September 19, 2014

"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 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 painting by Zurbarán 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 downward in art after another that I witnessed when I wandered around in 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 that was 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 mountain 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 it 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 reviving 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 the 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

Posted by Vanderleun at September 19, 2014 1:30 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Ah, look at the nipples on those lemons to suckle the Messiah....

It's sour work to redeem our sins: We are nourished by the wine of your blood. You got a little vinegar on a sponge near the end.

Busting the money-changers out of the temple didn't give a good rate of return.

You, Christ and Lord, had a 100% rate of return. You left your tomb as empty as my 401k.

Jesus co-signed for my sin bail-out 'cuz I didn't have the bread. He wouldn't even let be pay him back if I could.

This profit goes straight into my account and outperforms the DJIA everytime forever.


Posted by: Gray at March 8, 2009 8:49 PM

Hmm, Gray speaks in words the world weary understand.

If you haven't already done so, Gerard, listen to Arvo Pärt's 'spiegel im spiegel' and 'Für Alina'. His music in its simplicity is lovely beyond all written by a soul oppressed.

Posted by: Jewel at March 8, 2009 9:03 PM

Exquisite - your examples, your writing. There is a reason why artists devote their lives to J.S. Bach, which requires a life of dedication and humility; every note is an occasion of profound introspection and commitment. There thankfully are modern composers and artists who recognize this imperative in their lives.

I doubt very much that anyone will remember any of the music of the '60s in 300 years.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at March 8, 2009 9:11 PM

Gerard, what a gift. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.In addition to the version of O Magnum Mysterium you posted, I recommend the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers YouTube of this beautiful sacred music, with the comments an added bonus.

Posted by: Ljones at March 8, 2009 9:35 PM

Beautiful, Gerard. Thank you.

Posted by: Julie at March 8, 2009 9:47 PM

The music, and the quote from Faulkner concluding your most excellent essay made for a great end to this worrisome weekend. I will take it to rest, and ignore for just this moment, the madness swirling around outside the tent.


Posted by: jwm at March 8, 2009 10:13 PM

It's a sad thing that it's pretty much the "illustrators" who are carrying on the traditions of old. Who still apply the knowledge, the skills, the techniques once used by the artists of old.

Take this study by the artist Todd Lockwood. A naturalistic study of a fantastic beast. One that in terms of composition, lighting, animation, and technique would fare well with the great art of old.

Most important of all, it has heart. Mother watching as her older children welcome their new siblings, and Father returns from the hunt with a dead horse in his jaws; the reins dangling beneath.

There are stories in this painting, many stories. Stories of trust and love. Stories of sacrifice and hope. Stories of valor and might, for in the world these dragons live in you don't just take a man's horse from him without placing your life on the line.

The fact it is art depicting creatures of fantasy, art produced for an escapist game means nothing. What matters here is, was it well done, and does it have heart? On both scores I have to say yes. And having said yes who am I to say that this is not art?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at March 8, 2009 10:31 PM

I wish I knew how to get HTML links to work here. :)

I don't know about great artists; but I have a candidate for a great performer. New, young and untried but we will all be hearing from her again.

Go to YouTube and look for Alexandra Burke. She was the winner of X Factor 2008, and at least two of her performances in that final were pure magic; especially the first, Silent Night. Your entire future career is on the line and you choose to sing one of the greatest classics, and almost without accompaniment? That's at least one variety of courage.

And she got away with it. More than that - she nailed it. Anyone that can impress Simon Cowell...

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at March 9, 2009 12:48 AM

Two or three times a year I purge my blogroll, not because I dislike anyone, but because there is simply not enough time in my life to track so many.

The health care debate now takes so much of my reading time I've been pinching off links for the last week or so. Thanks to this post you have dodged the bullet once again.

Posted by: Hootsbuddy at March 9, 2009 6:42 AM

Thanks, Gerard. I knew this painting looked familiar- in fact,my wife has a copy of it hanging just a few feet from where I'm typing. Amazing what you can forget so close to you. Neither of us had any idea of the symbolism behind it. She just liked it. Time to take the kids and get down to the Norton again- just a few blocks away. May the Lord bless you and keep you.

Posted by: Dave Grecu at March 9, 2009 9:00 AM

Population of Elizabethan England
in 1800
in 2008

A generation is a drama with four or five thousand outstanding characters--
The worst threat of the new democratic equality is that mediocrity will not only be encouraged, but may be enforced.

Posted by: at March 9, 2009 8:42 PM

Posted by at March 9, 2009 8:42 PM

The worst threat of the new democratic equality is that mediocrity will not only be encouraged, but may be enforced.

Prescient, and brilliant.

Posted by: Rob De Witt at March 9, 2009 10:14 PM

A man must believe in something. Do we believe only that art is begotten through belief, or does such belief prove also that we believe?

Posted by: askmom at March 10, 2009 1:46 AM

Alan Kellogg:
It's a sad thing that it's pretty much the "illustrators" who are carrying on the traditions of old. Who still apply the knowledge, the skills, the techniques once used by the artists of old.

I don't know that I would call it sad or not, but my favorite modern artists are Norman Rockwell (greatest 20th Century American artist) and Ken Marschall. Marschall's favorite subject is the Titanic, and his paintings can be found in numerous books. That works for me, because I'm a longtime Titanic buff.

Posted by: rickl at March 10, 2009 7:59 PM

Addendum: Maybe it's just that our terminology is off. Why not call modern illustrators "artists" and modern artists "talentless hacks"?

Posted by: rickl at March 10, 2009 8:01 PM

However well or poorly I do my work, it is those words of Faulker that inspire me.

And taken as a whole, your words remind me of others spoken by a professor whose loss I mourn more deeply with each passing year: "Both salvation and good writing depend upon the willingness to say 'I'". I suspect he'd be willing to loose the boundaries a bit and include artists and musicians as well. I would.

Posted by: shoreacres at March 10, 2009 9:09 PM


I would say the thing that distinguishes the artist from the dabbler is that the artist cares. Cares enough to work long hours honing his skills. Cares enough to know his subject and his tools as well as he knows his mother. Cares enough to go without, do without for the sake of his art. An artist knows the value of passion, and lets no-one dampen his ardor.

Your mother was right when she warned you about artists, for artists are dangerous creatures to know.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at March 11, 2009 1:49 AM

An earlier version of the last word on this:

Posted by: Rob De Witt at March 11, 2009 1:44 PM

Mr. Vanderleun:

St. Paul's second letter to the Corinthians implies, in chapter 5 at verses 18 through 20, that all true art has a reconciling function: that is, by showing a man something of "the good" it creates in him a hunger to know more of "the good," and, so, tends toward reconciling him to God. Modern art has the opposite effect -- what one might call an "irreconciling function" that tends to drive or seduce man away from God -- and, so, can not be true art.


Posted by: Nagaijan at March 11, 2009 6:59 PM

Beautiful words, Gerard. In the past painters had to apprentice for years, learning the fine art of perspective, inflection, shadowing. Even Leonardo. That's just too much work for the insipid artist class of today, nor is there anyone to even teach them if they wanted to learn. So they dip their dog's feet in shite and let them walk across the canvas. Then they decide who is being represented by this degradation: Mary or Jesus. Either works pretty well for the shock value and notoriety.

Posted by: Kim Crawford at August 23, 2009 4:29 AM

I am fortunate to live within driving distance of the Brandywine Museum.

So any time I start feeling oppressed by the overwhelming soullessness of modern art, or modern life, for that matter-- I can hop over there to spend a couple of hours marvelling at what Andrew Wyeth could do with a drybrush.

Posted by: WWWebb at August 23, 2009 8:54 AM

A strong and poignant essay, Gerard. The unblemished porcelain cup caught my eye. As the great Marian prayer begins: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus."

And the matter of light and dark inspired me to revisit the first chapter of John.

Thanks also for the link to the Lauridsen piece.

Opera is another realm, where music and visual imagery in the hands of great masters can shock and inspire millions. An example of this is Francis Poulenc's masterpiece "Dialouges of the Carmelites". His arrangement of the ancient Marian hymn "Salve Regina" in the final scene compels self-examination. John Dexter's 1987 Met production is stunning in its use of light and shadow. A bit of that in the link below:

Posted by: mrp at August 23, 2009 9:52 AM

What a great clip. Thanks.

Posted by: Vanderleun at August 23, 2009 10:40 AM

Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art. Tom Stoppard

Posted by: Ray at August 23, 2009 10:41 AM

Dear Gerard. I am so very glad to see you are recovering. I visit your site almost every day for inspiration and pleasure.

I would like to suggest that modern art in all forms is not merely mediocre and ignorant it is deeply morally depraved. Modern art is produced by the same psyche that gave us Auschwitz and the Gulag and the Cultural Revolution. We are in a new Dark Age, and the savages are in charge.

Posted by: bob sykes at December 27, 2011 5:52 AM

Amazing piece of writing! I am embarrassed to be sharing the same internet with you. They need a sub-level for hackers like me... Leave brilliant minds up there in the clouds of cognitive horsepower.

Posted by: Captain Dave at December 27, 2011 7:14 AM

Gerard: Here's a better version, I think.

Merry Christmas!

Posted by: ahem at December 27, 2011 7:22 AM

I think that people who create great art love the objects they create and in the process of creating these objects, lose their egotism, thus transcending their mere egos. This process of transcendence is perhaps most obvious in the West in the art created to honour God.

Many modern artists subsist on hate and/or on a quite materialist, anti-spiritual plane. They don't love anything and cling to their egoistic selves. So when they create, their creations remain small and mean.

I appreciate your posts; they push me to think.

Posted by: Gloria at December 27, 2011 10:52 AM

Gerard, you are wonderful. Thank you.

There is so much beauty and so little time.

Philippe Jaroussky : FAURÉ, Pie Jesu

Posted by: france at December 27, 2011 11:21 PM

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

Ahhh... a defintion of more clarity than the overused words 'Classic' or 'Eternal'.


I get MY Art fix from Jewel (Madam Scherzo): Its the best Art-Gallery I've come across in all my years and I walk away eveytime full... filled.

Posted by: cond0011 at December 10, 2012 11:27 AM

We're a gaggle of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community. Your website offered us with useful info to work on. You've done an impressive job and our entire community will likely be grateful to

Posted by: null at April 17, 2013 12:19 PM

On Beauty-
Arche’ (Greek) as davar (Hebrew), word or thing, action of God in space/time. From root word “dibur” meaning “to speak”. “Every davar expresses a dibur—a spoken message. Every physical object or phenomenon, in addition to its physical reality, conveys a spiritual comment on existence.”

Posted by: John Hinds at September 19, 2014 5:55 AM

Laziness, again, is at the root of the decline.

Real art requires real work.

Take a good long look at any given thing, then try to replicate that look with any medium you choose.

It requires a precisely trained eye-brain-hand coordination that most simply cannot summon the intellectual horsepower to master.

Art today is not about effort, it is about the same thing as most everything else is these days, fun, Fun, FUN! If a thing isn't fun it isn't worth doing. The world is filled with grown-up children.

The country should be renamed to the USF, the United States of Fun.

Posted by: ghostsniper at September 19, 2014 6:26 AM

No mention of The Emperor's New Clothes, desperately floundering in a sea of Conspicuous Consumption one-upmanship?
Nobody likes to admit dey been had.Hype is ESSENTIAL to the "return" (either by admission tickets, or resale "at auction") on the investment.

Posted by: CAptDMO at September 19, 2014 7:10 AM

I don't know what the problem is. All we have to do is take really good pictures and make some quality videos. That should last for a couple centuries at least.

My uncle Louie Lozko, we all called him "Letsgo Lozko", he raised bantam chickens. He told me that no matter how good a chicken is, it will not live forever.

Posted by: chasmatic at September 21, 2014 6:27 AM