At the outskirts of Florence in Italy there’s a massive hill that offers excellent views of that city and, in the summer, a bit of relief from the oppressive heat and swarms of mosquitoes down below. When I was a seminary student, I spent a summer improving my Italian in Florence and often found myself climbing the hill to visit the monastery of San Minato al Monte. Full disclosure: I made those frequent pilgrimages only partly out of piety. That magnificent church is made of stone and marble and always stays cool; since the residence I was staying in was trapped in the valley below with little wind or air circulation, I was grateful for these moments of respite from the Tuscan summer heat.
Not far from the monastery there’s a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s famous carved marble statue of David, which today stands in the Accademia Gallery. When you sit aside David and admire the city down below, you can’t help but notice the imposing cathedral with Brunelleschi’s unforgettable dome. As a piece of architecture, the dome was regarded as a feat of wonder in its time, but it’s not just the exterior that’s remarkable. The interior of the dome features terrifying frescoed scenes of the end of the world. When I attended morning prayer and Mass with the cathedral canons, I found myself often gazing up and thinking on the themes in Vasari’s masterpiece.
Naturally, we can all admire something like Vasari’s frescoes of The Last Judgement or Michelangelo’s statue of David, but most of us miss the purpose of these works of art.
In this very moment
Our world is passing away
Great artists — like poets, visionaries, musicians, and spiritual teachers — understand that the works they create are merely starting places. Their works point beyond themselves to greater mysteries. While we’re gawking at the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel, we forget that one day these things will be no more. This came home to me during my first months of seminary in Rome when an earthquake destroyed some of the magnificent frescoes of Cimabue and Giotto in Assisi. While the loss of life and the suffering of the people in the Umbria region of Italy was heart-wrenching, the loss of the irreplaceable, priceless art was not. I had been on retreat in Assisi some weeks earlier and was profoundly inspired by the paintings of Fra Angelico, Giotto, and above all Cimabue, but in truth I don’t think my mind reached beyond the worldly forms of the art to greater truths. Only when the paintings (quite literally) turned to dust did that happen.
It’s important to have beautiful, inspiring works of art, like the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo, whose birthday is today. But the reality that all things pass away is far more important.
March 6, 2017