Saturday, January 03, 2009

Byzantine Fresco Museum

It has only one exhibit, a complete and restored fresco from Cyprus, but it is still worth going to Houston's Byzantine Fresco Museum. The display is magnificent, with translucent glass panels assembled to suggest a chapel, illuminating the two related frescoes without distracting from them. The 13th C painted surfaces thus appear to hang in a timeless space, entirely supporting the Christos Pantocrater theme of this particular creation.

In renaissance and art history classes, a great deal is made of the Italian discovery/development of drawing in perspective in changing the larger perspective of how man looks at himself. I always wondered why it took so long to accomplish, uneasily accepting the standard explanation that the different religious focus and purposes of earlier art made perspective an unnecessary distraction. That may still be so, but a somewhat simpler explanation occurred to me at the chapel. When one is painting on curved surfaces, as ancient and medieval artists often were, perspective wouldn't occur to you. The flat surfaces were likewise viewed from odd angles, well below or well oblique to our post-renaissance center of "the picture." Icons, symbolic rather than representational from the outset, wouldn't exert any pressure of realism.

In contrast to this beauty of a free museum, the Rothko chapel a block away is a net drain on your spirit. Even though it is free, it sucks the life out of you.

It is a dead chapel. In being designed to accommodate all religious traditions - and the holiness of this idea you are never allowed to forget - it drains all of them. There are little benches before you enter the chapel proper, with a Koran, a Book of Mormon, and representative writing from what Americans think are the world's religions dutifully set out to read. Inside, the walls are grey stone, enormous black or deep purple canvases hung on them to absorb whatever stray light seeps in from the obscured skylight. It is not a space which accommodates all religious varieties, but negates them as unimportant. If you can imagine the husks of a religion, the dead seed-pod left abandoned after anything sustaining or alive has been removed, you have a clue what this chapel is built from spiritually.

I imagine this is the effect Rothko was looking for, though he saw it as more positive. The idea of stripping off all religious sentiment so that the participant has to bring it in the door himself to fill the space, is exactly the sort of idea that an artist would think brilliant. Modern intellectuals in general would think that is brilliant, as it allows them to appear tolerant and open-minded while still insisting that there is no transcendant reality.

CS Lewis insisted that there was a great divide between the 20th C and the 19th, greater than the divide between the 19th and many previous centuries. He saw himself as one of the last survivors of the old, classically trained world, already a dinosaur at Cambridge went he moved there in the early 1950's. The other church art we saw over the last few days would bear this out. The painted church at High Hill in the German-Czech region between San Antonio and Houston, and San Fernando in San Antonio, have far more in common with the 13th C mindset than they do with Rothko's, though he is much nearer to them in time and technology.

By the way, the Rothko Chapel is a big favorite of "people who have made important contributions to human rights," and speakers have included Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu...

I'll bet you could have guessed that if I'd asked.

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