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Beauty,Spring 2005
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Beauty from all Directions

Rachel Usala

The paintings "Endymion and his Flock" by Titian and "Vision of St. Hyacinth" by El Greco superficially share nothing. Titian paints a shepherd accompanying his sheep. The landscape is lush with rich foliage, green and blue mountains, a rushing stream, and a distant town. El Greco's theme is the visitation of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child to a Polish priest. The missionary Hyacinth kneels on a polished tiled floor in a chapel: behind him is a statue of a bishop and in front of him is a divine vision in clouded magnificence of the Madonna and Child. Despite the paintings' stark contrasts in subject matter, I experienced similar emotions when viewing them. I struggled to classify my aesthetic experience and discover why such different paintings could elicit complimentary emotions.

"Endymion and his Flock" is a large oil painting on panel. The panel is elongated in the horizontal direction like a panoramic film shot, which immediately struck me. Barnes seems to draw attention to the horizontal nature of the painting too: above the piece is a metal ornament that is horizontal to the floor. Also above "Endymion and his Flock" are two paintings of Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus' horizontally stretched-out arms are the central images in both of these paintings. In Titian's painting, heavy, dark forests surround Endymion on the left and right side and make him seem like part of the landscape. The trees also function as blinders and focus the audience's attention on Endymion in order to make him the central subject of the painting. The shepherd reclines horizontally on the granite and wears a blue shirt and white shorts, which expose his tanned legs. His head is pressed on folded arms that rest on the ground. His arms are not visible. Sheep are grazing in the heavy foliage to his left on the sheet of granite beside him. Mountain peaks and a town with ascending steeples are behind him and to his right. The left side of his face, tilted toward the sheep, is illuminated while the right side of his face, tilted toward the town and the mountains, is shadowed.

The perspective, detail, and lighting of the painting are crafted by Titian in order to draw the reader to the central theme of the work: the shepherd's special relationship with nature and the immediate world around him on a horizontal and earthy level. The sheep and the forest, nature, are on the same plane of the painting as Endymion. This suggests that the flock and the natural world are in the shepherd's mind and heart while the town, which is behind him in the perspective of the painting, is apart and detached from him. The shadowing of Titian's face has the same effect. His lighted face, symbolic of his concentration and devotion, is directed toward his sheep and the natural world, while the side of his face tilted toward the town and mountains is shadowed. He is disinterested in the town and its vertical spires. His shirt is blue, symbolic of serenity, and reflects the contentedness with his labor among the sheep. His legs are bare and vulnerable and indicate that Endymion trusts the natural world around him.

After I interpreted the painting, I researched the character Endymion and discovered he is a figure from mythology. Endymion was a handsome shepherd from Asia Minor who became the lover of the goddess Selene. Selene asked Zeus, king of the gods, to make Endymion immortal so that she could embrace the shepherd forever. Zeus complied by putting Endymion in an eternal sleep (1). This research gave me a new perspective. Perhaps the mountain, maybe Mount Olympus, represents Selene while the town with its vertical spires symbolizes immortality. When Endymion was put to sleep, he became forever detached from Selene and an immortal life because he was unconscious. He became trapped forever in his somnolent grave in the midst of the mountains, nature, and the grazing sheep. His hands are tucked away and hidden because they are no longer of any use to him: he will never again embrace Selene or grasp divinity.

"Vision of St. Hyacinth" by El Greco is a very different painting. It is very large and elongated vertically. Barnes emphasizes the towering effect of the El Greco painting with a metal, vertical ornament that hangs above the picture; it is the same technique he uses to emphasize the horizontal nature of the Titian piece. El Greco paints the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child instructing Hyacinth the missionary to carry away a statue of the Virgin in order to protect it from destruction (2). The setting of the painting is a chapel. The chapel floor is of polished marble or tile and has a rigid rectangular design of browns, blacks, and beige. To the right and behind the kneeling Hyacinth, the wall of the chapel has very angular architecture, and rectangular columns support the ceiling. Hyacinth is central in the piece. He wears a heavy, creased white habit and black cape. His left hand is flung to his left side with one finger curling in toward his palm, and his right hand is drawn in close to his chest with his middle finger pressed to his heart. His face is tilted up toward and illuminated by the divine vision of the Madonna and Child. Mary and Baby Jesus rest on a cloud painted with flowing paint strokes that are distinct from the straight and angular strokes El Greco uses to paint the floor of the chapel. The Madonna's and Child's heads are tilted down toward Hyacinth, and Mary's hand is pressed to the naked Jesus' chest. Behind Mary, Jesus, and Hyacinth a statue of a bishop wearing the ceremonial garb is visible but indistinct.

As in the Titian painting, the perspective, detail, and lighting of the El Greco relate the theme of the work to the audience with crafted precision. The elongation of the painting in the vertical direction stresses the divine theme of the work; the painting stretches toward the ceiling as if reaching towards heaven. The bottom and right of the painting that depicts the chapel has rigid, angular geometry (rectangular tiles and square columns) and illustrates the secular, non-spiritual world. Hyacinth's clothing is large, heavy, and black; he is weighed down and bound to the secular world and forced into a kneeling posture on the artificial, polished marble. Hyacinth presses one hand to his heart, flings another hand to his side submissively, tilts his face up toward the divine vision, and allows the light of heaven to fall upon his face: he is seeking God with his heart and mind. In contrast, the Madonna and Child are resting on a cloud of flowing paint strokes, symbolic of their freedom from the secular, imprisoning world. The Madonna's clothing is serenity blue and loose; the Baby Jesus is naked. Both are free from the stifling wrappings that weigh down mortal beings like Hyacinth. They are above Hyacinth in altitude and righteousness and tilt their heads down because they are seeking Hyacinth as Hyacinth is seeking them. Where Hyacinth's hand is pressed to his heart because he is seeking God, the Virgin's hand is pressed to Jesus' heart because she has found God. The blurry bishop is symbolic of the Catholic Church. The Church is the interface of the spiritual and secular world. Although the statue of the bishop is a part of the architecture of the chapel (and thus belongs to the secular world), it is represented by El Greco with the flowing and free strokes more characteristic of Mary, Jesus, and the cloud because the Church has a spiritual facet.

I found both paintings beautiful. Were my beautiful experiences for each painting beautiful for related reasons? Yes. Despite the different tone and subject matter of the pieces, I found common ground. The size of the paintings and the unusual proportions (one long and the other tall) drew me to them initially. I had the raw, visceral first impression with each piece. The feelings of being immersed in and surrounded by nature when viewing "Endymion" and of being dwarfed by towering divinity when seeing "Vision" were pleasurable, exciting, and similar aesthetic experiences. Only after these first raw emotions did I really study the paintings; I wanted to discover why I felt these powerful first emotions.

The process of interpreting the pieces in a more analytical way was a beautiful experience of a different kind. I created a narrative for each painting about the artists' particular motivations for choosing each symbol, color, lighting, and perspective. The story of the subject matter interested me less. The creative and intellectual exercise of processing the paintings as a reflection of the artist and his character was the beautiful narrative. I wanted to believe the artist was speaking directly to me, and I want to believe I understood what he was telling me. I valued the humanistic side of the painting and the artists' opinions and thoughts. If I were to learn my interpretations of the paintings are not what the artists intended, the beauty of my interactions with the paintings would be lost.

Perhaps what I found most beautiful about the paintings were the invitations offered by the artists to the audience to participate in the passion and intensity of the pieces. The horizontal painting "Endymion and his Flock" embraces the onlookers like a pair of flung wide arms. It invites the audience to experience earthiness as Endymion, trapped in his eternal sleep amongst his sheep and denied a life amongst the gods, must have experienced it. The vertical painting "Vision of Hyacinth" towers over the audience and engages the spectators in a divine, lofty, and humbling visitation with Christ and his mother. "Endymion and his Flock" celebrates the natural, the immediate, the horizontal. "Vision of St. Hyacinth" venerates the spiritual, the unattained, the vertical. The artists expressed their respect for their audience by appealing to experiences that are accessible to human beings. Who has not been captivated by nature or humbled by an ideal greater and outside of themselves?

The beautiful experience with each painting evolved with time. My first reaction was spontaneous and unprocessed: the unusual length of "Endymion and his Flock" and the captivating height of "Vision of Hyacinth" drew me to them before I could become attached to other paintings. My subsequent analytical interpretation was driven by a desire to deepen my understanding of and relationship with the artists. The beautiful experience climaxed when I read meanings and themes into the paintings that I felt I could share with any other human being, including the person standing next to me.

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