Scholarly Call As A Dedication Of Spirituality To Human Life On Earth

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of a Viennese Scholar”, 1503
Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of a Viennese Scholar”, 1503

The first reaction on the expression of the face of Cranach’s scholar and on his gaze and the position of his hands and his fingers vis-à-vis the opened book creates the impression that he can be blind – that he is reading with his fingers and translating what they are saying to him about the meaning of the words and phrases into the meaning of the text. But this tautological “interpretation” doesn’t lead us far – it would keep us on the surface of life as first-glance reaction which grasps the obvious instead of being interested in connotations, in semantic overtones communicating more important truths than flat dogmatic consciousness can detect. It would be more productive to take Cranach’s scholar as not physically blind – he in certain moments is not looking at the world, not even at the text he was just looking at moments ago when he was reading it. Now, he is looking for the… meaning of what he just read. His fingers caressingly touch opened pages. Even if he is blind, it’s more cognitively stimulating to interpret his gaze as his concentration on meaning and for this reason not directed at the world, not as a sign of physiological inability to see.

Is something different here from how majority of people read in 16th and 21st centuries? When we read we grasp the surface “meaning” of the text and quickly move onto the next sentences, phrases, paragraphs and pages, but when we take our gaze away from the page we try to understand not what the text is saying to us, but the deeper meaning of what it says. This differentiation between the text we read (and understanding of what we read) and the meaning of what we just read – is expressed in Cranach’s painting by visually separating reading and thinking. Contextually we understand that the scholar is reading but we see that his gaze is concentrated not on the book. Why this differentiation is important? Scholar takes the gaze away from life or from scientific thinking – he looks into the meaning of life or of scientific truth.

Scholarly gaze is directed to nowhere, not towards existing things. Scholar thinks disinterestedly – he is looking at meaning of existential truth. That’s what we can learn today from thinker/painter of the 16th century. We are abused by the creators of mass-cultural – vulgar by their logical or archetypal obviousness images meant to seduce, overwhelm and exhaust us with immediate satisfaction instead of inspiring us to observe and learn the meaning of life. Today, inside the culture of calculation of personal or group advantage or sliding along the text of everyday life, we forget what it means to take our gaze out of life, what it means to look attentively at nowhere.

In his humility Cranach’s scholar is… satisfied to be with meanings, not with nature’s and worldly gifts. He is part of nature and the human world and transcends them both. The specialists in chemical analysis of paintings inform us that the book on the scholar’s knees was first painted as lying on a marble table, but that Cranach later changed his mind. We can imagine, why – the spirits of meaning need no marble-support. Meaning is much more ascetic than the flesh of life.

Cranach’s scholar was already an intuitive Cartesian, almost hundred years before Descartes was born. He has voluntarily surrendered life’s and living people’s naïve ontological centrality, he has psycho-ontologically marginalized himself, he settles in meaning, he lives to think, for him to think is equivalent of what for others it is to live. His head in the painting is situated above the earth, but his gaze belongs to the realm of earthly life (even when it’ not seeing it) – it is not the gaze of a theologian directed above the earth. In Cranach’s painting the scholar’s head is located between two trees, one signifying life, and the other – mortality. He belongs not to human settlement (near the right margin of the painting), nor to separation from life in being a hermit (position symbolized by the White Mountain near the right upper corner of the painting).

Cranach scholar doesn’t look at nature or sky – both areas behind him as parts of his past experiences, as if, they are backing him up, encouraging his dedication to the meaning of human life and life of human society as the highest goal of the existence of earth and sky. Cranach paints the bright whitish cloud right over the scholar’s head, as a modified nimbus – this opaque cloud is, as if, the emanation of the scholar’s mind. But this brain/cloud is rather isolating the scholar’s mind from the heavens – his thinking belongs to the human world, to the human society and history, to the destiny of humankind on the Earth. We see that Cranach was very responsive to and among the promoters of Renaissance’s motifs of humanness as something worthier than the charms of theological castles. The uniqueness of this painting lies in its emphasis of the intellectual, scholarly aspect of Renaissance humanism. In our times “of fragile state of the humanities in our country where only 7, 6 percent of American college students majored in the humanities in 2010 and where programs in humanistic fields from world languages to the study of religions are notoriously underfunded… and there is a growing sense that in a difficult economy the humanities are mere luxuries (Governor Rick Scott said that Florida does not need “more of anthropologists.)”, “The Christian Century”, p. 35, August 7, 2013, we especially have to celebrate paintings like Cranach’s “Portrait of a Viennese Scholar”.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of a Viennese Scholar”, 1503
Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Portrait of a Viennese Scholar” (in a reduced format)