The Medieval Catholic cathedrals, seats of the authorities of God, government, Popes, nobility, and learning, are consummate examples of spaces that brilliantly utilized all of the arts to create an inspirational feeling of awe.* Unique in grand architecture, aesthetic ornamentation, representational paintings, mosaics, frescoes, and sculpture, plus music presentations and sermons, these exquisite structures succeeded in instructing an illiterate populace of their communal and moral duties. They also provided overwhelming beauty and detailed narratives of metaphorical allusions to Biblical stories and philosophical wisdom. All over Europe one can discover and understand what individuals high and low from the 12th to the 16th century experienced in these great sanctuaries of ideas communicated via art.
The cathedral that stands out in grandeur, opulence, and breadth of meaning is in Siena, Italy. Begun in 1215, standing 253 feet high, and combining Romanesque, Classical, and Italian Gothic styles, it is one of the superlative works of architecture in the world. In addition, it houses some of the finest works of the other art forms, so it serves as a stunning example of the power of art to profoundly affect our lives. One need not be religious to appreciate the ingenuity of the Catholic Church of that period in appealing to both the physical senses and mental enthusiasm of its followers through the visual arts, literature, and music in order to solidify its messages.
Any person of whatever persuasion could spend weeks exploring this wondrous building and months writing about it, but, here, let us marvel at the humanism expressed and the respect for both the religious and the secular that is so outstanding in this cathedral. We are now in the late Middle Ages, a time when ancient Roman and Greek classics were being brought to the attention of Western civilization. Greek philosophy was being studied, an effort that would lead Thomas Aquinas to try and reconcile mysticism (Plato) with reason (Aristotle). This was that seminal time when early intellectual activity regarding religion and humanism came to grips with each other in uniquely compatible ways that would culminate in the bursting glory of the arts and sciences in the high Renaissance of the 16th century that would, in turn, lead to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, changing the world of the intellect forever.
The octagonal, carved marble pulpit from which sermons were given features outer columns on stone lions and inner columns depicting allegories of the seven liberal arts and philosophy. Above the capitals of the columns are personifications of the virtues, and around the outside of the pulpit are reliefs depicting the Nativity, the Adoration of the Kings, the Flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgment. Religion and philosophy side by side.
The magnificent and mesmerizing hand-cut, marble-tiled mosaic floor is over 290 feet in length and around 200 feet at its widest, telling not only Biblical stories but also those of the birth of Italy, a figurative representation of the beginning of worldly knowledge, and lessons on wisdom that include Socrates and Aristotle. The fifty-six panels were designed by 40 of the leading artists between 1369 and 1547 but took 600 years to reach completion, so we can contemplate history on the move in both art and ideas. Religion, history, and philosophy advancing together.
The Piccolomini Library, centered by a classical Roman marble sculpture of the Three Graces, is filled with examples from the collection of illuminated manuscripts owned by Pope Enea Silvio Piccolomini, one of the greatest humanistic scholars of the day. The frescoed walls tell the story of the Pope’s life in bold colors and images. Religion and antiquity co-existing.
Thus the average parishioner learned secular lessons in history and philosophy along with religion all through the power of the fine arts.
Artists who worked on this masterpiece include local Siena artists like Nicola Pisano on up to Renaissance giants like Michelangelo, Donatello, Ghiberti, and Bernini, to name only a few.
Duomo di Siena has it all and should encourage us to pause and ponder the truly awesome power of art to communicate and celebrate ideas . . . beautifully.
In today’s modern, instant-coffee-Instagram world of highly lauded architecture designed to look like exploding buildings, million-dollar sculptures that look like a bronze versions of a child’s toy balloon, paintings that glorify the ugly and the freakish, movies full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, and more and worse, where is art that celebrates beauty and reason, that honors history and knowledge, that glorifies man and woman at their best?
Our impoverished culture does not support beauty and life-affirming values as does the Cathedral of Siena, so where can we find places rich in intellectual and emotional satisfaction and affirmation of values that create an examined life well lived? Look to your library or museum for thought-provoking literature and art, your own living room with original art or prints of your favorites, even your computer (and yes, your mobile phone) for personally stored images that inspire. As food nourishes our bodies and ideas nourish our minds, art nourishes our souls. We need uplifting art and lofty ideas to remind us of the joys, the beauties, and the reasons why life is worth living. Think about it.
*Awesome is a vexingly misused, abused, overused term today, describing every mundane subject from ice cream to rock bands. This distorted and diminished high jacking of a singularly transcendent adjective is a linguistic crime of the highest order. One of the most puissant words in the English language, in essence awesome means (from the OED) ". . . the attitude of a mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of a supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness . . . . the feeling of solemn or reverential wonder. . . inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic . . ."; thus, the word should be reserved for wonders such as the aurora borealis or the Sistine Chapel (or the Duomo di Siena). It is in this correct, pure, and exalted form that I use the word here with profound respect for its "awesome" meaning.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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