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“O Magnum Mysterium:” The Persistence of Sacred Beauty

“We no longer have time for the good, the beautiful, or whether or not something is true. We have only time for conversation.” — John Cage

It is a commonplace that the overwhelming mass of our contemporary art that is “exhibited” has devolved into mere “exhibitionism.” Vapid, disposable and preening the works are doomed to be buried in the gaping garbage pits of marketing-driven museums, and crapulous galleries that hold most contemporary American and European art. Still, great souls persist among us and great art, though it is often obscured by poseurs and perverts and pallid imitators of all stripes, can still emerge when talent and skill are wedded to inspiration and belief.

In an arresting and rare explication and meditation on the origins of great art in our time, composer Morten Lauridsen writes of his own work and the work of Francisco de Zurbarán , a long dead master in It’s a Still Life That Runs Deep. The essay reveals a bit, but just a bit, about how inspiration can leap from one medium to another in art and, by such a leap, gain even more power.

Lauridsen’s exegesis also reveals how all great art tends to exist outside of time and to defy the “moral, spiritual and aesthetic relativism” that reduces most of our “attempts” at art to rubble. He does so by reminding us that great art, like God, exists outside of time.

In E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (Surely the only book it is necessary to read to understand the novel.) he presents an image that is as pertinent to all true artists as it is to novelists alone:

“We are to visualize the English novelists not as floating down that stream which bears all its sons away unless they are careful, but as seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British museum reading room, all writing their novels simultaneously,”

Lauridsen underscores this notion and expands it to painting and music.

In discussing the origin of his chorale composition, “O Magnum Mysterium,” in the early 1990s, Lauridsen cites as his primary inspiration a painting done in 1633, more than three and a half centuries before The painting is Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose.”

How, we might ask, can a mute still-life from more than three and a half centuries ago spark a contemporary chorale that has been performed and recorded over and over since it’s creation? Unlike today when most paintings contain only a sop of skill and a slapdash chunk of execution, paintings once spoke more clearly. And those today who still know the ancient language of painting and the old belief can still hear the music in the pigment. Lauridsen describes, or rather interprets, the painting thus:

Francisco de Zurbarán’s “Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose” normally hangs on a back wall of one of the smaller rooms in the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena. Like a large black magnet, it draws its viewers from the entry into its space and deep into its mystical world. Completed in 1633, it is the only canvas the early Baroque Spanish master ever signed and dated.

We are shown a table set against a dark background on which are set three collections of objects: in the center, a basket containing oranges and orange blossoms; to the left, a silver saucer with four lemons; and, to the right, another silver saucer holding both a single rose in bloom and a fine china cup filled with water. Each collection is illuminated and placed with great care on the polished surface of the table.

But it is much more than a still life. For Zurbarán (1598-1664) — known primarily for his crisply executed and sharply, even starkly lit paintings of ascetics, angels, saints and the life of Christ — the objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

The painting projects an aura of mystery, powerful in its unadorned simplicity, its mystical quality creating an atmosphere of deep contemplation. Its effect is immediate, transcendent and overpowering. Before it one tends to speak in hushed tones, if at all.

I’ve seen the original painting by Zurbarán at the Norton Simon, and I can attest to the fact of its strange power to arrest the pace and still the attention into contemplation. The underlying symbolism of the work was unknown to me until Lauridsen made it explicit, but I don’t find it surprising. After many years of ignorant acceptance of one gruesome and ugly step after another downward   in art  that I witnessed when I wandered through decades of New York’s overheated and overhyped art scene, I came to the reluctant conclusion that most contemporary art was garbage, that it had no soul, and that deep down… it was shallow.

When I thought about why almost all contemporary art were just soft items bobbing in a cess pool a host of reasons presented themselves to me.

Perhaps it was that the ability to draw was no longer taught and expected to be a basic skill of those who would call themselves our “artists.”

Perhaps it was that the proliferation of art schools and “art majors” gave the baby boomers and their offspring a way through college that required as much intellect as a point guard, but not nearly as much talent and dedication.

Perhaps it was that the rise of the ridiculous rich with their 15,000 foot McMansions meant a lot of wall space that had to be covered with something fashionable but not demanding. This just at the time Warhol and Mapplethorpe popped off and could no longer supply those whose bad taste was in their mouth and down their throat. Hence a legion of pretenders and jackanapes arose to fill the arrivistes’ demand for garbage to decorate their squalid lives. This is not a hunger that should be fed for, as all Park Rangers know, “Once a bear is hooked on garbage, there’s no cure.”

In the end, it was, of course all of these and none. It was as simple as Gertrude Stein’s “There’s no there there.” For at the core of all the objects that form the ocean of crap that is palmed off as “art,” there is simply and plainly, nothing at all. Nothing felt, nothing sensed, nothing learned, and nothing believed in. As such this “art” is without soul. And nothing that lacks soul can survive death, especially the death of a culture and our present state which is best described, a la D. H. Lawrence, as “post mortum effects.”

Which is why it is so exhilarating to come across Lauridsen’s citing of the magic and mystery of a painting that inspires music from his soul across more than three and a half centuries. It reminds us that art that is true, that art that comes from belief and the soul, will survive and will continue to expand the soul of man despite all the forces that may array themselves against “the good, the beautiful and whether or not something is true.”

Does Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium” fulfill this promise? Does it demonstrate that, in the midst of ‘these fragments shored against these ruins’, great art can still arise in our time; that all it takes is belief? I believe that it does and that belief nourishes my soul. You decide for yourself.

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.William Faulkner – The Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, December 10, 1950

Alert the Authorities!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Julie February 1, 2018, 12:26 PM

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • John Venlet February 1, 2018, 12:30 PM

    Here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where the art competition ArtPrize originated, typically 1400 or so artists exhibit and compete for prize money. 95 percent of the pieces exhibited are crap, and belong in the landfill. What I find most ridiculous, though, about this art competition is that each piece exhibited has an explanation, written by the artist, so that people can “understand” what they’re viewing. Art that requires an explanation, is not art.

  • Roy Lofquist February 1, 2018, 1:21 PM

    I certainly enjoy reading about finer sensiblities, he says as he looks at his Rockwell prints and dials up Dylan on the hi-fi.

  • Vanderleun February 1, 2018, 1:27 PM

    I loves me some Dylan and Rockwell.

  • ghostsniper February 1, 2018, 2:55 PM

    You know it Gerard. Rockwell.

    “….when talent and skill are wedded to inspiration and belief.”
    ===========================================

    I live in the “Artists Colony of the Midwest”, Brown County, Indiana and art is everywhere around here. Probably more art galleries per square inch than any other place on the planet. And most of it is an insult to the eye. Seriously. I’m no painter but put the brush in my hand and I’ll do better than most of the stuff out there. But the diff between me and other people that don’t know how to paint (but think they do) is that I have a sense of self worth. I wouldn’t have the gall to put my shitty effort on public display but I can’t say the same for others. Many others. Is this just more rampant narcissism?

    The worst of all of it though are the gallery curators and glossy rags that promote this nonsense. They will look you straight in the eye and use $10 words to “explain” why that refrigerator art at best is worthy of praise and huge pricing. They need to be dragged, all of them, until there’s nothing left but a frayed rope.

  • Sam L. February 1, 2018, 3:57 PM

    Gerard, I think you’ll find this pleasing:
    https://bayourenaissanceman.blogspot.com/2018/02/impressive-live-sound-effects.html

    A boys’ choir in South Africa.

  • Vanderleun February 1, 2018, 6:41 PM

    Fascinating choir. Gives one a shred of hope for that beleaguered country and continent.

  • Casey Klahn February 1, 2018, 7:11 PM

    Goethe said, “In art, the best is good enough.”

    It is certainly the office of brilliance, art is. Those who try to define it too closely, as your authors may be doing, are doomed to befuddlement. It is too vast for that. You don’t agree? Okay, let me rephrase. Music is too vast to be defined too closely. Ahh! You agreed with that! If I did actually catch someone there, I beg you to see that your understanding of painting is small.

    I love the still life shown, for its formal goodness. Not so much the finish quality, which is trick, but for the imputation of abstract meaning it gives in largeness. Three object groupings. That, alone, is sweetness. Yellow against black. Another abstraction and a very loud one. The painting shouts; far from “still.”

    One thing I discovered for myself when I studied theology in the 70s – 80s, was that what the theologians are saying in a given time, will be understood and apprehended by the masses a hundred years later. You like the Impressionist artists, and Vincent van Gogh. Their art was shit! in the day.

    A guy named Vetinari once said that people only want to be told what they already know. They don’t want news, they really only crave “olds.” All areas produce shit art, and metric tons of it. Each era only has a few who make new things. The 20th Century had more new art than most, and also the 16th Century. But you crave the fucking 16th Century stuff. No wonder an artist had to display a urinal; he was trying to get us off of the old, and into the ideal part of art. I suppose you listen to instrumental music? This is the musical equivalent to abstract art; no particulars. Yes, abstract art is shit, but not all of it. Only a few are good.

    Next year I will be judging abstract art for a prestigious national magazine contest. Will it be all shit?

  • Casey Klahn February 1, 2018, 7:13 PM

    All areas produce shit art…should read “all eras.”

  • pbird February 1, 2018, 8:10 PM
  • Mark Allinson February 1, 2018, 8:44 PM

    “He does so by reminding us that great art, like God, exists outside of time.”

    I saw Eternity the other night,
    Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
    All calm, as it was bright;
    And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
    Driv’n by the spheres
    Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
    And all her train were hurl’d.

    Lines from “The World”, by Henry Vaughan

  • ghostsniper February 2, 2018, 4:15 AM

    Imagine a brand new art gallery with freshly painted blank walls, eagerly accepting “art” for arts sake, elevating the demeaning to meaning, and the whole era drops down a little bit more.

    http://www.bcdemocrat.com/2018/02/02/arts_briefs-49/

  • Jaynie February 2, 2018, 5:15 AM

    Marvelous essay. You’ve given me a peek inside the world of art and music which, alas, I have little knowledge of from the inside. I do recall one wild surprise of a time about 10 or so years ago when I used to take my young son up to the MFA Boston. In that I am without a clue when it comes to art. And had fond memories of my Dad taking us to the MFA where we mainly dashed to see the mummies. I knew I needed some direction imposed on our visits. So, we would arrange docent led tours organized around a theme. Thus we’d travel through the museum, past so much, indecipherable to me, art pieces, and stop at various works with an educated person giving a small talk at each stop. Wonderful way to experience the museum over time.

    On one visit, although the docent was not pleased with the theme, power, as suitable to children, she soldiered on for us. I was so very, very shocked by a piece, in a gallery in front. This was an interesting painting. All blue paint. Sleeping birds, with a beast of prey, a dog or a wolf, coming through and devouring a swath of the sleeping birds. Notably, none of the nearby birds’ slumbers were disturbed. Interesting enough, you say? The thing that shocked me was that this piece was so very clearly a ‘temporary’ piece since it was painted directly onto the wall itself. That was so strange to me. I am not sure why, but it really rattled me that an artist would create in that way.

    And Casey Klahn, Discworld, The Truth, is my favorite of Pratchett’s. I adore the audiobook and have listened to it many times. Stop the press.

  • Casey Klahn February 2, 2018, 9:09 AM

    LOL. Jayne, I used to vette my quoters fairly closely, but you caught me with that one! That’s funny. I still like what “he” says, via Pratchett’s writing. One time, I looked up a quote author, and it turned out his only fame was that he wrote quotes for the internet. Green Meanie eating his own tail.

    Ghost: I’m very familiar with the ALBQ area art scene. I once judged a National art show there, and gave the first prize to a big, realistic portrait. Yes to the complaints about the damage that promoting shitty art inflicts; no to your tastes being that important to the whole. Art may be shitty, but so is the contemporary tastes. I’m interested in what’s new.

    It bears repeating. Duchamps said, “not everyone is an artist, but everyone is a fucking critic.”

  • ghostsniper February 2, 2018, 10:55 AM

    @Casey, ALBQ?

    New for new’s sake is wrong headed.
    In my field I’m all about “new” and use that for marketing leverage with every project I work on.
    If my current work is not newer and better than the last than I am not learning.

    However, being new without being old first is a poor foundation for any creative endeavor.
    The masters are called masters for a reason.

    Having said all of that, I was well into my career before I had ever heard the name Vitruvius (The Ten Books on Architecture). I was appalled that I never learned about this guy in school. Reading that book changed everything for me on various levels. His wisdom spans thousands of years and there is no way to be new, now, without having been old and I realized that after reading that book. Before reading it I was basically in template mode, doing things the way I had been taught without any real reason. The old way, the way of the masters, gave me foundation on which to build my new ideas. I dare say my projects became better in all ways and that of course meant that I became better as a person too and therefore my bottom line increased accordingly. The benefit of proper education is immeasurable, as is the damage from a poor one.

  • Casey Klahn February 2, 2018, 12:28 PM

    Ghost: I was writing ALBQ because I was too lazy to type out Albuquerque. Your link took us there to New Mexico.

    Your statement, your example and your experience are spot on. We sully the past in order to create, as one would tear down old construction to build anew. However, the masters. I agree %500 with you.

    I tell my students how, in the NW mountains, the old time climbers used to “shoulder stand” on their partner in order to reach the good holds. Are we, as artists, standing on our predecessor’s shoulders, or his face?

  • Jim in Alaska February 2, 2018, 12:44 PM

    Enjoyable, thoughtful essay. Interesting comments.

    & Casey Klahn is a bit of a pompous ass.
    A urinal is just a urinal and a pipe is just a pipe (No matter what René Magritte says.). 😉

    Having said that, remember it takes one (pompous ass, {I’ll spell it out, me}) to know one (pompous ass) and Sturgeon’s Law; Ninety percent of everything is crap, and paraphrasing his corollary, including this, my, posting.

    Realtors and retailers harp on location, location, location & they’re right, place and time are extremely important for appreciation. The time and the place can make all the difference twix that’s nice, to instead, a jaw dropping bug eyed wow!

    Some sixty or so years ago I was in an art museum in Chicago, long enough ago I can’t remember the painting title, let alone the museum, and unexpectedly, walking up a set of stairs, found myself, suddenly, quite unexpectedly, looking at an El Greco handing in the landing above me. That was a a jaw dropping big bug eyes wow!

    A couple of other a jaw dropping bug eyed wows; Blue Boy at Huntington Gardens. Ruben’s Bacchus at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and a yawn, Warhol’s Marylin, maybe a hundred prints of same, filling a museum wall in Saitama , Japan.

    -which segues to the point I started aiming at (& no, not casting aspersions upon Casey, nor the 90% thingy but the location thingy): On another trip to Japan I was in the Ohara art museum in Kurashiki, took a right turn from the bright windowed hall in to a darker room and, as my eyes adjusted, a predominantly blue painting on the far wall eclipsed everything else in the room (Bacchus, in the Hermitage, hit me the same way, by the way.). As I walked closer & could make out the details, it was Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue’ or ‘Moby Dick’. Previous to that I’d pompously place Pollock right along side the urinal and the pipe but ‘Blue’ at that time, in that place, (& sigh, using another parenthetical aside; ‘Blue’ mostly blue, shapes floating/blending therein, colors bright,objects hinted at, -highlighted in a dim room in Japan, a land of islands surrounded by deep blue sea, Fujisan, the Wave, the floating world…) it worked, it was art, hell, it was really, really great art!.

    On a later visit to the Ohara, the room was being remodeled and ‘Blue’ was, temporarily out in the hall, still the same painting, of course, but it’s impact was lost in that location, although it was ‘nice’.

    & OK, I’ll cut Magritte some slack on his ‘Treachery of Images’ but Duchamp’s urinal is still just a urinal.

    & my last nitpick at Casey & his boy Duchamp; why no everyone’s not a fuckin’ critic but yes, everyone is, each and everyone, everyone’s an artist! -grin-

    & no offense meant Casey & I hope none taken.

    && I hope I did fit in 10% of non-crap in this posting.

    &&& some of you might enjoy looking at the work of a dead friend of mine that was a contemporary of Pollock, et al: http://skondovitch.com/

    Again, essay, comments, quite enjoyable!

  • Casey Klahn February 2, 2018, 2:20 PM

    I wear that epithet like a badge of honor, Jim. I’ve been to the Hermitage, too, and it changed my life.
    In spite of my assitutinousness, you and I seem to be in agreement on most of the things you said.

    Duchamp was pulling our leg with his urinal, but I think after he did it, it was done and old stuff. But, I dig that he did it. Without humor, we lose all perspective, and then we die.

    Nietzsche: “we have art so we don’t die of the truth.” Glad for these art posts. Good for conservatives to not abdicate culture to the socialists.

  • Jim in Alaska February 2, 2018, 4:55 PM

    Casey I say Ha & Ha, again! I refuse to yield greater assitutinousness, my assitutinousness is most definitely equal to or exceeds your assitutinousness (and, herein another parenthetical aside; I suspect if we say assitutinousness 4 more times, especially if applied to a politician, the word will make it into the urban dictionary!) ! -grin-
    & shuck darn, I figured we we mostly in agreement when I wrote the post.

    & crediting our esteemed host, Gerard does run a great shop here, interesting, insightful, attracting a really smart, nice, set of folks, myself excluded, of course.

  • GlennDC February 3, 2018, 5:17 PM

    Gerard,
    Let me first offer thanks for the continued gift of your words to us, that enrich our remaining minutes. That was a close thing.
    Ponder those Vietnamese men and women, likely Catholic, praising the mistery, in Latin… and think of what we lost when Pope John XXIII, Roncalli and the 2nd Vatican Council decided we didn’t need the glue of a Lingua Franca… Many hands have labored blindly, deaf to our pleas, to tear down this ancient and venerable edifice, my friend…

  • Vanderleun February 4, 2018, 10:25 AM

    I remember when that happened and the deeply pained and distressed reaction of many of my Catholic friends. Some began their long drift away from the church when that happened.