Fra Angelico: Frescoes at the Convent of San Marco, Florence (1438-1443)
Diego Rivera: Frescoes at the Edificio Sede de la Secretaria de Educacion Publica, Mexico City, (1923-1929)
(All photos of the Rivera murals, J. Watson)
As soon as I entered the courtyard of the Secretaria the unexpected scope and scale of Rivera’s work transported me. I was back in Florence, in San Marco. The feeling was intensified by the architectural similarity between the two spaces. Large interior courtyards provide sanctuary from busy streets outside. In one, arches, in the other, columns frame covered walkways around the perimeter of the gardened interiors. Very few people, a quiet and contemplative air. The muted colours of the murals quieted the eyes, made them pay closer attention. Perhaps this resemblance provoked the question that occurred to me: had the young Mexican revolutionary, painting from the history and for the future of his country, ever visited San Marco? Had he perhaps been inspired by the devout monk painting for the spiritual edification of his brothers?
Both spaces originally served sacred purposes, purposes which still reverberate. Both invite a contemplative and meditative attitude. Such attitudes lend themselves to the irruption of memories, the forging of unanticipated connections, the discovery of surprising resemblances. So standing in what is today a thoroughly secular, working building, marvelling at the three hundred frescoes Rivera painted around the three stories of outdoor perimeter walkways, one still senses its religious roots in the Convent of Saint Mary of the Incarnation of the Divine Word (1594). Perhaps the ghost of this purpose whispers to me as my thoughts are drawn back to Florence.
Before even really looking at any of Rivera’s frescoes I thought: this is a universal gift, not just to the peasants and workers and revolutionaries which form the subject matter of the murals and in whose name Rivera created, not just for the Mexican people and the consolidation of their national identity for which the murals were commissioned, but for anyone who takes the time to navigate the teeming streets of the Centro Historico to find their way here. The usher seems to be waiting just for you because, amazingly, there is no one else around. Such is for the best, for to experience the real aesthetic depth of Rivera’s creation time and space to linger are necessary.
San Marco is the same sort of universal gift. Angelico conceived the frescoes illuminating the cells of his fellow monks as gifts to them, to aid their contemplations, to strengthen their faith, to deepen their love of God. But like Rivera’s murals, which transcend the overt political function for which they were executed, Angelico’s paintings cannot be confined to any narrow denominational-sectarian purpose or reduced to any one-dimensional religious reading. The human drama shining out through the religious allegories is to strong. That which is remembered is Angelico’s understanding of human desire and pain. One wonders: is that what impressed itself on the monks too?
Salvation and Revolution
Universal gifts, open without exclusion to anyone who accepts accept the call of this art. To pay attention to it is to transcend narrow-minded and mechanical opposition of the sacred and the profane, religion and politics. Neither set of works instructs, rather, both evoke, suggest, commands attention, yes, but does not program or determine the response to it. Rivera’s earthy materiality, his peasants with their pots and cooking fires and sensuous dances, his hardened revolutionaries, the fruits and grains that sustain the body, the struggle that frees it from alienation, exploitation, and needless suffering, are echoed in the wonder and confusion (and anxiety) on Mary’s face as she hears the angel announce that she will give birth to the son of god, in the weeping face of the women looking over the dead Jesus, of the fevered relief of sinners being released from hell. Fra Anglelico and Rivera both tell human stories about human problems and human goals: joy, grief, salvation, for the human body.
“For I was hungry, and you fed me, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger, and you entertained me, I was unclothed, and you clothed me, I was ill, and you looked after me, I was in prison, and you visited me.” (Matthew, 25: 5-37) The materialist ethical core of both Christianity and Marxism non-dogmatically understood: what counts is what we do for others when they need us.
Christianity is a religion of embodiment. Angelico conveys this truth with his exquisite treatments of the human face. Marxism is a politics of embodiment– not the moralistic treacle of liberalism and republicanism, but the hard work of building up from the ground a society which enables us to develop, grow, and, most importantly, enjoy our brief lifetime. Rivera conveys this truth in the joy of eating and being together his subjects reveal– the smiling simplicity of a meal of food grown yourself contrasting with the unsmiling gluttony of the capitalist’s table.
For both, the spiritual (revolution, salvation) passes through the material– the painful and joyous embodiment of human being.
The dogmatist will surely be unsatisfied, for she or he needs opposition. What has religious nonsense to do with the real political struggles by which human beings emancipate themselves from superstition and oppression simultaneously? Rivera and Angelico both– although from opposed intentions– remind those paying attention rather than sermonizing that more important than the fight, the condition without which the fight cannot lead to the desired emancipation, is caring and tenderness for the fragile human being. Without caring, revolution is just killing and exchange of one set of masters for another.
Rivera, a man of enormous appetites, Angelico, a man of almost none, nevertheless share a recognition of the primacy of material truths: the reality of pain and deprivation, the terror which is death, the yearning and struggle for a just world, salvation from that which torments us, our right to that which we require for life and development. Both say in unison: Happiness is not achieved without sacrifice and pain and loss, but the body and the face must be present for there to be happiness.