The 500-Year Question

by Makoto Fujimura

Angelico madonna-of-humilitySome years ago I visited the Fra Angelico (1395-1455) exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Behind the splendor of the Christmas creche, I joined a hushed group of art lovers. The golden aura of a diminutive portrait of the Virgin Mary greeted me, her azurite robe and the Christ child’s supple body creating a simple work that speaks of humanity.

After just a few seconds of pondering the color-saturated surface, I had to close my eyes, feeling it was too much to behold all at once. As I went in search of a blank wall to stare at, feeling almost ashamed to be in the presence of such greatness, I couldn’t help but wonder which contemporary ideas, art, or vision will still be affecting humanity 500 years from today.

Contemporary art does not encourage such thoughts. Apart from a few notable exceptions, contemporary artists seek to compress rather than stretch time. We are immersed in a visual culture that squeezes life into commercial slots promising instant gains. Like Warhol’s infamous “15 seconds of fame,” New York City galleries are awash in art that screams for immediate attention while leaving the viewer empty of any lasting impression.

Meanwhile, artists who labor to develop their craft, artists who are committed to a longer view of their art, suffer. I can think of many mid-career artists in their 50s who deserve much attention, but galleries give solo exhibits to fresh-out-of-art-school artists instead. Of course, these are replaced the following year by the next round of 20-year-olds.

There is nothing wrong with 20-year-olds, by the way: Fra Angelico was one himself the year he entered the Dominican order, which is where his gift was discovered, in the long honored tradition of art, and where he was trained as an apprentice.

If Fra Angelico were 20 today, he would have a hard time finding anyone to apprentice himself to, let alone joining a religious order. The contemporary church is the last place a creative genius looks for art training. That statement alone reveals the extent to which we Christians have abdicated our responsibility to steward culture.

“Will we see another Renaissance in the days to come?” I asked myself at the Met that day. “Will we have another chance to steward our culture, without losing our identity and faith in the process?”

By now some of you are wondering how I can even think in terms of 500 years down the road when we have the capacity to blow ourselves up a thousand times over. “Isn’t he being a bit overly optimistic?” you might ask. I recently had a conversation with a Japanese art student who was wrestling with a similar question. “How can you paint if you know you might not be around 10 years from now?” she asked me, the look on her face revealing that she was dead serious. Japanese youth continue to grow up in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even after all these years.

So I guided her to the events that defined the turn of the 16th century, and together we examined the period in which Fra Angelico painted.

It was not a cozy time in history. The stench of Black Death hovered over Europe, a plague that killed half (yes, half!) its population. The swords of assassination were drawn (striking the Dukes of Surrey and Exeter, and then the Earls of Kent, Huntington, and Salisbury for Richard II). The church was in turmoil (two Popes resigning and one being excommunicated in the span of four years). The Ottoman Empire invaded Constantinople, ending the Byzantine age, through Muslim invasion.

No, it was not an age in which to find hope, not a time to be thinking about the next 500 years. In fact, many of its events seem to have remarkable echoes in our times. So how did Fra Angelico manage to paint such indelible images? To what hope did he cling in such a dark time?

From what I have understood by looking at his paintings, it was to the ageless hope of Christ that he clung.

After my third visit to the Fra Angelico exhibit, I allowed myself to drink deeply of that hope. It is not only the hope of an individual genius, but also of patronage, of society, and of the church. And I realized that in order to create today—in fact, in order to live today—I desperately need Fra Angelico in my imagination. I need those angelic faces to fill my heart as I ponder Aquinas in my mind. I need to consider the life of St. Francis, the saint/artist whose image appears repeatedly throughout Fra Angelico’s oeuvre and who restored creativity and theater to theology.

I wondered if, had I painted side by side with Fra Angelico, I would have heard about the dangerous teenage heretic in France named Joan of Arc (executed 1436). Perhaps I would have turned to the last panel of my own “The Last Judgment,” and painted her face (secretly) as she danced up the stairs of heaven, her cinnabar robe rich with golden calligraphy, a design fit for a queen.

Can eternity be refracted through our earthly visions? Can my children’s world give birth to new generations of geniuses—as did Fra Angelico’s—whose splendors will fill the Earth, as well as Heaven?

Makoto Fujimura, recently appointed Director of Fuller’s Brehm Center, is an artist, writer, and speaker who is recognized worldwide as a cultural shaper. A presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003-2009, Fujimura served as an international advocate for the arts, speaking with decision makers and advising governmental policies on the arts.

 

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