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Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Renaissance, the Reformer, and the Painter

Sandro Botticelli has always fascinated me, less as a seminal painter (which he is), than as a unique example of a great artist who fell under the sway of a particularly powerful form of religious fundamentalism. My understanding is limited because, honestly, I don’t know much about Savonarola and even Botticelli.

I’m aware that Fra Girolamo Savonarola had been disciplined by the Pope for aligning with the French and prophesying the invasion of Florence to Charles, King of France. Apparently, Florence was to be a new Jerusalem and I get the impression that if Savonarola was a reformist of the harshest order (he was as antisecular as I think you can get), he may possibly been driven by his own sense of realpolitik. I wish I did know more because it fascinates me that he was charismatic enough to draw a significant number of followers and be perceived as a threat by both Rome and the Medici.

Additionally, his is an object lesson that regardless of the advances made in education, technology, science and the arts, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for spiritual malaise or even fear (on the part of the faithful) of persecution. Both can be fuel for what we see currently in the so-called "culture wars" between fundamentalism of various stripes and the secular structures in place in education, technology, the sciences and the arts and how these differences have profound effect on politics and policy.

I would argue that despite their primitive rhetoric and appeal to millenarian/apocalyptic visions, many of these charismatic leaders aren’t necessarily stupid. Certainly, they seem remarkably uneducated, uninterested in, if not outright hostile to science and technological advances, but they know how to play politics and have carved out extremely dug-in positions among the conservative right. The reasons are numerous and this isn’t what I’m interested in addressing right here.

What I am interested in looking at are two paintings at the Fogg on display at the Harvard Art Museums. One is a Madonna and Child from 1490, if memory serves. The other is a crucifixion from 1500 or 1510. The one predates his involvement with Savonarola (but not his brother’s who was more under the reformer’s influence than Sandro); the other was painted afterward and there’s a note that Botticelli may have painted the crucifixion for his own use. I find them both amazing works and I think I may be one of the few who find Botticelli’s post-conversion work as compelling in its own way as his earlier, more sensuous oeuvre.

In the Madonna and Child, we see this handling of the brush and vision of one of those pristine Botticellian faces on par with his Venus or La Primavera. It’s a tour de force of surface, color and movement.

The crucifixion, by contrast, is raw and expressionist in a way not often seen from someone whose work was typically much more studied and composed.

It’s a sketch, to be sure, but it’s almost Germanic in composition and attack. The angel in the lower right looks almost as tortured as Christ on the cross and the city in the background (Florence as the New Jerusalem) shimmers like a fever dream.What intrigues me is the idea that he might have painted this for his own use. Perhaps as his own reminder of the End Times? Was there something in Savonarola’s teachings that privileged or prioritized the smokey, burning of this vision of a dawn of a new age? Whatever it might be doctrinally, the very fact this exists shows its precedence in Botticelli’s life.

But the first reaction I had to it was that this vision didn’t bring him peace.It’s an agitated, disturbing counterpoint to his Madonna, serene in her place as the Mother of God, but not necessarily divorced from the world. The natural world in Sandro’s pre-Savonarolan work is thriving and alive and embraced and embracing. The flip side is a work like the crucifixion, which admittedly comes with the territory, but there’s a darkness that shocks in the composition. It begs contemplation; you can feel the despair the artist feels at the end of all he’s known up to this point.

Botticelli didn’t live much longer. It’s said that he burned a number of his works in a bonfire along with others who were heeding Savonarola’s call to turn their backs on the vanity of the world.

They are remarkable works and show a studied poeticism that remains with the artist in his later years.I wonder, though: what would the younger Botticelli’s interpretation of Dante look like? Or would it take an artist of his caliber to have his soul forged by reformer’s fire and brought to the depths to begin to essay the Alighierian depths (and heights)? And at the end of this contemplation, I’m reminded me that Savonarola was eventually excommunicated, hung and burned.

I want to be sure that I’m not dismissing him or writing him off. Pico della Mirandola thought pretty highly of Savonarola’s intellect and debates skills (Machiavelli didn’t think much of him, at all), and in any event, he remains a figure of influence in the Renaissance. It would be a whole other area of pursuit to examine the impact of these movements on the sociopolitical dimensions of the time. I believe we could learn much from them.

Postscript, December 7. After having spent a little more time reviewing the period and poring over a few papers, I want to return to the principals and question my own assumptions about the time, the intersection of faith and politics, and look a little more deeply about how we are danced with similar challenges as beset early sixteenth century Florence.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Sojong (Wyl. gso sbyong; Skt. poṣadha; Pal. uposatha) 'Healing and Purification' — the bimonthly practice of confession observed by members of the monastic community. On sojong days the observance of the eight vows of sojong or the practice of Narak Kong Shak are recommended.
from the Rigpa Shedra Wiki
I'm not a monastic, and while I feel the effects of my actions sooner than I'd sometimes like, I have to confess that I killed another being. Sure, it was an accident, but if we are to be genuinely aware of our actions and their ramifications, in small things as well as great, perhaps an acknowledgement to be more aware is in order
Thus, I offer this by way of purification and as a genuine wish that if there is a continuity of consciousness that emerges cyclically through form after form, then may the mouse being - whose lesson in care I take to heart - re-emerges soon in enlightenment and supreme well-being. I extend this wish to all beings, but when you are the gateway out of this life, it's best, I think, if you assume responsibility, however "accidental" the action may appear.
What follows is a kind of summing up of the event surrounding the main action and both a confession and a prayer. It can be enlarged to reflect on the numerous instances where we participate unwittingly in catastrophe, of the innumerable moments of sleep that we think are wakefulness, and the lack of compassion we hold for others in the world (well, I don't know about you, but I fall short of the mark more often than I'd care to admit.)
I explained to my colleagues that you and your family and others of your species only want to be happy.
My colleagues found that humorous. All they could see was a small, wretched carrier of disease.

From a child, I was taught a reverence for all life, from the smallest to the greatest. Microbe to whale, all sentient beings only want happiness.
Do you people really believe that just because a paramecium or a cockroach (or a mouse, for that matter) doesn't have a nervous system like a human's that they are incapable of wanting to find happiness? Of wanting to fulfill their nature?
They told me they caught you and trapped you! I said I would take you and free you back into the wild (well, at least the fens.)
WAH! ཝ་(1)
You were under a trash can, a recycling bin
more accurately. I slid the cardboard between the bin and the floor and felt your body sandwich between them. I felt the "something wrong" of your body-self departing.
While it might be true ultimately that there is no arising and no cessation, appearances are to the contrary. Like the Old Fox Monk(2), while recognizing that, I am not blind to cause and effect.
Am I an agent for your ripening karma? Or is this a seed that will come to fruition in my continuum?
For my self - a construct, a fiction - I do not care. All that matters is your liberation, little mouse friend; may you be liberated. May you awaken in Amitabha's Pure Land.

1. Wah. It's a pun, of sorts. A cry of "alas", but also, ཝ་ is pronounced "wa" or "wah", I suppose.
2. This refers to the second case in the Wumenguan/Mumonkan/Gateless Gate of Chan/Zen Buddhism.
Case 2 Hyakujõ's Fox 二 百丈野狐
When Hyakujõ Oshõ delivered a certain series of sermons, an old man always followed the monks to the main hall and listened to him.
When the monks left the hall, the old man would also leave.
One day, however, he remained behind, and Hyakujõ asked him, "Who are you, standing here before me?"
The old man replied.
"I am not a human being.
In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha, I was a head monk, living here on this mountain.
One day a student asked me, 'Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?'
I answered, 'No, he does not.'
Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox.
I beg you now to give the turning word to release me from my life as a fox.
Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?"
Hyakujõ answered, "He does not ignore causation."
No sooner had the old man heard these words than he was enlightened.
Making his bows, he said, "I am emancipated from my life as a fox. I shall remain on this mountain.
敢告和尚。 乞、依亡僧事例。
I have a favor to ask of you: would you please bury my body as that of a dead monk."
Hyakujõ had the director of the monks strike with the gavel and inform everyone that after the midday meal there would be a funeral service for a dead monk.
The monks wondered at this, saying, "Everyone is in good health; nobody is in the sick ward. What does this mean?"
After the meal Hyakujõ led the monks to the foot of a rock on the far side of the mountain and with his staff poked out the dead body of a fox and performed the ceremony of cremation.
That evening he ascended the rostrum and told the monks the whole story.
Õbaku thereupon asked him, "The old man gave the wrong answer and was doomed to be a fox for five hundred rebirths. Now, suppose he had given the right answer, what would have happened then?"
Hyakujõ said, "You come here to me, and I will tell you."
Õbaku went up to Hyakujõ and boxed his ears.
師拍手笑云、將謂、胡鬚赤。 更有赤鬚胡。
Hyakujõ clapped his hands with a laugh and exclaimed, "I was thinking that the barbarian had a red beard, but now I see before me the red-bearded barbarian himself."
Mumon's Comment
Not falling under causation: how could this make the monk a fox?
Not ignoring causation: how could this make the old man emancipated?
If you come to understand this, you will realize how old Hyakujõ would have enjoyed five hundred rebirths as a fox.
Mumon's Verse 頌曰
不落不昧 Not falling, not ignoring:
兩采一賽 Two faces of one die.
不昧不落 Not ignoring, not falling:
千錯萬錯 A thousand errors, a million mistakes.

The last picture is Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light who resides in the Pure Realm of Sukhavati (Tibetan, Dewachen.) The facing page is the Prayer for Rebirth in Sukhavati which uses the description of that realm from the Sukhavati sutras for the visualization. See below for the prayer transcribed and translated.
ཡོཾ་ཡ་མི་དྷེ་ཝ་ཧྲིཿ is Buddha Amitabha's mantra. Om-ah-mi-deh-wa-rhi, more or less.
Short Sukhavati Prayer
No-tsar sang-gyä nang-wa ta-yä dangyä-su jo-wo tug-je chen-po dangyön-du sem-pa tug-chen tob-nam-lasang-gyä chang-sem pag-me kor-gi-kor.De-kyi no-tsar pag-du me-pa-yide-wa-chen-she-cha-wä shin-kam-derdag-ni di-nä tse-pö-jur-ma-tagkye-wa shen-kyi bar-ma chö-pa-ru.De-ru kye-nä nang-tä shäl-tong shogde-kä dag-ki mön-lam tab-pa-dichog-chu’i sang-gyä chang-sem tam-chä-kyigeg-me trub-par chin-ji-lab-tu-sol.
EMAHO The wondrous Buddha of Infinite Light. To his right is the Lord of Great Compassion (Chenrezig), and to his left stands the Bodhisattva of Great Power (Vajrapani). All are surrounded by countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There is miraculous, immeasurable happiness and joy in the Buddha field called Dewachen. Instantly, when I pass from this life, without taking another birth, may I be reborn in Dewachen and see Amitabha’s face. Having made this aspiration prayer, by all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions, may I be blessed with unhindered accomplishment.
This and other prayers and texts can be found at Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche's website: