6 Protest and Communication


"The dazzling summit of human achievement represented by Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci lasted for less than twenty years. It was followed (except in Venice) by a time of uneasiness and often ending in disaster. For the first time since the great thaw civilised values where questioned and defied, and for some years it looked as if the footholds won by the Renaissance - the  discovery of the individual, the belief in human genius, the sense of harmony between man and his surroundings - had been lost. Yet this was an inevitable process, and out of the confusion and brutality of  sixteenth-century Europe, man emerged with new faculties and expanded powers of thought and expression." p 139


cardinal oswald kreel
Portrait of a cardinal, Raphael, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain Oswald Krell, Dürer, 1499, The Prado, Madrid 

 Krel was a merchant from Lindau (Lake Constance), participating in the South German medieval trade corporation Große Ravensburger Handelsgesellschaft


"The cardinal is not only a man of the highest culture but balanced and self-contained. Oswald Krell is on the verge of hysteria. Those staring eyes, that look of self-conscious introspection, that uneasiness.....how German it is; and what a nuisance it has been for the rest of the world." p 141

For years I accepted Clark's hysteric Oswald until a student set me straight. Robyn had long blond hair and was, I guess transgendered, and had a great eye for art.  He/she enrolled in the Civilization course in the self-paced version and had to come by the office from time to time to discuss the topics. Robyn disagreed with Clark on Oswald, he was "not hysterical at all, but very nervous and on edge".  As Luther would not tack his theses on the door for another 18 years after the painting was completed, so if anything Oswald is prescient not hysterical. Clark had seen his country endure two wars with Germany, so I guess his misreading of northern man is understandable.  Clark bypassed Spain in this series and it makes me wonder if the bypass allowed Clark to overlook the Spanish  Inquisition. The highly cultured cardinal painted by Raphael came from the same strata of the Catholic hierarchy as the Grand Inquisitor. As for Robyn, I urged him/her to pursue an art history career, but Robyn had received a call to the ministry.

 Dürer's writings do suggest that he may have been sympathetic to Martin Luther's ideas, though it is unclear if he ever left the Catholic Church. Dürer wrote of his desire to draw Luther in his diary in 1520: "And God help me that I may go to Dr. Martin Luther; thus I intend to make a portrait of him with great care and engrave him on a copper plate to create a lasting memorial of the Christian man who helped me overcome so many difficulties."  In a letter to in 1524, Dürer wrote "because of our Christian faith we have to stand in scorn and danger, for we are reviled and called heretics."  I don't find hysteria here, but intelligent men all over Europe knew that the church must be reformed, no only in its institutions but in  its teachings. The great civilizer of Europe had run aground on forms and vested  interest.

The Church, rather than seek compromise with the reformers, dug in its heels. The attempt to convene a council were delayed by a number of events including the sack of Papal Rome by troops of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527, raping, killing, burning, stealing, the like had not been seen since the Vandals.  Saint Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel were used to stable horses. When the Council of Trent was finally convened in 1545 it began the Counter Reformation by issuing condemnations of what it defined as heresies committed by Protestantism. In my humble opinion, the Vatican bears a share of the blame for that second split in Christendom and those cultivated men in the Vatican acted just as barbaric as the Northern bully-boys.  So there, now back to art.

 Holbein's, the Madonna of Burgomaster Meyer was once considered the masterpiece of the the Northern Renaissance and if one is looking for a reasonable god-fearing society, you can find it reflected here.

Darmstadt Madonna, Hans Holbein, 1526, Frankfurt

The work shows the Bürgermeister of Basel, his first wife (who had died and her death is indicated by the cloth covering her chin), his current wife, and his daughter grouped around the Madonna and baby Jesus. The two male figures are unidentified. The painting testified to the Catholic faith of the Bürgermeister, who opposed the Reformation. The painting is now in Frankfurt, but when in 2000 we visited Darmstadt to see the  painting it was supposedly housed in one of two museums located in a park. We wandered around in the snow trying to find an entrance and finally got in only to discover the painting was not on display. We were not to happy, but did find a Turkish restaurant also located in the park and had a good meal. All was not lost.

Holbein's carpets always grab my attention, I did not get to see the one above, but in his Ambasadors in the  National Gallery, London I did see on several occasions. Below is a detail of the carpet.


"What made Durer so important to his age was that he combined an iron grip on the facts of appearance with an extremely fertile invention. His woodcuts and engravings of sacred subjects carried absolute conviction. Also, as  time went on, he became absolute master of all the techniques of his day, and in particular the science of perspective, which he used not simply as an intellectual game, as the early Florentines had  done, but in order to  increase the sense of reality. His woodcuts diffused a new way of looking at art, not as something  magical or symbolic, but as something accurate and factual." p 155


st jerome
Albrecht Durer, St Jerome in his Study, copperplate engraving, 1514. British Museum (The lion and the cardinal's hat identify the figure as St Jerome.)


"An so Protestantism became destructive, and, from the point of view of those who love what they see, was an unmitigated disaster. We all know about the destruction of images - what we nowadays call works of art; how commissioners went round to even the humblest parish church an smashed everything of beauty it contained, not only images, but carved font-covers, reredoses - anything within  reach, because it didn't pay them to stay too long on a single job. I  suppose the motive wasn't so much religious as an instinct to destroy anything comely, anything that reflected a state of  mind that an unevolved  man couldn't share.  Ultimately a new civilisation was created - but it was a civilisation not of the image, but of the word." p 159

Clark segues towards Shakespeare and admits he can not "compress Shakespeare into the scale of those soliloquies. But I can't altogether omit him, because one of the first ways in which I would justify civilisation is that it can produce a genius of this scale."

There have been great pessimist since his time, but who else has felt so strongly the absolute meaninglessness of human life?

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,      
To the last syllable of recorded time,             
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools      
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle;
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor  player     
that struts and frets his hour upon the state        
And is herd no more: it is a tale                        
Told by an idiot; full of sound and fury,             Signifying nothing.

"How unthinkable before the break-up of Christendom, the tragic split that followed the Reformation; and yet I feel that the human mind has gained a new greatness by outstaring this emptiness." p 165

The NY Times recently ran a piece by a philosopher about the meaninglessness of human life. Under the 'submit a comment' feature I responded, 'Life may be meaningless, but its all we have. :)'


7 Grandeur and Obedience                                     Contents