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The Journey to Il Convento

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by Sangharakshita

... that he felt like prostrating himself before it. Why did he not (apparently) feel like prostrating himself before Orcagna's Tabernacle - or, for the matter of that, before Donatello's David? In making your way from one city or town of Italy to another, from one church or museum to another, and from one painting or sculpture to another, you were no doubt directed not so much by logic as by what may be described as a sort of irrational wisdom, in the sense of an obscure awareness of an inner need, and it was because you were so directed that your journey to Il Convento was not straight but crooked in both the literal and the metaphysical sense, for as Yeats tells us: Wisdom is a butterfly And not a gloomy bird of prey.

It is a butterfly because a butterfly floats from flower to flower, or flutters aloft in the air, in zigzag fashion, as you must have observed in the course of your walks in the vicinity of Il Convento, where the butterflies are apparently more abundant than they are in most parts of England, as well as sometimes being of an unfamiliar species. In this connection I remember reading somewhere that in China the streets were formerly built not straight but crooked, with many sudden bends, because people believed that evil spirits moved only in straight lines, and could not go round corners. In modern times, of course, many Western cities have been laid out on a grid plan, with one perfectly straight avenue crossing another exactly at right angles. Paris, for instance, was rebuilt on this kind of plan in the middle of the nineteenth century, the reason being that in the event of an armed uprising the broad, straight avenues would enable the government to bring is artillery to bear on the revolutionary masses with maximum effect. Bullets and artillery shells, like evil spirits, cannot go round corners.

But to return to the journey to Il Convento. In the course of your sight-seeing, in the case of those of you who did any, you will have been led to one building rather than to another, and have lingered in front of this sculpture or painting rather than in front of that, not so much because you found it of special historic or artistic interest (though this may, of course, actually have been the case at times), but rather because you were deeply moved by it and because it possessed, for you at least, a significance that you were at a loss to explain. For reasons that are, perhaps, obvious, you will probably have been affected in this way more by sculptures and paintings than by buildings, and more by individual sculptured or painted figures than by groups of figures or by landscapes. Be that as it may, the likelihood is that a certain work of art moved you so deeply because it represented an image or symbol, and because this image or symbol embodied an archetype - though it is important not to make too hard and fast a distinction either between the image or symbol and the sculptured or painted form by which it is represented, or between the archetype and the image or symbol in which it is embodied. Moreover, if you were sufficiently receptive to what you saw, and sufficiently sensitive, the irrational wisdom that directed you to a particular sculpture or painting in the first place will, by virtue of your contact with that work of art, have been clarified and strengthened to such an extent as to be transformed into imagination, by which I do not mean fancy but a faculty for the perception of images, in the sense of archetype-images or images that are the embodiments of archetypes.

That faculty once developed, you will have moved from one work of art to another, or from one image to another, finding each work of art, and each image, more deeply moving and more highly significant than the last. Thus the journey to Il Convento is not only a crooked journey from one image to another. In fact, it is a journey through a world of images, or through an imaginal world, and herein lies its greatest significance. Now all this obviously requires explanation, and you may well be thinking that I am moving ahead far too rapidly. You may even be thinking that your own journey to Il Convento does not correspond very closely to the journey to Il Convento as described by me. At this point perhaps the best thing I can do, therefore, is to give you one or two examples, from my own experience, of the sort of thing about which I have been speaking.

These examples are not drawn from any of my own journeys to Il Convento, but they are at least drawn from a journey to Italy. This journey took place in the summer of 1966, when I passed through Italy on my way to Greece, entering the country by way of the Gothard Pass and leaving it from the port of Brindisi.

It was my first visit to Italy, and since I had been intensely interested in Italian art, especially Italian Renaissance art, ever since my childhood, I wanted to make the fullest possible use of my opportunity.

Wherever I went I tried to see every church, palace, museum, and art gallery, and every sculpture and painting that each one of these contained. In this way I traversed northern Italy, passing through Milan, Bergamo, Verona, Vicenza, Venice, Padua, and Ravenna. Probably I saw hundreds of buildings and thousands of sculptures and paintings. As the days went by, however, I became aware that I was being drawn to some paintings (for instance) much more than by others, and that the attraction often had more to do with the theme of the paintings than with the quality of their execution or the reputation of the artist.

One of the themes, or subjects, by which I was most drawn was that of St Jerome. St Jerome is one of the four Fathers of the Latin Church. He lived in the latter half of the fourth and the first quarter of the fifth century, and was a contemporary of St Augustine, another of the Fathers of the Latin Church, with whom he had an acrimonious correspondence. When he was already middle-aged St Jerome left Rome and went to live in the Holy Land, at Bethlehem, and it is at this stage of his career that he is usually depicted in Christian art. In the course of that journey in 1966 I must have seen two or three dozen St Jeromes, and I have seen many others since, either in the original or in reproduction. He is usually represented either in the desert, or in his cell, and either on his knees in front of a crucifix, or at his desk. I was drawn most of all by those paintings which represented him in his cell, or study, with an hourglass in front of him, a lion (which he had tamed) sleeping at his feet, his red cardinal's hat hanging on the wall (due to his association with the reigning pope he was traditionally regarded as a cardinal, though cardinals as such did not come into existence until many centuries later), a large volume open before him, and a quill pen in his hand. St Jerome was, of course, responsible for the production of the Vulgate, the standard Latin version of the Bible, which was in use throughout the Middle Ages, and when represented in his study he is generally understood to be engaged in this great work. Incidentally, he is represented as a very old man, with a long white beard. Sometimes his cell-study is practically bare, sometimes furnished with every scholarly comfort and convenience. Somehow this theme, or image, took hold of my mind. St Jerome was the Wise Old Man, and, as you know, the Wise Old Man is one of Jung's Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. That he was engaged in the work of translation, especially that of rendering the word of God into ordinary human speech, meant that something hidden in the depths was being brought to the surface, or brought from darkness into light. Thus St Jerome was the Alchemist - another embodiment of the Wise Old Man. His cell-study (sometimes depicted as a cave) was the Alchemist's laboratory. Indeed, it was the Alchemist's alembic, in which the Red King united with the White Queen, or his crucible, in which lead was transmuted into gold. In this way the image of St Jerome in his study tended to merge with other images, not only of the Alchemist in his laboratory, but also of the Philosopher in his study - especially Rembrandt's Philosopher, as he sits with the staircase spiralling up through the darkness behind him.

No doubt I was drawn to the image of St Jerome partly because of my personal situation at the time. I was living in the desert. I had left the `Rome' of collective, official, even establishment, Buddhism, and was seeking to return to the origins of Buddhism in the actual life and experience of the Buddha and his immediate disciples. Not only that. I was trying to teach Buddhism in the West, which meant I was trying to communicate the spirit of the Dharma in terms of Western rather than in terms of Eastern culture. I was thus a translator, with all that that implies in the way of seeking to fathom the uttermost depths of what one is trying to translate so that one may translate it faithfully, i.e. bring its meaning to the surface, or from darkness into light. Thus I was drawn to the image of St Jerome, and was able to see that image as an embodiment of the archetype of the Wise Old Man as `Translator' and Alchemist, because I had a personal affinity with that image, or because there was something in me that corresponded to that image. In other words, I had possessed, or had developed, a faculty for the perception of that kind of image. I possessed an imagination or, since the word imagination is often used in a pejorative sense, I possessed at least the rudiments of what has been termed the imaginal faculty. This imaginal faculty enabled me to see in the figure of St Jerome more than what was given by the paintings themselves, whether considered as `works of art' in the modern sense or as examples of traditional religious iconography. It enabled me to see the figure of St Jerome - who in a sense was no longer St Jerome - as in fact belonging ...

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