Eavesdropping on the Sacra Conversazione

During the Italian Renaissance, an art form emerged known as the sacra conversazione or “sacred conversation.” Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, later Titian and others painted the Madonna and Christ Child talking with saints and sometimes the artist’s own patrons. Recalling Dante’s beatific vision, figures otherwise separated by time and space meet in the planes of these paintings.

Sacra Conversazione by Fra Angelico, from the Angelina Altarpiece in the Convent of San Marco, Florence.
Sacra Conversazione by Fra Angelico; from the Angelina Altarpiece in the Convent of San Marco, Florence.

Sacra conversazione works illustrate what T.S. Eliot describes as the crucial “historical sense”—“a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together.”  (I think this phrase also poetically describes the nativity.) Eliot argues that any artist—and every person has some sort of artist in them—must develop this sense if he wants his work and his responses to other works to mean anything.  No artist of any art, Eliot observes, has his complete meaning alone. Consider the tragedy of Genie if you think that creativity can flourish in a person isolated from human companionship.

Eliot explains that this historical sense also makes the artist “most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.” If we only know our own times, then we don’t really know our own times, and we don’t really know ourselves. C.S. Lewis considers this paradox in his allegory Pilgrim’s Regress with an encounter between John, the main character, and a giant called the Spirit of the Age.

Inspired by a vision of transcendent beauty, John sets out from home on a pilgrimage and quickly falls into the company of “artists” who insist that beauty is a lie, “reality has broken down,” and art “must be brutal” to express their “savage disillusionment.” When he fails to understand their work, John is beaten by the very tolerant artists. He escapes and wanders to a mountain pass where he is stopped by guards who tell him that the land belongs to the Spirit of the Age. John says he will go another way—he had not meant to trespass. “You fool,” the captain of the guard jeers at him. “You are in his country now. This pass is the way out of it, not the way into it. He welcomes strangers. His quarrel is with runaways.” At that moment, John realizes that the mountain in whose shadow he stands is the Spirit of the Age—a menacing stone giant.

Like John, we often live unawares in the shadow of the spirit of our age. If our vision only extends to our immediate surroundings, our perception becomes myopic. Without what Eliot calls “the historical sense,” we lack perspective. Significantly, John only recognizes the spirit of the age when he tries, somewhat unintentionally, to escape it. He doesn’t set out to take a philosophical stand against the errors of his time. He simply flees from the felt absurdity and violence of the “artists.” I think many of us follow John’s progression. We only glimpse the awful authority of the spirit of the age when we oppose it on some point that directly affects us and find we are called “fools” for it. At moments like those, with a shock, we realize we may not be quite as free as we thought.

C.S. Lewis sends a heroine called Reason to rescue John. While reason can help us to escape the spirit of the age, I think that stories are more primary aides. Perhaps I’d have a character like Autolycus rescue John—that mischievous “snapper-up of unconsidered trifles,” that peddler of old wives tales and folk wisdom who unintentionally helps all the characters in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale find what they need in the end.

I don’t intend to set up a false dichotomy between “reason” and “stories.” I only mean that, in our quest for freedom from the tyranny of the spirit of the age, the characters we meet in stories may be more lasting helpers than purely rational or philosophic arguments. Both can help us get beyond the blinders of our own age.

It requires “great labour,” Eliot says, but we can acquire the “historical sense” by going out and reading literature from times and places other than our own. We return the richer for it, like Nathan returning home from his great journey in the opening act of Paul D’Andrea’s Nathan the Wise. If you don’t know Nathan, you should get to know him. He’s a wise Jewish father living in 12th century Jerusalem during the time of Saladin the Great. A German playwright named Gotthold Lessing, concerned about religious tolerance, first told Nathan’s story in 1779, and a professor at George Mason University named Paul D’Andrea, concerned about religious tolerance, translated and adapted Nathan’s story into a play that debuted in 2001. If Fra Angelico were alive today, he might paint a sacra conversazione with Lessing and D’Andrea gathered ’round the Blessed Virgin and baby Jesus. I hope that Fra Angelico’s observant eye would also notice us, perhaps eavesdropping in a corner, gradually making our way into fuller communion with the other sacra conversazione participants.

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