I recall reading in a biography of Cecily Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice and palliative care movement, that she had been struck by how many women were pioneering and influential in the care of the dying throughout the centuries.
This is something that I contemplate whenever I look at religious art depicting the women at the scene of the Crucifixion.
In his letter on the dignity and vocation of women, John Paul II wrote:
Indeed, the Gospels not only describe what that woman did at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper; they also highlight the fact that women were in the forefront at the foot of the Cross, at the decisive moment in Jesus of Nazareth’s whole messianic mission. John was the only Apostle who remained faithful, but there were many faithful women. Not only the Mother of Christ and “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25) were present, but “there were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him” (Mt 27: 55). As we see, in this most arduous test of faith and fidelity the women proved stronger than the Apostles. In this moment of danger, those who love much succeed in overcoming their fear. Before this there were the women on the Via Dolorosa, “who bewailed and lamented him” (Lk 23:27). Earlier still, there was Pilate’s wife, who had warned her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Mt 27:19).
It is interesting to consider the impact that art can have on the imagination and also on forming a person’s sensitivity to his or her role to play within a society.
Josef Pieper is truly one of the most wonderful (i.e., actually filled-with-wonder) philosophers of the twentieth century. Just when I thought that I had read most of his works, I discovered that he wrote a book entitled Death and Immortality. A huge thanks to St. Augustine’s Press for translating and publishing Pieper’s works and I especially look forward to reading the recently published parts two and three of Pieper’s three-part autobiography.
Today I want to share with you a marvelous section on Rembrandt in “The Vocabulary of Death” chapter of Pieper’s Death and Immortality book.
Leonardo da Vinci died on this date in 1519 and so today I am recalling the occasions on which I have had the opportunity to view some of his paintings.
One experience that especially stands out was when I saw the Lady with an Ermine painting at Wawel Castle and Cathedral in Poland. There was a long line to see this painting and only a few museumgoers at a time could enter the room in which the painting was exclusively displayed. Once my friends and I finally crossed the threshold and entered the room containing the painting, we noticed the armed guards attending to it.
This was several years ago when Islamist terrorists were wreaking havoc and attacks were a high threat in Europe. I thought about the armed guards and how it was that they were defending this artwork with their lives, particularly when there was a real threat of terrorism in key sites epitomizing our civilization.
Among my hobbies these days is attending a bioethics book club every two weeks on O. Carter Snead’s new book What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. The book is about how the dominant view in our time of persons as expressive individualists contradicts the lived experience of our embodied reality. Snead analyzes why we go astray in our public bioethics when we do not account for the realities of vulnerability and mutual dependence in and throughout our lives.
Most recently the study group finished reading the chapter on Death and Dying. In it, Snead notes: “By far the most common rationales cited for seeking assisted suicide were concerns about ‘losing autonomy’ (92 percent) and being ‘less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable’ (91 percent).”
Since there are many reasons why we can lose autonomy and the ability to engage in activities that make life enjoyable, it is worth scrutinizing these ideas of “freedom” – the loss of which risks rendering life seemingly not worth living.
I am reminded of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky’s reflections. In Sculpting in Time, he says: “And the longer I lived in the West the more curious and equivocal freedom seems to me. Freedom to take drugs? To kill? To commit suicide?”
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the word “clinical” may denote “expressing no emotion or feelings” or “showing no character and warmth.” The sentence that is given to illustrate its meaning is this: “We were going to paint our kitchen white, but we decided that would look too clinical.”
Do you ever wonder why hospitals and doctor’s offices are so drab? Why does there seem to be so little attention paid to aesthetics? What impact does this have on doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors?
One day, Cecily Saunders, the British pioneer of modern-day hospice care, was “magnetically drawn” to an oil painting in a gallery window. She was so taken by it that she parked her car and entered the gallery moments before they were closing on the last day of the exhibition. Cecily Saunders moved eagerly from painting to painting. The blue Crucifixion had been the piece to catch her eye from the window, but the piece she impulsively chose to purchase was of ‘Christ Calming the Waters.’
The following day, she wrote the following to the artist, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko:
In the chapter on Hope in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the paradox that “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
I certainly observed this during my studies and travels throughout Europe during which I was continually struck that the most beautiful art and architecture was made by people who believed in the immortality of the soul whereas materialists always seemed to produce the most ugly and bland structures and stuff.
There is something about looking forward longingly to the world to come that makes us more effective in this world than we could possibly be otherwise.
One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.
He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”
In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”
Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”
One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:
Most people know that Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the world’s most renowned composers, but not many know that, instead of dying on this date in 1827 at age 56, Beethoven almost died before he was born.
Several years ago, this 15-minute short film called Crescendo was released. I saw an early screening of it at the G.K. Chesterton conference hosted by the film’s producer Jason Jones. (For more about that conference, including Jason’s personal story he shared there, click to my post about it here.)
Asked about the extent of creative license he took with the film, Jason told an interviewer, “There’s one piece of fiction. But Beethoven’s father was indeed an alcoholic, he was abusive, he was a philanderer. And Beethoven’s mother had written in her diary that she wanted an abortion and she was suicidal and depressed.”
Thomas Aquinas died on this date 747 years ago. Accordingly, I decided to see what came up first with a quick search about Aquinas on death. I was led to the Summa Theologiae and, specifically, to Question 69 on “Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death.”
During his lifetime, Thomas Aquinas considered many questions that most people would never consider at all. Take, for example, Article 4 of Question 69 in which he asks: “Whether the limbo of hell is the same as Abraham’s bosom?”
I had not heard (or didn’t particularly recall hearing) of “Abraham’s bosom” but a detailed Wikipedia article discusses the concept as it appears in the Bible, Jewish and Christian history, and religious art and literature.