What Child is This?, or, On the Rise of “Baby Jesus”

The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to  appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.

One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.

The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further.  Continue reading

On the Diminution of Angels

The reorientation of modern Christendom toward an untransfigured world was, as I indicated in in my post this past summer, the central project of the Renaissance. This Renaissance project was inspired by the values of the classical pagan world, but it was also motivated more immediately by the desire to escape the increasingly pessimistic anthropology of medieval western Christendom. Humanists like Mirandola proclaimed a new humanity to their generation, one that possessed free will, one that enjoyed complete autonomy. This was the dream of the Renaissance, and it became over the centuries an inalienable feature of our modern culture. Continue reading

The Secular Transformation of Western Art

The Renaissance was a reaction to medieval pessimism about the human condition. Petrarch, Mirandola, and other early humanists celebrated the dignity of man because western culture, despite deep roots in the anthropological optimism of traditional Christianity, had for centuries come to diminish the human experience of paradise in this world. Having explored this reaction in light of eastern Christendom, I would now like to turn to one of the most famous elements of the Renaissance, its art. Continue reading

An Eastern Perspective on the Western Renaissance

In the nineteenth century, the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt famously characterized the Renaissance as a revival, after a full millennium, of the non-Christian values held by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was not new, as contemporaries of the Renaissance such as Giorgio Vasari had themselves used “rebirth” as the metaphor of the culture of their time. Vasari (d. 1574) all but dismissed the value of the arts between the rise of a Christian culture in Europe after the conversion of Constantine and the rediscovery of classical art in his own time. But Burckhardt (d. 1897) canonized this interpretation for a modern audience. Henceforth the period of Christian art and culture that flowered for a thousand years was dismissed as the “middle ages” when traditional Christianity obscured the worldly potential of human greatness.

This view is no longer held in its purest form by historians, many of whom have today come to discover the riches of medieval art and culture. But like all great ideas it has cast a lasting shadow over our understanding of the past. Continue reading

The Desiccated Soil of Late-Medieval Western Christendom

The Christendom of the late-medieval west was a soil desiccated of the experience of paradise. Centuries of Roman Catholic piety had enriched this soil with faith in the kingdom of heaven, but not far below the surface there was an aridity that caused longing for a more immediate experience of it. Growing frustration was expressed in the period’s proliferation of mystics, and also in the life work of the man that would unintentionally inspire modern Europeans to depart from Christianity altogether, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (d. 1374). Continue reading

The Pessimistic Cultural Atmosphere of Petrarch’s Christendom

By the late middle ages, western Christianity contained within it the distinctly pessimistic anthropology I described in my previous post. As I noted, this contrasted sharply with the anthropological vision of the east, recently defended by Gregory Palamas in the form of hesychasm. And when disasters struck in the west beginning with the fourteenth century, this pessimism was exposed and began to assume an even greater force. The Black Death in the middle of that century killed more than half of the population of western Europe. The Hundred Years War, by the time it was over in the middle of the fifteenth century, brought France and England to a point of exhaustion. Despair and the pessimism that accompanies it ran deep. Continue reading

The Birth of Utopia

It has been several months now since my last post, and I apologize to my readers for the long delay. It is due in part to obligations and tasks that arose soon after Christmas and which required my attention. It is also due to the fact that in presenting my reflections I came to a point that required a pause as I prepared for a new phase in the project. This post represents the beginning of that new phase, as I take a step back in time from from what for the most part has so far been reflections on the twentieth century. Modern Christendom, the subject of this blog, is after all the result or product of cultural shifts occurring over a period much greater than the few generations that separate us from the rise of things like militant atheism.

So far I have been interested mainly in recent history. I would now like to take my readers back beyond the twentieth century, beyond even the past five centuries, to the moment when, in my judgment, an event happened that symbolizes a shift away from traditional Christendom to the modern Christendom that would see a decline in Christianity and the rise of a secularized alternative to it. The event symbolized the decline of a civilization directed toward the kingdom of heaven. It symbolized the end of paradise and the birth of utopia. Continue reading