Friday, November 11, 2016

Chesterton on St. Thomas Aquinas in Art

Chesterton was both an artist and an art critic, among other abilities, and in chapter five of his study of St. Thomas Aquinas he comments on two depictions of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Raphael's huge Disputation on the Holy Eucharist and on painting of the Madonna with Saints by Ghirlandaio:

The pictures of St. Thomas, though many of them were painted long after his death, are all obviously pictures of the same man. He rears himself defiantly, with the Napoleonic head and the dark bulk of body, in Raphael's "Dispute About the Sacrament." A portrait by Ghirlandajo emphasises a point which specially reveals what may be called the neglected Italian quality in the man. It also emphasises points that are very important in the mystic and the philosopher. It is universally attested that Aquinas was what is commonly called an absent-minded man. That type has often been rendered in painting, humorous or serious; but almost always in one of two or three conventional ways. Sometimes the expression of the eyes is merely vacant, as if absent-mindedness did really mean a permanent absence of mind. Sometimes it is rendered more respectfully as a wistful expression, as of one yearning for something afar off, that he cannot see and can only faintly desire. 

Look at the eyes in Ghirlandajo's portrait of St. Thomas; and you will see a sharp difference. While the eyes are indeed completely torn away from the immediate surroundings, so that the pot of flowers above the philosopher's head might fall on it without attracting his attention, they are not in the least wistful, let alone vacant. There is kindled in them a fire of instant inner excitement; they are vivid and very Italian eyes. The man is thinking about something; and something that has reached a crisis; not about nothing or about anything; or, what is almost worse, about everything. There must have been that smouldering vigilance in his eyes, the moment before he smote the table and startled the banquet hall of the King.

We'll be discussing this chapter, "The Real Life of St. Thomas" and the chapter preceding (Chapter IV, "A Meditation on the Manichees") tonight at our monthly American Chesterton Society Wichita Chapter meeting at Eighth Day Books, starting at 6:30 p.m. until about 8:00 p.m. or so. Our growing group will be gathered on the second floor appropriately enough, in the room with all the theology and philosophy books.

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