Overcoming Differences; Sacrifice in Style

Friendship Softens Hard Edges of Debate

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 23, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The Roman poet Horace waxed lyrical of the magical time of «otium,» a peaceful period of idleness or leisure to tend to spiritual nourishment instead of day-to-day business. I tend to use this quiet time for reading, and this summer I happened upon the book that first made me fall in love with Italy.

«The Little World of Don Camillo,» written by Italian author Giovannino Guareschi, offers a refreshing view of politics, religion and friendship in an age when these three seem irreconcilable. Guareschi’s stories, written when passions were stronger and stakes were higher than even today, reflect how the right blend of hope, humanity and humor can trump any ideology.

Guareschi was born in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna at the beginning of the 20th century. His lifetime spanned both World Wars as well as the rise of Communism and Fascism. A lifetime troublemaker, Guareschi had poked fun at Mussolini’s government, which landed him a forced enrollment in the Italian army and ultimately three years in a Polish prison.

He returned to Northern Italy just in time for the deadlock combat between the Communists and the Christian Democrats for control of Italy. Tensions were high between the two parties, the Christian Democrats claiming that the children of Communists were » owned by the state,» while extremists from the Left attacked priests and landowners, their greatest » class enemies.»

In this volatile climate, Guareschi aimed his pointed satires at first one group then the other, exposing the human foibles of both sides, and so helped to decrease the tensions between the two violently opposed parties. Guareschi’s works were vital to the defeat of the Communist party in the historic election year of 1948. These stories became extremely popular, and enjoyed the favor of luminaries such as Pope John XXIII, whose pastoral tone reflected a similar loving paternal presence in a world so filled with hate.

Guareschi’s most famous stories were the exploits of Don Camillo, a parish priest in the little village of Reggio in Emila Romagna, and his rival Peppone, the Communist mayor of the town. These touching, faith-infused stories contrast brawling political clashes with warm moments of complicity guided and surveyed by the crucified Christ who, from his place in the high altar of the church, serves as moderator and conscience for Don Camillo and an unwitting Peppone.

Don Camillo and Peppone formed their deep bond in the Italian Resistance movement during World War II. Peppone led a squadron of » partigiani,» while Don Camillo served as their chaplain. Post-war rage against the Fascists (Mussolini was from Emilia Romagna) pushed the region to throw their lot in with Communists forming the » Red Triangle» of Parma, Bologna and Ferrara. Don Camillo and Peppone clash constantly, and as both are burly men of action, their confrontations often slip from verbal to physical. Yet for all their scuffles, when confronted with life and death, and true right and wrong, they find themselves on the same side.

Don Camillo is often tempted by pride to allow politics to overtake his duty toward a soul, but fortunately Christ is always there to call him back to the right path. In one memorable episode, Don Camillo tries to justify his sinful behavior by using the clever rhetoric familiar to many politicians. Christ cuts him short saying, «These are the subtleties of sophists. … Without your realizing it the devil has come to live in you and mixes his words up with yours.» A brief period of fasting restores Don Camillo to spiritual health.

My favorite story comes near the end of the book. As Christmas approaches, the Communists are growing more intolerant of Don Camillo, who has just eluded a sniper’s bullet. The fragile tendrils of respectful behavior between the two camps seem about to snap. On Christmas Eve, an overwhelmed Peppone, not knowing where to turn, finds his way to Don Camillo’s house. The two men sit at opposite sides of the table, their meaty hands occupied in tenderly retouching the figures of the Nativity scene. This simple activity slowly but effectively heals all the wounds between the two men and peace settles on the little village by the Po river, giving hope to all those who follow the Prince of Peace.

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Magdalene’s Many Faces

Six years after Dan Brown’s infamous novel «The Da Vinci Code,» let’s hope it’s safe to talk about Mary Magdalene again. The Apostle to the Apostles (as Magdalene was called before Brown’s more tawdry references eclipsed this title) celebrates her feast day this week, July 22, and it seems a fitting honor to briefly discuss her important role in the history of art.

Mary Magdalene has had more costume changes and nuances to her saintly image than any martyr or apostle. Like the popstar Madonna, she has transformed many times through the ages, but instead of trying to upstage the exalted role of Christ’s mother, or promote a self-serving, hedonistic lifestyle, Mary Magdalene has employed her many guises to urge men and women to love Christ, renounce worldly temptations and fulfill their vocations to sainthood.

In the Renaissance, Gentile da Fabriano, painting for the wealthy merchants of Florence, gave us a stately Magdalene, in elegant brocaded robes swathed with red velvet, an example of how the mighty and privileged could also serve Christ. A few years later Piero di Cosimo painted a prim, studious Magdalene, to appeal to the intellectuals of the era. As Mary Magdalene had a unique knowledge of Christ, his miracles and his resurrection, so her obligation to be a witness to Jesus was greater than that of others.

But Mary Magdalene’s iconographic fame took off in post-Tridentine Italy, when the call to conversion was at its strongest. In every parish and home, she led the way to repentance and love of God. The greatest artists of the 17th century, Caravaggio, Guido Reni and GianLorenzo Bernini all bent their formidable genius to rendering Mary Magdalene as the model of penitence par excellence.

Caravaggio, the famed Milanese painter, would treat the subject of Mary Magdalene three times in his brief career.

His first effort was in 1596 with the «Penitent Magdalene», today in the Doria Pamphilj gallery. This unusual portrait has a seated Mary wearing an expensive brocade dress as her red hair escapes its pins and tumbles over her shoulder. A mustard color mantle engulfing her waist would have identified her to contemporaries as a prostitute, yet her posture belies the easy label. Her head bowed low, she encircles her arms around a void. The treasures of this world have ceased to please and she realizes that all her sins have left her with nothing. A strand of pearls and golden chains lie discarded on the ground, and seem ripped from her neck in disgust, while a glass jar filled with oil, reflects the crystalline tear falling from her eye. In this image, Caravaggio not only allows the viewer a glimpse the private world of a personal conversion, but gives us a novel, startling viewpoint as well. The oddly foreshortened chair and lower body of Mary Magdalene have often been put down to Caravaggio’s artistic limitations, but if one realizes that the artist was painting his subject from a raised viewpoint, looking down on her, the work makes more sense. Caravaggio give us a » God’s eye» view of conversion and the warm light that bathes her neck and shoulders indicates that in these darkest hours of self-examination, God’s comforting presence is there.

Forty years later, Guido Reni approached the subject. Considered the greatest painter of his age, he was asked to produce an image of penitent Magdalene for a private patron. This work, now in the Barberini Gallery in Rome, uses the opposite palette of Caravaggio. Where the Milanese painter employed yellows and reds to hint at the passionate nature of Mary, Reni chose cooler blue tones to explore her role as penitent. Reni places his Magdalene in a cave, her lower body wedged between dark stones reminiscent of the tomb. She wears a mauve-colored robe echoing the purple shade of penitence. Roots lie by her side, symbolic of fasting, and her hand rests on a skull, a reminder of how soon death takes us. Despite her golden flowing hair, her skin tone has a greenish cast, and her face contains the only warm shades in the work. Rosy cheeked and framed by luminous curls, she contemplates the glory of the heavens through her vision of angels. In the hands of Reni, Mary Magdalene becomes the poster child of corporal mortification.

In 1661, the greatest of the Baroque artists, GianLorenzo Bernini, turned his considerable talents to the subject of Mary Magdalene. His was a papal commission, a gift of Pope Alexander VII for the cathedral of his hometown of Siena. Bernini, 63 years old at the time, was personally absorbed with the idea of repentance. He attended Mass daily and practiced the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. With this kind of spiritual preparation, Bernini was more than up to this task.

His Mary Magdalene has little of the earthy solidity of either Caravaggio or Guido Reni. In the hands of this master sculptor, Mary has become an elongated figure. Stripped of ornament and costly fabrics, her body twists and turns, drawing the eye upward like the serpentine flames of a votive candle. She stands upon her jar of ointment, but her face turns toward the heavens, and her hands are fervently clasped in prayer. Her deeply pleated robe falls from her like a discarded shroud, as her highly polished body seems to blend into the light pouring in from the overhead windows. Bernini’s Magdalene has reached the end of her earthy struggles and becomes a beacon to Paradise for the rest of us.

This saint, so approachable in her passionate impetuousness, was held up for particular devotion by the Church in the 17th century. Adapting to many forms and personalities, she managed to make sacrifice and repentance chic, a miracle in and of itself.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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