Vatican Museum

More on Contrast and Continuity

The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, by Raphael

 

Prompted by an article by William Least Heat-Moon, I reflect once again on two interrelated frescoes by Raphael. On his sometime-ago trip to the Yucatan, Least Heat-Moon was accompanied by his Mayan translator, Berto. There, the author encountered a destroyed Mayan temple. Regarding the temple’s relation to a later Christian cathedral occupying the same site, he quotes his translator.

“Many stones come from a Mayan temple that was long ago on this hill,” [said Berto, who] regretted this destruction. Yet to him, the broken stones imparted an additional dimension to the church because ancient Mayas usually did not destroy an earlier structure, instead building over it to layer meaning and power.

What an insight regarding contrast and continuity.

With that in mind, consider how visitors entering the Vatican Raphael room do so facing the fresco in the lower of the two images above. They behold a painting depicting an altar in a church space, surrounded by the Holy Trinity and famous saints and biblical figures. Turning around in that same space, visitors see the fresco in the upper image. It depicts great persons from the classical world, with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them, saying things like: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.”

We can look at these two interrelated paintings in another way. We might also see the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, notice how the two frescos are composed with the same elements: similar colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. And how the perspective or vanishing point in each painting mirrors that of the other.

Further, visitors who enter this room walk forward in the same direction as do Plato and Aristotle, who therefore share company with their contemporary pilgrims. Together, they and their later newcomers walk forward, approaching an altar surrounded by many saints! As a result, Raphael’s two paintings provide a splendid reflection on the theme of continuity.

Perceiving points of continuity between pre-Christian cultures and central themes in Scripture and in Western Christian theology has historically been more typical of the broader Catholic tradition, which includes not only Roman Catholics but also Anglican as well as some Reformed theologians, poets, and hymn writers. A contrasting parallel is provided by a historic tendency among many Protestant writers, preachers, and theologians, who have stressed a discontinuity not only between a Christian and a pagan view of the world, but often a perceived antithesis between them. This may caution us about making an ‘either/or‘ of what some may perceive as being a ‘both-and.’

Some who commend Celtic spirituality offer a compelling observation about Christian holy places in Ireland. Celtic crosses can often be found in or among pre-Christian places of worship. To the extent that this is so, we discern an openness to perceiving continuity. That is, a continuity between a place previously associated with a pre-Christian form of religion, and a later Christian willingness to pray and worship at the same location. Here, we should note a significant distinction.

Continuity does not imply sameness nor equivalence. There may be similar elements between what was before and what may come after. Such similarities do not obviate the potential newness and difference of what arrives later. Yes, the ‘new’ may bring change by covering over and even by replacing what came before, an approach typically characterizing contrast and discontinuity. Yet, the ‘new’ may bring change positively, by building upon what came before while also including and transforming it. No finer example of this exists than the Pantheon in Rome, also known as Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs.

All this has implications not only for the Christian transformation of places but also for how we view the baptismal transformation of people.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. My prior blog post on these paintings may be found here: https://towardbeauty.org/2019/09/28/the-beauty-of-contrast-and-continuity/ . That post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Contrast and Continuity

Luke presents us with a real challenge when he shares with us Jesus’ parable about the dishonest steward (or manager) {See Luke 16:1-13}  If you find yourself asking questions about what Jesus says in this passage you are not alone. Here is the obvious question: How can Jesus commend the bad behavior of a corrupt steward ~ as a good example for people of faith? We have a reading translated from Greek, which was itself probably an earlier translation of Jesus’ words in Aramaic. Therefore, we have to try to put our head into the text, in order to understand it. So… how can ‘the children of this age’ provide a commendable example to ‘the children of light’? Two paintings by Raphael may be able to help us with this ~ paintings you may have seen before.

They are found in a remarkable room in the Vatican Museum, painted about the same time that St. Peter’s Basilica was being built next door. Visitors entering this room face the fresco in the lower image, which looks like the sanctuary of a church with an altar and the sacrament upon it. On either side of that altar, and above it, are depictions of famous saints and biblical figures, as well as the Holy Trinity. Then, turning around in that same Vatican room, one sees the fresco in the upper image. It is the famous School of Athens, depicting great figures from the classical world with Plato and Aristotle in the middle. Tour guides typically present these two paintings, which face each other, in terms of the contrast between them. They say things like this: “Here, on this wall, we have the best minds of the pagan world. But, on the opposite wall, we see great saints of the Bible and the Church.” Or, to use Jesus’ words, we see ‘the children of this age’ in the upper image, contrasted with ‘the children of light’ in the lower one.

Yet, it’s quite possible to look at these related paintings in two different ways. We may, at first, be disposed to see the contrast between them as tour guides typically do. But we might also be open to seeing the continuity between them, even if the content of the two paintings seems rather different. For example, those who notice continuity will observe that the two frescos are composed with the same elements: the same colors and textures; the same arch over each image; and, that the two spaces in which the figures walk or sit may be in the same building. Further, the perspective or vanishing point in each painting converges upon that of the other.

Finally, visitors entering this room walk in the same direction as Plato and Aristotle, and —with them— toward the altar on which the sacrament is displayed. As a result, visitors standing between the two paintings are at the equivalent of what would be ‘the crossing’ of a church, a church which looks remarkably like St. Peter’s, next door. And so, as Raphael designed it, Plato and Aristotle are in the same company as visitors to this room, who join them in approaching the altar in the fresco showing all the saints! Therefore, these two paintings provide a splendid illustration of the theme of continuity.

 

The images above are of two of Raphael’s paintings, traditionally titled The School of Athens, and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, September 22, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.