I just saw a fascinating post about "La Nona Ora" at "Leave the Lights On". In it, Ginko100 shows a sculpture by Maurizio Catelan of Pope John II that is, well, unusual. When I first saw the image I thought it wasn't a serious art piece, I'm ashamed to say. But getting beyond the incongruity of the Pope struck by a meteorite, there's a great spiritual truth captured in the sculpture. And that is, when your world crashes around you, the only hope is to cling to the cross. When the sky falls, heaven does not. There is a determined intensity in John Paul's expression, as if to say, "A huge chunk of space rock may drop on me, but I will not drop my faith."
Now look at the enlarged facial expression of the Pope. Look closely. There's determination, conviction, even stubbornness. GK Chesterton argued that the problem with modern man is not a lack of modesty, but that modesty has fallen on the organ of conviction rather than the organ of ambition. Looking at the face of the Pope, there is no modesty of conviction. The grip of his conviction matches the grip on his staff. The image says, "I know something!"
Now compare the Pope's face with the image I use for this blog: the death mask of Isaac Newton. The deep brow, clenched mouth, eyes shut tight speak of unrelenting conviction in both faces.
The Newton image fascinates me, and on some levels terrifies me. So much of his character bursts from the image. Doesn't it look like he knows the secrets of the universe, but that he'll never tell? Even to the grave he carries his secrets. Doesn't it seem that was plotting the destruction of his enemies Hooke and Leibniz even as the brass casting for the mask was being forged and the grave already claimed him? I think that I would have feared Newton had I known him. I also get a bit of vertigo when I look at the mask image. A temporal vertigo. As if I'm looking over a chasm which spans hundreds of years into the past. Yet across that huge gulf in time, the very intimate details of Newton's face carries like a force. In the same way that gravity acts across spatial distances, the force of the death mask picture acts across a great arc of time. I shuddered the first time I saw it. For years my young son was spooked by the picture and kind of walked around it like he might a rapid dog. Aren't you a bit afraid that suddenly the eyes will pop open?
Yes, there's morbidity. But I think that the intimate and profound impact of a legend present in the picture outweighs the morbidity. I've always considered Newton from a distance. But looking at him closely I feel like I've just barged into his workshop at Trinity College and disturbed a critical, complicated and highly sensitive experiment. Part of the facial expression says, "Get the hell out and shut the door behind you!"
But now look at the Newton image and consider that this is the man who wrote 1 million words on alchemy. It is the face of an obsessed alchemist! His alchemy is extremely complicated, strange and occultic in its form, if not substance. There's great debate about his intentions in alchemy. Was he acting in a scientific role and used alchemy as the precursor to modern chemistry? Or did he "buy in" to the mystical/spiritual/occultic aspects of alchemy? My novel "A Body at Rest" plays with a third hypothesis: that his obsession was neither a scientific endeavor nor a traditional "philosopher's-stone-turn-lead-into-gold" activity. I propose that his alchemy was a coded language used to cloak a conspiracy that he carried to the grave. The death mask face tells me that he discovered a secret that he, and he alone, shall possess even to death. But in the novel, the secret finally surfaces. In the twelfth hour.
You should regularly check out Leave the Lights on for other gems.