Paintings at the turning of the tide
Hildegard, Leonardo da Vinci, William Blake and Arthur Hughes
This life's dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.
- William Blake
I want to spend a bit of time looking at four paintings today. And then we’ll listen to a sample of a song I’ve composed for the folk opera that will be released in November 2022.
Three hundred years before Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Hildegard von Bingen conceptualized the painting she called Universal Man.
In this painting, you get the sense that she is not so much putting the human at the centre, as she is revealing how much we need the whole of creation, how much we are connected and part of creation.
Animals and elements and vines, illuminated by what she saw as the Christ, are breathing life into Hildegard’s human, and in some sense there is a surrendered, rooted, earthling, wholly incarnate, with arms spread wide… organs bared to the world. No shield.
The loins, and the gut center, and the thighs, are the central point, with a kind of ball of elemental, power, set behind them.
Beams of light crisscross in a meridian of sacred, geometric connection. It looks possible, but this is just my own observation, that her image is also bordered by the Fleur-de-lis (which would be quite interesting if it is).
Now onto da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Something to note straight away, is that an aspect of da Vinci’s motivation for drawing this, is to dispute measurements. It is, in part, a visual debate with Vitruvius’s depiction of man, because Vitruvius didn’t get the thigh proportions quite right. But their intention was to fit him into both the circle, and the square. He even mentions in De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum et Artium, that the art of perspective “shows how deformity can be avoided in painting.”
So, where we see a web and a circle in Hildegard’s depiction, we have a square and a circle in the Vitruvian depictions. Where we have the man standing square on, in da Vinci’s drawing, we see a twist in the hips of Hildegard’s.
I do not think it would suffice to say that the twist in the hips is due to propriety. Hildegard spoke freely of male anatomy as vital, and as a flower.
Perhaps, she twisted the hips, precisely not to be square.
Maybe, even as da Vinci was having proportion debates, as he pushed the boundaries of our way of seeing, of science, of calculation, excited… no doubt even ecstatic… at each new discovery, Hildegard was sitting 300 years previous to him, in her own style of debate, that forewarns the coming of the reductionistic state in which we find ourselves.
To Hildegard, the human being experiences life, and verdant, green, vitality, through being inside of the ecosystem, the web.
What happened when the web turned square? We might see it as a peak moment of discovery that soon moved toward insular notions, to borders, between people and the rest of creation, seen and unseen.
To be fair, Leonard da Vinci’s human, although acutely determined toward exacting proportions, was intended to speak of the human body as a microcosm mirroring the macrocosm… that the body itself is a universe. Still… it is worth noting that the Higher Power behind/within the earthling, and the elemental animal web, of Hildegard’s universal man, was replaced with a box.
Fast forward two hundred years.
William Blake finds himself a visionary of angels, just decades after Isaac Newton’s discoveries.
And where we had the hope of the ideal man, achieved through measurement, we can see already in Blake’s time, his critique of the Newtonian universe. The billiard ball machine.
The rise of conspiracy in our own age, can find its roots in the rational milieu of Blake’s time. There was no place for his visions… of angels, of God. He was mocked as a madman. This way of being or seeing was exiled.
His critique of the popular pixilated style of art of his day, and his rebellion with strong lines, was an extraordinarily prophetic, creative, act. As though he knew the digital age was coming to supplant, or to deaden the power of spiritual connection.
I have forgotten how I used to make plans before my phone became an extension of my arm. Then I imagine the great standing stones and the mounds set in astrological meridians across the world, and am in awe of the irrational intelligences that collectively built them.
Look at this painting of Newton.
It looks like he is, unbeknownst to himself, hewn from the earth, in an oceanic depth that exceeds him, staring with his myopic vision, having turned even his garment into a scroll, onto which he will project reality, and map narrow trajectories which can only ever come from his mind.
His loins, his gut, his heart, his rippling, erotic body, guarded, if not utterly forgotten… slouched over… a laptop or a phone. Fragmented into a pixilated universe without end.
Would that a fish came to swallow him up Jonah-style. Shape shift him into a tuna, or even a school of krill. Would that the algae began to creep over his buttocks and up his spine, yanking on his curls, and snap his gaze outward… to the tentacular Mother writhing in ecstasy in his very midst.
Fast forward again.
In the 1800’s there was a painting movement in Britain called the pre-Raphaelites. They were influenced by the German Nazarene Movement which sought to revive spirituality in art.
Although never an official member, an artist named Arthur Hughes, (whose later work would emerge as illustrations in George MacDonald’s and Christina Rosetti’s books), was deeply influenced by the philosophy of the pre-Raphaelite painters.
These painters sniffed out the flat dead end we would get from a mechanical universe, and they were interested in the mystery of illuminated art.
Arthur Hughes painted Caedmon’s Awakening, depicting the 7th century bard who lived with the abbess, Hilda of Whitby. He paints Caedmon in the dark, animal earth, peering out from under his hood, at an illuminated bush. A burning bush? Caedmon is seeing angels. Dimensions within, synonymous with, the corporeal.
He was an illiterate Saxon shepherd. And is said to have written the first Christian hymn in the English language.
I have put music to this hymn, which is in the West Saxon dialect. And will say further, that this hymn is a bridge between two epochs. In it, he calls upon ‘Frēa Almighty’, which can simply mean “Lord”, or ‘fertile god’, but also is mysteriously associated with the goddess Frigg.
As we continue to experience disorientation, fragmentation, confusion, self righteousness, and pattern disruption during this epochal turning, we would do well to reach back to these other turning ages, and learn how to hold wide angle vision, to build bridges across impossible chasms.
I don’t want to live anymore in a pixilated painting that threatens a never-ending, shattering, fragmentation after fragmentation, for all infinity.
Someone… please paint us a spheric web, where the animism is hopping, where the elements are breathing, and set it in a prism that includes all time. I want to be in that painting. I want to live in an ecology that has the inner wisdom… not to exile so quickly. We need the worms, the dank decay, and the discomfort of not being perfect. We don’t need more puritanism. We need metanoia.
With that, here is a little demo from my folk opera… a simple example of my version of Caedmon’s Hymn.
*I also want to point out that tomorrow is Imbolg, and that Brigid is the goddess and saint of thresholds. This hymn feels very in the spirit of “this” but also “that”, as though Caedmon also stood at a threshold, reconciling all things at the turning of the tide.
B R I L L I A N T! Thank you. I am forwarding/sharing this post. You are a Genetrix of HOPE!