As one who can barely balance a checkbook, I marvel at those who do calculus. Given my ineptness to draw even stick figures, I am amazed by Picasso. As a student whose philosophical insight is, at best, “pedestrian,” I stand in awe of Plato. But have you ever encountered someone whose depth of insight covers so many fields? And even more extraordinarily, can connect them to each other? Today, we call such a person a “Renaissance Man.” One figure who embodies the term is Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), the Florentine master of painting, science, invention, architecture, and music. In the Mona Lisa, arguably the greatest – and certainly the most famous – painting in history we behold, not simply a technical masterpiece, but an enigma that lends itself to endless interpretation. According to one biographer (Walter Isaacson), today’s image, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, is “on par” with the Mona Lisa in terms of its “complex and layered” artistic techniques.
Which of these is the most remarkable? Is it the use of sfumato, by which a smoky mist blurs the landscape to evoke a divine atmosphere hovering over the physical world? Or is it the interplay of rock formations, air, and humidity to create subtle shades of color and emotion? The anatomical genius by which a (rather large) young mother rests as comfortably in the lap of St. Anne as does the infant in her own arms? The capacity of physical movement and facial expression to convey delicate psychological and mystical states? Or is it the juxtaposition of “child’s play” (the Baby Jesus tussling with the lamb) and the central event of salvation history (his death on the cross)? The answer is: Why choose? Each is important; each relates to the others and indeed enhances their power.
Leonardo dramatically illustrates what we might call a “catholic” sensibility, as compared with a Protestant one. For some (David Tracy), this involves analogy, i.e., describing one reality (like the ineffable God) in terms of something we can more easily grasp. For others (Avery Dulles), material objects can mediate the divine presence which, strictly speaking, remains utterly transcendent. Over and against this notion stands the Protestant sensibility, which is suspicious of anything that presumes to serve as an image for God; one risks the sin of idolatry.
Granted, such misgivings are legitimate, but I believe we Catholics have an affinity for those concrete realities that communicate God’s grace: the sacraments, sacramentals, pageantry, art, and even the human body itself. St. Ignatius would say that the disciple of Christ must learn to “see God in all things, and all things in God.” This summer, let’s make it our “business” to do just that.