Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance – spirituality and synthesis

by Geoff Hall on June 7, 2011

We noted in the first part of this look at the work of Jan Gossaert that Renaissance spirituality was a synthetic fusion of Paganism, Classicism and Christianity.

I alluded to Gossaert’s ‘Man with a Rosary’, 1525-30 and not simply gazing at the Man in the foreground, but discerning his spirituality by looking at the setting, the background of the image. See below:

George Bull the translator of Baldesar Castiglione’s ‘The Book of the Courtier’ (originally published in April, 1528), writes of Castiglione’s intent to answer a courtly need of his time.

The truth was that the self-interested endeavour of Castiglione’s contempories at the small Courts of Italy to justify the profession of Courtier – to synthesise the idea of the warrior and the scholar, the Christian believer and the classical hero, the self-contained man of virtù and the dutiful servant of the prince – [provided an opportunity for Castiglione to answer]…a need felt urgently in the north of Europe as medieval values dissolved.
[The Book of the Courtier, Published by Penguin Classics, 1976 p14.]

Check out this painting by Raphael at the National Gallery, London. ‘An allegory: A Vision of a Knight’ circa 1504.


Here we can see this synthetic spirituality embodied aesthetically. The choice of Virtue over Pleasure, the rugged way of the Wilderness or the Pleasures of lover and scholar appears tantalising, but actually the allegory suggests a combination or synthesis of such virtues and a path of life which is finely balanced through grace – of both paths being needed to be the perfect Courtier/Knight/Christian believer. Raphael’s vision embodies the philosophy of Castiglione’s Courtier.

I’ve already alluded to those who wish for a New Renaissance to arrive, like a new era of Christendom and the patronage of the Arts, but this is as misplaced as the Pre-Raphaelites intent to purify art by taking it back to a time before Raphael’s corruption of it.  Again all that was produced was synthetic and reactionary, an attempt to roll back time to an apparent nobler and more romantic era.

We are considering in the series ‘Spiritual Direction in a Postmodern Landscape’ that art should point to the future not the past – the artist has to be involved in something more than the mimicry of a bygone age. Art has to point to the future and is therefore avant-garde, not retrospective. This kind of artist suffers from dysphasia, that is, they are unable to speak coherently of the times they live in and more importantly to create a vision of the future which decries the pessimism of our day. We cannot give a vision of the future by resurrecting the past.

An art which points to the past has given up hope for the future.

A radical transformational spirituality is not one of synthesis, or reactionary zeal for an alleged ‘Golden Age’ of art or spirituality, but is subversive in intent – undermining causes of injustice, dismantling institutions of static spirituality and pointing to a culturally potent ‘Spirituality of Resistance’ through expressing the voice of lament.

To see the future, simply turn over the page!

Peace and Love,


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