I have spent the past three weeks studying and making art in Orvieto Italy, with side trips to Rome, Florence and Assisi. This drawing is my rendering of a wood carving on the entry door to the Chiesa di Santa Francesco (Church of St Francis) in Assisi. Because nothing says “welcome” quite like a screaming troll-ishGreen Man with ram’s horns. He is fantastic – in so many ways.
This drawing was exhibited as a part of my collection of pieces in our end-of-course/workshop for the cohort of artists with whom I have lived and worked for the past three weeks. Here is the artist statement that accompanied my artworks:
“My work as an artist is often manifest in performance arts or in facilitating prayer through art and creativity. Coming to Orvieto, it was my desire to create some pieces that would reflect this prayerful attitude but that would also in some way mirror the experience of pilgrimage. As an informal admirer or St Francis of Assisi, Greco-Roman pantheism, and medieval folklore, I hoped that Orvieto might stir some responses in my mystical intuition that would ignite visual representations. I was not disappointed. This series of artworks comprises several locations and objects I encountered throughout our time here that sparked mystical moments for me. As one might imagine, they roughly correspond to the eclectic collection of interests listed above. I have found my time in Orvieto to be delightfully surprising. Thank you to all the community for making the trip a wonderful experience.”
It’s true. I came with expectations, all pleasant ones, and although I enjoyed those things I knew I would see (like Michelangelo’s David, which was absolutely breath-taking), I was much more moved by the sudden and surprising intersections of cultures I did not expect to see. Symbols that transcend geographic displacement still evoke bizarre feelings of belonging in two seemingly disparate cultural worlds. Etruscan ruins I expected; Celtic weave and dragons I did not. Yet here they are, buried under more modern buildings, tucked into corners, peeping out from doorways or on tops of columns.
Not being a scholar specifically of Italian history, I did not anticipate this trip to be a pilgrimage, yet I found myself on some kind of aesthetic pilgrimage. Plotinus, one of the major Greek-speaking philosophers of the 3rd century, wrote about the aesthetic experience as “something which we become aware of even at the first glance; the soul speaks of it as if it understood it, recognizes and welcomes it and as it were adapts itself to it.” In other words, the soul comes from a higher plane of Being, and when it sees Beauty, it remembers it with thrilling delight which results in a longing for unity with the Beautiful. Beauty in this sense doesn’t mean pretty; it means the Transcendent, the Real. I think it’s safe to guess Plotinus was a 4 on the Enneagram, but I resonate with this line of thinking too. When I experience Beauty in an object, a landscape, a musical performance, etc, I am, in a way, transported outside of myself to a place without time. It is like magic.
The older I get, the more I wish I had given more time to explore all the things that interest me, all the things I thought were too foolish for serious thought, all the things that got put aside in favor of more important or urgent things that ought to be first and foremost. Sadly, that sounds a lot like regret. However, the present moment is the only time we have – there is no past or future, only the present (not going to open that can of worms about how it’s never too late and starting now and etc…).
It interests me, then, how my engagement of the deep past touches me in the present moment, as if I am there, yet not. When I visit old places I like to envision what that place was like in the height of its use by the culture that produced it. Perhaps that is part of what pilgrimage is about – meeting with the past, in the present moment, in the surprising ways that we encounter Beauty and the longing we have for that connection to unify us across time and space with those who have come before.
It’s been a great trip.