BBC Radio 4:Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer - 13/04/2018


On previous visits to Florence, I lacked the foresight to pre-book tickets to the Academia, and so, defeated by the queues, I never got to see its most famous resident, Michelangelo’s David. Last week, with an advance ticket in hand, I finally got to lay eyes on the renaissance masterpiece. Despite having seen numerous reproductions, nothing prepared me for my encounter with the colossal original. The word ‘breath-taking’ has been reduced to a cliché, but in this case, it is the only word I can find to desCRIbe my reaction. It is so perfectly lifelike that looking at it long enough, I began to see the pulsing in the jugular vein and the slightest twitching of muscles.

Michelangelo’s contemporary Giorgio Vasari was not exaggerating when he said: ‘Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead.’

And yet as I stood glued to my spot, I couldn’t help but notice people taking photographs of the statue. Why would one come all this way, to stand in front of one of the world’s great masterpieces, only to view it through a camera lens? You can see reproductions of David anywhere, so why squander a face to face encounter with the sculpture only to create another reproduction?

Perhaps it is because a naked encounter with such an awesome piece of work can be unsettling. It invokes distance. Its uniqueness means that we have nothing to compare it to, it defies categorisation, and so implies an unbridgeable gap between the viewer and the masterpiece. We cannot wholly grasp it, and certainly cannot possess it. It is mysterious. It remains visible, but just beyond our reach. To put it simply, it invokes a state of awe. And awe can be uncomfortable.

Photographing, or otherwise reproducing a masterpiece, can be a way of reasserting control. It allows us to capture the elusive artwork, to possess it. To reproduce it. And in reproducing it, we transfer it from an ethereal experience to a tangible product.

But it is precisely because we live in such a reductionist, consumerist society that we sorely need moments of mystery and awe, such as great art can provide. For such moments lift us beyond our routine material concerns, offering us a more expansive perception of life and being.

An eighteenth century Jewish mystic taught that awe – more than love – is the foundation of all genuine religious experience. Love, can be self-focused, it is by nature possessive. Awe, however points beyond the self. Rather than clasping, it surrenders. And in letting go we become enlarged.

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