In reflecting upon Ken Clark’s edifying article in Faith and Culture, “The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio” (May 22, 2019), I will invoke Narnia. I love the part in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan explains to the children how an even deeper magic than the white witch knew about allowed him to rise from the dead. As fascinatingly as that term rings in our imaginations, I naturally wonder if there might be anything like a “deeper magic” in the arts. “The Taking of Christ,” the painting in Clark’s article by Caravaggio, might come close. That is to say, when I see it, I cannot believe what I am seeing; no human could possibly have done that! As when visiting a glass-encased incorruptible saint’s body, one knows one is standing right there seeing it, yet one can scarcely believe one’s own eyes. I stand, likewise, dumbfounded in galleries before the utterly lifelike portraits of Rubens, or of Michelangelo’s astonishing sculptures David or The Pietà – or, for that matter, by the great fugues of Bach and symphonies of Brahms.
Clark’s rightful conclusion was that the Caravaggio painting was a work of genius. However, that word is so generously used today that I am tempted to stretch to further hyperbole and say that such works seem, by my reckoning, downright superhuman — nearly impossible for a human to do, at least nowadays. But it is fair to say that, at the least, they represent “the old ways” of some past civilization, like something approaching an ancient magic, if ever there was magic. Yet, we tend to look the other way. We simply accept that such miracles are no longer for today. No one asks why not. It feels to me that for many years I myself was asleep in this acceptance, or you could say I was a frozen statue in the perpetual winter of a frozen artistic Narnia.
Some will, no doubt, protest that there are equally impressive works today, only different, and that I am purposely ignoring them to glorify the past. But, for me, the problematic words in this argument are the words “only different.” I will concede that of course there have been impressive recent works, some even with a kind of genius. For example, Picasso’s Guernica (1937) has long been regarded as one of the most powerful and moving anti-war statements ever made in art, and I do not necessarily disagree. However, I do not feel a need to gaze and feast my eyes for long, or again and again for years, at this painting, as I do the Caravaggio. That seems crucially important, just as we have so many “interesting” Modernist pieces of music that most of us really do not long to hear a second time. No doubt, profound subjects can be addressed using Modern techniques or via commercial illustration or even with a simple cartoon or in the lyrics of a simple song. But in the Caravaggio, there is more than the story of the taking of Christ being conveyed by the painting, just as there is as much in Shakespeare’s choice of words as in his story line alone. Otherwise, we could simply read a synopsis. There is the stunning technique, even a pinnacle of human achievement – in Shakespeare and in Caravaggio – for example, the soldier’s shining black armor that Clark says “took his breath away” and “hypnotized” him. As crucial as the subject matter is, the technique itself transcends the story, or as Marshall McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message.
At some point, I began to ask, “Why must we blindly settle on this status quo of lost craft? Why must we passively accept that such astounding technique belongs only to the distant past? Can we ever hope to thaw today’s artistically petrified Narnia? Is it too late or even possible to bring back the old ways and the deeper magic, or must we finally accept that they have been lost forever?” Classical painting techniques can be found here and there today, but they have largely been abandoned by applied art departments in schools. Likewise, music composition students are mostly encouraged exclusively to compose in a postmodern style requiring imagination but little traditional craft.
I believe I began my own very gradual thaw a good twenty-five years ago, eventually setting out on a conscious quest to rediscover and master the old ways and perhaps even unlock the deeper magic. Within academic circles, I was met with resistance and open criticism from day one, and it soon became apparent that something beyond my own stubborn persistence would be required to hold any ground I gained. Then the ultimate truth became apparent: The frozen statues of Narnia did not thaw themselves by their own will power alone. It was Aslan who had breathed his deeper magic upon them. Such a thawing wind took hold of me and has for years sustained the convictions behind my work.
This is no assurance of success, only of being pointed in the right direction, and it is not proposed as a simple formula. As a case in point, or rather counterpoint, it can be argued that Caravaggio was not known for his Christian faith. Neither was Beethoven, nor many of the great artists of the past. Nonetheless, these individuals did not work in a vacuum. In those days, in spite of their personal lives, their works were still the product of a culture that had arisen from the aesthetics of faith, nurtured by the Church. Most of us do not envision such a culture returning, at large, and so we who have now mercifully been thawed would do well to coalesce into a deeper magic movement, if possible. We must set our artistic sights rigorously high, as the road ahead will not be an easy one, even as the statues whom Aslan thawed at the witch’s castle still had a battle ahead of them.