THE CHRISTIAN COMPROMISE
Whether or not they would appreciate what I, an itinerant American philosopher by name of Paul Gertler, had to say, I couldn't of course be sure. But I could tell by the expectant hush that suddenly descended on the lecture theatre, with the termination of their polite clapping, that these undergraduates were eager to give me a hearing. So, obedient to my role as guest speaker, I cleared my throat and then proceeded to speak.
It was first of all necessary to give them a brief outline of the essence and direction of human evolution as I conceived it, since this was indispensable to a proper understanding of what I subsequently had to say on the subject of religious art. Thus I began with comments to the effect that evolution was in large measure a consequence of man's tendency to pit himself against nature and establish a world of his own, a consequence, one might say, of his spiritual essence, which inevitably rebels against sensual tyranny. "Evolution is a phenomenon," I continued, "leading man in the direction of a higher spirituality, a spirituality not hampered by the sensual but able to entirely transcend it. From predominantly sensual beginnings in nature, Western man has evolved to a predominantly spiritual context in large cities, where he finds himself regularly isolated from nature's sensuous influence and therefore no longer under its sway to anything like the same extent as his historical forebears. Naturally he's still partly sensual, since sensuality is a condition of man, but by no means as sensual as he would otherwise be, if life in the big city had never been invented, so to speak. The trend of evolution is consequently pushing him towards a lopsided spirituality, a spirituality which may well culminate in the transformation of man into superman, where the sensual will cease to have any part to play and human evolution accordingly attain to its apotheosis.
"Hence the path of evolution is mapped out from the beastly to the godly, with three stages of human life coming in-between. The first stage is early man, or man surrounded by and imprisoned in nature. With this stage goes a religion which gives priority to the sensual, since man is so much under its sway, and this religion takes the form of phallic worship, fertility rites, pantheism, animism, etc. One might say that it is essentially the Creator Who is being worshipped or feared at this early stage of man's religious development, since it's a very mundane type of religion that prevails.
"But, unlike the beasts, man doesn't 'stand still', in a given mould, but evolves. So the struggle with nature continues, as villages turn into towns and towns into small cities, and when a kind of balance has been struck with nature, when his civilization has evolved to a point where he is no longer smothered by nature but exists at a fairly safe remove from it and in a fairly harmonious relationship with it, exists, in other words, as its equal rather than as its inferior, then we may claim that man is in the second stage of his evolutionary development, which marks his high-point as man. Now emerges a religion which reflects this balanced stage of his development, testifying to his environmental progress, and which thus embraces both the body and the spirit of man. It's at this juncture of compromise between the sensual and the spiritual that the tendency to anthropomorphize God fully presents itself, and so arises Christianity, with its faith in the man-god, the Son of God, meaning effectively the logical religious development beyond the Father, or Creator. Here the mundane and the transcendent balance each other out, in accordance with the environmental context of second-stage man.
"However, this is by no means the end of man's evolution. For the villages, towns, and cities continue to expand, to multiply, to be transformed into larger and stronger representations of man's ongoing evolution in the face of nature, and when the larger towns and cities arrive at a point of growth where man is no longer in a balanced compromise between nature and civilization - ah! then it's 'all up' with his second-stage religious awareness ... as a new awareness, appertaining to his artificial environment, makes its appearance, to usher in the third stage of his evolution. For now that man has isolated himself, or been isolated, to such an extent from the proximity of nature, its influence is much less apparent than before, and consequently the religion of compromise between the sensual and the spiritual is no longer relevant. Only that which acknowledges the spirit of man is now acceptable to him, and this we call transcendentalism. Thus the three stages of man's development are accompanied by a corresponding religious awareness in each case, an awareness in large measure attributable to the nature of the environment in which he happens to live at any given time. It is, in effect, a journey from the Father to the Holy Spirit via the Son. A journey, in other words, from paganism to transcendentalism via Christianity - the evolutionary Trinity of Western man's religious evolution."
I paused here partly to let my words sink into the undergraduates' minds, and partly because I had given them a brief outline of my conception of human evolution. Now it was time to proceed to the next part of my lecture, and for this I required the assistance of the projector I had brought along, with which I intended to project enlarged colour slides of various works of religious art onto the large screen behind me. I could tell by the students' respectful attention that the first part of my lecture had been relatively successful, so I felt more confident now, as I walked across to the waiting projector, that what followed would also meet with their approval. The subject of Christian art was what I intended to embark on, now that they had a better understanding of Christianity. For Christianity, I hastened to remind them, was the religion of compromise between the sensual and the spiritual, as appertaining to second-stage man. To be a Christian, one had to believe in Christ as the Son of God, as the man-god come to earth. One took anthropomorphism for granted. There could be no question of one's regarding Christ merely in mundane terms, as a highly-talented and influential preacher who happened to get himself posthumously taken for God. And neither could one conceive of God in terms of the Inner Light, or some such mystical abstraction. If one did, one wasn't a Christian, even if one attended church twice a week every week of the year, and accordingly entertained a contrary opinion. One either accepted the compromise between the mundane and the transcendental, or rejected it in favour of some absolute. There could be no indecision. For there was a clear-cut divide between second- and third-stage man, as between the town and the big city.
Today, however, third-stage man predominated, though it was still possible to be a Christian, particularly in those less-urbanized parts of the Western world where villages and small towns still prevailed, and the people were accordingly exposed to the context of compromise between nature and civilization in which second-stage religious awareness especially thrives. But where, on the other hand, civilization had the advantage over nature, where civilization had supplanted nature, ah! then it was not anthropomorphism but transcendentalism which was more relevant to the environment, since it signified a break with the sensual realm. Thus the traditional religious awareness could not be conceived as an end-in-itself. For third-stage man, Christianity was simply a pointer in the direction of transcendentalism, a midway stage between man's sensual beginnings and his spiritual endings. Now he could understand it in light of man's ongoing evolutionary struggle with nature. He could get it into perspective and leave it behind him without any Nietzschean bitterness towards it. For it was indeed a very ingenious, logical, and objective record of second-stage man's spiritual evolution towards the transcendent.
Yes, he could leave it behind him without any serious regrets, since he was now on a higher plane of evolution than second-stage man, a plane which would lead him towards his ultimate destination in spiritual transformation. Viewed from this higher perspective, the decline of the West, about which Spengler had written at such great length, wasn't something to regret but, on the contrary, something for which to be grateful, because it attested to Western man's ongoing spiritual development. All that had really declined was the old religious sense and the aesthetic culture appertaining to it, and this had declined because industrial and urban expansion were making the establishment of a higher religious sense possible - namely a transcendentalism which had no need of cultural illustration. For cultural illustration is only relevant to a sensual/spiritual compromise in which, paradoxically, the spiritual has to be illustrated in sensuous terms, not to a transcendentalism in which there is nothing but spirit, and therefore no place for illustration. Thus to third-stage man, the decline of Western culture is no cause for regret. It is not the Son of God but the Holy Spirit on which he will fix his religious aspirations: the third and highest part of the evolutionary trinity, wherein cultural illustration has no meaning.
Having said which, it was necessary for me to add a word or two about the great European art nations before proceeding with the projection of successive examples of Christian art onto the screen in front. "For purposes of categorization," I continued, "it will be expedient for us to divide nations into primary and secondary art-producers. Briefly, primary nations are those, such as Italy, Spain, Flanders, and Germany, which flourished at the height of the Christian culture, when the anthropomorphic impulse was strongest, and produced mainly religious works. Secondary nations, by contrast, will be those, like Holland, France, and England, which flourished at the tail-end of this culture, and thereby produced mainly secular works, works more suited to industrial civilization. The primary nations will therefore have had approximately the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries at their disposal, the secondary ones ... the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. Some overlappings and exceptions to the general rule there will of course be. But, for categorical purposes, this division of nations into primary and secondary producers of great art isn't without value.
"Thus it's to Italy, Flanders, Spain, and medieval Germany that we must turn for the greatest art, since the religious should take precedence over the secular in a cultural context, as it illustrates the foundations upon which the Christian culture was built. Now the Christian culture was built, as I've already remarked, upon foundations of compromise between the mundane and the transcendent, and so in any objective assessment of Christian art it is necessary to bear this fact in mind, just as it's necessary to bear in mind the direction of evolution for a proper appreciation or understanding of it. This, then, we'll now endeavour to do, as we study the slides I intend to show you."
I switched on the projector and requested that the theatre lights be dimmed. On the screen ahead, some thirty yards from where I stood, The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck was presented to the scrutiny of the undergraduates' gazes, as I proceeded to comment on it in the light of what I had just said about the foundations of compromise, which in illustrations of the Annunciation were a foregone conclusion, being specified in Scripture itself. "This is a good compromise," I assured them, "between the mundane, represented by Mary and the room she is in, and the transcendent, represented in part by the angel and in part by the dove and beam of divine light to Mary's head, which testifies to the transcendental influence of the spiritual upon the sensual, and endows her with a partly supernatural significance. She is to become the Mother of God, which effectively means that the transcendent principle of god-like spirituality, signified by the dove, will take on human form and thus dilute itself for the sake of humanity, and she will be the receptacle through which this divine spirit enters the world in due course." From the Van Eyck we progressed to similar Annunciation scenes by Van der Weyden, Piero della Francesca, Rubens, El Greco, Titian, Botticelli, and da Vinci, all of whom illustrated the Christian compromise with varying degrees of success, according to their respective temperamental or artistic biases. Piero della Francesca, for example, preferred to leave the dove and beam of light out of his interpretation altogether and to endow Mary with a halo, as did Botticelli and da Vinci, whilst El Greco - one of the most transcendental painters - contrived to add an orchestra of angels, perched on luminous clouds, to the angel, dove, and beam of spiritual light which already adequately represented the transcendent, thus upsetting the Christian compromise in the general direction of mysticism. At the other extreme, Van der Weyden was merely content to represent the transcendent with an angel, dispensing altogether with halo, beam of light, and dove, and consequently tipping the balance in favour of the mundane. My contention was that the more balanced compromise made for superior art, from a strictly Christian standpoint, to the less-balanced one which both El Greco and Van der Weyden represented, and was therefore worthier of our critical appreciation.
But the Annunciation was only the beginning of our investigation into the relative merits of religious art, which was now to be focused on the Nativity, the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Adoration of the Magi, in that order. Of the Nativity paintings, the most successful compromise between the mundane and the transcendent was achieved, in my opinion, by Van der Weyden, who appeared to atone here for his previous lapse in favour of the mundane by including six small angels: three stationed in the sky to the upper left of the painting and three kneeling on the ground next to the Mother of God in adoration of the baby Christ Who, like His Mother, was haloed in indication of the transcendent. "This work," I hastened to inform the undergraduates, "is undoubtedly one of the finest Nativity paintings in existence, doing full justice to the dual integrity of Christianity." But such eulogistic comments could not, alas, be extended to The Nativity by Piero della Francesca, which was devoid of even the faintest traces of transcendentalism and seemed not to represent the birth of the Son of God but, rather, a son of man. Whether or not the five female figures to the left of the kneeling Mary - three of them playing musical instruments and two singing - were intended as angels, there was no evidence of wings or haloes to support one's confidence in the possibility, and this absence led one to the conclusion that the work was too mundane in appearance to serve as a leading example of great Christian art. On the other hand, the Mystic Nativity by Botticelli veered in the opposite direction ... towards transcendentalism, so many angels did it contain, and could hardly be praised as a leading example of such art, either. However The Adoration of the Shepherds, painted in 1475 by Hugo Van der Goes, maintained a good balance between the two extremes, the shepherds and angels, and so brought back my enthusiastic appreciation, as, curiously, did the 1612-14 version of this same theme by El Greco, who supplied a sufficiency of different-sized angels to complement the various mundane components of this excellent work.
As, however, for The Adoration of the Magi, it was upon works by Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse, and Mantegna that I bestowed my critical appreciation. For the compromise in both paintings was excellently handled, the three kings being complemented by angels, and this I pointed out to the undergraduates in regard to the Christian position. Less good from this dualistic standpoint, however, were the works of Van der Weyden and Botticelli, which were predominantly mundane, the first making use of only the faintest haloes on the heads of the Virgin and Christ respectively, the second providing only a small star above the heads of St Joseph and the Virgin. But if they at least made some attempt to remind the viewer that he wasn't looking at an ordinary mundane scene but at a partly transcendental one, in which the Son of God was being worshipped by three wise men, then Jan der Beer, Rubens, Dürer, and Titian made no attempt at all in the slides of their respective interpretation of The Adoration of the Magi which I next chose to project onto the large screen in front. From the standpoint of an artistic illustration of the foundations of compromise upon which the Christian culture had been reared, these works were simply disastrous, suggestive of a kind of pagan or pre-Christian interpretation of the Magian adoration, in which only the mundane mattered. Especially guilty of this omission, I duly informed my audience, was Titian, whose 1557 version of the above-mentioned theme was followed, in 1560 and 1566, by two more equally mundane versions, works which could only lead one to the conclusion that the treatment of religious themes in secular styles marked a transitional stage between the era of religious art-proper and the era of secular art which was to follow. Titian, clearly, wasn't among the greatest religious painters. As a leading light of the High Renaissance, he evidently wasn't entitled to be!
Following on behind The Adoration of the Magi, however, came slides of The Virgin and Child, which I once again presented more or less in order of ideological merit, beginning with good compromises and ending with the mundane and transcendental extremes. "In this version by Van der Weyden," I remarked, "a subtle balance has been achieved between the exposed right breast of the Virgin, which is giving suck to the infant Christ, and the halo which crowns their heads, reminding one of the partly mundane and partly transcendental nature of the portrayed. El Greco has likewise achieved a fairly good compromise in his version of this theme, the haloes being replaced by angels and cherubs, although the balance has, if anything, been slightly tipped in favour of the transcendent, as we note the absence of an exposed breast. To my mind, angelic beings of whatever age or rank create a more transcendental impression than haloes, and so, once again, we can perceive in El Greco the growing preoccupation with mysticism which, from the strictly Christian standpoint, was to spoil so much of his later work. On the other hand, the Titian, painted in 1560, contains neither angels nor haloes, being, like so much of his work, extremely mundane. In point of fact, he painted quite a few versions of this theme and, like the one here, it is generally the case that transcendentalism is absent. One might be looking at any young mother and child. More surprising in this respect, however, is The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen by Robert Campin which, painted before 1430, is very mundane indeed. Here, too, a complete absence of angels and haloes." And so onwards, through The Madonna of the Book by Botticelli which, with the use of haloes, achieved a good compromise, a compromise that was shamelessly discarded, however, with The Madonna of the Pomegranate, in which this same Botticelli contrived to add six angels to the haloes of the Virgin and Child, thus giving the work a predominantly transcendental slant. A slant, it transpired, which was similarly endorsed by Mantegna, in The Madonna and Child with Angels and Four (haloed) Saints. But to bring the undergraduates firmly down to earth and momentarily deflate their mystical pretensions, I concluded this part of the proceedings with Dürer's Madonna and Child with Pear - one of the most mundane religious works ever painted!
Skipping lightly over a few other religious themes, I proceeded to project examples of The Baptism of Christ onto the screen, beginning with Piero della Francesca, who, with the use of a dove over Christ's head and some angels to His right, achieved a good compromise between the two extremes, and continuing with examples by Van der Weyden, El Greco, di Tito, and Tintoretto, whose work also did justice to the Christian position. Especially meritorious in this respect was the 1580-85 version by Tintoretto, in which a very bright light emanated from the dove at the top of the painting and shed its beams upon a haloed Christ. The baptizer was entirely mundane. Less convincing, however, were the examples by Masolino da Pincale and Giovanni di Paolo, whose work appeared too transcendental. Not content with merely a halo for Christ and a dove above His head, di Paolo chose to include the Father, five haloed angels flying in the sky, and three haloed figures standing on the bank by the side of the river in which Christ was being baptized. But the inclusion of the Father, represented by a bearded head in the sky, could be regarded as a mundane or, at any rate, pagan component if one equated Him with first-stage religion, so that His presence might be said to balance, in some degree, the conspicuous transcendentalism otherwise apparent. Thus the Christian cynosure of this work was linked to the past, in the guise of the Father, and to the future, in the guise of the dove ... symbolic of the Holy Spirit. A religious continuity had been maintained.
Taking leave of the life of Christ for a moment, I next projected onto the screen The Temptation of St. Anthony, painted by Tintoretto in 1557, which I regard as one of the few really great works on a theme which is, after all, of no small importance in the evolutionary development of Western man. In this work, Christ appears in a blaze of light to St Anthony, who is surrounded by three figures whose nude or semi-nude bodies leave one in no doubt as to their seductive intentions, intentions which the Devil, stationed immediately behind the group in the foreground, is busily encouraging ... by pulling the dark drapery off one of these bodies via the body of St Anthony himself, as though to draw him closer to the woman in question and thus expose him to still greater temptation. "Only the intervention of Christ, it seems, can save the saint from sensual degradation and sustain him in his battle against the flesh," I averred, by way of comment on the scene before us. "For a battle it truly is, in which the spiritual aspirations of man are pitted against the reality of sensuous nature, represented in this instance by the three figures tempting the beleaguered saint. For Anthony is a progressive, a follower of Christ, pointing humanity in the direction of its evolution towards a higher spirituality, and therefore he isn't particularly keen to sink back down to the sensual hell out of which Christian humanity is slowly climbing. Sensual preoccupations usurp the spiritual domain, reduce one to the base level of the beasts, and thus obstruct one's advancement towards the Beyond. Anthony knows this, and so he battles bravely in the name of the spirit. And how he needs to battle! For the semi-nude bodies to either side of him are both extremely beautiful, are they not? They offer a sufficiently alluring bait to tempt the progressive idealist back to his human reality, to remind him that he isn't the Son of God but only a man, and therefore fallible.... Which is doubtless something that the nude tempter on the ground in front of Anthony also realizes, as he pulls at the latter's modest raiment. But thanks in large measure to the intervention of Christ, symbolizing the spiritual principle, St Anthony holds firm, his frozen posture an encouragement and reminder to future humanity of the anti-sensual direction evolution is taking."
Likewise the slide showing the 1515-24 Joachim Patinir and Quentin Massys version of this theme won my warm-hearted critical appraisal for the sufficiently-convincing seductive powers of three of the four women who accost the saint in the middle of a pleasant landscape, one of the three holding out an apple to him, whilst a small monkey, suggestive of the bestial, tugs at his clothing. Clearly, these two Flemish artists understood something about fleshy temptations! One had no doubt that Anthony was being tempted. But the versions, on the other hand, by Bosch, Jan Mandyn, and Peeter Huys, which I subsequently projected onto the screen, gave one little confidence in the idea, since too fantastic in style to warrant serious consideration in this respect. Of the three, the temptress of Bosch's Temptress in the Hollow Oak seemed the least likely to achieve anything palpable, her nudity partly hidden by the hollow trunk in which she was standing, a coy maiden whose existence at some distance from the saint merely served to distract him from his reading. Almost as strange, however, was the Sassetta slide I had singled out for the undergraduates' scrutiny. For the temptress of the haloed saint in this version wore brightly-coloured wings and had all the appearance of an angel. Could it be, I wondered, that Anthony was susceptible to the enticement of angels? Or maybe just to fallen angels? Sassetta undoubtedly had a very transcendental concept of the temptress! But if he took St Anthony up higher than the context really warranted, then Titian very definitely brought Christ firmly back down to earth in his Noli Me Tangere, painted approximately 1512, in which a scantily-draped Christ is accosted by the Magdalene fully clothed. A little too mundane-looking to satisfy the canons of good religious art, this work, but an attractive and skilfully-wrought achievement nonetheless!
Having dispatched the above-mentioned slide, I immediately projected another Titian onto the screen, this time The Agony in the Garden, which I ventured to praise on the strength of the compromise between the mundane and the transcendent achieved by incorporating the appearance of an angel to the agonized Christ, a comforter and reminder of Who He was. El Greco had likewise included an angel in this context, but Correggio and Bergognone had gone one better, as it were, by placing a halo on the praying Christ's head, which left no room for doubt as to Who He was. And Tintoretto's 1580 interpretation of this tragic scene, while dispensing with halo, had permitted a very bright light to emanate from the angel as it held out a chalice to the kneeling Christ. Once again, it was Tintoretto who received my critical homage for the ingenious compromise attained. But Carpaccio's work, on the other hand, gave no importance to angels or haloes or chalices or anything transcendental at all, and was accordingly deemed too mundane to pass muster as true religious art. Even Giovanni Bellini could have made something more, I felt, of the chalice-bearing angel he contrived to place in the sky at an indeterminate distance from Christ's head.
And so the projector whirred on, and it was now the turn of The Crucifixion and kindred works to stand trial, as it were, in our assessment of their relation to the Christian compromise. Would the Son of God be recognizable by the presence of a halo and/or angels, or could He be mistaken for some common criminal nailed to a cross? That question was quickly and efficiently answered by the slides I now presented to the undergraduates' respectful attention, the most successful religious works leading the way. Here, then, it was the turn of Giotto, El Greco, and Castiglione to steal the limelight, while Tintoretto, though by no means mundane, made a slightly less-favourable overall impression on me - and, I trusted, on the students - in consequence of a tendency to overcrowd the scene with mundane figures: soldiers, peasants, mourners, etc., in which Christ seemed less significant. This was especially true of his 1560-65 and 1565 versions of The Crucifixion, though the work of 1588 succeeded in banishing the crowd, mostly composed of soldiers, to the background, and thus allowed the haloed Christ to stand out in a more dignified perspective, relatively speaking. However, it was the Giotto, with its tiny angels and Byzantine haloes, and the El Greco of 1596-1600, in which three flying angels are balanced by three mourners at the foot of the Cross, that I considered the more perfect representations of this scene, and about which I spoke at some length for the students' benefit. I also reminded them that the man-god had to die because, as chief representative on earth of the spiritual principle, he was incompatible with the human predicament and too spiritually superior for mundane men to properly relate to at that more primitive juncture in time. He taught them about the future, about 'the kingdom of God within the self', but they could only live in the present, being recipients less of the Holy Spirit than ordinary dual men with sensual ties to nature. They were still too close to Jehovah, that old wrathful God of first-stage man, to be able to appreciate Christ's message of love, and so they had Him put to death. This, at any rate, was how I figuratively interpreted it for the students' benefit, since it was necessary to take anthropomorphism seriously if one hoped to understand the development of religious art. Looking at the paintings by Giotto and El Greco, one could be under no doubt that a divinity was being represented on the Cross, since the angels and haloes did ample service to the transcendent dimension, as, indeed, did the judicious use of haloes by Castiglione, who preferred them to angels.
Another good example of religious art was furnished by Lucas Cranach, who likewise preferred to omit the angelic in his Christ on the Cross, and to distribute haloes according to the requirements of the occasion, Christ and four of the ten figures at the foot of the Cross being transcendentally endowed, while the two thieves to either side of it retained their mundane status. But if this highly-gifted artist struck a balanced compromise in the 1500 version of this theme, then his 1503 work gave no place at all to the transcendent and was accordingly criticized by me for its infidelity to second-stage religion, a criticism I was also obliged to level at examples of The Crucifixion by Rubens, Mantegna, Titian, and Castagne, whose preoccupations with a purely or predominantly mundane rendering of the scene might have led one to confound the Son of God with any common criminal, or to suppose that they preferred a paganized interpretation of Him which would have been more relevant, had they but known it, to the Father in His capacity of Creator.
Be that as it may, it was now the turn of The Resurrection to pass briefly before our eyes, as I projected first a Mantegna and then a Tintoretto onto the screen in front, and commented approvingly on the results obtained in each case. As with The Annunciation, the theme with which we began our investigations, this aspect of Christian myth was a foregone conclusion as far as the inclusion of the transcendent element was concerned. Consequently, it wasn't strictly necessary for one to mentally congratulate the artist for having provided angels, haloes, aureoles of light, etc., when he had little choice in the matter, but, rather, to congratulate him for tipping the balance of compromise in favour of the transcendental ideal without, however, entirely giving way to the mystical. Thus it was necessary that he should remain loyal to second-stage religious awareness, with its dualistic compromise, even at its most transcendental point, which, as it happened, both Mantegna and Tintoretto had admirably done, the latter more successfully in his 1576-81 version of The Resurrection, by offsetting the radiant Christ and four angels with approaching mundane figures to left and sleeping figures to right of the canvas. And, similarly, The Transfiguration by Raphael had achieved a delicate compromise which rightly favoured the transcendent, as Christ ascended into Heaven in an aura of dazzling light, His spirit aflame with the Holy Ghost - the religious focus of third-stage man.
"But if human evolution was slowly proceeding towards the most spiritual interpretation of God and would eventually reach its goal in blessed union with the transcendent," I remarked, "then it was also true to say that there was a price to be paid by those who lagged behind in this respect and, through allegiance to the sensual, would drag man back to a first-stage religious impulse. For those who were insufficiently spiritual, whose activities went against the grain of evolution, there was the penalty of Damnation, banishment from the heavenly scheme. The Church pointed the way forwards, but those who chose not to follow its example and to indulge in sensual pleasures would be going back, back towards the beasts, towards an earlier religious impulse which could hardly be equated with the path of Salvation. And the further back they went, the closer they would be to Hell. For Heaven and Hell signify the opposite extremes of evolution, the spiritual and the sensual.
"In effect, the path of human evolution leads from the hell of our bestial beginnings to the heaven of our godlike endings, the three stages of religious development lying in-between," I continued, warming to my thesis. "Thus by not following this path to Salvation, one is doomed to the hell of sensual torment. By not following the example of Christ, one is forced to live with the beasts. Needless to say, we all follow it to some extent, for we're human beings, and human beings, at that, who are gradually drawing nearer to our ultimate transformation. But for purposes of allegorical interpretation, the Church was obliged to overstate the consequences of sin in order the better to encourage men towards the Inner Light, to hurry their evolution along towards the godlike transformation which would signal their entry into the post-human Beyond. In reality, however, Hell is something in the past, Heaven yet to come, and the condition in which men live a kind of purgatory. But it could well transpire that the future transformation into the transcendent, symbolized by the Last Judgement, won't be possible for everyone, including those who are insufficiently spiritual, and that they'll either perish or be forced to persevere with the purgatorial state in which we exist, until such time as they or their descendants are spiritually qualified to enter the post-human Beyond, and thus abandon the world of humanity. In the meantime, we must press-on with our spiritual evolution as third-stage men and be grateful that we are one stage closer to the possibility of that ultimate transformation than were the Christian contemporaries of the great painters on whom I have chosen to comment. But let us look, finally, at some examples of the Last Judgement, as the Christians conceived of it, and thus relate them to the compromise between the sensual and the spiritual."
With these words I projected onto the screen a slide of Michelangelo's Last Judgement, which I considered a fairly good example of the above-mentioned compromise. Here Christ, situated next to the Virgin in the upper portion of the fresco, was seen passing judgement on both righteous and sinners alike, the former supported by His angels approximately on a level with Himself, the latter plunging into Hell with the assistance of demons. Clearly, the presence of both angels and demons (police and soldiers?) testified to the dualistic compromise one expected. Though the stern mien and resolute gestures of Christ suggested an emphasis on the damning of sinners rather than the saving of the righteous. One felt, in contemplating the passionate intensity of this work, that the muscular Christ of Michelangelo was closer in character to the wrathful Jehovah of the Old Testament than to the Saviour of Man which the New Testament represented. By nature, Michelangelo was better qualified to depict Old Testament characters, and it's above all this aspect of his work in the Sistine Chapel that merits our approval. However, if the vengeful attitude of the Saviour, as Michelangelo conceived of Him, may not have constituted the best, or most dualistic, interpretation of the Last Judgement, then the overall conception as such was certainly in harmony with the Christian position. A harmony that was even better-illustrated, in my opinion, by the 1560 version of this theme by Tintoretto, who had likewise divided the painting between angels and demons, the former naturally stationed in the upper portion of the work and the latter lower down. Here Christ, situated near the apex of the painting, appeared a good deal gentler-looking than the Christ of Michelangelo, as though His very position in Heaven - a realm of peace and bliss - necessarily precluded the slightest agitation on His part. Surrounded by and impregnated with the light of the Holy Spirit, He radiated love throughout His kingdom, the beam of this divine love coming to an end with the darkness of Hell, into which the Damned were falling or in which they lay helpless, as in a swamp, at the mercy of demons. The contrast here between the light and the dark, the spiritual and the sensual, was admirably achieved, and elicited my critical approval. From the symbolic standpoint, this work was undoubtedly one of the most accomplished interpretations of the Last Judgement in existence, the very fact of Christ being situated near the apex of the painting rather than actually at the apex ... doing full justice, it seemed to me, to the spiritual superiority of the Holy Ghost, which shone, as a cloud-like halo, just above His head.
However, if Tintoretto had almost said the last word in painting, it was to Giotto that I next referred my audience's attention, as a slide of the fresco decorating the whole of the West Wall of the Arena Chapel at Padua was projected onto the screen in front, and his interpretation of the Last Judgement duly investigated. Here it was the fate of Christ to sit in judgement, saving with His right hand and damning with His left, flanked on either side by His apostles and crowned by angels, while beneath Him two angels supported a Cross which divided, along its length, Heaven from Hell, and thus permitted the establishment of another masterly compromise between the mundane and the transcendent. If this work was structurally less good than the Tintoretto (the parallel positioning of Heaven and Hell to either side of the Cross, rather than in a vertical arrangement, being notably inept), it nevertheless made-up for its structural deficiency with the aid of a fastidious application to particular symbolic details which emphasized the antithetical natures of Salvation and Damnation respectively. Thus the realm of Heaven to the right of the Cross put due emphasis on the blissful passivity of the Saints and the Elect who peopled it, while the realm of Hell to its left writhed with the tortuous activity of the Damned in the clutches of ravenous demons. Here I specifically drew the undergraduates' attention to the latter's beastly appearance: fur-covered creatures pre-dating man, whose ghastly activities were appropriately sensual. In Giotto's Hell, the emphasis was clearly on the sexual organs as constituting the chief offenders against the spirit, though other sensual sins, like gluttony, were also represented and duly punished. To be sure, it was rather disquieting to behold people being hung upside down from their genitals or physically assaulted by demons, but nonetheless highly educative and suggestive, moreover, of the most explicit allegorical teaching possible at the time. One could be under no illusion, at the sight of this ghastly scene, exactly why the Damned were in Hell, even if one was somewhat puzzled by the exact applicability of the proceedings to the Last Judgement, or puzzled, it may be, by the moral position of the Saviour in relation to it. But for all its weaknesses when viewed from the strictly objective angle of post-Christian man, this fresco remained one of the greatest early figurative interpretations of human evolution, a tribute to the patronage of Enrico degli Scrovegni, who is himself immortalized in the small dedication group at the foot of the Cross, in which the patron places a model of the chapel, held by a friar, in the hands of the Virgin, accompanied by a saint and an angel, to the greater glory of God and early fourteenth-century Italian art.
But if this work signified a good compromise between the mundane and the transcendent, the two slides which I now chose to conclude with focused exclusively on one or other of the two extremes: the first going back, it seemed to me, to the beginnings of human evolution, and the second pointing man towards his ultimate salvation in a future Beyond. Now if, in his portrayal of Hell, Giotto had put the emphasis on sex, it was left to Rubens, in The Fall of the Damned c. 1620, to put it firmly on the flesh, as the slide depicting the fall of numerous flabby bodies all too poignantly attested. To me, the flabbiness inherent in so many of Rubens' nudes had always excited a certain disgust, but in this context, disgusting though it arguably still was, its pertinence was beyond dispute, elevating Rubens to the rank of the very greatest damnation painters. Naturally mundane as so much of his work ordinarily was, one felt that no other artist could have dealt with this theme better than him. For here his predilection for the flesh was perfectly in its element, containing not the slightest intimation of ambiguity. Whether the falling bodies were destined to be devoured by monsters or tortured by demons, there could be no doubt that the fate awaiting them was strictly in accordance with the sinful nature of their lives on earth, lives which had induced them to turn their back on the godly and because of which they were helplessly plunging towards the beastly. For those already in the monsters' jaws it was the end of what little humanity they still possessed, the beginning of their fate as beasts. Here, for all its repulsiveness, was the ultimate gluttony, the ultimate comment on sensual sin. What one was looking at wasn't Christian, nor even pagan, but effectively primeval, a world totally dominated by the beast. Christian symbolism embraced both the beginning and end of human evolution!
But if Rubens preferred to return to its beginnings in this horrific work, then it was left to Tintoretto to have the final word on man's ultimate destiny, as I projected a slide of his 1577-94 mosaic of Paradise, from the San Marco in Venice, onto the screen in front, and thereby gave the undergraduates an opportunity to study the wonderful symbolism of this highly transcendent work, a work which, in abandoning the Christian compromise, had more relevance to them, in this post-Christian age, than they might have at first imagined! Not surprisingly - and to the eternal credit of Tintoretto - it was the dove, symbolic of the Holy Ghost, that formed the most important ingredient of this work, its position in the upper right-hand corner of the mosaic constituting a sort of cynosure from which radiated the light of spiritual love informing the figures of Christ, the Virgin, angels, saints, and the elect respectively, in a descending hierarchy of spiritual importance. If Tintoretto's earlier versions of Paradise possessed the symbolic advantage over this one of portraying the spiritual hierarchy vertically rather than horizontally, from right to left of the mosaic, they had not achieved such a convincing portrayal of the superiority and importance of the Holy Ghost, which in this work more than adequately testified to the apex of spiritual evolution, the consummation of divinity in eternal bliss. Thus it was fitting that I should have selected this version of Paradise to represent the climax of Tintoretto's achievement from the mystical standpoint, even if it could not be equated with the finest Christian art on account of its lopsided transcendentalism.
And so, with the showing of this slide, my projections came to an end, and the lights were accordingly switched back on again. The world of Christian art faded into memory in the minds of the students, as I reminded them of the direction of evolution towards the spirit of God and away from the anthropomorphic compromises of our cultural forebears. "Second-stage man is now largely a phenomenon of the past, a phenomenon that is destined to grow rarer as we progress further into third-stage life, and thus draw closer to the Inner Light, otherwise known as the Holy Spirit, of transcendental man. What second-stage man had dreamed of, we are destined to realize, and so bring human evolution to a climax. Our future salvation draws nearer with every new day, draws nearer in spite of all the obstacles we either choose or are obliged to put in its way. Somehow, it will all come right in the end. Third-stage man is the last and most spiritually advanced of human beings, the closest yet to the post-human Beyond, otherwise known as Heaven, of the Superman. On that account, he has good reason to rejoice!"
I could tell by the enthusiastic applause which descended on my ears, as I terminated the lecture at this point, that a majority of the undergraduates had, indeed, appreciated what I had said. For it was as much as I could do to hear myself think, as I slowly made my way towards the privacy of an adjoining room for a well-earned rest.