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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sleeping Beauty part 2 OR "Doumo" Arigato Mr. Brunelleschi

If you ever get a chance to visit Florence, Italy your senses will be invaded by the artistry and history. Actually, the history of the city is best reflected in its art. The art tells stories. The architecture, the paintings, the sculpture all cry out to you and beckon you—maybe even beg you to listen.

One of the most well renowned artists in this region was a man by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi. He was an ordinary looking man, about 5’ 4”, and had sort of a “Witchiepoo” kind of a nose (H.R. Pufnstuf anyone?). Yet, this average Joe is often called the “original renaissance man.”
Among his many achievements, he is credited with the conceptualization, artistry, design, and mathematical wizardry of the Florence Duomo—the dome of the Florence Cathedral.

Michael J. Gelb wrote a fascinating book entitled, “Discovering Your Genius” wherein he describes the drive, the ambition, the calling, and the determination behind Brunelleschi’s masterpiece which scholars have described as the equivalent of putting the first man on the moon for the time it was built.

Gelb describes the scene in the early 1400’s where Brunelleschi entered a competition for the design of the dome wherein the winner would be paid a healthy sum for his concept—let alone the payment for the construction. The dome was considered a near impossibility because of the thickness of the walls, the height, the span, and the fact that flying buttresses could not be used because of the aesthetic considerations.

Brunelleschi was thought a madman because of his concept where he eliminated the need for a central support system and designed the dome based on a concept of mathematically precise balancing of opposing material forces and the use of a double shell of herringbone brickwork.

In a comical way, Brunelleschi won the competition by showing up his competitors in a battle of wits. He proposed a contest where all the competitors would show how they would balance an egg upright on a table. Under Brunelleschi’s rules, the winner would obviously be the most intelligent and the most driven artist for the job. Many of the men built wood structures and tiny support systems to show how it could be done. After some time, Brunelleschi simply took the egg and cracked the bottom of it so it would sit flat on the table. They mocked him saying they could have done the same but the fact was . . . they didn’t. He did. He got the job.

The most fascinating thing about this story to me lies beyond Brunelleschi’s clever contest. This story is eclipsed by the time, energy, effort, and passion the church once had for the arts. Their commitment to pushing the envelope, exploring new ideas, trying new concepts, bucking the system, and challenging conventional wisdom to give people an earthly picture of a heavenly reality is worthy of exploration.

The dome was seen as a partnering with God as sub-creators linked with the Creator of the Universe in a joint venture to reflect the beauty and grandeur of God—to create a place where eyes were drawn upward—where the wonder and awe and beauty of the magical feat would cause people to ask questions and begin to engage the Grand Architect and Designer—God.

Before the Duomo was even built, Brunelleschi showed his commitment to the role of art by casting vision for the project in a way that none were familiar with. Through use of paintings and mirrors, Brunelleschi created a model of sorts where people were able to visualize the future through the lens of a three dimensional space.

By painting an image on a wooden panel, drilling a hole through the vanishing point of the panel, and using mirrors, Brunelleschi created a viewing spectacle where people could actually envision a finished product. So, Brunelleschi is also credited with being the “father” of the concept of “perspective.”

According to Samuel Y. Edgerton—Amos Lawrence Professor of Art History at Williams College in Massachusetts, “Mirrors in the late Middle Ages were not only objects of scientific optical study, but were believed to have some sort of divine significance. Pilgrims often carried them to sacred shrines in order to capture the reflections of holy relics, the miraculous powers of which were believed to be retained in the mirror even when the reflections themselves had disappeared. Moreover, earthly reality itself was thought to be only a weakened mirror reflection of the perfect reality of heaven. Antonino often sermonized about the mirror as allegory of human mortality, especially as implied in the famous words of St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians (I, 13:12): ‘videmus nunc per speculum in enigmata tunc autem facie ad faciem’ in the Vulgate Latin, which was translated into the austere King James English as ‘For now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face’ but which should be more literally rendered as, ‘At present we see things indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face.’”

He goes on to say “. . . Brunelleschi’s viewers were enticed to believe themselves envisioning the very process by which ‘the prophets see God or his divine mysteries behind the images and likenesses of sensible things.’”

What Brunelleschi accomplished through his artistry of his perspective model—what we view now as a simple concept—was revolutionary at the time. Through dedication to his craft, a commitment to excellence and beauty, a spirit of ingenuity, a commitment to a God who deserves our best efforts, a desire to create inspiration, and a playful spirit, Brunelleschi challenged people to take a step closer to God. Think of it as a “worship interactive” of the 1400’s. If any church of the 1400’s employed this kind of worship interactive they would have been described as cutting edge, out of the box, forward thinking, engaging, artsy, against the grain, and unconventional. My kind of church.