“Just look at it!”: St. Paul the Hermit (1922)

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St. Paul the Hermit and Allegorical Figure with a Rose, 1922, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

I once asked my father what that “allegorical figure with a rose” was.  His answer: “Just look at it.”  He never explained his paintings: he wanted others simply to enjoy them, to look with their own eyes.

The holy figure on the left was clear.  And since my father often coupled the pursuit of the good with the pursuit of beauty, I thought the mysterious figure on the right might stand for beauty, or possibly the arts.

It was only many years later that my father said something that showed me there is far more to this painting.  “There are two things you don’t fully realize until you’re eighty.  The first is how beautiful everything is, and the second is how passing it all is—all just nothing.”  Instead of facile explanations, his words put before me the mystery of beauty.  That’s what he wanted us to see and to enjoy.

CSF12306 - detail of rose

While we may not be artists, beauty is not foreign to us.  We are all drawn to beauty of a rose and pause to enjoy a rainbow or a sunset.  And when our attraction to someone or something beautiful turns to love, our love increases as we get to know that person or thing better, and we enjoy that, too.  Beauty is our birthright.

Enjoyment connects beauty with the good, and it increases as we get to know the truth of things.  Enjoyment always accompanies our growth in the knowledge and love of that which is truly good: to see more deeply into reality in this way is to enjoy it—and experience it as beautiful.

It is the good, the true, and the beautiful that connect the two figures in this painting.  The saint on the left, pursuing the good, is inseparable from the figure that represents the mystery of beauty.  Truth, goodness, and enjoyment of beauty are something we all experience in life itself.

Velasquez - Schmitt St Paul the Hermit

(left) Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit, 1635, oil on canvas, 102 x 75½ in. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(right) Carl Schmitt, St. Paul the Hermit, oil on canvas, c. 1922, 30 x 25 in. (Private collection)
Schmitt’s depiction of St. Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341) being fed miraculously by a raven was inspired by a painting of the saint by the great seventeenth-century Spanish master.  The enigmatic figure on the foreground is Schmitt’s own contribution.

But life is not simply the enjoyment of all that is good and true and beautiful, and here is where that “everything is passing” comes in.  It refers to all the negatives in life that stem from our limitations and mistakes—as well as those of others.  My father saw all of these “non-goods” in terms of the great good of life itself.  It is in all the fears, setbacks, and darkness that the true greatness of life is revealed.  These are the shadows and the voids my father combined with the brightly lit lyric forms to make his art real—and hence beautiful.

In this way, he shows that each of us can find a measure of joy, peace, and beauty by pausing long enough to see our own struggles in the light of the great goodness of life itself.  This is the real work that redeems life of its momentary anxieties and troubles.  And as my father reminds us, that takes a lifetime.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.

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