Posted in book review

‘Leonardo and the Last Supper’ by Ross King

Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I still remember an excellent replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in a tapestry form decorated on the wall of our family living room when I was in elementary school. It was vast and expansive, nonetheless magnificent with the profoundness of the scene and the expressions on the faces in it – all wondrous and curious. Now a stream of time has flown, but the first impression of the art still has become one of the stars in my heart’s constellation. “Leonardo and the Last Supper” by Ross King has added to the star the brilliance with telling stories resurrecting the atmosphere of the time and vividness of the people surrounding the creation and the creator of the art.

The book is an alluring admixture of the biography of Leonardo da Vinci and the history of religion, politics, society, and culture; all skillfully swirled in Ross’s skillful narrative account of the person of da Vinci and his work of the Last Supper. The narrative becomes more intriguing as the chapters replete with entertainingly informative tidbits about personal accounts of people related to da Vinci and involved in creating the Last Supper are ascending. The story’s construction follows how Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English essayist and cultural critic, narrated the lives of poets in The Lives of the Poets, composed of a brief biography of a poet, personal accounts of the poet, and professional criticism of the works. The reader will first be acquainted with da Vinci’s biographic backgrounds: parents, a well-to-do lawyer father, and a middle eastern slave mother owned by his father’s household. Da Vinci’s struggle with spelling and even harder Latin education, his fabrication of engineering work experience in his curriculum vitae to obtain a military commissioned engineer post when coming to Milan from Tuscany, and so forth. All the information is a telltale factor contributing to da Vinci’s rise to celebrity in his and our times, which is refreshingly informative to learn that the perennial polymath also had feet of clay with colors of contrast.

Ross is a scholar with a novelist’s magic wand to wield his writing power, casting a spell on facts and knowledge with the beauty of language and ease of words, captivating readers of all life paths with gripping narrative skills. Another book of his “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling,” which I enjoyed with great pleasure, is a helpful companion to this book because both Michelangelo and da Vinci were contemporaries, working under their aristocratic patronage the recalcitrant spirits of creative souls in reins of livelihood. It would also be an excellent reference to the social statuses of artists at that time. Contrary to our images of free-spirited artists, artists worked for their royal, ecclesiastical, and wealthy employers. Therefore, they were not free to choose subject matters for their works because their bosses wanted their power and fame to become works of art, as it were.

Upon closing the last page of Leonardo and the Last Supper, I reminded myself of Plato’s aesthetic definition. Art is a copy of Form, the perfect, pristine Beauty. It exists only in Idea because da Vinci was also a scientist and an engineer who found perfect beauty in perfect numerical and astronomical elements of nature. However, da Vinci’s Last Supper is filled with pathos, contrasts of human emotions, paradoxes of light and dark, good and evil, constantly changing, never-ending. Da Vinci was a humanist, finding beauty in nature as it is, regardless of perfect Form, the unattainable ideal that is out of touch. One thing right about Plato’s Aesthetics is that art is at best entertainment and at worst a dangerous illusion. That says it. Leonardo’s Last Supper is a soul’s entertainment, and so is Ross’s “Leonardo and the Last Supper.”



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Posted in Miscellany

A gift from a heaven’s dove

Going to mass every Sunday morning has become a mechanical reflex of programmed biological locomotion ever since I realized that my beliefs were abstract ideals hard to fit in the real world. All those sacraments of the church I learned by rote as a child has become the artifacts of ancient esoteric religion that has turned into institutional paganism itself. In a word, I am on the verge of losing my faith altogether, if not already, still tempted to recourse to the fragments of the belief that I try to reason on my own terms, which I often find hard to win because something such as the message supposedly from the Holy Spirit I randomly picked up yesterday after a mass permanently binds me to the old religion.

I didn’t care much less about Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven filled the hearts of the faithful with messages from God to each different individual. The little bookmark-like cards containing each of Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit were randomly distributed to the attendants after the Eucharist. The priest said they were blessings from God curtailed to individual needs, never coincidental and ever mysterious. I picked up one that was not what I would like, but that what I had denied. It was not Wisdom, Understanding, or Knowledge that I still crave the most. But it was Piety instead, that not so wonderfully mysterious or romantically awe-inspiring banal word for showing respect for God, the church, and the religious people. St. Thomas Aquinas would rebuke me for my low regard for Piety, but it is rather clerical and prosaic virtue that even the most unlearned would have. After all, absolute obedience to God and the Church was what drew Luther’s bow of the Reformation.

A Gift from God in the Holy Spirit: “Piety”

But how could it be possible that my gift from God was Piety amid my own religious turmoil in soul’s dilemma? Indeed, there must be more than a respect for priests whom I think as presumptuous elitists inured to be respected, not accustomed to respect. Piety encompasses dutifulness, fidelity, allegiance, and loyalty, giving the impression of militaristic steadfastness. In my own words, I interpret this augury as indicating patience to endure and fulfill obligations till the ripe time and chance happen to me during my journey to a preordained end. My loyalty then requires fidelity of my consistent devotion to a job, filial duty, and the church by not falling wayside to the current instigation of a rebellious spirit. Am I not being an Oracle of the Holy Spirit?

I keep the card and wonder if it is a manifestation of synchronicity. Whatever and from whom it may be, one thing is sure that reverence for obligations arising from a sense of duty helps your ship’s sailing across life’s undreamed shores and unpathed seas against the thunderous maelstroms in nature’s whimsical and capricious temper. It might be just a random message, but then there is nothing as coincidence because we are made of such wonderful stuff of fire, dew, and spirit. What’s more, if I can use the message as a divine oracle to guide my journey into the unknown tomorrows, then it will be all the more beneficial, just as the people of the ancient civilizations did the same. And I think that is why religion exists.

Posted in Miscellany

Paid forward by a Stranger

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Satre was a cynic when it came to the milk of human kindness. He smirked by saying that generosity was more or less a feelgood giveaway of the doer in the self-contentment of magnanimity. The intention is ego-driven, not altruistic. Satre may be a brilliant intellectual in the post-modernistic world, but he was essentially missing something, obviously not knowing it for the following reasons. 

I still remember a lecture given by a religious sister whose spirituality bloomed in her charity and intelligence about the practice of charity in our daily lives, rather than doing it as a penance after a guilt-ridden confession. For you never know, the one benefitted from your kindness might be an angel in disguise (the mysterious shopper!) or even Christ himself (the Lord of Lords!) So, how will I interpret an act of generosity when a total stranger paid for my sandwich at Subway?

It was a rather gloomy afternoon today because of the disappointment with the general members of humanity that I felt most acutely painful to my glass heart. The things deemed trivial or insignificant matter to me, stay in there until I burn them with candlelight under moonlit tranquility of the mind. Samuel Johnson is right in saying that you cannot will away the unpleasant feelings in full force at once. That is why we object to despotic edicts of stoic austerity to quell the perturbed state of mind. The Sun was high, but the spirit was low, and I could not pretend to be cheerful and optimistic as if there was no word for Unpleasantness in my dictionary.

So when I was in a nearby Subway store during lunchtime, I felt wretched and wished that the time would go fast so that I could go home with the alacrity of departure. But no, the reality bit when a store clerk asked me if I wanted my bread to be toasted. No, I said politely and proceeded to the counter for payment, when the register guy told me that the man before me paid forward my sandwich. Really so? But I didn’t know him. There were two men, seemingly office workers from nearby, coming for some quick bites like me. And I still don’t know which man paid for mine, but what does it matter when both of them are total strangers anyway? Then I checked my reflections on the outside building’s crystal-clear glass windows and saw a woman decently presentable looking in thin figure clothed in a DKNY tweed jacket and Michael Kors jeans, which disqualified me for being a hobo woman. So why did he pay forward for my Tuna sandwich?

Whether he was a confessional penitent doing penance or an angelic agent is still a mystery, but then something is better to remain as it is, I think. The unexpected surprise from the stranger put my emotions on the continuum of low arousal on one hand and high pleasantness, on the other hand, creating satisfaction that my life could be likable and ultimately livable. It’s a small pleasure that keeps my sailing endurable and doable in a wide ocean alone against monsters, thunder and lightning, and doldrums. No wonder the sandwich tasted sweet.

Posted in Film Review

About ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)

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A great film with a sincere message about life and human nature transcends a divide of time and a boundary of the territory. I believe that a good movie has a lasting sensory impact on the viewer and cultivates the mind with a visual efficacy of precipitation. In this regard, the epic historical drama ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959), directed by William Wyler, is an epitome of masterpiece cinema not for a time but all seasons. The remarkable triumvirate of the outstanding screenplay, the excellent performance of the cast, the fascinating cinematography produces supreme one of art that resonates with spiritual elements of humanity in the witchcraft of motion picture.

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The film follows a history of Judah Ben-Hur, a young Jewish prince whose life is forfeited by a betrayal of trust and corruption of friendship. From the height of his prime to the fall, then to redemption, it is heroic acts of high human drama wonderfully conjoined with a tale of Christ whom Ben-Hur encounters by Providence. His wrath is untamed, and anger is the roaring of a lion. Ben-Hur chooses vengeance as a will to live in the march of death in the desert and the prison galleys on the Ionian Sea. He feeds on ire and utters curse every day until he intends to execute vengeance upon the perpetrator with recourse to the old retributory law of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Who can calm the turbulent vortex of the soul in despair and save him from the night of the soul?

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The film revolves around Christ, and Ben-Hur is another disciple of his teachings through conversion into faith, charity, and hope. The figure of Christ is the central theme of the film, but his face is unseen, and his voice unheard. We can only see his rear, but it is the mysteriousness of the person of Christ that elevates the story of Ben-Hur to the sphere of hagiography. The providential encounters with Christ in the climactic moments of his life lead him to the way of Christ, which mirrors the process of Ben-Hur’s redemption from Wrath to Grace, from Desolation to Hope.benhur-christ-a

Whether or not you believe in Christianity is not a prerequisite to appreciating this excellent epic drama because it would be a loss to any lover of arts to forego the spectacular beauty of the cinematography, not to mention the spiritual thematic of one man’s redemption from hopelessness. The grand epic scale of cinematography that depicts the tale of Ben-Hur in the trail of Christ from the Nativity to the Crucifixion is akin to watching Michelangelo’s remarkable frescoes of the Sistine Chapel that illustrate the story of humanity from the Genesis to the Last Judgment under God’s mysterious plan for mankind. In conclusion, ‘Ben-Hur’ is not a movie about a hero but about a triumph of hope over the desolation that saves a man’s soul from self-destruction, resonating with ‘Dum spiro, Spero,’ meaning ‘while I breathe, there is hope.’

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