Voices from the Void: A Brief Meditation on Saint Ambrose and the Muses

By Kevin P. Keating

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A visitor entering the south entrance to the Cleveland Museum of Art will pass through a massive neoclassical, Georgian marble, Beaux-Arts rotunda that opens to several enormous galleries. By continuing to walk straight ahead, resisting the temptation to turn into the Amor Court with its hunting spears, chain mail and battered helmets that once belonged to rampaging wreckers of mead halls and Viking villages, the visitor will encounter five paintings of grand scale. Noted for their rich color harmonies and flowing brushwork, these monumental paintings depict the classical Greek muses of eloquence, history, astronomy, and epic poetry. Set in hand-carved frames of gesso and gold, Apollo and the Muses (figure 1) are considered the masterworks of 18th century French artist Charles Meynier. Though sometimes overlooked by visitors in a rush to see the famous prints and paintings of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, the gallery showcasing Meynier’s Muses has become a kind of secular temple for creative types seeking guidance and inspiration.

            During my weekly visits to the museum, I’ve noticed how students from the Cleveland Institute of Art, sitting crossed-legged on the floor and feverishly doodling with charcoal pencils in the pages of their sketchbooks, often gaze at the larger-than-life Muses as if hoping one of them will sing to them. The gallery remains eerily still, and with the notable exception of Calliope, the Muses look down upon these aspiring painters and part-time baristas with expressions that  seem curiously indifferent, maybe even a little contemptuous.

 (figure 1 — ARTIST: Charles Meynier)

(figure 1 — ARTIST: Charles Meynier)

With their Romantic and wildly theatrical grandeur, the five paintings that comprise Apollo and the Muses have always struck me as a bit contrived, perhaps a tad corny; nevertheless, I pause here like all unworthy acolytes who dare set foot within this holy of holies and pay homage to these gaudily gowned ladies, always noting how Calliope (far right), the muse of epic poetry, gazes over her shoulder at a bust of Homer as if the revered poet is singing to her rather than the other way around. Of course the daughters of Zeus are said to be irritatingly fickle and choose to bestow their favors only on a lucky few.

            Well, what can you do? Not everyone is capable of composing complex and endlessly engaging narratives like The Odyssey. At least we, from our privileged vantage point in this age of science and reason, can take some comfort in knowing that the Muses are nothing more than a silly superstition, a bit of confused thinking on the part of the ancients who believed they heard voices in their heads. Today, any artist claiming to hear disembodied voices is likely to seek medical treatment and, in the unlikely event he has health insurance, subject himself to a battery of tests. Doctors, using electroencephalographs and positron emission tomography to detect large-scale fluctuations in the artist’s neurophysiology, will regretfully explain that the Muses are in fact an insidious manifestation of a mental crackup that could prove potentially harmful both to the delusional patient and the general public.

            Now, rather than attribute works of genius to the quasi-mystical voices of the Muses, we must accept the grim diagnosis of modern medicine. This new cultural paradigm, with its battalions of materialistic killjoys in white lab coats intent on reducing inspiration to mere neural eructations, really takes the fun out things. But perhaps there are other ways to account for the mysterious source of an artist’s inspiration.

            In a distant corner, initially hidden from view as you enter the gallery, there hangs a different kind of masterwork, one that never fails to unsettle me (figure 2). The low viewpoint and large scale suggest that this painting once hung high on the wall of an important religious institution. In the painting an austere holy man wearing a ceremonial miter, a flowing white cassock and an elaborate ferraiolo is seated before the viewer. With feather quill in hand, he appears to be writing in a golden book of thick vellum pages. Behind him we see nothing but empty space, an abyss of complete and total darkness. Aside from his anachronistic clothing, there is no indication of time or place. There are no billowing clouds, radiant beams of divine light, or choirs of rosy-cheeked cherubs crooning “Hallelujah!” from the heavens. And yet, from out this strange emptiness, a voice seems to be calling to the troubled figure.

 (figure 2 — ARTIST: FRANCISCO GOYA )

(figure 2 — ARTIST: FRANCISCO GOYA )

Unlike Calliope, who looks over her shoulder with an expression of deep admiration at a bust of Homer, this man stares into the ineffable blackness with an expression of awe that borders on pure metaphysical and existential dread. The image is significant because the artist, by the time he began working on this painting in 1796, had completely lost his hearing after an extended illness. It was also during this period in his long and productive creative life that he completed and published a suite of eighty allegorical etchings called Los Caprichos, including the iconic The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (figure 3). In stark contrast to his early Romantic paintings, the Caprichos introduce us to a world of witches, ghosts, and fantastic creatures that invade the mind, particularly during dreams, drunkenness and drug-induced visions (or perhaps a combination of all three).

The man in the painting is Saint Ambrose and the artist is Francisco José de Goya. In the late 1700s, after the expulsion of its Jesuit priests, Spain underwent a radical religious transformation, and many artists turned back to early Church history for inspiration. Saint Ambrose, probably commissioned by a new organization attempting to fill the gap once occupied by the Society of Jesus, belongs to a series of paintings depicting Muses of a very different sort—the four doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. Aurelius Ambrosius (CE 340 – 397) was bishop of Milan in the fourth century and teacher (though “guru” might be a more accurate word) of Saint Augustine. Like his more famous pupil, Ambrose possessed a formidable intellect and was revered for his diplomatic skills. He is known for having resolved important theological conflicts within the early Church and for working effectively with advocates of Roman paganism, but Goya seems less interested in depicting the saint as an early medieval bureaucrat and more as a Gnostic who, for perhaps the first time in his life, is apprehending a reality so deep and so utterly baffling that he is having trouble finding the words to describe it in his fancy codex.

 (figure 3 — Artist: Francisco Goya )

(figure 3 — Artist: Francisco Goya )

When attempting to convey a sense of the infinite, the unfathomable, the absolute, human language often proves inadequate. The experience is one that transcends all worldly categories of human thought. In fact, it is the complete absence of limiting and often contradictory linguistic imagery that brings on the experience in the first place. But human beings, irrepressible chatterboxes that we are, need simile and metaphor if we wish to communicate anything of value.

            Over the millennia serious thinkers have made valiant attempts at describing Ambrose and his disquieting encounter with the unknown. Theologians, for instance, will sometimes use the word “apophatic” when describing a supreme mystical experience. For pious devotees of psychotropics like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms, the nearest parallel might be the “entheogenic” or, to put it more bluntly, hallucinogenic or psychedelic experience. In the more esoteric philosophies of the East, the experience is sometimes described as shunyata, a Sanskrit word that designates a state of mind based on the renunciation of what one believes to be real. In the West, channeling the more cumbersome language of scientism, the experience is described as a supremely immanent action that, paradoxically, annihilates all action. European alchemists believed this mystical encounter with darkness signified an eclipse of the ego due to an incursion of the unconscious.

            Goya’s depiction of Saint Ambrose seems to echo all these concepts. Having gained access to the unconscious, Ambrose ceases to be a high-ranking spokesperson for a particular dogma. He isn’t the avatar of a pernicious ideology, and he isn’t espousing any kind of religious doctrine. He isn’t a political propagandist or heresy hunter trying to root out all those who dare to deviate from the rigid orthodoxy of his Church. He doesn’t have some important point to make, and he isn’t trying to win an argument. The allure of the material world no longer matters to him. Titles, prestige, fame, fortune—all of these things seem trivial in comparison to the annihilating maw of unconscious forces. Ambrose, perhaps for the first time in his life, bears witness to the formlessness of the Beginning, a state of mind where the light of reason has yet to shine.

            A product of the Enlightenment, Goya was a vocal critic of superstition and could have easily painted Ambrose in a conventional romantic style, making use of a regal setting as in his Charles IV of Spain and His Family (figure 4). But like so many artists before and after him, Goya knew that in order to give the viewer a sense of the truly mystical nature of Ambrose’s experience, he would need to jettison convention while at the same time retaining familiar religious imagery. The religious, it would seem, is the best tool we mere mortals have for approximating a direct encounter with that which transcends all categories of human thought.

 (figure 4 — Artist: Francisco Goya)

(figure 4 — Artist: Francisco Goya)

According to art historian Robert Hughes, Goya was no high-minded theoretician or grotesquely overeducated hyper-intellectual. But he was the product of a long Catholic tradition. Born into a working-class family and raised in a modest brick cottage in an Aragon village, Goya was probably provided with an education described as “adequate but not enlightening.” His father specialized in religious and decorative craftwork, overseeing the ornamentation during the rebuilding of the Basilica of Our Lady of Pillar. In 18th century Spain, during Goya’s formative years as an artist, there existed, as there still does today, a powerful strain of mysticism that flirted with the dangerous heresy of the free spirit (libertas spiritus). Looking at Saint Ambrose hanging in the Cleveland Museum of Art, one can’t help but wonder if this freedom included liberation from the very concept of God itself.

            Today it might fashionable to reduce this masterwork to nothing more than a distorted vision of the oppressive patriarchal power structure of the Church. But I firmly believe Goya is attempting to express something that exceeds convenient and wearisome post-modernist categories. The abyss resists categorization because it lacks boundaries. It is unitary in nature and thus becomes a symbol of endless potential and unlimited creativity. And yet for some people, especially those who are strident about their ideological worldview, this interpretation can be frightening beyond belief, both literally and figuratively speaking.  

            Any artist who is honest about the source of inspiration must contend with the power of the void, the abyss, the darkness, the thing that obeys no authority, the thing (which is no thing) that devours and destroys predictable patterns of behavior and pathological systems of thought. This is not to say the abyss is without its dangers. The adverse effects of this self-dissolution and terrifying emptiness include neuroticism, depression, suicidal impulses, insomnia, nightmares, anxiety, psychosis, dysphoria, even alien abductions. And can you think of a single artist who hasn’t experienced at least some (or in the unusual case of Philip K. Dick all) of these symptoms?

            Skeptical students in my creative writing classes invariably ask where I get my ideas, and for many years my response has always been the same. Shrugging my shoulders in resignation, I offer them a sheepish smile and mumble without any real conviction, “I just listen to the voices in my head.” But now, having given this question careful thought, I believe the correct answer is, “Ideas, the best ideas, arise spontaneously—from out of nowhere.” Oh, sure, I can pat myself on the back and take credit for these rare flashes of creative insight, but this would be dishonest. The insights are not mine. I am not in control of the creative process, if indeed it is a process. It would be more accurate to describe it as a feeling, a wholly unpredictable and overwhelmingly convincing sensation of harmoniousness. And I also know these fleeting moments of inspiration float on the surface of a treacherous reality, Goya’s blacker than black canvas, a thing infused with irrationality and incoherence.

 (figure 5 — Artist: Oliver Munday )

(figure 5 — Artist: Oliver Munday )

Maybe Oliver Munday, the graphic artist who designed the cover of my second novel, knew a lot more about the nature of the void than I did (figure 5). When I first saw his minimalist design, I thought it much too grim, too unrelentingly bleak, but Mr. Munday knew that, trapped beneath those haphazardly hammered planks of wood, a very frightened man, his mouth agape, his eyes searching desperately for a thin sliver of light, presses his ear against a crack and listens to an ungodly voice calling to him from the outer dark. It’s a voice I sometimes hear, too, although I should be grateful not to hear it very often.