Over the course of history, marriage had long been thought of as a societal contract, arrangements based on that which benefited families and society as a whole rather than the fulfillment of individuals who desired to be together based primarily on attraction. Arranged marriage, until the emergence of romanticism, was the norm and it was not only condoned but expected by church, state and within individual families. St. Francis of Assisi brought this idea to the forefront, changing what had been seen as a possible heresy, erotic love, into something that could be used for the overall greater good. As a close follower of the Franciscan way of life though only a layman, Dante promoted this idea and attempted to live it out to the best of his ability through his writing by expanding on the inclusion of the feminine.
Having been exposed to courtly love at an early age, St. Francis had the seed that eventually blossomed into the idea that romantic love could be a pathway to praising God. He believed that instead of taking love from God, which would be heresy, such love could compliment and give opportunity to individuals to worship through service. According to Professor Ambrosio, bringing this idea to light was St. Francis’s greatest achievement and legacy. The fruition of this idea marked a significant change in philosophical thinking. The scholar Joseph Campbell classified this change as a movement that marks the emergence of the modern conception of individuality in the west.
Dante expanded on the idea set forth from St. Francis, through his poetry, most notably in the Comedia. The Comedia was Dante’s personal testimony about his conversion from sin to love. For Dante, the embodiment of this love was given to him by the grace of God in the woman Beatrice. By the time he wrote the Comedia, Beatrice had long since passed away but in the epic poem, she is the last person he sees before seeing God. In this, it is as if he is stating that his love for her is the closest pathway to God, the one who draws him to the close of his journey. This inclusion of the feminine, according to Professor Ambrosio, was what could have been seen as the real heresy.
Both St. Francis as well as Dante engage in Christian humanism, which can be seen as the blending of both ideals of hero and saint. St. Francis dreamed of becoming a knight when he was young and lived this out to the best of his ability through the relationship he had with his companion, St. Clare of Assisi. He used this relationship as a means to express his devotion to Lady Poverty, an imagined heavenly lady who portrays the feminine of God. It was through this service, that St. Francis found his fulfillment though he had not found this calling until he went through a deep depression in the midst of being a prisoner of war. Dante, in writing his epic poem, presented his vision of the convergence of the hero’s journey through the lens of a saintly worldview. By placing himself in the poem he reveals that he believed he was on the hero’s journey in life.
Just as St. Francis and Dante had done before him, Michelangelo had the hero’s drive to self fulfillment and the saint’s impulse to serve a cause greater than oneself. Michelangelo dreamed of harmonizing the two callings of hero and saint. Michelangelo, according to his contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, was the foremost authority on Dante and had also been inspired by the Franciscan romantic ideal. Through Michelangelo’s work, a struggle can be seen between his ecstasy, which came at an early age and his agony, which remained with him until his death. In the David, Michelangelo aimed to show the magnificence of the heroic soul in the heroic body. By using David, from the Biblical story of David and Goliath, he attempted to meld the physically perfect heroic body with the Christian worldview. His contemplative nature, which is an important characteristic of the heroic ideal, exemplified his own internal struggle toward reaching this ideal. His creations, known as the Pietas, reveal to us this internal struggle. The Roman Pieta, a sculpture of absolute beauty drawn from the terrible moment of mother losing child, displays Mary as the hero. Larger than life, she sits as a throne for her dead son’s body. She is the hero embodied. The Christian symbolism of Mary and Jesus invite the viewer in to look for the deeper meaning, lending the artwork itself to the option of contemplation.
After these works, the Roman Pieta and the David, Michelangelo falls into darkness. His work no longer carries for him the significance it once did because the commissions placed upon him take his view away from the contemplation that his earlier works had so evidently shown. It could be understood that Michelangelo felt he could not work within the heroic ideal and that he could no longer contemplate as he once did within the framework of his art. In the second Pieta, Michelangelo places himself in place of Mary, holding Jesus up. This appears to be a statement that he could no longer reconcile himself with his vocation or his God. He attempted to destroy this work and by doing so, he revealed his inner turmoil. For all living the heroic ideal, there must be a struggle. He very nearly destroyed the third Pieta to the point that it is hard to decide if the statue is hopeful or a work of despair. The viewer cannot tell which way the bodies in the sculpture are headed, whether upward or downward, which can signify to those looking for the depth of the work, whether the bodies are leaning toward a life of meaning or giving into the absurdity of it all.
“He believed by virtue of the absurd; for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed the absurd that God required it of him should the next instant recall the requirement.” (Kierkegaard, 2009) Kierkegaard’s words, speaking of Abraham’s potential sacrifice of his son to God, echo the longing for the reemergence of the saintly ideal at a time when the world was changing by leaps and bounds. The church was no longer one large entity, as Luther had created the first great schism long before and the rise of capitalism, liberalism and the nation-state had taken over. When Kierkegaard wrote these words, he was battling back the idea of rationality being the primary thought of his day as opposed to the idea of faith in the absurd as the pathway to fulfillment. Through Luther’s teachings of believing in faith alone as the means of salvation, Kierkegaard attempted to assert that believing in the absurd is the only way one can have faith. He believed and made argument to his conviction that one must have faith and abandon oneself to it or one must cling to something else and by clinging to some other thing, one becomes trapped by it, taking away the freedom that such a lack of belief initially appears to give. He believed that clinging to God and the awareness of the absurdity of doing so was the only path to becoming self-aware, which is the ultimate ideal in the Greek heroic tradition, knowledge of oneself.Each of these men suffered through their own internal struggles, lending each of them to the idea of the heroic ideal. Yet, they all embodied in some form the saintly ideal. Each of them in their deeply contemplative ways battled back against the powers that be of their day. While no one has been able to firmly rectify the blending of hero and saint, all four of these men could be held up as contenders in the fight. All of them lent to those who are seeking a pathway to meaning a worldview where the convergence of the two ideals appears possible. Each of them, in their own way, gave an avenue in which contemplation in and of itself is possible, as the hero needs while remaining devoted to that which is larger than oneself as the saint requires.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 15.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 16.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 17.
Ambrosio, F. Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life (The Great Courses Series). Lecture 18.
- Kierkegaard, S. (2009). Fear and Trembling. Charleston, SC: Feather Trail Press. 30.