Andersen: Penitence and dignity in Seville
A week ago, my son, Tait, and I watched the last slanting rays of sun angle low into the narrow streets of Seville, Spain. Our vantage was a wrought-iron bench in a pocket park beneath sheltering branches of a huge chestnut tree.
We were just outside the doors of the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, a historic museum containing halls full of masterpieces and beautiful courtyards landscaped with flowering trees and shrubs fragrant with the sweetness of springtime.
We had just strolled the exhibition halls, and our minds were imprinted with depictions of suffering and torment. Many of the paintings framed the travails of Jesus Christ with graphic illustrations of his crucifixion.
These fine works were mostly from the 17th century, painted by the Spanish masters Murillo, Zurbaran, Francisco de Herrera and Valdes Leal. Their studied works showed every detail of human torture that was borne by Christ, and it became difficult to look upon these huge and compelling canvases without feeling some of the pain yourself.
Such representations abound throughout Spain, where Tait and I had just finished a monthlong bicycle tour through the bucolic countryside and in dozens of small, quaint villages. In every town, square and church were iconic images of Christ in his agony, a reminder of mortality and an affirmation of faith.
Other paintings in the museum honored the penitent saints who strove to follow Christ not only in spirit but in bodily ordeals. Self-flagellation was honored as a manner of ascendancy to purity by putting oneself in similar physical pain to that experienced by Christ.
St. Jerome appeared in many of the paintings, his face serene before skull and Bible and crucifix, his hand clutched around a jagged stone with which he abused himself. Titian painted “St. Jerome in Penitence” in the 16th century, and the walls of the museum in Seville etched his visage into a religious fervor.
Another of the penitent saints gored himself with arrows; yet another impaled himself through hands and feet. All this to emulate the suffering of Christ and to chasten their bodies into a state of grace through which to achieve transcendence.
Tait and I, from our peaceful, shaded bench, speculated on saintly penitence as compared to the penitence we had willingly endured on our bicycle tour. Were we, in a sense, pedaling Penitentes or cycling saints, suffering for beauty through physical ordeal?
The idea was laughable, of course, but we realized that penitence is not in vogue today, that willful suffering is not fashionable, just as bike touring is not fashionable. Pursuit of ease and pleasure defines the modern world. There is little or no self-sacrifice to ward off hedonistic materialism.
Then came the subject of dignity, evoked from a pair of portraits that had struck both of us with their austere representation of a prominent couple whose faces were lifelike and real and emanated an irrepressible measure of nobility.
These weren’t selfies with toothy grins on Facebook. They were soul-revealing characterizations of dignity, a word that seems to have lost meaning today through image-crazed conformity to sexy, stylish stereotypes to which contemporary media pay enormous tribute.
The world has changed in 300 years, and human values have changed with it. Penitence and dignity are curiosities when viewed from a culture of instant gratification where suffering is to be avoided and dignity is deemed stultifying and boring.
Tait and I left our reflective bench and, as night set in, walked the labyrinthine streets of Seville with changed perspectives on the human condition. We realized that our shallow history in the U.S. has little or no connection with the ardent passions of Old World religiosity, that we live for the moment and lack appreciation for what came long before.
Penitence and dignity, we surmised, are worthwhile pursuits that can awaken humility, temperance and respect for values and customs that have been forgotten or are denied through pursuit of the acquisitive persona dictated by popular culture.
It was expressed to us on walls, in the paintings of masters for whom penitence was divine and dignity was ennobling.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays when he’s not flagellating himself on his bicycle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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