Venetian Painting as an Incarnation of Joyous Humanism and Secular Spirituality

The Venetian Religious Paintings of Dionysos and Eros at the National Gallery of Art

These are “terrible” times and it would be beautiful and even “spiritually” therapeutic for the New York Times to reproduce an image of life and happiness in final celebration of Venetian painting at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. as a celebration of life, and the universal, human good. I have written the following article to accompany a reproduction of Titian’s The Bacchanal of the Andrians.

Thomas Cornell is an artist and professor of studio art at Bowdoin College. He received his first notice at the New York Times with a John Canaday review on the front of the arts page on Sunday, July 12, 1964.

Cornell has been exhibited widely, with eleven one-man exhibitions and numerous gallery and museum exhibitions, from Painters as Printmakers in 1969 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to the exhibition in 2005 of his painting “The Birth of Nature and the Death of Narcissus,” as an elected member of the National Academy Museum. Internationally, two large figurative compositions were included in the 1989 landmark exhibition in Moscow, curated by Donald Kuspit.

His work is in many museum collections and is reproduced in many books, most notably the Rizzoli publication by Charles Jencks, “Post-Modernism, the New Classicism in Art & Architecture.” Of interest for this topic, Jencks reproduced his painting “The Nurture of Dionysos.” He produced his own fine arts editions under the Tragos Press and is the artist for several other fine arts press books.

Cornell has received many grants and fellowships. He was one of the inaugural recipients of an award from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities in 1966, and was an early president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists.

Necessarily we are working to construct a new affirmative world picture of natural goodness and justice. We can take heart in the prescience of Venetian painting and inspiration from Titian’s painting of The Bacchanal of the Andrians. This great and joyous painting is particularly poignant in a time of continuing terror, death and human sacrifice. By contrast, Holland Cotter’s review (July 7) of the exhibition directs us to the layered meaning of some of this show’s paintings but rather than informing his readers he leaves us with many unanswered questions, particularly “what, pleasure aside, is the point?” His discussion of the Andrians in particular is insensitive and uninformed – he calls it “a mad, mythological jamboree…with its drunken lovers, urinating tot and passed-out foreground nude…There’s no spiritual at all.” This is a shallow, hedonistic stereotype and is not the point. The Andrians expressly represents musical discipline and secular spiritualism. As we aspire to enhance democracy and the pursuit of happiness and life for all citizens, we need to see images where equal access to music and the dance of life are celebrated. And the Andrians addresses more than joy and simple pleasures; it promotes the secularism that I call spiritual justice, signifying that we derive life-giving benefit from both religious and secular thought.

While philosophy has negotiated our moral aims and aspirations in the secular sphere, in the history of art, Titian’s Andrians is highly emblematic of human spiritual aspirations. I think we immediately see that it celebrates community, music, dance and love. And a close examination reveals that its secular content, with its clear reference to the manifest and latent spiritualism of Greek philosophy and religion, is a sacred celebration of the beneficence of nature (Dionysos) and the value of life (Eros).

In Titian’s Andrians we see the incarnation of natural joy and goodness with equal interaction of gender and generation. People are singing and dancing in celebration of nature and life. In the center, there are two explicit references to Dionysos as nature’s power — the wine and the boat in which he arrives to consummate his love with Ariadne. Beautifully stabilized in the lower corner, Ariadne is the female goddess of vegetation. Her white robe references the white sails of her love-to-be and the sun (Apollo) reflects white clouds. There is a beautiful dancing couple, two men singing, explicit musical notation, and of course the artful play of shapes and figures whereby Titian weaves his musical tapestry. A little boy holds up his garb and is shown discovering his body while he relieves himself. This is made available to the viewer as a sign that seeing human reality is not taboo, but progressive. Similarly, the old man lying on his back in the sun signifies the necessity of confronting the reality of age and death. Finally, the nude figure of Ariadne is not salacious but is a liberating emblem of love and sublimated sexuality, particularly as she’s associated with music and art.

We can all benefit from the guidance of this living image of the good, particularly when we daily see hateful violence, terror and human sacrifice. In this sense it would be of enormous benefit for all of us to focus on the vision in the Andrians. It embodies an image of life and happiness – and the ancient Greek recognition that the rhythms of Eros encompass the full dance of life: facing human realities, loving each other, and accepting our future death. So, the Venetian proposition is in the beautiful tradition of Greek religious and philosophical culture that celebrates, at its zenith, that all persons could experience happiness via the incarnation of god as nature and life in the guise of Dionysos and Eros. The earlier supernatural gods or gods as superior mediators were no longer necessary. The new necessity and joy was accurate vision of nature and the dance of life, found incarnate in Titian’s Andrians.