For the symposium “Renaissance as Resurrection. Leon Battista Alberti’s Holy Sepulchre in 15th-century Florence”, four internationally known artists – Peter Brandes, Maja Lisa Engelhardt, Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi – reflect on the mystery of which Alberti’s masterpiece speaks: the Resurrection of Jesus and the prospect of a new life. The title of their installation, Fons Vitæ – Font of Life, echoes Saint Paul, who was the first to relate the waters of Baptism to Easter, teaching that those who are “baptized into Christ Jesus” – those who descend into the font, that is –, “were indeed buried with him ... so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead ... we too might live in newness of life” (Rm 6:3–4). Alberti’s Sepulchre in fact recalls the Florence Baptistery, reusing its green and white marble inlay, and this allusion defines the present exhibit. The base of the 15th-century Sepulchre, traced on the pavement by Peter Brandes, is transformed into light, and sculptures by Maja Lisa Engelhardt at either side evoke the miracle of resurrection. Above the stairs, then, amid flowers painted by Susan Kanaga, Filippo Rossi depicts the new world described in the Book of Revelation, at whose center is “river of life-giving water, sparkling like crystal” and “tree of life”. The stones placed along the river by Susan Kanaga, opening and emanating light, remind us that “the tree of life that produces fruit twelve times a year, once each month” and its leaves “serve as medicine for the nations” (22:1–2).
To speak of Filippo Rossi’s art, the only possible point of departure is the artist’s Christian belief. Rossi lives his own creativity, and conceives his images, within the dynamic that the New Testament describes as ‘faith’. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” says the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (11:1), adding almost immediately that “By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible” (11:3). The Latin Vulgate renders the idea that only faith guarantees our hopes by speaking of it with a less conceptual, more physical term, substantia, and Dante, who knew the Latin text, said: “faith is the substance of the things we hope for / and is the evidence of things not seen; / and this I take to be its quiddity” (Par. XXIV, 64–5: “Fede è sustanza di cose sperate / e argomento de le non parventi; / e questa pare a me sua quiditate”). Filippo Rossi, a believer and a Florentine, gives substance to what he hopes and argues in favor of what he cannot see, convinced that just as the material world had its origin in God’s immaterial word, so visible images can be born from the action of the invisible Spirit, since in Jesus Christ the Word became flesh. As the works in “Fons Vitæ” suggest, for Rossi this tension between ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ is fundamental. His dissertation at the University of Florence, where he studied art history, was on Renaissance pax images: the small painted or metalwork objects positioned on altars during the celebration of Mass, which then were brought to the faithful attending so they might kiss them while the priest received communion. At that time layfolk rarely received the sacrament, and pax images, which allude to the Eucharistic theme – images of the Crucifixion, Imago pietatis, the Lamentation – invited believers to use their imagination to join the priest who was materially consuming the transubstantiated bread and wine. The visible image took the place of the invisible reality, that is, without being confused with it, since in Western Catholic practice the image remains only image, while the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are the ‘real presence’ of Christ’s body and blood. Pax images took for granted, in the faithful who contemplated and kissed them, a capacity to understand that the ‘reality’ was elsewhere, not in the representation but in the ‘presence’, not in the visibility of events brought before one’s eyes but in the invisible Person adored in one’s heart. A further step Rossi took was in fact that which Catholic tradition calls ‘Eucharistic adoration’. When the parish that Filippo f requented for many years decided to expose the consecrated bread to the faithful in a continuous way, inviting all to adoration, our artist was among those who committed to be present at night, going to church in the wee hours to remain on his knees before a disk of white bread in a gold container, the monstrance, amid candles whose living flame signaled the Savior’s presence. These atmospheric elements – the points of light in the dark, the aura of silence and shared solitude – would mark Rossi’s art. We should remember that the mystical experience described here has precise philosophical and esthetic coordinates: on the one hand, the experiential divergence between ‘sign’ and ‘reality’, and on the other the whiteness of the host and altar linens, the gold of the monstrance and candlesticks, the flickering glow of the candles. John Paul II, in a text that Rossi read as soon as it was published, the stupendous Letter to Artists of 1999, evoked this liturgical aesthetic with a phrase of the theologian Pavel Florenskij, who, speaking of Russian icons, said: “By the flat light of day, gold is crude, heavy, useless, but by the tremulous light of a lamp or candle it springs to life and glitters in sparks beyond counting—now here, now there, evoking the sense of other lights, not of this earth, which fill the space of heaven”. Rossi’s choice – visible in the works in “Fons Vitæ” – to enrich his art with gold leaf, is born in this climate.
PETER BRANDES MAJA LISA ENGELHARDT SUSAN KANAGA FILIPPO ROSSI
Firenze, Museo Marino Marini 24 aprile-6 giugno 2022
Florence, Museo Marino Marini 24 April–6 June, 2022