drawn immediately to his style and use of color. It is obvious that Michelangelo was influenced by the work of Signorelli. Both artists have a strong command of the human form. Signorelli also has a keen use of color. His paintings and frescos are just as vibrant today as they were the day he painted them. Thirty years after Signorelli’s Judgment, Michelangelo would go on to do the same themed painting for the Vatican.

DSC00380

Signorelli executed works in the Vatican but is best known for his frescos, particularly those in the series of the Final/ Last Judgment located in Orvieto. I think it was the studying of these frescoes that had a tremendous effect on me. I don’t know why Signorelli’s Last Judgment would effect me more so than Michelangelo’s, which is on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, but it is Signorelli’s work that has stayed with me these many years and I wanted to see him up close and personal.

Like most people, I don’t like thinking about Hell. That whole fire and brimstone business, going south where the sun don’t shine, a place where there is no ice water… yet with all humor aside, I know that Hell is indeed a real place that I do not ever want to find myself. Hell is the total separation from God my father—–I can think of no worse fate.

Signorelli depicts demons and devils, taking those who are cast aside by Jesus and the Archangels at the final Day of Judgment, with vivid clarity. There is despondency and despair on the faces of the souls cast aside. There is an equal counter of an evil resonance of delight and glee from the demons. I am reminded of the verse in Matthew where Jesus separates the sheep to his right and the goats to his left. These were the haunting images that have stayed in my mind from the time I had first studied Signorelli’s works.

DSC00381

Cortona is a small stop on the path form Florence to the more popular destination of Assisi and eventually Rome. From a tourist’s perspective there is not a great deal of draw to this small hill town.

There is not the haute couture shopping that is found in Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. There are not the stellar Michelin chefs entertaining guests in their lavish restaurants.
However there is the tomb of St Margaret of Cortona.

A fortress is perched atop the pinnacle of land that makes Cortona known as a “hill” town.
There is The University of Georgia’s Visual Arts Study Abroad campus. There is author Frances Mayes renovated Italian home (not a tourist destination as this is her private residence). There are stunning views of the surrounding valley and Lake Trasimeno.
There is peace and serenity.
And there are chimney swifts out the wahzoo.

The main piazza, Piazza dell Republica, is not as grand as one may find within, say, Florence.
It is a central gathering place nonetheless for both tourists and locals alike.
It is from here that one may find their way to the tiny Piazza del Duomo where The Museum of the Diocese of Cortona is located.
It sits besides the Church of Jesus—-an ancient medieval place of worship

CIMG0437

The Church leaders, having amassed, through donation and gift giving, a great deal of treasured artifacts, objects of religious veneration, and beautiful works of art throughout the centuries of church history, decided that a separate structure should be erected in order to house and allow the public the opportunity of viewing these hometown treasures. In 1945 the museum was officially dedicated and Cortona now proudly boasts a modern facility worthy of its rich Etruscan and Christian heritage.

If you are not careful, it may be difficult to spot the church, as well as the museum, as its exterior is very unassuming. My aunt and I wandered around a bit, almost in circles, certain we were in the correct location but without anything letting us know otherwise…
When we figured simply trying one of the many doors…and bingo!

As I’ve stated before, being able to see the actual works of an artist verses just pictures in a book makes a tremendous difference. An emotional connection is now allowed to take place as one stands before a huge painting, statue, fountain, or other piece of “art”…
There is a sense of being dwarfed by the mere size, or surprised by the smallness..
There is a feeling of being overtaken—overtaken by the sheer magnitude of what is commanding the attention of the viewer—be it large or small.
There is a physical presence to the artwork.
It comes to life so to speak.

I am always humbled by the obvious history behind a piece of art.
The distance of time which separates me, the current viewer, from the time of the works’ inception—
not to mention the myriad of viewers who also have stood before the very pieces of art that I now stand before.
From princes and popes, to queens and saints, to now, just me.
There is an intimate sharing that is taking place with all those who have gone before me, myself and those who are yet to come.
There is a tangible connection that is almost palpable.
There is a sense of the Divine.

Those who see art in a museum and just walk past, piece per piece, without giving thought or refection to what separates art and viewer is missing so very much.
There is living history, celebration and a serious story taking place.
It is there, free, for all to partake.

And so it was, when I saw the works of Signorelli, in this most intimate of settings.

Obviously the Orvieto frescos of the Final Judgment are not here.
As it so happens, it was here in Cortona that Signorelli suffered the grievous loss to two children on two separate occasions…
I often think that artists lose themselves, hiding from pain or sorrow within their art—–as the art provides an escape or an outlet for tremendous emotion.
This is most likely no different for Signorelli and his loss.
What then is there about his work, the emotion within each piece, that most likely hides his own torment and suffering?

DSC00379

I will not attempt to play art critic, as that is not my job. My job, or rather my hope, is that by reading my recollections, you may be stirred within and moved by some unknown force prompting you to dig deeper and go further.
I hope you will want to look at the work yourself, either up close and personal, or through investigation in the world of art history. My dream is that we could all travel to see such treasures—but unfortunately that is not possible. It is therefore the responsibility of those of us who have seen various treasures throughout the world to share them with others.
As that is what art is about—sharing.

DSC00382

Signorelli’s work is moving. Moving because of the subject matter, but equally moving because I also know of his sorrows. He is sharing his pain with me and countless other viewers.
Michelangelo shared…
Leonardo shared…
Caravaggio shared…
Not all share sorrow or pain…
For some it is frustration, for others, perhaps even joy…
Yet it must be known that all share a touch of genius.

DSC00377

It is because of having read the accounts of others viewers and travelers that prompt me to often want to go myself, in person, to see and view such—whatever it may be. When that is not possible, which is much of the time, I find other means in which to glean a little bit more. I attempt digging deeper. Seeking to unearth my own piece of treasured information and emotion. May this be your little bit more, your little bit extra.

DSC00383

Holy Week, Fra Angelico and The Convent of San Marco

As we solemnly enter into this most sacred of weeks of our liturgical calendar, I am reminded that this is not only one of the most holy of times for Christians, but with the observance of Passover beginning at sundown this evening, I am aware of the significance that this week has for many of us throughout the world.

As an art teacher and as a person who has spent a great deal of time looking at the relationship that art, in particular painting, has with the surrounding world, I suppose it just makes sense that I should spend this week, this most solemn of weeks, Holy week, looking through that same lens—the lens of art.

I’ve made mention before, in my little “about me” section, that I have a love of Renaissance art, with the emphasis being on the early end of the Renaissance spectrum. Whereas the works of the great masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli—–the larger than life Italian masters I love so much— are indeed beautiful to behold with their use of dark and light– chiaroscuro, the use of extreme perspective in relationship to foreshortening, the beautiful depiction of the human body with emphasis on tone and muscle mass, the beautiful layering and translucent application of color—striking and stunning to those of us who view their works today–for me, however, it is the Medieval works of the Middle Ages that best captures my appreciation as well as imagination.

I don’t know if it is because of the strikingly simplistic style, the often austere subject matter or the mere fact that these artists and artisans were doing the best they knew how to do with the limited knowledge of building, perspective, science, travel and medicine of their day. From the precision of the illuminated manuscript to the muraled frescos of a monastery’s wall, my attention is most captivated by this most mysterious time of our human history.

We are discovering that the Dark Ages, as this time is most often referred, is not so dark after all. I think our oh so modern minds feel compelled to consider those who went before us always as “less than.” They are “less than” in their overall wealth of knowledge. We must not be so arrogant in our thinking as it will be, at some unknown point in the future, that another generation will look upon us and our limited knowledge as just that, “less than.” Therefore categorizing us as lacking, limited, ignorant and simple.

There is beauty in the simple as well as in the complex. It is just a matter of how one chooses to “see” what it is one is viewing. If one chooses arrogance for the manner in which to view previous generations, using the current world as the be all to end all gauge, then anything and everything other than the immediate will be “less than. That is unfortunate. The current generation is what it is, in large part, due to the myriad of previous generations. The building of knowledge is scaffolding and layering of first learned, with next learned, continuing on to a continuum of learning.

We have a tendency of looking back on previous generations and their accomplishments with a prejudice based on our current knowledge. That is often a shame as it prevents one from a deep appreciation for the wonders discovered and practiced in such public forums. What appears flat, static and “immature” to us, the modern viewer, was once considered new, vibrant and complicated. It’s all a matter of one’s perspective. It is my hope that as we take this limited look back, and it is important that we do look back, that we will empty our thoughts of our prejudices based on our current knowledge and allow the due appreciation and joy these early builders, painters, sculptors—artists and artisans deserve.

When studying art history most of us have a very small and limited exposure to the actual art we are exploring. So often our exposure is limited to a picture in a textbook, a reproduced poster, a pixilated digital image on a tablet, computer screen, smart board, or television screen. These are basically two-dimensional images of a two dimensional subject. The connection between viewer and, in this case, the artwork, is seemingly one-dimensional—meaning limited. It is all flat and most often the emotion involved is flat.

Every once in a while it is a picture that we view, usually as a child or impressionable learner, which captures the imagination. Perhaps it was an illustration by N.C. Wyeth from the story Treasure Island that drove us on a lifelong quest to one day seek out a tropical beach or to explore the wooden ships of days gone by. Perhaps it was the illustrations of Gustave Doré in Dante’s Inferno, which gave us our most tangible view of Heaven and Hell. For the most part, however, we do not make the emotional connection when viewing a piece of art in such a limited capacity such as that of a book or screen.

I think one of the regrets I have for the way in which we live, often isolated and too busy to know or care otherwise, is that so many of us never have the opportunity of seeing “famous” art work face to face. I can remember standing outside of the Uffizi in Florence just wishing I could have all of my students with me. I thought that if they could just be here, seeing this in real life, it would make a difference. It would affect them, they would be the better for it, it would all make sense, it would move them and they would now understand. They would be the better for it all just as I was for standing there myself—

Art, real art, good art, historical art—it is this which gives us our humanity. Now I know some of you are about to jump in, arguing about art—art for art’s sake, what makes good art good?? This is not that debate—there is no debate here, this is a precursor to looking back. And that is through the eyes of one of the most prolific times of creating art.

And so this was my mindset when I was visiting Florence.

Fienze, as it is known in Italian, is the seat of modern thinking and doing.
Of course some may argue that would actually be Rome, but I’ll argue any day that it is Florence. The birth of the great time period known simply as the Renaissance seems to have sprung forth from the very volcanic ground of the Italian peninsula, which birthed the snakelike Apennine mountains range, the Italian backbone, as well as the headwaters of the Arno River. The irregular and non-navigational Arno, which flows through this enlightened city with its very own fickled Italian ways and its own buried secrets. From the business and banking magnates of the de’ Medici dynasty which helped to create an economically rich location drawing people to this fast growing powerhouse of cities, to the religious and political reformer Girolama Savonarola and his bon fires of the vanities, Florence’s history is a rich as it’s gifts.

And so it was on my 2nd trip to Florence when I was enveloped in just a small thread of the rich tapestry that is known as Florence. There is a small Museum that sits on the northern end of the city. This museum is within walking distance of the famed Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s massive and beautiful David, as well as the Uffizi– albeit a bit of a haul down to this most famous of Florence’s museum located near the Piazza della Signoria. However it is this particular small and unassuming museum which was first a convent/ monastery, home to a group of Dominican monks, that draws my attention. The Museum of San Marco.

It’s setting is still that of a monastery/convent—two interchangeable words for a cloistered religious group of either monks or nuns—San Marco is quiet and lacking the throngs of tourists that flood the more well known museums in this city of museums. There is a peace that prevails the grounds of this once holy site. The area in front of the museum is semi-park like with benches and shade trees. Upon entering the simple, unadorned museum/monastery, if it is summer, one is greeted with a sudden change in temperature. There is a welcomed coolness in the air. Florence, in the summer months can be a humid sauna where just the mere act of breathing becomes difficult. Couple that with the influx of thousands of tourists, jostling for space and air, a place like San Marco is a required respite.

There is a reverence felt within San Marco. I suppose that is because when entering you are suddenly transported to the time when this was a cloistered convent. The monks entered and most likely never left the grounds until their death. I don’t think much has changed to this cloistered edifice since it first became a Dominican convent in 1438. My understanding is that there have been some structural changes and modifications over the years—the opening of ceilings and windows, but over all, it remains as a simple and honest claim to its inception.

The “Glory” which brings one to visit San Marco is not it’s historical presence in this historical city. It is not the simplistic beauty, which calls one to come detoxify from the drowning seas of tourists or the sweltering heat. It is, however, the beauty of what enriches the otherwise barren walls of this convent, which draws the curious, art patron and pilgrim a like.

When I travel, I like to consider myself more of a pilgrim rather than a tourist. I travel seeking the reasons for the beginnings, the reasons of importance, always with an eye gleaned toward the sacred and the holy to wherever it is I may be wandering. I travel with a sense of purpose—to understand, to appreciate. I hope to be made better by the journey. I still may take pictures, head to the big sites, eat the good food, but it is the hidden that I constantly seek. I have never lived my life on the mere surface. I sink down. There comes responsibility and a heavy graveness to living so deeply—it can be burdensome and overwhelming, at times depressing, but it is a life worth living as it provides glimpses of the Divine in an otherwise overt secular world.

Upon entering the “museum” there is a small enclosed garden. Guests will see a small chapel area on their left with the first of what visitors come to see—the frescoed paintings of Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico translates to “angelic brother.” This is a name that he was given most likely after his death as an honor to the type of life he lived. He is also known as Beato Angelico or “blessed angel.” He has long been called Blessed but it was in 1984 when Pope John Paul II officially recognized Angelico as “Blessed”—meaning he could be venerated or recognized as truly virtuous. The name he chose, however, when he took his vows and was consecrated to his order and to his faith was Giovanni.

CIMG0324

Fra Angelico was born, in what historians believe to be, 1390 in an area north of Florence. His given name was Guido di Pietro. He was an artist but also a Dominican friar. He most likely began his artist endeavors as a young apprentice working along side his brother, also an artist and monk.

Vasari, a renowned artist in his own right, but best known for his biographies of the Italian Renaissance Artists, wrote that Fra Angelico was “a simple but most holy man.” He stated that it was Fra Angelico’s belief that one could not paint Christ unless the artist was, himself, Christ like. Before beginning each painting, Fra Angelico would devote himself to prayer.

Visitors to San Marco’s enter the main building where the “cells” of the individual monks are located as well as the sacristy, dinning hall, and library. There is a small area also dedicated to illuminated manuscripts, which are on display under protective glass.

As I climbed the steps up to the 2nd level, where the monk’s cells are located, I was immediately reminded that it was the middle of summer in Florence, Italy. The air was almost stagnant. Suddenly I stop climbing the stairs as I see something that I have seen numerous times before. It is large, larger than I imagined, the colors are soft yet very strong. A sheet of glass protects it. Her body is that of a shy demure girl. The angel who stands before her, Gods’ messenger, kneels before who he knows to be that of the future mother of God.

CIMG0315

The Painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico greets all those who climb the stairs to the 2nd floor just as it did hundreds of years ago when the monks would climb these same stairs in order to retire to their individual cells. Mary and the angel, Gabriel, are positioned in a garden and logia–an area that looks strangely familiar. It is the grounds of San Marco.

As I make my way around the hall there are approximately 45 cells—some cells are along the exterior walls and the others make up the interior wall. The cells are small rooms; some have windows, the cells along the inside wall do not. I can only imagine the bitter winter cold, as the summer heat is proving unbearable. It is however what is painted on a single wall within each cell that draws the visitor to imagine a monk’s time spent in the lonely spartan cell.

CIMG0323

There are paintings of the Crucifixion, the mocking of Christ, the Deposition, the Resurrection, as well as the Nativity, along with the Baptism of Jesus. Various saints, such as Saints Augustine, and Dominic are depicted in many of the paintings. Mary the Magdalene, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Martha are also present in many of the frescos. The frescos were to provide a focus of meditation and reflection, as well as for a bit of comfort, for each monk. The often windowless “cell”, with most likely only a small mat for sleeping, has no other distraction or comfort. A monk’s primary task is that of prayer, contemplation and reflection of the Divine.

CIMG0320

Fra Angelico did eventually venture out from this monastery, painting other significant works with one of those being located within the cavernous Vatican. In the small private chapel for Pope Nicholas V, frescos of the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, adorn the walls. Whereas the message is a bit different from those frescos found on the walls at San Marco, there is no denying the quiet beauty and style of the mystical artist Fra Angelico.

I wish that it was possible for all of us to travel, at will, visiting the places scattered throughout the world where the treasures and masterpieces, as well as the forgotten or the private, pieces of art lurk and dwell. To behold an altarpiece, a painting, a fresco, a statue face to face, eyeball to eyeball, verses a mere printed image in a book or elsewhere—is, for some, life changing, for others, inspirational—only leading to even greater visions.

On this particular day, in a place a world away from my own life, I am confronted with a historical moment captured in time, on a wall, in a convent that was originally intended as a reminder for a simple monk. It is on this day that I become that simple monk, as I am reminded of a brief encounter that would change the world and would also change me, forever.

CIMG0316