When the Soul is a Chariot [a short-story]

I could not take my eyes off it at the Met. There have been many paintings I could not take my eyes off of, but this one, so large, tremendous, I recall having said as I walked into the gallery where it was hanging, Caravaggio’s La Deposizione, Christ being placed in his tomb, the two Marys behind with their hands raised in epiphany–dead Jesus, the man, the glowing Christ still.

How long ago was it? I should be able to answer, but cannot. I can check. It was the visiting Vatican Collection–I went more than once; more than one time each time I made my way to this portrait, this painting, this most magnificent example of Italian baroque.

I can see me flipping through the catalogue of the Vatican’s art collection in the book store, the book I bought and brought home to show my father. I still have it on a book shelf having reacquired it after my father’s death, having left it with him when I moved from home. What does this say? I am not sure what it is supposed to say. I am here to talk about Caravaggio and his painting of the dead Jesus being placed in his tomb while the two Marys hover his body with their hands raised in a typical iconographic gesture of epiphany, as I have already said. Mary called Magdalene and Mary, Mother of God–I could not take my eyes off of it, the painting, off of Him, the figure, then other figures too, in the scene on the canvas.

It was huge, but its hugeness alone was not the reason for my fixation. Yes, there it was–yes, it; a larger than life painting, in a gallery, how far into the cattle drive I cannot recollect. I doubt I will ever recall. Yes, it–it–Caravaggio’s La Deposizione, it. The depositing of the dead Christ–no, not dead Christ, but dead Jesus? Of course. Christos cannot die, I remember a Greek Orthodox friend had insisted over coffee at the Greek diner just off Brooklyn College Campus on Hillel Road sometime in the early nineties. So,what was it beside it being there as large as it was–Caravaggio’s naturalism? What does that mean–also the vibrancy he lends to Christ . . . the living Christ–Life indestructible. The Greeks had two words for life, the one, bios, was for life destructible, life that had an end; the other, zoe, was for life indestructible, life everlasting, life eternal.

Dead Jesus–the living Christ–Christ everlastingly alive shines through the body of Jesus being deposited into his tomb . . . and tomb is from the French tomber, to fall. Everyone’s tomb, his final fall. The finality here is the end of bios, the continuation of zoe. In fact, the resurrection is the reanimation through the everlastingness of Christos for the human person Jesus. The natural course has been reversed; the Divine has put a hold on Nature.

Jesus was He, no? Jesus is He, capital ‘H’ He. Do I need to examine the pronoun references for God–God Is He, the Holy Ghost is It. Can God be He, She and It? Too many will shout No!. Is not was–Jesus is, Jesus remains, Jesus persists, Jesus is forever present tense; Jesus is, if I want to borrow from Aquinas. Deus Est; Iesus Est.

The Jesus I saw different from the Jesus that is, the Jesus painted by Caravaggio being one and the same and completely other than every Jesus seen in painting by whomever whenever–the Mass Card my father had received from my mother’s cousin Barabara after my paternal grandmother died, Jesus on the cross being removed from the cross. The Descent from the cross not The Depositing in the tomb . . .

I saw–no, I say I watched–yes, I watched Jesus being placed into his tomb, this depositing of Jesus after his descent from the cross. It was enormous, again, the painting, and in it, the body of Jesus, also enormous, also it, the body–but Corpus Christi, It or He–We? Larger than life, of course, it would be larger than life on the canvas. Body of Christ; Body of Jesus–not exactly the same thing.

With Communion we enter into Mystical Union in the Body of Christ. We chant the words themselves, Body of Christ . . . speak but the Word and my soul shall be healed . . . can you watch a still picture . . . perhaps you can, I remember learning in a Baroque Art seminar . . .

The light from Christ in Signore Merisi’s “La Deposizione” was–what was it? Questions beget questions I have said before, will say again. Was it intense? The light in the painting. Light from a non specified source–the kind of light Merisi borrows from Tintoretto, for sure. It was supposed to be intense, mysterious, something evocative of the scared–should I capitalize the word ‘sacred?’ Of the divine–the presense of Divinity, thus the gesture recognized in the two Marys upraised hands; epiphany, as in the Feast of Epiphany, The Revelation to the Gentiles on January 6th on the Catholic Calendar. Yes, Mary Magdalene and Mary, the Holy Mother, are gesturing their recognition of divinity, it is a Revelation to them, and how Jesus is illuminated on that canvas, in that scene, and how He seems to be illuminated from within–He shines.

You have to take notice whether you are Catholic or not. You do not need to be devout or practicing to understand what is happening on that canvas, in that frame, that scene, that place, in and on are mutually reciprocal, a dynamism itself. I could not imagine an Atheist, a Muslim or a Jew not being impressed; a Hindu, a Buddhist or one or another Animist would have to be impressed if he had the slightest appreciation for what we still liked calling at the time I saw this painting, artistic genius. I have no idea what that means now. I do not pretend that I did then. But you do not need to be Catholic as Signore Merisi understood in himself.

I had already known about this other Michelangelo–Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, before my visit to the Met for the Vatican Collection. What was it about this painting on the depositing of the dead Jesus in his tomb, the slab, the corner of the stone illuminated by a light you could not trace the source of; the two Marys, Mother Mary and Mary called Magdalene–what was it about them, about the iconography, the alterations of light and dark that faded to black in places along the perimeter and in the back ground?

I do not continue to ask what, what, what–I ask only for you, a convention of the form. I cannot say exactly what it was. Every time I think about this I imagine it must lead to another essay, yes, another trial of ideas, of memory, of images randomly passing in the mind, of what I think. But thinking is not randomly passing images in the mind.

Back in the early 80s, the visiting Vatican Collection was certainly one of the big deals in New York’s museum going world; there were only representative pieces from the ages brought to New York. The whole of the collection would have been impossible to let loose. The numbers, the size was prohibitive.

How to say it–say it again, the same way, repetition once more over again: Michelangelo Merisi’s Dead Jesus was tremendous, both in size and impact. The painting was taller than I was, wide enough to hide two of me or more.Yes, as I have already said herein, I watched the painting–the figures vibrated, they were . . .

Christ in it was also tremendous, not just in size, but in Caravaggio’s representation, the vitality he gave to the forms, the overall theatricality of the scene, the tenebrious movement of the elements in their places, the vibrating contrasts between light and dark . . . the age of the baroque should be especially known for the vitality it gives to the representation of flesh; the age of the Baroque champions the naturalism of flesh, the sensuality of flesh . . . one giant leap for mankind.

I watched this painting; I said this above. I did not just look at it. I could see the influence something like this could have had on later painters, perhaps where Reubens had gotten some of his notions of how to represent flesh–as I have said herein, the painting was larger than life-sized, as is, of course, the figure of Jesus, who as the Christ, must be represented as larger than life, even when represented dead. This was not a problem, though, for Merisi’s naturalism; there are various naturalisms, of course, and this one is effective.

The was-then and the is-now are perpetually contingent. This enlargement of a figure in representation can also be found in Michelangelo Buonaroti’s “Pieta,” where Mary, if she were stand, would be about 8 feet tall. But this is only an if she were to stand. She does not stand in the marble; that fact is only implicit, not explicit as some like to say. But there is something about this woman in her extreme pity and piety that enlarges form, ourselves we feel being aggrandized by emotion, by love, by affection, by tenderness or sorrow. Mary holding her dead son in her arms there in Michelangelo’s marble becomes the effective representation of a sorrow that transcends sorrow; it becomes a larger, grander sorrow, perhaps a universal sorrow. heres is there the sorrow of all mothers. Mary is gorged by it. The Mother of Sorrow is swollen beyond any normal or humanly possible sorrow, for hers is not only the sorrow of a mother for her son, but of the Queen of Heaven for the Incarnation of the Son of God. Looking at Caravaggio’s painting must have given to viewers the imagined possibility of representing motion, of actually capturing it–it impresses you that way.

Caravaggio invests his Jesus with a strange vibrancy although the figure is obviously of a dead man–let us allow this persistence in repetition to become motif–the stirring of the living Christ that the human Jesus can barely house. Even in death, Christ remains vibrant. His executioners could kill the man Jesus, the human Jesus, but as the Incarnation of the Son of God, that agency of divinity housed by the flesh of Jesus–this could not be extinguished. The Christ signs through the form of Jesus; the dead Jesus is illuminated by this divinity.

Caravaggio is dealing with both the humanity of Jesus and his followers and the divinity of the Son of God, Incarnate in Jesus. The naturalism of the figures was astounding, and nothing like it had ever been achieved in painting before him, Caravaggio. In statuary, perhaps–but then statues were three-d. There is a profound depth of the figures; there is a thick representation on the two dimensional canvas, a kind of statuary in the painting.

The spiritualism–what could this mean to the age of the Baroque, not ours, where the term means nothing and too many other things, some of them beside the point. We have no handle on our words, or on our use of language in general. Speaking and writing have become a lot like throwing dice, haven’t they?

The mood of the painting–what could mood mean other than mode, from which it comes? There are declarative moods and moods of doubt we call subjunctive; but then these are linguistic references, overly determined. Chiaroscuro painting meant what–light and dark, opposing forces, oppositional placement?

Contrapuntal arrangement, as in Vivaldi and Bach is associative in meaning with chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro has everything to do with point counterpoint composition in music. Goethe had once said that architecture is music frozen in stone; this could be said of statuary, no? Have a look at Rodin, or Bernini, or Michelangelo, or any of the representative Greek and Roman statues at the Met. Among the Vatican Collection was the Porta Augustus statue of the young Octavius just before he becomes the August ruler of Rome. As I walked into the gallery I caught it centrally placed and I can swear to this day, I saw it breathe.

The dead Christ–the light, the use of shadows, a circumambient perimeter, black–all fades to black as in German Expressionist cinema, as in Gothic horror novels–there is a lot of blacking out in Gothic horror from the 18th century. Caravaggio uses black in his paintings in a way reminiscent of the dark, or the areas of black, used by De La Tour in his “Penitent Magdalenes”–there are more than one–and later by Fritz Lang, particularly in his film M. Notice Lang’s use of the extremes of the monochromatic scale to set psychological tones. You do know that Caravaggio as we call him signed his paintings, when he did, M. I am not herein trying to confuse ages or cultural or artistic currents; I am merely drawing analogies for the purposes of understanding. The Baroque is the Baroque; German Expressionism in film is German Expressionism in film, and for the most part, never the two together as one.

In this vein of thinkning or imagining, I should say, can we ask if there is something Gothic about the crucifixion–about any crucifixion–any representation of the central moment in Christianity–the horror. Is it that different representations of the cricifixion are all of them in one way or another Gothic? Of course not. But I do understand how the confusion can be made–we can see something of the elements of what we call Gothic in many representations of the Crucifixion–the event of any crucifixion possessing what could evoke Gothic feeling in the age that produces it–do we say that currents of Gothic run through Romanticism? Yes, we do.

But then, we are talking about the depositing of Jesus in his tomb–in Crucifixion we are talking about unimaginable suffering–and for Jesus this suffering was as a man nailed to the beams of wood that make the Cross–slow suffocation is the means of dying, it is slow torture. The effect of horror, of how it strikes a Gothic eye would be–how do we convey this? Is there a parallax on the horizon in the mind where all senses of horror converge as one?

Is there then a close relationship between the Baroque aesthetics and the Gothic aesthetics? I imagine there is, although not completely and never in any one to one correspondent way. There is definitely something Gothic (as we understand the word from the fiction of the late 18th century; the style, the form, the genre-determined delineations that we find in works such as The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, Manfred, The Cenci, Frankenstein, even large swaths of Wuthering Heights) present in German Expressionist films of the silent 20s, recurring in American films of the 30s, particularly horror films such as The Mummy or Dracula, the novel itself from the Late Victorian Gothic revival which was a manipulation of the aesthetics of the High Middle Ages, as seen in architecture, particularly. This, of course, was in another and earlier animation, present in the cult of sensibility of the 18th century, a kind of medievalism present in what was later called Gothic fiction.

Of course, this medievalism was a contrived sense of what seemed to be medieval, or a contrived use of medieval motifs, a number of them remaining and persisting throughout what we call Romanticism. But then, just what would evoke this idea of an age long gone were the ruins of that age which then formed an image grotesque? The idea of ruination of the past lingering in the present became part of the aesthetic; this is not present in what we might call Baroque sensibilities.

But Dracula finds itself firmly in fin-de-siecle Victorian English/Irish literature as it also does in a continuum of Gothic fiction, perhaps even as a precursor to all horror stories as we understand the genre of horror today, or over the last century? Moreover, there are discernible lines that overlap among these artistic currents: there is significant mutability among the movements herein discussed; or, as aforementioned, the negotiated agreements among the artists of the particular times and places where these movements do overlap, do share something found in one another.

Yes, Gothic Horror of the 18th century, 17th century Baroque painting and German Expressionist silent era films of the 20s all share certain features that are alike; their motifs, their metaphors, their signs and their symbols do have currency exchange values. I insist on we when I want you to consider opinions I conceive in a posed omniscience; of course, I do not want you to side step my intellectual manias; I want you and I together in the more comfortable, and perhaps the more usefully rhetorically editorial we–yes, you and I see these overlaps among the movements (?) I have herein listed. We understand they have points of contact, even if you have never before considered them or even imagined them.

Of course, I am not referring to the complete diapason of Baroque tragic emotion–although the two Mary(s) in Caravaggio’s entombment, both in the effective expression of epiphany, are representative of a particularly Baroque emotional register; each in a moment captured with hands raised in epiphany, as we also see in Minoan figurines nearly two thousand years earlier–the revelation of God-head is beheld. Yes, it is the vibrancy of Caravaggio’s dead Jesus that reveals the divinity of Christos, Son of God incarnate in the person of Jesus.

There is a complex of contrary forces and emotions, passions more precisely exhibited together in the figure and the light used to illuminate the figure of Jesus and the emanation of Christos. The use of light in Caravaggio, his unique chiaroscuro is what I am focussing on in any allusions to German Expressionist films or any mine-en-scene in Gothic horror fiction or Romantic poetry in parallel alongside Gothic horror. This light has its effective beginning, it could be said, in the tenebrismo of Tintoretto, and yes, you should examine prints of Tintoretto’s most prominent works to understand just how baroque artists such as Caravaggio came to use light the way they did.

I am not herein going to continue a discussion of Gothic fiction, whether in its 18th century varieties or in its appropriation by Romanticism and just how much Romanticism was informed by the Gothic, particularly in how the Gothic was also informed by the Cult of Feeling, of Sturm und Drang and the literary Cult of Sensibility. But back to the central point, experience, idea herein presented: Caravaggio’s “La Deposizione” is more than one of my favorite paintings–it is one on the list that never comes off the list. If Singore Merisi had only painted this, we would still be talking about him; I would still be writing about him.

What more need I say?

I recall having recollected remembering sitting quietly on a train, as I have, as I do, will do, repeatedly the things we do day in day out the same way we never notice, creatures of habit. Here I am riding clink-clank across the bridge, Manhattan Bridge spanning erect across the waters, the East River flowing mutely in my eyes below, the lower Manhattan night-time skyline, undulant dots of light off each wave, an incandescent sonata with light layered in form, cream, I recall, in a Napoleon in a shop on Amsterdam, yes the pastry ripples, I remember una sfogliatella open cut, warm and flaky on a plate next to espresso after Easter lamb, what else is there to say about one or another revery of times gone by, the past is the past someone says–another says that the past is not past, that it doesn’t even exist except in how we remember it. Do we remember? What did we remember?

I remember you, your skirts, your legs, your eyes, the world itself unbearable sorrow. What is there that I could or that I would say to you, other words for you, suiting action, you know–the words I say about what was are the only was that is. Words and actions do not meet; we must try desperately to make them do so . . . images on the horizon in mind, the parallel lines that converge. To remember, to recall, to recollect, each one of them different from the other, how so do we use them interchangeably, no two words share absolute synonymy . . . each one related, but not mutually interchangeable in every context of use. Everything far enough away in time disappears below the horizon in memory.

I never explained to you why the reasons of course why I did not could not speak to you after or again, and how I left you without so much as an appeal to destiny or vanity–you were the world for me that night into early A.M., over the latticed shadows of the blinds across your breasts I lay my head down to sleep, I prayed–what did I pray for, could I have prayed for that night that room your room from which I left for good for once for all to come again another evening, a cab home–and I wondered why I got fat with you–the cabs, you know–but you have since insisted that we walked a lot more back then, I think it is true, nothing I could have desired above all else, what else was there, there is no was only what is. This-was/that-was is neither flesh nor blood nor the bones shaken to the marrow, yes you shook me to my marrow I did not tell you . . . you were too fucking haughty for me to tell you how I felt, actually–virtual reality has been our modus for a long time, but then, these recollections are not exactly in tranquility collected. I have lost control? Have I ever had control? What is the necessity of control?

Control is not what it has been misunderstood to be.

If my soul is a chariot, where then are the reins?


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