Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Justice or Grace?

 Cranach: "Law and Grace" (Prague)

            Attempting to squeeze out the last succulent drops of a short stay in Paris, we mounted an artistic double-header one day just before leaving.  In the morning we took in the show at the Pinacothèque about the Romanovs as art collectors.  It was an engaging show, but of course as scattered and eclectic as the collection in the Hermitage itself, the residual monument of their activities.  Far more memorable to me was the show we saw in the afternoon, at the Senate Gallery in the Luxembourg Palace: “Cranach and His Times”.   There, in one of the exhibition’s more modest rooms, I had a significant aperçu.
            Most of my thinking and writing these days has to do with intellectual developments of the eighteenth century.  That is the century, I have long believed, that witnessed the principal shifts in mental perspective that, in conjunction with dramatic changes in material culture, constitute the most important differences between the Old World (“my” world of the Middle Ages) and modernity (“my” world of existential experience).
            Here’s a little aphorism for your collection, to be filed alongside Aristotle’s “Men by nature desire to know” and Augustine’s “All teaching is about things or signs”.  All history is about change or stasis.  Yet by a dramatic ratio historians and their readers prefer change.  How much luck would a writer have, with either publishers or readers, with a title like Three Centuries of Monotonous Stability in a Westphalian Monastery or The Horseshoe Crab: Still the Same After Millions of Years? Many historians, including several of my colleagues, think that their job is not merely to explain change, but to effect it.  Here they follow the historian Karl Marx in the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”  (And now having gotten that off my chest, I solemnly promise my readers never, ever, to mention the name of Feuerbach in a blog post again.)

                   Jules Michelet                                 

and Lucas Cranach the Elder                                                                                                     


I am currently writing about a period of dramatic historical change, the Enlightenment, which fed upon another, that of the Protestant Reformation.  Lucas Cranach the Elder got in on the ground floor of the Reform: he was a close personal friend of Martin Luther himself, of whom he painted several portraits.  And one of his most conspicuously “reformed” paintings destroyed a chapter I had nearly completed.  Damn!
The greatest event of the eighteenth century, and probably still the iconic event of modern history, was the French Revolution.  Its relationship to Enlightenment is obvious if imprecise, if you see what I mean; and whether you think the Revolution was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing will depend in part on how “enlightened” you think it was.  My own thinking has been much influenced by the great historian Jules Michelet (1798-1874), who clearly thought it was a Good Thing.
One of the prefaces to his brilliant and contentious History of the French Revolution is entitled “Concerning the Religion of the Middle Ages”.   According to Michelet the still essentially medieval world of the Ancien Régime was governed by the notion of grace, that of the enlightened revolutionaries by the notion of justice.  In the Old World, God and his temporal vicars (the pope, the king, the clergy, the privileged aristocracy, etc.) doled out grace and favor as they saw fit, benignly of course, but under no controlling obligation.  The rain fell upon the just and the unjust alike.  But the architects of the new world of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality believed in justice.  Every Frenchman had rights.  These were the famous “Rights of Man and Citizen” (1789)  —later universalized by the United Nations in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).                       
Now Michelet seemed to me not only so very right but so very right on!, to use the proper revolutionary lingo, that it was very disconcerting to have to think hard about Cranach’s painting (normally housed in Prague Castle) entitled “Law and Grace”.  Cranach did several versions of this tableau.  Its reflexes elsewhere in Reformation art number in the scores, for it perfectly captures what is perhaps Luther’s most famous doctrine: “justification by faith alone.”  As the gloomy German friar brooded over the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, a light flashed within his mind.  “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  You cannot do anything to be saved except believe that you cannot do anything.  Giving up wine, women, and song for the austerities of monastic life won’t save you.  Certainly building a huge cathedral in Rome won’t.  The only channel of salvation is divine grace, absolutely arbitrary and unmerited, not for sale in any store.

Martin Luther as seen by a friend

Indeed to hope for justice is to ask for death.  In the left (“Law”) side of Cranach’s image there is death everywhere, including the left half of the tree that divides it.  Only the gratuitous grace of Christ’s sacrifice offers hope.  Pictorial art often expresses complex ideas with a clarity denied to mere discursive prose, and Cranach made me see in a split second a complication I would be happier to avoid.  The complication is this: if Martin Luther overthrew the religion of the Middle Ages by discarding justice in favor of grace, and if two hundred and fifty years later Michelet’s revolutionaries overthrew the religion of the Middle Ages by discarding grace in favor of justice—well, you perhaps see my problem.

Cranach: "Law and Grace" (Gotha) 

 "Law and Grace" (Popular print after Cranach)