Grossman’s essay on the Sistine Madonna by Raphael is one of the most splendid responses to art I have read. He deploys all his descriptive powers to encompass what it means to him and to us. Above all, it is a symbol of precious, tender, vulnerable, resilient life and our joy in possessing it. I would say he sees it primarily as a humanist symbol rather than a religious painting.
And note that minatory phrase at the end of the quotation, warning us to be wary of things that, however much they may resemble life, are not life. As we see ‘post-human’ emerging as a term, along with the development of various cyborg and robotic technologies, this seems more pertinent than ever.
It is my belief that the coming decades will need us to consider deeply what it means to be human and what we want to cherish and preserve of that complex construction, or discard. Perhaps the Sistine Madonna can help us navigate more wisely, and so can Vasily Grossman. His writing is nothing if not a massive plea for the finest and most subtle aspects of being human.
Personally, I would prefer a more-human future to a post-human one. For the record, more humanity to me does not mean greater domination of the non-human world, but a more harmonious ‘uncharted coexistence’ with it.
‘The painting speaks of the joy of being alive on this earth; this too is a source of its calm, miraculous power.
The whole world, the whole vast universe, is the submissive slavery of inanimate matter. Life alone is the miracle of freedom.
And the painting also tells us how precious, how splendid life has to be, and that no force in the world can compel life to change into some other thing that, however it may resemble life, is no longer life.’
Source: Vasily Grossman, ‘The Sistine Madonna’, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, trans. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova, afterword Fyodor Guber (New York: New York Review Books, 2010), p. 172
Image credit: The Sistine Madonna, Raphael, 1512 – wikimedia and Google Art Project