13 May 2012

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

I purchased this book after reading a brief review of it in First Things. There's no question it's a beautiful book, and while I enjoyed reading it and learned a great deal about Renaissance art, I was disappointed on a couple of points. By far, the weakest portion of the book are the middle chapters, especially those on Benedict, Sebastian, and Catherine of Siena. Perhaps there was a dearth of source material involved, but Kiely's treatment of this series of paintings seemed like he was more interested in keeping up his postmodern art critic credentials than providing genuine insight into the art and artists in question. "I, too, can recognize the barely suppressed sexuality in these religious paintings," he seems to assure the reader. Admittedly, this is all part of the Renaissance rediscovery of the body, the Incarnation, and the ability of art to convey the power of the body to convey glory. Yet it is repeatedly is served up in a way that seems to regard these artists as prophets of postmodern socialist ideology. For instance, Catherine is portrayed as the obligatory prototype of the unconventional woman of authority--which indeed she was, but Kiely offers little insight beyond the typical ideological platitudes and recounting the "discomfort" even contemporary popes supposedly felt toward her life. Presumably this is to come across as bold and insightful, but to me it rang hollow, imposing a narrative and a lens upon the art that doesn't seem to gel with the motives of artists to defy conventionality in the name of presenting goodness by making explicit its implicit beauty.

Another example is the "gay reading" of art portraying Sebastian. It's confusing to me how an acknowledged emphasis on the beauty of the body and consequent shamelessness in the midst of physical glory should also be simultaneously read as homoerotic display.

In his favor, Kiely doesn't rest with such conclusions, instead ranging far and wide, touching upon these dimensions of art without confining himself to them. He indulges in what ends up being a lengthy but enjoyable monograph on Ruskin in the midst of a chapter on St. Lawrence. I was entirely ignorant of him, but Kiely provides a helpful introduction to him even without being familiar with his life and work. "It is as if [Ruskin] always entered churches, especially Italian churches, by a side door and remained off center, examining an obscure chapel in the transept while High Mass was being sung on the main altar." Right up my alley--he was a man with an eye for the hidden, and the beauty of the decrepit.

Kiely does seem to have a theological background and whatever errors I came across in his research were negligible. It is refreshing to read a scholar's opinions that have been formed by the very same concepts and beliefs that were at play in the lives and hearts of those who composed and viewed these paintings.

Of course, the real beauty of the book is to be found in the art, and Kiely really has put together a marvelous collection of Renaissance art that is truly breathtaking and inspiring. He does communicate a great love for the art that he discusses, as well as the figures it portrays--most especially Saint Francis of Assisi. Titian and Tintoretto are probably the two that stand out as consistently worthwhile in their technique, composition, and grandeur. They, of all the many artists included, did more for me to bring to life the stories of the saints they portrayed and the people who venerated them. In his chapter on Sts. Mark, Rocco, and Sebastian, in which Tintoretto looms large, he writes, "the bare muscular leg and turning torso once again show the influence of Michaelangelo, but they also make a point: that the vocation of the artist, like that of the evangelist (at least this evangelist, if not the demure young John who writes sedately beside him), requires intense physical effort--that is, work. When Nietzche wrote that Christianity is the 'hypochondria of those whose legs are shaky,' he could not have been thinking of Tintoretto's Mark" (117).

Now if I just was pastor of a parish where these pieces wouldn't look glaringly out of place.....

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