There have been many paintings I could not take my eyes off of, but this one, not simply large, no, it was . . . what was it? It was tremendous, the height, the width . . . I recall having said nothing as I walked into the gallery where it was hanging, Caravaggio’s La Deposizione, Christ being placed in his tomb, the two Mary(s) behind with their hands raised in epiphany–dead Jesus, the man, the glowing Christ, still, chiaroscuro, a circumambient dark fading to black. I first went with a friend. I then went with family; then went by myself.
How long ago was it? I should be able to answer, but cannot. I do not wonder or worry why I cannot. I simply do not. I can check, but I won’t. It was the visiting Vatican Collection. I went more than once. I went more than one time each time I made my way to this portrait, this painting, this most magnificent example of Italian baroque. Was this the only reason I went back to the collection? How many people who went to see Dead Jesus Still Vibrant Christ, I would like to know. You now what I am talking about, if you’re Catholic, anyway. Do you need to be Catholic to understand this?
I do not know what I never knew, what I will never know, what I might have forgotten I had forgotten. It is not a matter of having forgotten something I have remembered. The sense of one writer infecting another is one thing . . . how many do I owe a small debt of gratitude, perhaps also to every asshole I have ever had a conflict with in my life, the opportunity to have made one mistake after another, the impossible to fathom anymore need to repeat mistakes as if doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result each time is not a form of insanity. No anxiety of influences here? I am only remembering having felt that one sensibility and my sensibility were parallel—what am I talking about with this other sensibility? Whose? Where these parallel lines would come to converge, I could not say, you know that that is not an illusion, not really. The illusion is the flatness of the ground and parallelity of the lines; when you see railroad tracks converge on the horizon, what that reveals is the curvature of the earth to the eye.
I do not visit galleries the way others do—I have a wife who resents that I must think myself so special that I do not do what the other cattle do, as I say; but then she is from the Soviet Union, so joining one cattle drive here and another there is the only way to do things publicly, I guess. I am being too hard and unfair. I can be horribly unfair, but then so be it. I am quite capable of forgiving myself; it helps me to forgive others which I find better than what others do, which is to forget without forgiving. To give or to get; what is the difference there? You know. It should help you to understand the distinction between forgiving someone or forgetting what they have done instead off forgiving.
Whatever, however, anyway nonetheless . . . 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 my book shelves having reacquired it after my father’s death, having left it with my father when I removed 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 after the cross while the two Mary(s) 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 them, off of the corner of the slab of stone; this painting, my eyes not off of Him when they moved onto him, his figure, the lines of his form painted by Signore Merisi. And then other figures, the women’s hands, theor fingers, revelation of the Godhead? In the scene on the canvas, Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection, the first Christian–what it really means to be a Christian? What does it really mean to be a Christian (and I can do without the mocking jibes I used to hear from non-Christians in New York when I was a boy and some did not realize I was around to hear them say what they actually said and would deny they ever have said or have believed, do believe, do say among themselves, just as black people and white people are sure the other is privy to things said by people they like, love even respect that neither wants anyone other-else to hear . . .). My Aunt Anna had a heavy, thick, carved wooden Crucifix above the upstairs bed where I slept in the summers in the Berkshires, Pittsfield, where Melville had written one-third of Moby Dick, in the hills, on a farm not far from where Hawthorne lived, not far from where Norman Rockwell painted his Saturday Evening Post covers. The Crucifix was draped in rosaries. I once had a dream, I imagine was a dream and not an actuality, perhaps that half sleep before waking, but Jesus took a high dive off of his cross into my eyes . . .
It was huge, the painting by Signore Merisi; 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. Zoe, the Greeks would have understood, might even say, I don’t know. Yes, I am not alone in this sense. What sense? I have come across this idea in a great work on mythology on the subject of Dionysos by Kerenyi (I used to avoid the trite spiritualism and mythologizing that became popular when I was a teenager . . . I used to only read Mircea Eliade, but this is not for here, not for now).
Anyway, and it should not trouble you that I take divergent paths to get to where I intend we go, and it is we, not I, that are traveling here; the journey, not the destination. All by way of indirection, I could say. How to tell a story straight, I have no idea, nor do I have any understanding of why. The Greeks had two words for life, the one, bios, as in biology, was for life destructible, life that had an end; the other, zoe, was for life indestructible, life everlasting, life eternal . . . Jesus is not Dionysos–I hate stupid conflations that arise from an intellect too weak–or is it will? The will is weak in matters of learning by those who are attracted by simplistic answers and responses and conclusions where real intellect persists to the truth, yes there are many truths as well as Truth . . . don’t get me started on the Transcendental. Yes, capital ‘T.’ Capital Truth, the compass heading. Set your sites; mark your heading and go in that direction. Readjust every day.
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!. I disagree–God is He, She and It . . . and I am not using these pronouns here in a one-to-one correspondence with the Persons of God, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost (you want to say spirit–say spirit). 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 was 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 Barbara 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 . . . you do know what I am talking about, right? No? Yes? Maybe?
I saw–no, I say I watched–yes, I watched Jesus being placed into his tomb in Caravaggio’s painting. How can anyone watch a painting? Understand what the baroque represented. Understand that the baroque did use what could be called exaggerated motion coupled with clear details and that these were employed for dramatic effect in painting, a theatricality absent in other ages? There was tension, what might be called tenebrismo . . . the use of chiarascuro . . . there was an exuberance in the paintings; there was grandeur as well in sculpture . . . see Bernini. The baroque was an age, was an aesthetic, was an entire metaphysics of art . . . of painting, of architecture, of dance, of theater, of music, of literature. 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 . . . ; and so, 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 sacred–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, within that frame, what scene is set, that place a stage—yes, all the world is a stage, in the baroque mind. It is the baroque mind that plays on the consonance and the assonance of ‘State” and ‘Stage.” Statecraft is stage craft. 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. Impression of this sort is what I call universal, if the person is opened, not full of prejudices and preconceived notions . . .
First empty your cup otherwise no more will go in.
I do understand from experience here in New York City, in Public School, in my college days, in my personal life, in my professional occupations over time; in my travels to other cities and regions across America–and what it is that I do understand is that most Americans, Protestant Americans, will expend great energy to understand and respect Oceanic Spirituality, for example, but preclude themselves from doing the like with Catholic spirituality, and allow themselves most often condescension and mocking. I could say, Fuck them, but why should I? I know that I imagine that I would even like to say this, at least to myself, in my mind another stage. I have never had an aversion at least to having the inclination to say fuck you to someone or others in most places, whether I actually do or not is another thing. The good ones, I remember from Plato, are those who are content to dream what the evil actually practice.
Caravaggio now matters more, and will matter in spite of being dead. Caravaggio and I are the focus. Let’s not get lost on a tangent–I do not really know how one could get lost on a tangent. A tangent is a theoretical straight line intersecting a point on the circumference of a circle and one that extends for infinity . . . is it the infinity part that leads to the assumption of lostness? How much has Caravaggio had an affect on me as a person, as a man, as a thinker, as a poet, as a writer, as an editor, as aesthetician? Immeasurable?
I had already known about this other Michelangelo–Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio–before my visit to the Met for the Vatican Collection, my Dad spent a great deal of my childhood schooling me in the life and the art of Michelangelo Buonarroti. What was it, though, 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 Mary(s), 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 remember writing a paper on the light in Tintoretto having an affect on Caravaggio’s use of light.
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. How many times do I have to say this? 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. Yea, the fucking disgusting greedy inhumane Reagan eighties. You have no idea how much more Obama is like Reagan than his idiot supporters refuse to see and ironically that his detractors at Reaganite-Media-Central Fox News miss entirely. Nevertheless, never mind.
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, and heard others related to me in mind say, I watched the painting–yes, the figures vibrated, they were . . . Christ in it was also tremendous, not just in size, but in Caravaggio’s representation, a 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, have you ever noticed how Rubens handled flesh with his brush strokes, his use of light and shadow to gain effect?
I watched this painting by M; 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. Baroque painting must be watched, not merely looked at, if you understand what I am saying here? Do we recall Michelangelo’s Mary in his Pieta? What was it he said about Mary? I forget. She in the statue, if she were to stand, would be about eight feet tall . . . the was-then and the is-now are perpetually contingent. But this enlargement of a figure in representation found in Michelangelo Buonaroti’s Pieta, where Mary, if she were stand, would be about 8 feet tall—this, though, is only an if she were to stand—she does not stand in the marble; get it? 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. Hers is 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. La Madonna Dolorosa. I know about La Via Dolorosa; all Christians are supposed to walk the path, la via dolorosa, no?
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 shines 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 are each 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. Have you been to the Prado and seen the Goyas they call his Blacks. Lang was obliquely paying homage to Caravaggio; you can’t see Lang’s films and not see something of what Caravaggio was doing.
In this vein of thinking 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. Am I stretching things here? No, I am not.
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 where the ruins of that age then formed an image the 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. Ruination becomes a theme explored in Romanticism.
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. I am repeating.
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. I am also writing about me . . . today we have a degraded cult of feeling—no thinking allowed.
I am writing about me in everything I write–writers never write but their autobiographies, all of a writers writing episodes in the epic that is anyone’s autobiography, no? You imagine otherwise? Respond, if you will, with letter, essay, diatribe or tirade. I am still a bit undecided on the differences, numbered and explained, as well as the general difference between the two articulated. Everything is autobiography, no? What then is a novel like Moll Flanders?
So then, your questions should be, Who am I? What am I doing? What have I said and how have I said it? What does it mean to say these things as I have said them? What kind of person says what I have said? What if you were a man or a woman who has said the things I have herein said, how would you get on a bus, how would you order a slice of pizza at Lenny’s on 86th Street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Please, let there be no snide remarks from anyone, whether they be Protestants, Asians, Jews or African-Americans who might not be as intelligent or as enlightened as they assume they are out of arrogance, hubris or ignorance–the latter more likely–and already imagine they know all that they needto know about Catholics and Catholicism. But why do I imagine I need to say what I have said? Because I know how tribal we are in America, and how endemically anti-Catholic America and many Americans are. And please do not clamor about in one reflexive denial or another; it will only sicken me. And I do know how machiavellian print, broadcast and social media manipulation have become . . . Power and Money protected. You might also consider, and if you will, you might want to separate the expositor from the author, unless your critical skills are at minimum, right alongside your stunted imagination. And I am not being insulting, only cognizant of how mocking our entertainment and even most of our pedagogy has become concerning anything nearing erudite, intelligent, knowing. In this culture, doubt is the highest wisdom.
Nonetheless, the fore mentioned persons I am really talking about are certainly not as intelligent or enlightened as I have found many from any of the four fore mentioned groups to be, none of which I belong to demographically, and I say demographically alone because all of us belong to one human family, if you can abide the cliche and anything else trite that goes along with many of the received ideas we have about ethnicity and race in America. Americans are horribly narrow and narrowing in the patterns of free association they confuse for thinking, as if randomly passing images in the mind or playing hop-scotch with words has ever equalled thinking . . . and of course having been educated these last twenty-five years or so in this here post Reagan, Bush I and Bush II (and let’s not forget the changeling Obama), you have assumed that you are educated enough, literate enough, and I do not want to, nor will I ever condescend to, anyone who is semi-literate, only to those of you in pedagogy, in private and civic administrative positions, in places of power and great influence who are really far stupider and a lot less literate than you should be permitted to be. I can’t get a nearly literate anything written from far too many people I engage on a daily or weekly basis. It is horrifying to realize how fucking semi-literate most people I talk to really are. It’s frightening.
This, of course, includes America’s liberals and not just her conservative troglodytes. Happy voting, suckers.
P.T. Barnum is the father of everything we engage, indulge and endure, socio-politically, socio-economically, in, through and by the media. You do know that, don’t you?