Tag: Leonardo

Spiritual Reflection: What does it mean to be human?

What is man that you are mindful of him?

The son of man, that you care for him?

Psalm 8

At the start of each month, I come to reflect on fundamentals: what does it mean to be human?

Three aspects emerged at the start of this October, in 2019:

  1. To be human is to be created
  2. To be human is to interdependent
  3. To be human is to be complex

Created

Although my culture in 21st century Britain emphasises autonomy, actually I find that this is not an accurate description of being human. I did not create myself: I was born to my parents, as they were to theirs, and so the chain goes back into history.

As human beings we are created, not autonomous. Michelangelo’s interpretation of being created tells me this is something incredibly energetic and vital:

The creative power behind human being is a God of love and energy, without whom I would not have life – as Adam, in this painting, just lounges lifelessly, awaiting God’s touch.

Interdependent

Just as I am not autonomous in origin, so I am not autonomous in living. I depend on air, water, food, the earth, and especially other people. Collaboration is one of the most powerful forces available to us as human beings. Synergy multiplies our capabilities hundreds and hundreds of times. We were made to live together.

I love the way the angels dance together synergistically in this painting by Botticelli:

To live interdependently is a great challenge: the devils scuttle away at the bottom of Botticelli’s painting, reminding us that mixed motives and the presence of evil in life is never too far away. When we seek to live with others, we must deal with problems and darknesses in ourselves and in others, without losing the vision of those angels at the top of the painting, dancing in perfect harmony.

Complex

To be human is to be a complex of body, mind, emotion and spirit.

Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” captures something of the mystical beauty and complexity of humanity:

“Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo Da Vinci

Probably most of us are more like Van Eyck’s “Adam” below, though: not perfectly symmetrical, not beautiful in every way.

Adam, from The Ghent Altarpiece, Van Eyck

And yet, as the inside of The Ghent Altarpiece reveals, our physical existence is only part of the complexity of what it means to be human:

In Van Eyck’s vision, Adam and Eve (top left and top right) are just part of a much bigger spiritual picture, with God top centre, and the mystical “Lamb of God” and the fountain of life in the middle at the bottom. Humanity assembles from the four corners of the earth to worship and acknowledge their createdness, their dependence on each other and in God, and their physical, emotional and spiritual complexity.

What is man that you are mindful of him?

The son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8

Inspiring Art: “Adam”

Michaelangelo’s Adam is one of the best-known image of humanity’s divine aspect.  We see God bringing man to life, with a heavenly touch, departing from the Biblical description in a flash of artistic inspiration.  This is man in all his divine potential: potentially strong, potentially beautiful, potentially immortal…

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” explores another aspect of an ideal conception of humanness: the relationship between humanity and mathematics.  The human figure here is shown as proportionate and symmetrical. Few of us ordinary mortals are quite as mathematically perfect as this, however…

Van Eyck’s Adam from The Ghent Altarpiece is more down-to-earth.  This does not strike me as the portrayal of an ideal man, but of an ordinary man. Naked, frail: “a poor, bare, fork’d animal”, as Shakespreare described us in King Lear:

Chapters 1-3 of Genesis describe the totally captivating stories of the creation of the universe, the earth, all of life, and human life in particular. “Adam”, for me, represents all of humanity: we are created, related, spiritual, embodied, sexual, articulate, inquisitive, logical, mortal, fallible…

And human fallibility is captured with such power in Masaccio’s painting below – one of the most harrowing portrayals of human failure that I know. This is of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise:

But overall, when I think of the story of Adam, I am more inspired than deflated. The story of Adam is the story of a universe where God intentionally creates a living, self-conscious human being. To be human is to live in a “storied universe” – an existence shaped by narrative, tradition, imaginative and spiritual illumination.

Inspirers: The Inspiration of Adam

Chapters 1-3 of Genesis describe the totally captivating stories of the creation of the universe, the earth, all of life, and human life in particular. “Adam”, for me, represents all of humanity: we are created, related, spiritual, embodied, sexual, articulate, inquisitive, logical, mortal, fallible…

“Vitruvian Man”, Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” (above) explores the relationship between humanity and mathematics: the human figure is shown as proportionate and symmetrical. Sadly, few of us are quite as mathematically perfect as this!

Masaccio’s painting below, is one of the most harrowing portrayals I know. This is of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise:

But overall, when I think of the story of Adam, I am more inspired than deflated. The story of Adam is the story of a universe where God intentionally creates a living, self-conscious human being. It is not science, but it illuminates the human condition.

Adam, from The Ghent Altarpiece, Van Eyck