Friday, August 7, 2009

Charity and Compassion

Titian, St. John the Almsgiver, c1545 - 1550

While putting up that little painting by Duccio on the previous post, it struck me how few really gratifying images of compassion there are in art. I thought that there must be many, but really there are not. And even some of the ones by great painters are not always very satisfying. Above is a painting by Titian that I admire more than I love. It shows a local bishop saint performing what most people identify as "charity," giving a coin to some anonymous beggar. It's an act of low cost alleviation. It's easy charity, the easiest kind. Nothing is required of us except a little spare change. The beggar hardly appears at all in this picture. He is there to serve as a foil to the charitable majesty of His Grace the Bishop.

Chou Chi-Chiang, Arhats Giving Alms, 1184

Things are not much better in the East where Arhats (Buddhist saints) descend from Heaven in this painting from 12th century China to toss coins to a band of filthy desperate beggars. Again, the beggars aren't the point at all, it's the splendid charity of the saints that's the whole picture.

Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Visits the Plague House at Jaffa, 1809

One of the grandest and most dramatic pictures of the magnificent burnishing their glory with a display of sympathy is this huge painting by Gros. During his retreat into Palestine from Egypt, Napoleon's army conquered the town of Jaffa in what is now Israel. The French soldiers and the townspeople together suffered an outbreak of the plague after its surrender. Gros shows Napoleon compassionately, and courageously, visiting his men, and even touching them, in the plague house. I'm afraid the painting is a magnificent fraud. Napoleon's army, far from being compassionate victors, slaughtered all the Turkish soldiers who defended Jaffa. Napoleon did visit his plague stricken men, but soon had them poisoned because they were slowing his progress.

Those are pictures of "charity" in the worst sense as far as I'm concerned.

Now for some pictures of compassion that I can endorse.

The Alkmaar Master, The Seven Acts of Mercy, 15th century

Visiting the Sick, from The Seven Acts of Mercy

This is a wonderful set of paintings by an anonymous Dutch artist from the 15th century, and it's one of the very few early Dutch paintings to survive the Reformation. It is a very literal illustration of Mathew 25:31 - 46. To the six acts of mercy spelled out in that Gospel passage, the artist adds a 7th, burying the dead; considered a charitable act at the time that brings the number to significant 7. Very conscientious and sober townsfolk of 15th century Alkmaar visit the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. They attend to their charitable work without trumpets announcing their good intentions. It is clear that the objects of their ministrations are fellow townspeople, even the destitute.

Feeding the Hungry, from The Seven Acts of Mercy

If you look carefully at each panel, You Know Who is in each one, but like Waldo, you have to find Him. This is an imaginative interpretation of the Gospel passage applying it to the contemporary life of the town. People go about their compassionate tasks to aid fellow citizens in distress with an uncomplicated and unsentimental sense of duty and solidarity. The painting is not quite a masterpiece on the level of Rogier or Jan Van Eyck, but it is very appealing and thoughtful. The townspeople thought so too, and spared these panels during the iconoclastic riots that swept through the Low Countries during the Reformation. They hung them in their newly Protestant local Church. Protestant extremists vandalized the pictures by covering them with black paint, but the townspeople voted money to clean and restore the panels to their place in the local church.

Another much later Dutch painter was arguably the great master of compassion, Rembrandt. I've reproduced the famous "Hundred Guilder Print" many times on this blog. I'd rather look now at the work of the young arrogant challenging Rembrandt.

Rembrandt, The Good Samaritan, etching, 1633

Rembrandt, ever the individualist, chooses not everyone's favorite episode in the story where the Samaritan binds the robbed man's injuries, but a moment in the story true to the spirit of the Alkmaar panels. He shows the Samaritan arriving at the inn, giving money and instructions to the innkeeper as the victim is unloaded off the horse. Compassion is shown not in a teary embrace, but in a practical task. To emphasize the prosaic nature of the action, Rembrandt places front and center a splendidly rendered mutt taking a very doggy dump.

Rembrandt, Self Portrait as a Beggar, etching, 1630

Rembrandt loved role-playing in his early self portraits, and in this one he very directly challenges us. Here he is playing a beggar, and not one of those nice beggars who says "God bless you," whether you give him something or not. He's playing one of those bitter angry filthy foul smelling beggars who yells and swears at everyone who passes by. Rembrandt tries our patience and our compassion.

Another of my favorite images of compassion is from medieval Japan in the Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto.

It is the Thousand Kanon, a whole army of Buddhist compassion from the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Pure Land is largely dismissed in the West because of its superficial similarities to Christianity. It is salvation-by-faith Buddhism. All one has to do is to say "Hail to the Amida Buddha" in all sincerity to gain admission to the Western Paradise. These similarities to Western Christianity are only superficial. As in all Buddhism, the goal of the believer is not the Western Paradise, but Nirvana. Heaven is not forever, nor is it the end of the journey, only a long stop on the way there. Pure Land Buddhism began in India out of a central teaching of Buddhism which Western admirers of more esoteric and demanding forms frequently overlook, compassion. It was for all those who could never attain Nirvana in a thousand lifetimes. It was always popular with the poor and the working class. For those in the lower classes -- craftsmen, peasants, laborers, etc. -- who suffered the most in the clan wars of Kamakura Japan, for whom a visit from any army was always a misfortune, Pure Land Buddhism sends an unarmed army of the embodiment of Buddhist compassion, Kannon.

The only great images of compassion in modern art, are to my mind, those produced by photojournalism in the many wars of the 20th century.

Here is George Silk's famous photograph of a blinded Australian flier led out of the New Guinea jungle by a kind native. The photo was considered so disturbing that it was not published until the war was over.

Here is Larry Burrows' equally famous picture from the Vietnam War, from 1966.

War is an extreme and unnatural experience which we hope few of us will ever experience directly. What I admire in these images of soldierly compassion is an implicit sense of equality. Misfortune could come to anyone no matter how brave or well armed and prepared. No one is burnishing their glory by helping someone out. The objects of compassion are not anonymous beggars, but friends and comrades. Everyone faces this extreme situation together. There is the implicit understanding on the battlefield that the old "everyone for themselves" ethic is a sure way to get everyone killed.

It would be wonderful if we could manage the same sense of solidarity with each other in the midst of the far less extreme trials of ordinary mortal life.


IT said...

Can I come take your class and learn(art) history from you? I feel so ignorant and so enlightened by your posts.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Amen, dear brother! It's an honour to read your posts.

David G. said...

The Hymn I'd subscribe to this post is Turn Back Oh Man, ... Well it just comes to mind!!

Counterlight said...

Heavens IT, I don't want anyone to feel ignorant, just a little enlightened.

Rick+ said...

     Wonderful post, Doug, as always. You and I were on the same track. I posted on my blog about grace. Maybe there's something good in the air this new week?

Brian R said...

Yes thank you for a much appreciated post. As an Australian I am well aware of the fuzzy wuzzy angel picture. This term may sound non pc today but was meant in gratitude by soldiers in the 40's. Just 2 weeks ago our government began finally presenting medals to these men of PNG after over 60 years.

kishnevi said...

What about Caravaggio's Seven Acts of Mercy (I think that's the official title)?

NancyP said...

I hadn't seen any of these images. Thanks, Counterlight. I get an education, every time I stop on by.