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Old 29th December 2009   #3
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default Re: Standards of Beauty for an Ancient King

Thank you for providing such a fascinating and compelling analysis.

How interesting it is to consider beauty from a biblical rather than Classical perspective. Reflecting on this topic brings to mind the ongoing debate about the influence of Christianity on Western culture, how beneficial or detrimental it was, compared with the continent's pagan past.

On the one hand, the Church was a great civilizing force, and indispensable to the preservation of Classical learning. The Renaissance would not have been possible without the Classical texts that the monks of the Dark Ages copied and secreted away in their monasteries. The Church-oriented medieval world was a beautiful, organic culture, a society that produced great cathedrals, noble literature, and a profusion of glorious art (like the lovely Madonna-and-child sculptures that we featured in a recent post). Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a loving depiction of the halcyon, Catholic world of the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, the old pagan culture of Northern Europe was rich and vital, from the Viking traditions of the Nordic nations to the fascinating cosmology of the Slavs. One could argue that the Teutonic peoples lost something irreplaceable when their ancient myths were pushed aside, even declared blasphemies, by a zealous Church Militant.

And yet there were happy congruences between the Christian and pagan heritages of Europe. Organizations like the Teutonic Knights, the members of which were explorers as much as warriors, were guided by Christian precepts, and swore loyalty above all to the Blessed Virgin Mary (the Northern equivalent of the feminine principle that Antiquity worshipped as Venus, the goddess of beauty). And yet in their military prowess the Knights embodied the pagan Viking spirit of old.

Likewise, great Western artists like Wagner created magnificent works based both on pagan traditions (the Ring cycle) and on Christian themes (Parsifal). Even the conflict between the two traditions provided rich artistic source material (Tannhäuser), so perhaps the proper conclusion to draw is that the tension between the Classical, Christian, and pagan traditions, and the merging of the three, is precisely what gave the culture of Northern Europe its energy and vitality. Ultimately, one cannot unweave this complex historical tapestry.

But to come back to the discussion of Old Testament themes and their influence on the beauty tradition, no one can deny that biblical literature provided the inspiration for many of history's greatest illustrations of full-figured femininity. The Old Masters created numberless depictions of Eve, of Susanna at the Bath, of Mary Magdalene, of Judith, of Potiphar's wife, and of every other biblical heroine--not to mention of the female saints. These images celebrate the womanly hips and generous waists of their subjects, just as King Solomon's verses do.

The Song of Solomon may record the "standards of beauty for an ancient king," but they are also the standards of beauty for everyone who still believes in timeless femininity. The aesthetic values of the biblical passage that Mike quotes are just as relevant today as they were in King Solomon's Day, and far preferable to the values of the modern age--as are so many of the values of those nobler times.

Here is Rubens's depiction of an especially luscious Susanna, in his Susanna and the Elders canvas of 1636-39. The model is his well-fed young wife, Helena, whose fair beauty inspired him to create his greatest masterpieces.

- Click to view larger

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