I am not an art historian.

But I am intrigued by a theory propounded in Harry Mulisch’s strange novel The Discovery of Heaven. Mulisch suggests near the middle of his book that the visual arts are responsible for having banished God or “eternity” from the public imagination.

Mulisch puts the argument in the mouth of Marilyn, an American art history student Onno and Max meet in 1967 in Cuba  where she is serving as part of the Cuban revolutionary militia.

In response to Onno’s comment that the events of history needed to be viewed “in perspective,” Marilyn asks,

“What perspective?”

Onno replies that things should be viewed in the perspective of

“Eternity.”

This leads to Marilyn’s reflections on the role she sees the development of perspective playing in removing God or “eternity” from the scene:

Madonna and Child“Perspective was discovered in the fifteenth century. Up till then God had always fitted very naturally onto the space of the painting, a Madonna and child for example, but that space itself was unnatural. He simply sat on a throne in the blue sky, above the Madonna, with some circles and stars around him; or on the left you had St. Dionysius wearing an elegant mitre in a dungeon and on the right later after his head had been chopped off, and in the center Christ, naked on the cross hundreds of years earlier, surrounded by the twelve apostles in bishop’s robes: all of that quite naturally in one impossible space at one impossible moment.

“But with the discovery of central perspective, natural space and natural time were defined. Someone on a chair in the sky would fall down, and things that followed each other could not happen simultaneously. So that was the beginning of the end of eternity.”

Who could say if the development of perspective bears the weight of guilt for banishing God from art.

What may be said with some conviction is that, however it came to be, we live today in a flat world. We largely define existence in physical linear material terms. We have banished the transcendent. There is no longer much room in our vision for anything that we cannot directly apprehend with our five senses. If I cannot see it, hear it, smell it, taste it, or touch it, it does not exist.

We live in a universe that is divided into bits and pieces, isolated moments in time. This took place, then the next disconnected circumstance arose ; we move from one thing to another without much sense of any connection between random events. Our world is sadly truncated.

Physical death is the terminus of existence.

The past is simply the past. Those “we love but see no longer” do not exist. Gone from this physical realm, they are for most of us just gone.

Communion of the saints 2In the Middle Ages, the view was different. For the medieval mind the invisible dimension was as real as the visible. The subtle intangible realms were as important as the more easily perceivable tangible realms. Time was not simply linear. Events from the past rippled forward into the present and the future is not merely some distance reality yet to unfold. All of life was permeated with the intangible. The universe was haunted by unseen forces. All of life was held in a vast unknowable mystery.

This porous holistic view of life had room for mystery, wonder, awe, and the unexpected possibilities of the Divine. Perhaps by seeking to find his way to The Discovery of Heaven, novelist Mulisch can help us find our way back to a more enchanted vision of the universe we inhabit.

Communion of the Saints

 

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