Set in stone

The great sculptor, Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method.  He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”

Nowhere is this process more in evidence than in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures.  Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed.  If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state, and in the shadow of David, they seem to say something profound about humanity.

They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, desperate to gain their freedom.   And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work.  His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.

unfinished slave 1unfinished slave 2unfinished slave 4unfinished slave 3

So, on the way to see the chiseled, muscled, perfect, naked manhood of David, you walk through the corridor of the half-emancipated, equally muscled and naked, slaves.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Washington D.C. and was able to visit some of the monuments there.

IMG_20150410_192649[1]IMG_20150410_192005_kindlephoto-69091165[1]All the capital’s memorials are designed to impress: Lincoln and Jefferson, in particular, are vast figures, and the long view down the mall to the National monument is an exercise in grandeur. You can practically hear the Copland fanfare playing in the background.

And, of course, there is the more recent memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. And this is just the famous ones, in the capital. There are plenty of others, including Mount Rushmore’s faces emerging from the stone of the cliff. All of these memorials set in stone something of the past – figures whose importance was such that their likenesses were considered worth preserving in keeping with their influence – a lasting and substantial tribute to match their lasting and substantial impact.  The real shocker is that it took so long for the memorial to MLK Jr to be commissioned, funded, and installed in its rightful place alongside the others.

IMG_20150411_161139[1]But there is more to the MLK mem0rial than simply a matter of saying ‘about time!’  The shape of the sculpture reflects words from his “I have a dream” speech: ‘Out of the Mountain of Despair, a Stone of Hope’.  The larger rock stands behind the statue, and indeed the figure himself is still emerging from the smaller rock in which it is carved.

It can be no accident that the ‘mountain of despair’ is part of the finished monument, and the figure of MLK Jr, the great champion of equality and civil rights, appears still part-trapped in the stone from which he emerges. Like the unfinished slave sculptures of many centuries before, those parts of the figure that have emerged from the stone are perfectly finished, but much remains to be done.  If MLK had lived, he might have echoed that sentiment: freedom and equality have started to emerge, but there is much to be done.

And just as Michaelangelo’s unfinished slaves line the path to the completed David, and, like him, are naked and muscled even in their emergent state, so also the MLK statue occupies a place on the pilgrimage-like route through the many D.C. memorials, and like his fellows, Lincoln and Jefferson, Martin Luther King emerges from the rock as a statesman.  His memorial, at least to my eye, portrays him as the greatest president that the USA never had.

A memorial such as this sets something in stone, quite literally. But in this case, what is set in stone is something unfinished, something dynamic, something of the struggle which is still, many decades after MLK’s assassination, ongoing. What better way to celebrate a man’s legacy than in a way that draws our attention to the continuing responsibility on all of us to work on making his dream a reality in our own lifetime.

 

 

 

A sermony thing for Luke 7.36-8.3

The eyes and hands of Michaelangelo...

unfinished slave 1unfinished slave 2unfinished slave 4unfinished slave 3

The great sculptor Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method.  He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”

We can see this most profoundly in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures.  Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed.  If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state they seem to say something profound about humanity.

They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, seemingly desperate to gain their freedom.   And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work.  His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, because if we see a block of stone most of us will see simply that, a block of stone.  It takes a Michaelangelo to see a beautiful figure, waiting to be liberated.

If we see a sculpture that is part finished in the normal way, full of rough edges, we might only see its imperfections, all the ways that it fails to live up to what it should be. We might even say, that’s a bit rubbish. Every extraneous bit of stone that’s marring that perfection is condemned.  It’s not very neat, is it?  It’s not been carefully done.

It takes a Michaelangelo to see the truth: all that needs to happen is for all the stone that is not part of the true sculpture to be carefully removed.

In today’s gospel we see a woman viewed in two completely different ways.

The Pharisee looks at her and passes judgement based on how she’s kept the law – or how badly she’s broken it.  For him, her sin is what she is: “If Jesus really was a prophet he would have known what kind of woman she is: a sinner.”  If that woman were a statue, the Pharisee is judging her based on all the bits that aren’t right, all the rough edges.

Jesus looks at the same woman, and sees her capacity to be forgiven and to love. He is like Michaelangelo, seeing the true figure hidden in the block of marble, trapped by all the things that aren’t part of what that woman was called to be, created by God to be.

The Pharisee sees only the bits of the marble block that are stopping the figure from being true to who they were created to be.

Jesus sees the person as they were created to be and then helps them to strip away all the bits that are stopping them from being that person.

The two views could not be more different. To look on someone and see their sin, or to look one someone and see their capacity to be forgiven.  To look on someone and see only how they have fallen short, or to look at someone and see their potential to become who they were created to be.

Thank God we have a God who is like Michaelangelo, who can see inside all the stuff that clings to us and clogs us up and grinds us down – the weight of past sins, the regrets of things done or not done, said or not said, the resentments and wrongdoing, and then helps us gradually to free ourselves of all the stuff that isn’t part of who we truly are.

Will that be a gentle process?  Not always!  Sculpture does, after all, involves chisels and hammers.  Will it be quick?  No, I suspect it’s a life’s work, and is completed only at the point of our entry into heaven.  But God can make us beautiful – as beautiful as we always were to him, precisely because he can see through all the rubbish to what lies at the heart of us, and his forgiveness chips away at everything about us that isn’t what we should be.

May God give us eyes like Michaelangelo’s, able to see the beauty in one another, even if it’s hidden, able to forgive one another for all the stuff that gets in the way, and in so doing, help us to free one another from all the stuff that keeps us from being who God created us to be.