Thursday, July 23, 2009

Rivalry? What Rivalry?

Which is to say, in the supposed showdown between Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto at the MFA, Titian dominates. Yes, Veronese has his moments, specifically his splendid transition from spirit to matter in the waters of baptism, and he also clearly comes out on top in the subject of the temptation of St. Antony; and indeed, Tintoretto's Lucretia and his Susanna both somehow outdo the comparable subject matter of his fellow Venetians - but overall Titian just commands, both theologically, and - it must be admitted - in his ability to depict sensuality, but as this is a family friendly blog, upon the latter I shall not focus.

The clearest example of Titian's theological triumph over his "rivals" is in the Supper at Emmaus. It's not a fair fight, for Titian had many years on his followers, both artistically and spiritually (when you paint like that how can some degree of spiritual attainment not be the case?). But whether I qualify it or not, the fact stands: Compared to Titian's Emmaus, Veronese and Tintoretto? Buffoonery. That's right, I said it. On their own they certainly stand, but in comparison, the title of Terry Eagleton's review of Richard Dawkins comes to mind: Lunging, flailing, mispunching.

See for yourself. Titian depicts two ways of grappling with the shock of faith. The figure on the left in green is pulsed by youthful amazement - Christ did rise. (May we all be preserved from such belated Thomistic realizations.) And yet, all the figures in Veronese and Tintoretto's respective Emmaus scenes are proscribed within the contours of this relatively primitive relation to the divine. But lo, observe the pink-cloaked figure on the right in Titian's Emmaus. The soft natural light above signifies supernatural revelation, but far from shocked amazement, one sees a mature recognition of one's own lack of faith in light of what one has come to discover to be the indisputable reality of God. Notice how the eyes are gazing straight at the hand wounds which we, the viewers (in more ways than one perhaps) cannot see.

And it continues. Titian suggests we cannot gain direct access to Christ. Nay, the viewer must, in this case, go through the real presence of the Eucharist. I'm not making this up, look at the painting. A clearer example: Notice how in the next painting seen here (also in the exhibition), the depicted patron (lower figure on the right) cannot see Mary and Christ directly - that only happens in the hands which accomplish works of love, hands which are mingled into the blue of Mary's dress. But still, the vision of Christ can occur as mediated - quite literally - through the church which, in case we might miss the point, is slapped right there right next to the patron's eyes. Ecclesiology matters, says Titian.

Whereas the Cezanne and Beyond show in Philadelphia earlier this year was a curatorial triumph, illuminating not just Cezanne, but the entirety of twentieth century art through the Cezannian lens with stunning comparisons - the same can't be said for Boston's Rivals in Renaissance Venice, the other blockbuster show of 2009. Sure there are some excellent decisions - the subject matter comparison was a very fine move - but what this enables us to see is not a rivalry, but an eclipse.