I’m starting today with a few pictures. They’re by Alama-Tadema, a Nineteenth Century artist famous for his scenes of the classical past, of Romans and beautiful Greek goddesses, scantily clad, sighing over long lost lovers (and so on). He came in for a fair pounding in the twentieth century, which accused him of sexism, soft-porn pandering to the male gaze. All of which is true.
But looking at these pictures today, amid a global pandemic lockdown, something else comes to mind. These women are in lock-down, too. They are nobles and princesses forbidden to mix with anyone who isn’t within the palace, and even then they aren’t allowed to mix very much. They sit on high towers and sigh for absent heroes. They are models of Victorian decorum, longing, and fidelity.
What we can choose to see in these canvases, which are usually huge, is that these beautiful creatures are stuck in their daily world of luxury and routine. Beyond them, in the distances, are people who are becoming mythic, who are part of a larger reality than ours. This reality is beyond the quotidian. Here the human soul yearns towards the eternal, and so do these women, except they have no way to get there.
They are like us, now, today. We can get stuck in the usual series of concerns about our world. We can obsess over this latest panic, if we wish. Or we can look beyond this moment, and see that this world we live in, and love, actually has another aspect to it. It is many things, but it may also be just a stage on which we are working out our soul’s journey.
As we try to work out who we are without a daily routine, without a job or a career; without the ability to move about freely, and without even a coherent government to reassure us, we’re reminded that the soul has some longings, also. Stripped naked of our daily reassurances, some of which are our daily worries, removed from our tendency to fixate on certain repeated patterns of behavior, who are we?
Who are you between two thoughts? as Joseph Campbell famously asked.
Now we have the chance to find out.
Just like those women in the paintings, we have the opportunity to look outside ourselves – if we wish.