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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Heavenly Art

Disputa, 1510-1511. Raphael, Fresco, Vatican Stanza della Segnatura, Rome. Heaven is the section above while the earthly scene is depicted below.
As I was selecting and editing images for another artist a few days ago I encountered his fascination with images from Hell. It was then that I realized I'd never written much about Hell even though it has long been a favorite area of content for artists going back to the first Last Judgment (probably Masaccio, Giotto, or Cimabue). Moreover, as thin as my coverage of Hell has been I've written almost nothing on Heaven. That's not surprising I guess in that artist of the past have been far more interested in depicting the former than the latter. The reason being that Hell gives them far more latitude in depicting nudity and all manner of debauchery--all the "fun" stuff. On the other hand, giving artists the benefit of the doubt, while exquisitely beautiful and chaste, Heaven may well be so magnificent as to intimidate artists, causing them to be reluctant to tackle the subject. Again, my instincts tell me their reasoning rests far more on the former than the latter. I have noticed, however, that modern-day painters seem far more fascinated with heavenly content than their forebears. At the same time, their manner of handling images of the heavenly realm is literally "all over the place" in terms of scriptural accuracy, not to mention creative imagery.
It would seem that "getting there is half the fun."
Some of the most trite present-day images associated with Heaven seem to revolve around stairways. With the possible exception of Jacobs ladder in Genesis, nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of climbing stairs to get to heaven. Even artists in Raphael's day (top), during the first decades of the 16th-century, never considered that path to salvation. Such silly foolishness seems to be a 20th century phenomena predicated upon symbolic imagery rather than scripture. It would take an eternity just to climb all those steps. Painters should read the Bible when researching such works.

No sign of St. Peter.
At the top of the steps, one would presumably encounter the "pearly gates." Contemporary artists have tried their hands at depicting the front gates, some in a quite traditional manner (above-bottom) while others have given them a Postmodern Gothic twist (above-top). The Bible says there are twelve gates to Heaven, by the way, one named for each of the tribes of Israel. Also, rather than their being decorated with pearls (as seen above), the scriptures say that each on is a giant pearl.

Assuming you somehow get there...
Another common thread running though heavenly art is depictions of Jesus, God, and the "multitude of heavenly hosts." For the most part, such art is spiritual rather than literal, depicting not so much the place but the ambience involving the local residents. Inasmuch as scriptures are rather vague as to appearances, there's little we can do but take artists' expressions at face value, their visions of such spiritual beings as good as that of anyone else.

Lots of musical talent on display, day after day after day.
Given the nature of the subject and the modern-day fascination with fantasy art, it's little wonder a great deal of heavenly art is sheer fantasy, images much more akin to those of children's storybooks than serious renderings (below). For the most part, the best that be said of them is that they are pretty, cute, sweet, and full of hymnal misinterpretations and mistranslations. Anyone want to join me in a chorus of I've Got a Mansion Just over the Hilltop?

Heavenly fantasies.
Flirting a little more closely with various scriptural and traditional theological interpretations we find what I call "city of light" depictions, ranging from little more than indistinct cloud formations to gorgeous sunsets (there is no night in Heaven). (Is that Mickey Mouse waiting to get through the pearly gates?) Some are only slightly more accurate than the fantasy images above, though perhaps a bit more inspirational, moving from the realm of "pretty" fantasies to exquisitely beautiful visions (below).

Disney anyone? Never Never Land, perhaps.
Once inside Heaven, painters with a strong architectural streaks have long been anxious to suggest the living conditions and geographical details of the city. Here the Bible helps some, but all to often gets in the way of artists' own imaginations. And when that happens, we should have no trouble guessing which wins out.

Is that a Trump Tower in the background?

The problem with most such contrived urban landscapes is that Heaven literally boggles the imagination. Artists find themselves reverting to earthly skyscrapers, domed temples, lined with seemingly endless colonnades and arcades stretching into infinity, not to mention eternity. The most accurate depictions of Heaven can be found in John's account of the tour of the place he was given and recorded in the book of Revelation 21:12-15. "The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. Its length, breadth, and height are equal. The walls are 144 cubits thick (216 feet thick) and the gates are 12 pearls, one pearl for each gate." We can assume that since pearls are spheres, the gates would be the same thickness as the walls, therefore 216 feet high and long. There are 12 walls in the city, and the city is laid out as a square, the city is 12,000 furlongs square, (1 furlong is 600 feet) making the city 1363 miles long, wide and high. The four walls have three gates each. Twelve gates with three on a side, would therefore mean a gate every 454 miles.

Judging from the scriptures, most artists' renderings of
Heaven are simply too limited in size and scope (above-left).
The map (top-right) gives a much truer perspective.
To continue speculating about this city based upon biblical measurements, if there was one floor per mile in height, there would 1363 floors, with each floor having 1.8 million square miles of space, the total space would be 2.5 billion square miles. If there were 20 billion souls in the city, each person would have about 10 acres of space with one mile of vertical space above, not counting room for parks, golden streets, and crystal clear streams. Again, the division of space in this city is merely speculation based on the numbers given by John. One thing that would seem abundantly clear is that most people, not to mention most artists, have a much too limited concept of the sheer size of Heaven. Our visions are very much earthbound when we should be thinking in terms of a small, cube-shaped planet.

Heaven meets Disneyland. The shape is wrong but the scale is not far off.


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