History Repeating

This week, I’ve been thinking about the Medici family, the elected rulers of Florence in Renaissance Italy. In a way, we have the Medicis to thank for the Renaissance, with their patronage of artists who turned out to be some of the greatest of the Western world – Brunelleschi (who discovered the technique for perspective in art and was also an unparalleled architectural genius), Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Later, the Medicis also were the patrons of scientist Galileo Galilei, who tutored more than one of the Medici princes. Without the Medici, there quite simply would have been no Italian Renaissance (at least not as we know it), and Florence would not have become the cultural and artistic center of Italy to give birth to that Renaissance.

Aside from all this, I was thinking about the Medicis in the context of why we value what we value, and how what we value shifts over time and place. We, of course, imbue things and ideas with value ourselves. Value is a product of our own minds. Not long ago, gold became valued at over a thousand dollars an ounce; but gold in itself carries no “intrinsic” value at all. If we as people did not desire gleaming jewelry, gold would be worth almost nothing. Similarly, if there were an overabundance of gold, such that some could be found in almost everyone’s backyard, it would not be worth more than quartz, monetarily. Ideas, no less than objects, are also subject to the same vagaries of value assigned by the human mind.

The Medicis valued power, make no mistake; but, particularly in the earlier stages of their dynasty, they also valued art and free thinking. The city’s mood was ripe for this, for it coincided with the changing spirit of the times. For a while, under their auspices, Florence flourished into a haven for cutting-edge painting, sculpture, and even architecture (Brunelleschi engineered Il Duomo based solely on extrapolation from classical Roman domes, which no one remembered anymore how to build). Artists under the auspices of the Medici had free rein, and even encouragement, to explore artistic subjects outside merely Christian religious art, which until this time had had a monopoly. Particularly under Lorenzo dei Medici, Florentine art schools burgeoned; and it was Lorenzo who spotted the extraordinary talent of a 10-year-old named Michelangelo Buonarotti, and took him into the Medici household.

But in time, there was a conservative religious backlash, driven by the extremist monk Savonarola, who preached damnation on what he thought was a hedonistic city that valued “pagan” art and ideas more than the Holy Church. He saved his most vicious commentary for the Medici family, whom he preached were damned for sponsoring un-Christian and immodest art. Savonarola was able to whip the populace into such a frenzy that the Medici were (temporarily) ousted into exile, the art and ideas that they had helped foster no longer valued by the people at all. Now feared as irreverent tools of the devil, extraordinary works of art were thrown onto bonfires, along with books, jewels, and cosmetics. This was a kind of temporary reign of terror, in which all that had been a source of pride and valued so highly by the city suddenly possessed no value at all. Even Botticelli, who had taken pride in his daring art, was struck by the fear of God and threw his own work onto the great fire.

That particular religious backlash would pass, but the Church as a whole still retained the highest power — and value — in European society. That would be slow to change. Martin Luther and the subsequent Protestant revolution set in motion a gradual chipping away of the Church’s power. But before much of that power was gone, it was the Church that determined what was to be valued by the people. The Inquisition created the Index of banned books, which included works by the classical writers as well as modern works of science. Galileo, who had been supported by the Medici, was not spared the Inquisition, and was forced under pain of death to recant his published theories that the planets and the moon were not perfect heavenly spheres, and that the Earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could protect Galileo anymore. While the society was thirsty for new ideas and discoveries, and while these were gaining value in much popular view, even the Medici could not trump the pope.

Fast-forwarding to the modern day, we have a situation that is nearly the complete reverse. As a society, on the whole we value the discoveries and the methodology of science more than the input of religion in the public sphere. We value national freedom, while once we valued the “divine right of kings.” We value individual freedom and self-expression, while for a long time we valued conformity. We value all people as equal, while once we valued only some and enslaved others, then degraded them for a hundred years after their slavery ended. We value the contributions of women outside the home now, while once we thought there was no such value. We value natural, even organic food, while once we were enthralled with artificial ingredients and pre-processing. We value religious freedom, while once the Puritans executed people and cast others into exile, despite having been persecuted themselves in their ancestral countries. Some of us are valuing more and more the civil rights of gay people, while once we told them that such an identity was no valid identity at all. There are hundreds of other examples, some of which continue to take shape on a daily basis. This is not to say that all these changes in values are uniformly held by all members of our society, but there has certainly been a sea change from the past in many ways.

I was sitting in a cafe this morning eating my breakfast while reading, and the waitress ruminated as she gazed out the window that she used to live in California and loved it, but also liked it here, so she wished that she could go back and forth between the two, maybe have two homes. I’d guess she was in her 50’s. Then she looked at me with quick certainty and said, “I will someday. I will.” And I’ll tell you I didn’t doubt her. To her, that kind of joyful back-and-forth was something she valued so much that she would tell it to a new customer even before she asked my name. Yet I know someone else who feels that the best thing a person can do is stay in the area in which they grew up. Neither of these lifestyles has intrinsically more value than the other — only the value that is perceived by the advocates of each.

We are at a point in our society where we are assessing what we value. Elections are approaching, and the country is divided politically and ideologically. People are fighting about which of our national values are more important, and even which are valid at all. The only certainty is that the dispute over which ideas and philosophies have more value than others is  history repeating itself of the first order. Just as in the days of the Medici.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010


The Tangibility of the Intangible

This week I plan on crafting a miniature, indoor Japanese rock garden (karesansui) in a low wooden or bamboo box, to be placed on our bow window. A Japanese rock garden is sometimes also called a Zen dry garden due to its deep connection with Zen Buddhism. A rock garden, or karesansui, is a “dry landscape” garden; it employs no actual water, but the rocks, moss, and small shrubs that can constitute the garden are often arranged in a way that evokes thoughts of streams, mountains, hills, and even forests. Despite the fact that the arrangement of stones and small plants can create the illusion of water, a primary characteristic of these gardens is their sense of stillness.

My husband is an aficionado of Japanese culture; I am glad for this, because if he were not, I would never have been introduced to the robust appreciation of clean-lined tranquility that is Japanese aesthetics. Walk into any classically Japanese structure, such as a traditionally-appointed Japanese restaurant, and your mind will feel almost instantly at ease. The aesthetic usually involves light neutral color tones, tastefully limited and unobtrusive decor, and stunningly clean lines for everything. The absence of clutter, of haphazardness, of “too much” is felt immediately in the calming effect such an aesthetic has on the mind. With one’s space so calm, smooth and free-flowing, so uncluttered, how can one feel tense? It is as if when the body enters such an open space physically, the mind also enters an open space — one that does not impose upon it but rather invites it to relax in freedom.

This clean and simple aesthetic is also very conducive to thinking and to meditating, for obvious reasons. The same holds true for the rock garden. Its smoothness and stillness, punctuated by just the right amount of components, put our minds at ease and elevate them somehow. Something in the nature of these tangible things, of that tangible space, allows us to make contact with something intangible in which our minds delight. This is true not just of structures and spaces, of course. Jewelry has been around for thousands of years, as we know quite well not only from things like ancient Egyptian murals, but also from ancient jewelry itself, lifted from the ground by archaeologists or treasure hunters.

Many of us feel emotional connections to some of our jewelry; many of us wear certain articles because the design or the material makes us think of something, or is a symbol of something important to us. This is especially true of religious or spiritually-oriented jewelry. How many of us wear Stars of David, mezuzah pendants, crosses, crucifixes, Buddha pendants, yin/yang circles, Qur’an pendants, or even mineral rocks from the earth, because their tangibility links us to the intangible things they represent?

The same is true for other physical art — the David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, St. Peter’s basilica (all right, I’m betraying a Michelangelo bias here), Buddhist temples, Monet’s paintings, the intricate aniconic designs of Muslim art, the bimah of Jewish synagogues. The rich statuary of most Catholic churches reflects the Catholic theology that it is not to the statue that a worshiper prays, and it is not the statue that has any power: the statue is a tangible symbol of the spiritual figure it represents.

The ancient world too, as I mentioned in another post, was rich with statues and figurines of the gods and various other religious artifacts. In ancient Mesopotamia, the statues of the gods were their physical vectors on Earth; when a statue was created and commissioned, its inauguration consisted of the ceremonies mish pi and pit pi — “washing of the mouth” and “opening of the mouth.” When these ceremonies were complete, the deity’s physical representation became formal and suitable for that deity.

All of these things, I think, are examples of the inextricable link between the tangible and the intangible. The tangibility of the Zen rock garden or the Japanese room, or some element within nature, directs our minds to something intangible and produces a feeling or a state of being. The tangibility of personal jewelry — which we often touch or hold in a moment of worry or gratitude or even just contemplation — connects us to the intangibility of what it represents. The tangibility of physical art — whether painted, drawn, sculpted, constructed, or written — touches us on a deep level, and can even transport us to some other world or some larger awareness. The tangibility of a religious statue serves as a vector for the reality beyond. For those of us who believe in an intangible soul that survives the body, the body is the tangible home of that soul in this world.

The tangible and the intangible of this cosmos, while so often thought of as separate and fundamentally different, in fact seem linked in deep and inextricable ways. I will think of this as I look at my Zen rock garden this week, and allow its tangible nature to point my mind to the intangible peace it represents.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010