Brunelleschi’s Balancing Act

image of the duomo in sunlight. The story goes that one day Filippo Brunelleschi, the goldsmith who would go on to become the most important architect in Europe and arguably the originator of the Renaissance, devises a practical joke he and his buddies play on their mutual friend, Manetto the woodworker. The gist of it is that they contrive to convince Manetto that he is not himself but another man named Matteo.

The prank works by having everyone in Manetto’s social sphere suddenly refer to him and treat him as Matteo. He is even arrested and sent to jail for several nights for debts owed by Matteo. Brunelleschi manages the deception so well that, apparently, Manetto eventually answers to Matteo, though perhaps not entirely happy with adopting this new identity.

Eventually Filippo and company drug “Matteo,” bring him back to his home, and then begin calling him Manetto again as if nothing happened. Manetto, perplexed beyond imagination, decides he dreamed the whole thing.

It’s not clear if anyone ever explained the joke to Manetto, though it’s unlikely Brunelleschi would have. He liked his secrets.

He also protected the secret of perspective painting, which he developed decades before anyone else figured it out. His apparent insight encapsulates the central impulse of the Renaissance: to look with human, not divine, sight.

We don’t know whether a lot of the stories about Brunelleschi are true. Did he really win the competition to design the cupola in Florence by standing an egg on end? Did he really fake an illness in order to make his rival, Ghiberti, look incompetent? [Read more…]

When Art Disrupts Religion: An Interview with Philip Salim Francis

Headshot of Philip Salim Francis. He is situated in the left hand quadrant of the frame, wearing a dark blazer and a white shirt with a black tie. He is in front of a door with white paneling. His hair is slightly curled on top and he has a bemused expression on his face. Just released by Oxford University Press, When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind has received praise from such leading scholars as David Morgan and Randall Balmer. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed the author, Philip Salim Francis.

Image: Your book has the provocative title When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. In a few words, what’s the thesis of the book?

Philip Salim Francis: I’m trying to make the case that the arts have the ability to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practices—perhaps like nothing else can. Modern aesthetic theory, as you know, is obsessed with the “disruptive capacities” of aesthetic experience. I wanted to test the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: could art disrupt and reconfigure the religious identity of even a people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in the more conservative strains of twentieth century American evangelicalism? And if so, how would that all play out on the ground? [Read more…]

This Place is an Altar

black and white image of a large hall filled with chairs and an altar at the front, presumably a church, that is completely empty. Pastor David—strong, sincere, and confident in his pressed shirt and polished shoes—greets me in the doorway. “This place,” he pauses, looking me in the eye, “is an altar.”

He seems genuinely glad to have an American in attendance, but I am in an entirely different sort of mood.

I’m in Kampala attempting to conduct research on the history of Christianity and medicine, but a staff strike has closed the libraries and archives for most of my trip. And the foreign, bureaucratic process that I hoped would result in a government office’s stamp of approval felt like trying to walk through an M.C. Escher drawing.

Though it is a short trip, I am depressed and lonely. I miss my wife and daughters. But the real problem is not the research or the strike or the distance.

The real problem is that I have been among people for whom faith matters, and not just in the sense of really believing things, but in the sense that they know they wouldn’t be alive—in a strictly biological sense—without it. For them, it is vital, in every sense of that word.

This vitality makes me aware of an absence: What do I have? Do I even believe in God anymore? Does it matter? [Read more…]

Praying for a Hurricane on an Ordinary Wednesday Afternoon

painting in mostly light pink cream muted tones of a paddel0steamer in a storm on the water. the water is rimmed with blue paint, the clouds are bluish gray and purple. “It is easier to survive a category five hurricane than it is to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.”

That paraphrase of Walker Percy (from his essay, “Diagnosing the Modern Malaise”) was suggested to me by my friend Caroline Langston Jarboe. I was wondering out loud why I would give anything to have back a very difficult, but purpose-filled, time of my life in exchange for the quotidian restlessness of the exile that followed it.

Percy’s point, which I found so insightful, was that while in the midst of an onslaught that takes all of our wits and energy to survive, we are freed from the unrest, aimlessness, and fretful questioning that plagues us during most of our existence. A typical day can be careworn and sometimes unendurable because we are unsure of our direction. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Sewing Box”

Painting of a Girl sitting in front of a sewing machine facing a window that lets in slats of light on the girl and the burnt orange walls.We don’t think enough—or at least I don’t—about how objects can contain memory. But Murray Bodo’s poem “Sewing Box” shows us how: in this box in which memory is literally contained. Each of the four stanza takes us deeper into the box. At first it’s just “the busy / sewing box I’d organize on visits home.” So it’s a box, we guess, that belonged to the speaker’s mother. In the second stanza, it becomes “a memory chest,” as the speaker recalls his mother’s using it “to mend socks and hearts” after a hard day’s work. At the start of stanza three, the box becomes (alarmingly) “a sepulcher”; evidently the mother has died, and the box remains untouched between the speaker’s visits home, its “spools of thread, / buttons, thimbles, needles, and pins” all “stilled.” Then the final stanza heralds an unexpected discovery: “This year I found a hidden drawer / not noticed before…” The speaker finds in the drawer long-ago objects, including a needle-holder that he “made / for you in fourth grade.” But then the drawer reveals even more unexpected contents: holy cards and other religious aids to prayer. With these, which ends the poem, I see the box sacralized—as at the same time, the entire history of the speaker’s relation to his mother is sacralized as well.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]