One of the luxuries of winter break is having time to go to museums. Yesterday, I saw an exhibit of masterpieces borrowed from the Louvre. The two works that stood out to me in particular almost accidentally faced each other. Both were moving, but for very different reasons—one as stark expression of the conformity of hell, the other as an intimate confirmation of the individuality of heaven.
“Pandemonium,” by John Martin, was the most visually striking painting in the exhibit. It depicts a scene from Paradise Lost, the vast ranks of demons in formation in front of the proud, cruel figure of Satan. Hell is black and full of leaping flame, and Satan is like a beacon blazing from the murk; but behind all of that looms the awful shape of the fortress of Pandemonium, column upon column, window upon window, geometrical and austere. In a way, this monumental fortress is more terrible than any Gothic castle or gruesome keep because of its very cleanliness and regularity. It has something in it of the fascist architecture of Rome under Mussolini. Compared to the fortress, the battalions of demons, even Satan himself, are insignificant. Hell is an institution, a vast machinery that grinds even the most stubborn hearts of stone into gravedust. Hell hates individuality, because God made each creature to be good in a unique way; evil turns sinners into dreary copies.
“Christ Carrying the Cross”, by Lorenzo Lotto, is a luminous artwork in its own right. The grimacing faces of the soldiers jut out of the cropped edges of the painting, crowding tightly around the suffering face of Christ. However, what especially caught my attention was the signature of the artist. It was not written neatly in the corner of the canvas; instead, it was written slantwise on the lower arm of the cross, as if engraved into the wood. Indeed, the signature is upside-down for the viewers of the painting, and for most of the participants in the scene. It is oriented so that only Christ can read it. And in fact, for many years, the painting was so dirty that no one could see the signature; the identity of the artist was thought to be lost. In the end, it was cleaned, and Lotto’s masterpiece was attributed to him once more; but, as attested by the placement of his signature, public acclamation isn’t the true mark of identity. To Lotto, if Christ knew his achievement, it was enough. And so should it be for all of us. We are saved from the lifeless uniformity of hell, not by the world’s appreciation, but by God’s true knowledge.