Today I’m going to talk about two events that happened in Italy just as the Renaissance was drawing to a close.
The first thing is that the Catholic Church commissioned the fantastically talented and fantastically flawed painter Caravaggio to paint “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.” The second thing is that at the same time Caravaggio was wrestling with the composition of his painting, in fact, right around the corner from where Caravaggio was wrestling with the composition of his painting, the Catholic Church was making a martyr of an entirely different kind of a former priest named Giordano Bruno.
This is what happened with Caravaggio’s commission:
Church legend is that the apostle Matthew went to Ethiopia and converted the people and royals to Christianity. The king, however, eventually wanted to take his own niece as a second bride. When Matthew told him that such a thing was forbidden by Christianity the king had Matthew put to death. Caravaggio’s remarkable masterpiece—a kind of gay bath-house tribute to Saint Matthew—is typically read as having Christian converts in the foreground waiting to be baptized by Saint Matthew in Caravaggio’s invention of a pool under the altar, Saint Matthew himself knocked to the ground in the center about to be run through by the buff assassin, and just visible in the background the king of Ethiopia looking on at the carnage he has caused, perhaps shaken by the scene of his own making. Tellingly (of something) Caravaggio has painted the king as a self portrait.
This is what happened with Giordano Bruno:
In 1599 Bellarmino the Jesuit ideologue gave [Giordano Bruno] a final list of eight things to abjure. Bruno said no. It was a bad moment to say no.
Bruno told his interrogators about
infinite individual worlds similar to this earth ... they constitute the infinite universe in an infinite space ... I call nature the shadow and vestige of divinity ...
None of it, he insisted, touched on religious faith. It was just philosophy. It was an idea of an infinite universe that seized on the same Copernican astronomy that Galileo was developing as science. Bruno was no scientist—he’d rather sharply remarked that Copernicus’s fixed and finite sun centered universe wasn’t so new, whereas
we who look not at fantastical shadows but at things themselves, we who see an airy, ethereal, spiritual, liquid mass, a space containing movement and stillness ... we know it to be infinitely infinite.
He imagined the universe as infinitely many bodies in infinite space—it was tactile and visual, like his notion of the mind. In The Shadows Of Ideas he’d written that
nature doesn’t move from one extreme to another except through the mediation of shadows ... shadow makes the sight ready for light. Shadow tempers light ... shadows ... don’t dissolve but keep and protect the light in us, and lead us toward knowledge and memory.
Things themselves, shadow tempering light—[Caravaggio] was doing this in paint.
... In January the pope ordered Bruno’s death. In February they took him to piazza Navona. His sentence was read to the crowd and Bruno handed over to the governor of Rome for execution. His books were burnt in piazza San Pietro and put on the Index. Making fun of the pope was one of Bruno’s crimes—Clement had decided he was Circe’s pig in one of the satires, though the inquisitors got the book wrong. Another crime was maintaining the existence of innumerable and eternal worlds. Bruno glared at his inquisitors and said
you may be more afraid pronouncing the sentence against me than I feel receiving it.
He was probably right—taken at dawn to the campo de’ Fiori, he was stripped naked and tied to a stake and burnt to death
with his tongue in a clamp, on account of the very ugly words he used to speak.
Somebody waved a crucifix at him as he burnt, but Bruno averted his gaze.
I started this week, this sequence of posts, with Robert Sungenis and his conspiracy theory, his belief that attacks on geocentricity were really attacks on the Catholic Church.
I don’t believe Sungenis needs to worry. (If in fact he does worry.)
I believe that any real conspiracy theory targeting the Catholic Church of necessity would have more to say about the simultaneity of these two episodes than it would about whether or not Cynthiae Figuras Aemulatur Mater Amorum.