Letter to Giuseppe Castiglione

Epistolarium (11)

Aurelio Porfiri

Dear Father,

I was thinking in these days a lot about painting and your name came to my mind. You were a Jesuit but also an accomplished painter, you served in China under emperors Kangxi and Qianlong. You have become Lang Shi Ning, your Chinese name. You lived also in Macau for some time, as all the missionaries going to greater China. Your mission was quite peculiar, announcing the Gospel with your paintings. Now, painting was traditionally defined Biblia Pauperum, the Bible of the Poor. This definition, given by Saint Gregory the Great (Ep 11,3) says a lot about the traditional function of painting in traditional catholic art: serves as instruction for those that were not well educated to study theology and so on. But I can see that there is also another meaning that is possible to present. Jesus has said Beati pauperes spiritu quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5,3). “Poor in spirit”…in our modern language seems almost offensive. If I say to a fellow Italian that he is povero di spirito, it means that he has no depth in substance. ; But here it is different; it means those who face life situations with the spirit of a poor: the poor knows that he or she is always indebted to someone else for everything, so we should be too. The poor knows that things are valuable because of their scarcity and so we should value what we have and not take them for granted. The poor knows that good attitude can come despite the adversity of life and so we should think accordingly. The American protestant pastor Chuck Smith, commenting exactly this verse, said that one becomes poor in spirit by seeing God. And this because only the awareness of His greatness can make us think about how little we are. Jesus has said that whoever sees him, has seen the Father. So Jesus gives great importance to seeing, not just listening. In the sense presented above, we all should be poor, because we need to purify our spirit in the direction I have said before.

So painting still can serve as an invaluable tool for this work of purification, because it based on vision. Seeing the good works of God, Jesus, Mary, the saints, outside of the conceptual narrative presented by a speech or a book, can help us to be willing to follow these great examples, purify our spirit and embrace that dimension of spiritual poverty. Why it is so? Painting is not a photo; it is a mediated reality (by the way a photo too is mediated from the interpretation of the photographer but still represents a “real” object/subject). The painter recreates the reality with the intention of representing it for the edification of someone (in the case of sacred painting). A painting is a condensed narrative which has all the elements to edify and teach, as you can have in a homily or in an essay, but appealing to diverse human faculties (it is like entering somewhere from a different door). Painters are making theology.  If you are able to read a painting of Caravaggio or Leonardo, you will find there all the tools to edify yourself and elevate your Christian awareness. But to accept this, you need to empty yourself, purify your eyes. You cannot fill what is already full. This is why we need to become poor and be in the condition to feel wonder – the origin of philosophy, according Aristotle – and be ready for the great plans God has for each one of us.

Aurelius scripsit

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