peace

Has the dream been realized?: a reflection on the civil rights movement in the clime of the Jena 6 and the election of our 44th president.

   

Dr. Martin Luther King in Washington D.C.

 

 On August 28, 1963 beneath a sweltering Washington D.C. sun resumed a journey for redemption that had begun nearly four hundred years earlier across the mighty Atlantic Ocean. As a people who, stripped of their pride and dignity were utilized as an expendable resource in a foreign land to carry out the tasks that seemed to be beneath the doing of white hands. These “tasks” that those slaves were burdened where the toils of enduring harshness that have built the very bedrock of our land. And from that land over three hundred thousand men and women of all colors and religious denominations have congregated at our nation’s capitol to embody a growing outrage that was not being given proper remedy.  Those that gathered where; of assorted and varying race, unified with one another, and peaceful but thunderously demanding that an end be brought to the injustices that had been delivered to them through the cold motions of indolence and dispassionate action from their government.  Here in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King would have seen the masses that collectively gathered and displayed no sense of individuality or apparent distinction from one person to the next. Here, all is how he must have envisioned in his dream. And from this place of turbulence and roiling unrest articulated and with all the soothing nature his clerical background could muster he imparted an ever hopeful plea into what was to become a lighthouse beacon shining through the darkest of nights. A plea that Illuminated even the most bewildered and lost souls to usher in a new chapter of peace and brotherhood for every person who would call themselves American.  

            Although, in light of the many advances and tolerances we now enjoy in today’s society there is a small, creeping notion to uphold the walls of indifference that were built up so long ago. Though the fires of racial injustice have been all but extinguished, beneath those very ashes smolder the embers of dissension and mistrust.  We  are now faced with not reigning in the fiery content of a person’s speech or ending the malicious content of their actions, but to try to open the most important of all conduits; our minds. We have now in recent times seen such blaring examples of the old world that still fester within the very halls of justice.  Actions that sharply contrast our popular ideal of what equality and progress have come to mean. Travesties such as the “Jena 6” in which there is an obvious bias in how ” law” is metered  out to even our own children.  And unbelievably, no clear resolution was made to correct these missteps until the verge of a civil thunderstorm was brought to bear on the small town of Jena. This abhorrence of  justice was a flashpoint to causing  old familiar labels to be made again and giving those who had not yet been burned by hatred a chance to stir those ashes and unearth that underlying intolerance renewed.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               And still, after almost forty six years, those prophetic words of peace and harmony that Dr. King spoke to us  have struggled at times but certainly have endured. We are no longer a country  openly divided which can sanction arbitrary laws that limit the expansion of a person’s intellect or bar an individual  from using the common facilities that are public and located at reasonable distances or means. We have learned to co-exist and become the richer for it. The examples of our cultures merging is apparent and all around. From seeing couples of mixed racial background freely enjoying each other’s company to school children sharing their lunches at recess. The time for wholesale bigotry has been brought to a much needed and abrupt end.  We have, in less than fifty years, done much to level the partitions that stand between unity and the union of improving our lives together. We are making strides to uplift the status of the most exalted of all religious teachings, fellowship. We have proudly claimed a victory to that end with the overwhelming election of our forty-fourth president. These are extraordinary times that would surely have made Dr. Martin Luther King very deeply satisfied with the evolution of his aspirations. Time is the healer of all wounds but the ointment which promotes a strong and healthy recovery is the faith of the people who carry their vision high and share it for all to see.  

            But still in this pursuit of companionship there have also been many casualties along the way. Good men and women who have at their end compiled a portfolio of understanding and compassion for even the ones who have dealt them their final blow. We have lost irreplaceable minds in senseless acts. These losses have incited everyone at one time or another to question whether or not the cause is lost. We are reminded of the sting that accompanies the departing of heroic icons that brave the unrelenting odds and the void in which they leave in their wake. To have shone so brightly and burned out so young is a painful transition for all to comprehend. But within that grief there lays a strong testament to the validity and urgency of the ever widening chasm they had given their lives to span. For across that great divide lies the sweet tranquility of the Promised Land. And in that sense their struggle seems duly justified.

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Giotto di Bondone’s fresco: “Lamentation”

   

"Lamentation" by Giotto do Bondone (1304-06). Image courtesy of http://www.giottodibondone.org

 

Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337) was a highly skilled Italian painter who is considered to be a founding contributor to the renaissance in Europe. He was known for his masterful rendering of his subject’s faces denoting their expression and intent but also he favored to paint his subjects in more naturalistic poses which was not common for commissioned artists to indulge in. His magnum opus was his ornamentation of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua Italy of which this choice comes from.  

     Giotto certainly lived in a very turbulent time for the arts in Italy. It must have been a time of great longing for the traditionalism of past styles and the uncertainty and anticipation of the newer, then, avant-garde styles emerging from the minds of these young artists. Artists who recreated these religious themes must have felt pressure from their benefactors to produce works that respectfully displayed those sacred events in a safe and familiar way, but still yearned to make a personal statement and add dimensions that had never been fully explored to their pieces. The painting of these religious appointments was an honored task among the artisans of the day. The measure of a prominent artist in this time was reflected on his demand by the church (which often had the funding to dispense for such commissions). And in his day, few were able to take their visions in the same direction as Giotto.  

     As stated earlier, the environment Giotto lived in must have teemed with creativity in all aspects of life. It was the beginnings of a new era where the reemergence of old customs and forgotten knowledge seemed to have no end. Italy was the epicenter for the “rebirth” of humanity in the western world and with all the remembrance of civilizations past came a new inflexion of modern ideas that stood in conflict with the older ways. Society in this time was recovering from the notions of serfdom and fiefdom and was heavily exploring the limits of its new circumstances. Art was now being produced in new and creative styles, styles that suited the creator of the piece and served not merely for institutional purposes but for art’s purposes. People again had the time to devote their lives to the pursuit of such artistic creation and expression.  

     This work itself embodies all the markers for the Italian renaissance from which it was created. The fresco method is a firmly rooted in Italian religious artistry. A frescoist uses the medium of semi dried lime mortar or plaster that acts as a binder to secure the desired pigment (the pigments were only mixed only with water to dilute them) and applied directly to the binding medium. The subject (the lamentation of Christ) was a popular image at the time that conveyed the pain, anguish, and confusion in that pivotal moment in Christianity. These scenes may well have been meant to “center” and reaffirm the believer with the use of such clear and striking presentations as enabled by their technique. The interior of the chapel was completely engrossed in these Christian scenes making these images widely viewable and vividly emblazoned on the minds of the patrons of the church.  

     The images (characters, environment, etc.) are rendered in a solid color and then either highlighted or low lighted in the same base color (only making hue changes to show darker or lighter areas). This suggests that the availability of quality pigments or specific pigments must have been bountiful then. The technical use of the elongated Christ depiction was a standard practice to denote his prominence in the scene and was certainly not a Giotto innovation but a collective tradition in painting and sculpting that harked from the Egyptian method of modeling important figures in scenes. Also the folding of cloth as fabric does when worn is a possible skill learned from Classical/Hellenistic Greek art where motion, light, and action were important to capture. The sharp usage of space and line to draw attention to the center are virtues common to renaissance art as well as the sharp usage of the fore, middle, and background in the painting. For example, in one corner of the work there is a dry tree perched on an up sloped hill diagonally bisecting the painting that (in this native region) represented death and drew the eye towards the main scene. This technique would have been a universally understood visual cue for the viewers to follow. The heads of all important Christian figures were highlighted with a golden halo to name them to the viewer as the expression of their faces seem to have so much to say to the viewer. The clarity with which one can derive the emotion and reaction on any of the faces within say much for the ability of the artist and what was important culturally at this point in time for Italian society. Giotto did add his own unique perspectives to the piece with the angelic figures in the sky above the crowd. He masterfully painted them flying in varying directions with each one having their own perspective and horizon point.  

     The solemn and excited nature of this artwork that combined with the fervor in which Christianity was spreading during this time was surely able to help drive the point “home” to the common people of the time. Reading was not a normal ability at that time yet (especially for common people) and the best way to reinforce the verbal teachings which were being delivered from the pulpit was to have visual examples for believers to contemplate about. There is no doubt in my mind that all who looked on the lamentation walked away with all the intent and energy that Giotto had envisioned his work would generate.