Monday, August 22, 2011

The Virgin of the Rocks

There is something to be said for the one person most of us probably know who is quiet, polite, patient, and never complains.  Sadly, I'm pretty sure I'm not that one person anyone would think of but lately I have begun to examine my own behavior.  A couple years ago after a terrifying episode of anxiety and stress, I realized my life needed to be approached much more passively so I could avoid becoming too emotionally involved and concerned from various experiences.  That's worked out pretty well and lately, I've been trying to examine other areas of my personality that have been lacking.

Frankly, I don't feel I exhibit enough character.  If I'm feeling passionate about something that doesn't seem right, I express that and tend to make it sound as if I'm complaining.  If I'm in traffic and someone mindlessly cuts me off or goes too slow, I assert to myself that he or she is incapable of not being selfish.  And the list of things I do that provide evidence of this self-doubt goes on.  Yet, there are also moments where I refuse to give up my habitual need to express thanks; my need to acknowledge those who do the dirtiest of work; my need to encompass others who are in any similar situation as me when I'm expressing concern or disagreement.  Am I a model citizen for character?  No way!  Will it take much to change for the better?  I don't believe so and it is something I'm working on now.  Some inspiration I've found in exhibiting character is in the following story:

In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table.  A waitress put a glass of water in front of him.  "How much is an ice cream sundae?" he asked.  "Fifty cents," replied the waitress.  The little boy pulled his hand out of his pocket and studied the coins in it.  "Well, how much is a plain dish of ice cream?" he inquired.  By now more people were waiting for a table and the waitress was growing impatient.  "Thirty-five cents," she brusquely replied.  The little boy again counted his coins.  "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said.  The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away.  The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and left.  When the waitress came back, she began to cry as she wiped down the table.  There, placed neatly beside the empty dish were two nickels and five pennies.  For you see, he couldn't have the sundae because he had to have enough money left over to leave her a tip.

The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is the tale of John the Baptist being introduced to his cousin, Jesus Christ by Mary all accompanied by the Archangel, Gabriel.  The children depicted are clearly in infant stage yet both exhibit their divine nature and character by gesturing to one another.  John, on the left, holds his hands as if praying to show his devotion to his Savior while Christ has His right hand out preparing to bless John.

There are two versions of this painting.  The one displayed here (at the Louvre in Paris) is believed to be the first that da Vinci actually painted himself, while the second (on display at the National Gallery in London) is slightly different and felt to be mostly painted by students and assistants to da Vinci.  Fortunately, the articulation of the implied story isn't under too much controversy since both paintings have received the utmost in respect for what da Vinci was attempting to express.

All expression aside, da Vinci's ability to paint so majestically resounds in the great works of Michelangelo, van Cleave, Massys, Verrocchio, and many other artists of his time. But where the greatest challenge to myself can be found is in the simple, innocent character these two children inherently embody.  Christ, of course, goes on to bless countless lives with His all-knowing wisdom and purity of love.  John, as well, foretold of the coming Messiah and was also known for his teachings and profound devotion to humankind.  These two utterances cannot hold how much each man lived and how much character they had, but through this painting and their lives, I can find encouragement to hold myself to a higher standard.  Why?  Because both men lived their lives without complaining and knowing full well their dedication would mean their demise.  In other words, each had every excuse to give up and to gripe and neither gave in.

Perhaps it is a stretch to compare this masterpiece to the idea of having character.  However, isn't that what each person in this painting exemplifies?  Mary and her devotion to God.  John and his willingness to immediately yield his praise and thanks that Christ has come.  Gabriel and his leadership and guidance for Jesus.  And Christ, with only 32 years left in his life before He would offer up the ultimate sacrifice for every other human.  There is so much more displayed in da Vinci's work but for this one, I wanted to dig deeper and find a more important meaning.  Semantics and emblematic symbolism aside, and the fact that many religious themed paintings can also have a foundational theme of character in them, there was just something about this one piece that got to me.  It could be the gentle nurturing that is evident, it could be the display of two men who would die for their cause.  No matter what, though, the bar has been set and I imagine it will take me the rest of my life to pursue it.

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