The Sacred and the Profane-
Updated: May 26
Tradition fosters Innovation- Innovation Invigorates Tradition
An essay on utilizing art history for constructive creations- By Brian Keeler
The binary dichotomy or opposing polarities of this phrase (the Sacred and Profane) made famous by the remarkable painting by the Venetian Master, Titian 1488-1576 suggests some irreconcilable dynamics or perhaps an aspiration to blend the two qualities. That painting first encountered in art book reproductions, and then fortunately enough for me, seen on several occasions in the upper floor space of the Gallery Borghese in Rome. This museum is a must-see when in the Eternal City. With the Bernini marbles and Caravaggio’s on the lower floor leading up to this masterpiece and many more on the top floor it is easy to see why this museum requires reservations. The Borghese experience is one of relative quiet and civility where you can wander and contemplate beauty in peace- especially compared to the aggressive throngs at say the Vatican or especially the Louvre.
(Below - a sketch done at the Borghese Gallery)
I have long been a fan of Titian, jump started by the huge exhibit at the NGA in DC in 1990, titled "Titian, Prince of Painters." Then again to see some of those huge canvases like the Ascension of The Virgin in The Frari Cathedral in Venice on my first trip to Italy in 1992. I was swept away emotionally by the dynamic energy of seeing this masterpiece, a consummate work of unparalleled beauty. And to think he was commissioned to paint this work at such a young age is staggering as well- partly because it is the altar piece and required special masonry framing.
But on to my elaboration on the title of this Titian work for one of my landscapes but with overtones in a number of works. I like the opposing themes and the dialectic entertaining of ideas that require a blending or reconciling of opposites. The original title of Titians work I like just as well, “Beauty Adorned and Unadorned.” This title is more matter of fact and suggests the interplay between the nude and the sumptuously clothed woman – bothVenus figures, if you will.
For my own work, I have taken the juxtaposed nineteenth century Church on US Rte 6 just west of Tunkhannock, PA and contrasted it with the banal and shiny commercialism of a modern Texaco station. I remember the old gas station that once stood there with wooden floors that were similar to one here in my hometown-the McCarty gas station, with equal character. I spent many hours in there from an early age as it was a hangout before and after midget baseball games for soda and snacks and many other layovers on the way to and from elementary school.
So the title for this painting (shown above) is “The Sacred and the Octane” is somewhat of a very inside type of rhyme to allude to the Titian title. This Methodist Church portrayed here was built in 1897 but the congregation and history of the Methodists here goes back as far as 1815. The quiet and simplified dignity of the church offers up our heritage of American Architecture and a type of austere beauty to accompany protestant sensibilities. Lately, when regarding protestant religions, I think of the extremes of Protestantism in the Low Countries in the 17th century and the intolerance of the iconoclasts destroying anything resembling a craven image. Such an unfortunate travesty and so many art works obliterated all in the name of religion. This reflection on the extremes of Christian splinter groups in the aftermath of the reformation comes up as I recently finished a biography of Martin Luther. Still, there is the pared down essence of unadorned piety that we can appreciate in protestant churches. With this austere dignity of the church edifice in the background, we see the sunrise breaking behind a distant barn and farmhouse with warm ochre and lemon yellow hues. This light infuses the commonplace scene and flows toward us to the quotidian activity of fellow filling up his SUV with gasoline.
As with any culture, or city of ancient origins like Rome or London, there are layers, a palimpsest if you will, of years of decay and reconstruction existing side by side with newer overlays. In Rome the early Christians burned the ancient marble statues in kilns to make plaster for churches as they tried to obliterate any vestige honoring pagan Gods. And in the process some ancient temples were saved and others were appropriated like the Pantheon to convert into Churches. I Suppose this random decay and reuse and recycling in Rome adds to our appreciation as we walk in and over the history. Yet here in our towns of today, it is usually with chagrin and dismay that I regard the obliteration of brave old buildings and sacred grounds. Today in the northeast some buildings crumble others manage to escape, for a while, the effects of neglect and entropy. Its amazing that there is barely a week or month that passes with the news of some mansard-roofed hotel or elegant house being razed. And with the pragmatic aspects of a materialist and commercial economy we come up with many odd pairings. There is a vitality and randomness if not haphazard come-what-may peculiarity or unregulated whims of pragmatism. We are however, in more contemplative moments, inspired to think about towns and ancient structures that were made by design and considerate of a more comprehensive vision. Hence we are at the sacred – places that were constructed with a vision. There’s a wonderful word that sums this up- "geomancy," which is related to Feng Shui and both allude to the way our living spaces relate to themselves and the universe. This geomancy has connotations too, that I like to apply to the act of landscape painting out of doors, as it sort of gets at the goal and process of creating harmony and flow from the raw visual inspiration and applying it to our canvas with a personal arranging if not orchestration.
I painted another version of this same RTE 6 intersection at about the same time (shown above). This one a long horizontal format portrays the scene on rainy day with wet pavement reflecting the electric lights. This one shows the church more completely with highway traffic.
Even though these paintings pay homage to Titian’s painting of 1514, I am humbled and in amazement at the complexity and sheer beauty of this work. Titian's painting is also a long horizontal format, thought to be a cassone piece, which indicates that it probably was used to decorate a wedding chest. The amorous and even erotic nature was to suggest a blending or coexistence of physical, emotional and metaphysical aspects of nature and love. The cupid mixing his hand in the water between the two is believed to illustrate the synthesis of the two natures of sexuality. Also noteworthy is that this cistern is actually an ancient Roman sarcophagus or burial chamber, which suggests the impermanence, brevity of beauty and of life. There is so much to unpack in this one canvas that it makes us appreciate how painting in the renaissance had a lofty charge of serving up sustenance and inspiration and material for intellectual musings. It is also reassuring that one can grow and develop with a painting as our own maturity and understanding develops as well. The models for this work could be the same woman and perhaps even the bride, suggesting a blending and how the two natures may be combined.
A final note of appreciation for the virtuosity here in Titian’s work- The silvery gown of the woman is so beautifully rendered and it must rank among the most consummate representations of satin- right up there with Ingres, Gainsborough, and Sargent.
So, even with a simple twist on a title to offer an inversion with pertinances to contemporary issues and personal history I suppose this is to show a continuum and how history can inspire and hopefully offer lessons and aspirations.