miscellanea

The Abstraction of the Word. Prof. Antonio Natali. Director, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The Abstraction of the Word “The other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first. He bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground, but did not go in. Simon Peter who was following now came up, went right into the tomb, saw the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself”. Reading this passage from John (20,4-7), anyone familiar with contemporary art will, I believe, spontaneously reflect that it alone could serve as a lyric canvas for the scene of Christ’s resurrection. And I imagine an altar beyond which a small dark room opens out, like a square niche, with a weak light illuminating the stone slab on which Christ’s corpse had been laid—and next to the slab, the cloth that had been over his head, and on the ground the linen cloths. All without any human figure appearing: a silent and moving representation - one that today we would call ‘conceptual’ - of Christ’s resurrection—a representation faithful in its evident abstraction to the event remembered and transmitted by the evangelist. An abstract representation, that is, pertinent both to the event recounted by John (which in fact is inadmissible for the logical parameters of the human mind) and to the culture of our times, for which the image of a radiant Christ, that in the past moved generations of believers, would be strange: an abstract representation that would be possible if art in our churches were in step with the times. In reality popular devotion, abetted by an outdated catechesis of images, is not only still inclined to traditional forms of expression but actually refuses every update in communication. By contrast, updates would, I believe, be comprehensible and even sought after if the ideas of the Second Vatican Council regarding ‘cultural mediation’ had been truly grasped. The interrupted relationship between the world of believers - of laypeople, of clergy: in short of the Church – and figurative culture (but we should also immediately add the words ‘musical culture’) has caused breakage that it will be hard to fix. This is not the place to ask questions about the relationship existing today between art and religion, or about the causes of a laceration already a century old, that began when figurative expressiveness overflowed the banks of realistic representation. Here however I can at least note a widespread negative attitude toward contemporary visual languages, often seen as fraught with dangers for spirituality, if not indeed antithetical to faith. The reality though is that – far more than the naturalistic figuration that abounds on the altars of churches - conceptual or informal expressions seem well suited to the often harsh bareness of the Gospel and to the sometimes dizzying abstraction of Christianity’s basic truths. Exemplary in this sense are Filippo Rossi’s creations, which prove how a non-mimetic style can be close to the spirit of faith in Christ. And, even if I know it is work often cited by others, for its capacity to sublimate a sacred theme through abstraction, I too appeal to Rossi’s panel entitled Lux in tenebris, which lends itself perfectly to this line of reasoning. The gold which, like a band of light, traverses the poor presence of humble wood blackened in its two lateral halves, truly offers itself as a lyric gloss to the Johannine ‘prologue’, illustrating in abstract terms the abstraction of that marvellous preamble. And yet, to go a step further, I ask myself whether the title imposed on that small panel does not again imply the need of a representation that is still somehow imitative. Calling the work ‘Light in the shadows’, risks giving the idea of wanting to justify its appearance, which – lacking connections with natural data – one seeks to render suitable to the illustration of a bodiless notion. In the process of reclaiming a figurative language in continual evolution and subject to change, it is however important, in my view, to attribute an illustrative and at the same time esegetical valence to works such as that in question. In the last analysis, my suggestion – dictated not, to be sure, by nominalistic requirements but rather by educative ones – is to assign to Filippo Rossi’s apt formal invention the noble role of ‘figuration of an historical event’, where the term figuration implies an expressive code obviously different from that received from the academic tradition: a code ideologically and philosophically conformed to the culture of our present moment. It could, for example, assist the panel’s presumed didactic purpose (and at the same time be deeply moving) to designate it an icon of the suffering Christ, even an Ecce Homo. Jesus, evoked in the theologically suitable abstraction of light shining in the shadows of refusal and evil is in fact offered as a verbal body: the golden band glowing vertically alludes to the Son of Man, in effect is disfigured by a decided gash in its upper part, almost a bleeding trace of the whip used cruelly on His flesh. And I imagine Rossi’s work, on a larger scale, above an altar table dedicated to Christ’s redeeming Passion—a Christ at the Column able to move a believer’s heart just as, in the early 17th century, might happen in front of Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ in San Domenico in Naples. I am not comparing pictorial features here – no one could bear comparison with Caravaggio – but rather culture and sensibility. In my judgement it is vital that, as far as culture goes, the Church regain pertinence to the present, generously listing to its difficulties and welcoming, without expressive preclusions, its poetic urging. Antonio Natali Director, Uffizi Gallery, Florence