I’ve always been morbidly fascinated with Medieval Europe. Crusades, torture, corruption, religious law, prescientific thought, people being generally horrible to one another… for whatever sick reason, that unpleasant phase of history floats my boat. What is truly amazing to me about the Middle Ages, though, and about history in general, is that however far away from such a brutal time our own may seem, there nevertheless remain echoes of it in today’s world to which we can clearly point and say “here is a piece of where we came from.” They whisper that perhaps we are not so different, perhaps people have always been the same, and the lessons of the past apply to us just as much as they did to the first humans to learn them and the thousands of years of humans to learn them again and again thereafter.
We had just climbed the hill at the foot of the Acropolis, and there we sat among the rocks with the Parthenon just beyond, perched above the horizon. Families of European tourists chattered all around us and snapped pictures together, Australian backpackers drawled, and Greek teenagers smoked cigarettes, bobbing their heads to the rap music booming faintly out of their Bluetooth speakers. We sat on some of the same rocks, perhaps, that had touched the butts of the famous philosophers and politicians and artists of which John spoke, though we sat in such a different point in time, in almost a completely different world.
Even so, the philosophies, principles of democracy and justice, and artistic constructs John was describing to us were so familiar. As John explained how the particular placement of Parthenon was meant to symbolize that reason was the highest faculty of man, I was taken back to my first art history class, where we studied the religious works of Renaissance and medieval artists. I thought of Raphael’s Madonna del Prato, in which Mary’s placement in the picture plane puts her head above the horizon and her body below it, associating her mind with divinity and her flesh with the earth. Though the ultimate philosophical applications of the Medieval/Renaissance Roman Catholic theologians couldn’t be more different from that of the Greek philosophers, to me, it seemed that those underlying principles spoke to the same idea – the transcendence of the mind over the limitations and vices of the body.
John had begun his talk by saying that we were all Greek, not necessarily by blood, but by the culture and practices in which we had been raised. At first I didn’t know what he meant, but as he went on, and images of Raphael’s Madonna, and Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, and then Donald Trump and the modern American political arena flashed through my head, I began to understand. Our western world is the child of Ancient Greece, just as Ancient Greece was the child of humanity. I left John’s talk even more passionate about history and art, both of the past and of now, than I had been when I came to Greece. I am so grateful to John and to Ianthe for that experience, and for those I have had subsequent to it this summer. They have shaped me as a person and an artist in a way that I will forever appreciate.