Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Tempest

I heard a story recently, one which you may have already heard yourself. It goes like this: a farmer one day strolled out onto his land to survey the day's chores when he suddenly heard his donkey bellowing out in pain. He looked and looked but couldn't find his faithful companion anywhere. As he circled his acres, the cries started to get louder and the farmer could hear rustling. It was an odd sort of rustling too. Not like hooves against dirt and leaves, but hooves scratching against a wall. That's when it dawned on him. He rushed over to his well and sure enough, his poor donkey was stuck inside. He tried his best to let his donkey know he would be right back to help, and then tore back to the barn to retrieve some rope.

After many hours and attempts to loft the beast from the cylindrical trap, the farmer's heart sank. His sad donkey was getting more and more exhausted, and he just wasn't able to muster the strength to get him out of the well. It seemed as if all hope was lost. In defeat, the farmer decided the best thing to do would be to put the donkey out of his misery. The well was already dry and unnecessarily uncovered, so he figured, in haste, the wisest decision would be to fill it with dirt burying his faithful donkey inside. Each scoop broke his heart a bit more, but the tired, frustrated farmer just didn't know what else to do.

Oddly enough--as you can imagine--his plan backfired but in a good way. As the dirt cascaded downward toward the donkey, he mustered what little energy he had left to shake it off his face and shoulders. The farmer, none the wiser, kept shoveling dirt into the well, and with each pour, the donkey shook it off. As more and more dirt piled up underneath the donkey, he was able to slowly work his way up to the edge. After a dozen or so shovels later, the donkey was finally able to hoist himself out. Neither the farmer nor the donkey knew this day would end up the way that it did. The poor creature was likely just minding his own business when the world disappeared above him. Likewise, the farmer probably anticipated a normal day of duties around the farm only to find himself faced with a failed rescue and the tough decision to do away with one of his pets.

The Tempest, by Giorgione (c. 1477-1510), is an oil-on-canvas, Renaissance painting that has baffled art experts for centuries. It depicts the lush and beautiful setting of the region in and around Venice, Italy, specifically and potentially Padua based on the barely visible symbol of the city on the building slightly obscured by the bush adjacent to the right side of the bridge. According to experts, the male on the left was identified as a Venetian soldier and shepherd, but historians later argued that he was likely just a shepherd given his tradition and contemporary Venetian garb. The woman on the right has been determined to be a gypsy. Regardless of historical facts, this painting, in its time, was a leap forward in how other artists created works. Prior to its creation, religious depictions and half-prints were the popular styles of the day, so when Giorgione revealed this piece, it left many scratching their heads.

Over the years, several individuals have argued back and forth as to its meaning. Some have said there is no explanation for it, while others have suggested it may be a depiction of Adam and Eve after being removed from Eden. All you and I can do is just look at it, marvel at the structure, paint strokes, dark shadows, and detailed beauty. Which is what I did until I stopped letting me eyes do the decision making, and I let my heart speak. What I saw was life. I saw robust life on display both in the two humans--the male and female clearly being well-fed, healthy, and in particular, the female nursing new life--as well as the lush foliage and trees surrounding them. The city also exudes life with it's classic Italian structure, ornate decorations, and obvious lack of poverty. Finally, the distant sky reveals vivid life with the churning storm and crack of lightning shooting down from the clouds. Then, it hit me. Giorgione may not have had this intention when he created it, but I felt it was a metaphor for how life is precious and can quickly come crashing down upon us all in the blink of an eye.

The first clue for me was in the title. The Tempest implies--at least to me--that the storm that's brewing in the background is going to be pretty strong and dangerous. Also, the two people in the foreground are clearly in an area where flash flooding could easily overwhelm them both. They are casually living out life, but know not of the impending doom that may be heading their way momentarily. Given these thoughts, I then began to ponder about how life is fragile and about how trouble comes for most of us when we least expect it. It gave me a sense of appreciating the life I have because I could lose it all tomorrow.

When I heard the story of the farmer, I immediately thought of this piece. While the tall tale is likely not true at all, it did provide an example of two creatures who felt like the end was near. Two creatures who had lives to live, suddenly found themselves faced with peril they never expected. And just when both thought it was all over, that doom would overtake them both, they each survived their troubling ordeals and lived on to see another day. How quickly many of us can throw in the towel when it seems life is at its worst. But if we all stop to think about past experiences where we were sure doom would be our fate, how refreshing it is to realize now that we're still here and capable of recalling the terrifying circumstances which have long passed. It's not always over when we think it's over. I'd like to think Giorgione was expressing the same thing when he painted this masterpiece.

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