Feminism's Future; Her Majesty's Cavaraggio

A Conference on Where Women Are Going

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 21, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Ever since the end of my adolescent years, I have become a huge fan of Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon. And I dare say that ever since the end of my adolescence, Glendon has found me considerably more tolerable. This is, of course, to inform readers that the following article does not come from an unbiased source. Mary Ann Glendon is my mother.

On Dec. 15, my professional and personal worlds collided as my mother came to Rome as featured speaker in a conference held in one of my favorite art galleries, the Palazzo Colonna.

Under the dramatic ceiling fresco of the Battle of Lepanto (a Colonna ancestor, Marc'Antonio IV Colonna, had led the papal fleet at the clash) the Centro di Orientamento Politico organized a discussion between Glendon and Lucetta Scaraffia, professor at the La Sapienza University in Rome.

The theme of the day was "Feminism and the Catholic Church" (surprise, surprise), but for a well-worn subject, some interesting new insights enlightened the attendees. The event was attended by mostly Italians, with a healthy smattering of Americans thrown in for good measure. Comparing the Italian idea of feminism with the American version was one of the most stimulating elements of the evening.

Scaraffia, who teaches contemporary history, opened the proceedings with a historical overview of the role of women in the Church. Contrary to common opinion, she said, it was Christianity that liberated women from the second-rate status they held in the pagan world of the time.

From Jesus' own example and teaching, through the numerous lives of women saints to the great figures of St. Catherine of Siena and many others who have had important interaction with the Holy See, the Church has historically demonstrated a great respect for the importance and dignity of women.

The last two centuries brought new challenges. Numerous differences and misunderstandings arose that made many women feel as if the Church couldn't or wouldn't understand them.

However, recent years have brought about a positive current in the tides of women/Church relations particularly after the Second Vatican Council and the pontificate of John Paul II. Although professor Scaraffia noted that there weren't enough women in high Church positions, she said she believed that a "new alliance" could be formed between the Church and women of today.

Professor Glendon, while in agreement with Scaraffia's remarks, tackled the vestiges of 1960s feminism with the same directness and energy of the Colonna fleet taking on the Ottomans in 1571. She set the tone by explaining that the world today was dealing with new challenges regarding women in society -- the increased participation of mothers of young children in the labor force, the sexual revolution and the alarming proportion of female-headed households in poverty.

Glendon also took into account the demographic origins of 1960s feminism in the United States, emphasizing the anger that propelled it. These feminists displayed a peculiar combination of "man-hating and man-chasing," a paradox from their inception. To gain support, these feminists made what Glendon vividly described as a "Faustian bargain" with the abortion industry, homosexual organizations and population control groups.

Although old-line, hard-line feminists received funding and plenty of media coverage from their new allies, including the Playboy Foundation, they also lost touch with everyday normal women. The feminists were looking toward a "unisex" world where the strictest equality between the sexes would be maintained, while most women were beginning to wonder why their "spokespeople" wouldn't take any interest in their concerns of reconciling jobs and families.

Despite dark pacts and the fundamentalism of feminisms past, Glendon noted a positive new trend. Today, most women have fallen away from radical feminism and, in the meantime, the Church has been moving forward. As never before, seminary formation prepares priests to be able to address the problems and questions of women. And at the highest level, Pope John Paul II in no uncertain terms set a new course for relations with women through not only his teachings but his own personal example.

Scaraffia, in her insightful talk, brought out the historical foundations of feminism. She proposed that the ultimate solution to the feminism-in-the-Church question lies in more women holding decision-making positions in the Church. Indeed, one of the most amusing moments of the evening came when one woman in the audience demanded to know when a woman would be placed as the head of something in the Vatican. The three cardinals present pointed in a single gesture to Glendon, who is the president of the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences.

For her part, Glendon did not suggest that the answer is flooding the Holy See with résumés to become head of this or that, but to courageously live out the vocation common to all lay people, men and women, to bear witness to Christ out in the secular world. She speculated that an implicit "clericalism" still lingers behind much of the push for women occupying positions in parishes, while the more fundamental work of evangelizing the secular world is neglected.

The beautiful marble floors of Galleria Colonna are marred by a cannonball lodged in the stairs, a souvenir of Queen Christina of Sweden, who moved to Rome in the 1650s after her conversion, renowned as the "woman who chose to be Catholic rather than Queen." This fascinating foreigner fired a cannonball from the Castel Sant'Angelo, missing the Tiber but hitting the Colonna Palace.

Last Friday, however, the foreign star who came to the Galleria Colonna definitely hit the mark.

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Terminal Art

Train stations are usually the sort of places that tourists avoid when not actually transiting, and Rome's Termini station had the reputation of notable seediness. In recent years, however, Rome has been trying to overturn the unsavory image of its central train depot.

One of the cleverest attempts involved carving out an exhibition space in the station where a number of significant art shows have taken place. At the moment, Termini is hosting one of the most important Caravaggio events in several years, the rediscovery of the lost work "The Calling of Peter and Andrew."

The oil on canvas, which belongs to none other than Queen Elizabeth, was probably purchased by King Charles I in 1637, twenty-seven years after the artist's death. After having been varnished and re-varnished, the work was placed in the deposits of Hampton Court. Ten years ago, Italian art historian Maurizio Marini proposed the possibility of the painting being an original work by Caravaggio.

With the intervention of Sir Denis Mahon, famous British art collector and historian, Queen Elizabeth gave her permission for the cleaning of the painting. The two-year restoration has brought to light certain characteristics of Caravaggio's work which have convinced many art historians of its authenticity.

Unlike most artists, Caravaggio did not draw directly on his canvases before painting, but made little incisions to note the placement of his figures. During the cleaning of "The Calling of Peter and Andrew," similar incisions were found on Jesus' eyebrows and nose as well as in other parts of the work.

Another Caravaggio characteristic was his tendency to paint quickly on the canvas. The Milanese painter didn't completely work out the subject in a drawing stage first, but left room for a certain spontaneity while actually applying the paint. Caravaggio often changed his mind as he was painting and the resulting changes, or "pentimenti," on the canvas can be detected. These traces of repainting in oil are present in several places on the queen's painting.

Finally, it seems that Caravaggio left his fingerprints in the wet oil paint. This is a bit ironic as Caravaggio was arrested some 40 times in his life, although of course he was never fingerprinted at the time. As a matter of fact, the hot-tempered artist would have been at home in the rough and tumble neighborhood around metropolitan train stations.

The presentation of the subject shows all the signs of Caravaggio's unique reflection on the idea of vocation. Jesus is on the far right, turning slightly back toward the two apostles although his body is moving forward. Christ's motion is underscored by his hand gesturing forward -- a visual interpretation of his call to "follow me."

Peter is almost completely submerged in shadow. The strong shoulder and neck muscles are visible but his face eludes us. He stands, arms akimbo, one hand open toward Christ while the other still tightly clasps his fish. Peter's decisive moment to let go of things of this world in order to open himself to the kingdom of heaven, is masterfully captured by this painter.

Andrew, on the other hand, looks troubled with his furrowed brow and downcast eyes, but his illuminated face is inclined in the same direction as Christ's. Similar to Caravaggio's 1598 painting of the "Calling of St. Matthew," Andrew points to himself, bewildered as to what he can give to God.

The light, emanating from an invisible source, seems to propel the figures forward. Instead of the tractor beam effect of the "Calling of St. Matthew," this divine illumination pushes the figures along the path. The darkness that surrounds the group echoes the difficulties of discernment, but brightness of Christ shows that he is indeed the way.

Tickets to the exhibit are a bit pricey at €8 (about $10.50), but the possibility of seeing this work for the first time since the restoration makes it a real Christmas treat. It will be on display until Jan. 31.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.