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Asceticism and the Joy of Living

Asceticism and the Joy of Living (Abnegation)

Frank Buchser (1829-1890). Kunstmuseum. Basel. 1865.

Franz Buchser’s painting ‘Asceticism and the Joy of Living’ shows a scene from the countryside of Switzerland. The scene is set on a plateau but the Alps show in the background. It is high summer, the time to reap in the harvest and various people work in the fields, cutting the wheat and charging the dry stalks on wagons drawn by horses. There are no clouds in the sky. It must be in the hot afternoon, but in the early afternoon, for the shadows made by the sun on the people are little. A group of Franciscan monks advance. A couple of horse-riders, man and woman, slowly pass by on the earthen country road. Two girls, who may have worked in the fields, have put flowers in their hair and rest next to the road. One of the girls wears a hat with the summer flowers. She seems interested in a young monk who walks by. She may just be wondering how one can abnegate the joys of living thus, or she may have other interests in the boy. The young monk reads piously from his Bible, but he may only be hiding his eyes in the book from shyness or shame, because the stern abbot is not reading his own Bible at all and looks straight ahead, also at the young monk. The abbot crosses his arms across his breast in an act of determination and defiance. Between the abbot and the young monk stands an elder monk, a wise man with a white beard. This man looks at the abbot and seems to interrogate his leader. Two other monks follow on the right. That is about the description of what the viewer sees. Te painter however evokes one or several stories in the viewer, personal interpretations of what is painted. We do not really know what Franz Buchser may have meant, but the story that unfolds may be as follows.

It is a very hot, heavy summer day. A young girl, maybe a peasant’s girl, rests besides a road. She is a happy and nice girl and she seems to be interested in a young monk that passes by. This young monk has just been tonsured and he has left public life for a strict religious order dedicated to poverty. The abbot still watches the boy, who is not yet entirely a member of his community and needs to be kept on the road to religious ardour. Under the strong attention of the abbot, the boy cannot recognise the attention of the girl. So he averts his eyes and acts as if he were not interested at all in the girl, but in his Bible alone. The elder monk however, a stout man with a red face and an impressive belly, a sensual man, a man hat has kept contact with the real world outside of the monastery and who enjoys living, does not really agree with the abbot. He understands the emotions that must go through the boy’s mind. He interrogates the abbot with his eyes and that interrogation is already a silent blame. This man would let the young man return to public life, to the joys of life outside the monastery, to love, to harvests in summer, to easy living and to a happy life with moments of leisure. The young monk might marry, grow rich and go on horse-riding with his bride. But the old monk has also stayed too long in the monastery. He does not speak out, only interrogates. Behind the three monks that form this scene laden with austerity, reproach, regrets and tension, follow the other monks. They follow the father-abbot doggedly, without questions, oblivious of the world. They do not look around, do not ask questions, do not interrogate, and probably have few thoughts of themselves at all, except on following the abbot in silence ands see to it that they not stumble on this country road with small stones. In Franz Buchser’s scene these monks also form the balance with the two horse-riders on the left. They seem to be in the scene for the sake of pictorial design, but their presence is also necessary for the sake of the narrative, the literary content of the painting. They may represent the fate of the young monk. Which fate will the monk choose: the joys of living or asceticism?

The girl looks at the young monk with interest. She seems to be attracted to him and there are two attractions at play. The boy is physically attractive and nice. But since he is a monk already, the girl might also be attracted by the adventure of subverting a monk. She may want to transgress the conventions of society and thereby show her freedom from and in society. Good manners forbid girls to be interested in young monks but the girl may want to overcome conventions and affirm her freedom in the act. The girl is bored in the hot summer day and attention from a young monk might well be exciting.

Franz or Frank Buchser made several paintings with heavy undertones, some of sexual content. He was born in Switzerland; studied painting a little in Rome, Paris and Antwerp, but was largely an autodidact in the arts. He travelled a lot, to England, Spain, the Netherlands, but also to far lands such as Africa (1857-1858 and in 1860 and 1880). He was in the United States and Canada between 1866 and 1871and made paintings from which could be understood his concern about the status of the Negro population there, especially of female slave black girls. He painted such girls in the nude, unaware of their strong sexual appeal. His pictures have the soft realism of his era, stay in the genre depiction and seldom seem to outrightly accuse social situations. He usually painted genre scenes in lively but sweetly harmonising colour areas.

In ‘Abnegation’ Buchser questioned religious celibacy in monastic life. Celibacy for priests and monks had not really been ordered by Jesus in the texts of the New Testament. Although there was no direct demand or order for celibacy in the Holy Scriptures, that may as well be because celibacy was taken for granted in Jesus’s Essene-like movement. Many women however belonged to Jesus’s circle and accompanied him on his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus did not avoid women. Nowhere does Jesus seem isolated from women and he did not only address men. He conversed with women freely, even with women he met occasionally and that did not belong to his group of disciples or relatives. He had a long conversation for instance with a Samaritan lady he met at a well. At his Resurrection, the first person to which he showed himself was not an Apostle but to Mary Magdalene. Jesus thus did not ask celibacy from his disciples, and among the group that walked with him were both men and women. Jesus merely commended those who for the sake of the Heavens kept away from the married state, but he merely allowed those who had the force to accept this chaste state to accept it.

In the first centuries of the Catholic Church therefore, priests could marry. Celibacy as the renunciation of marriage for the better observance of chastity was not demanded by the Popes. During the early Middle Ages however this led to abuse and priests and monks lived unmarried with women openly outside marriage. Priests and bishops bough their offices and had mistresses even while they were married. At the Lenten Synod of 1074 Pope Gregory VII, the Pope called Hildebrand, ordered that all clerics who were guilty of incontinence should cease to exercise their sacred ministries. So it was only in the eleventh century that the Popes installed really the command of celibacy, and it happened in view of the degradation of morals not only among monks and priests bur in the whole of society. In Gregory VII times, the Catholic world was in a grave, deplorable condition. Since the edict of Gregory VII, celibacy of priests and monks are the rule in the Catholic Church. Protestant Churches abandoned celibacy rapidly however. Martin Luther married the former nun Katharina von Bora in 1525 and Luther had daughters and sons by her. Protestants argued that it was not ‘normal’ to lead a non-married life. It was only ‘normal’ for men to have sexual relations with women; continence and chastity was not normal for healthy men, but who wanted it could nevertheless also choose this way. The institution of marriage protected women and children and in any society such care had to be guarded and institutionalised, inheritance regulated. The institution was marriage, a solemn declaration not just for the fellow-humans but also before God. Marriage was and remains a sacrament in Catholic Church. The definition of ‘normal’ life varied widely from one century to the other, form one culture to the other. Homosexuality was tolerated easily in certain cultures, violently repressed in other. The Catholic Church and the Popes always looked at chaste monastic life as normal as married life.

Monastic life started when individuals and then small communities sought spirituality in isolation. In the Middle Ages and in Western Europe in particular, these communities grew from the tenth century on to strong and rich monasteries and convents. The abbeys were the agricultural and industrial powerhouses of their times, of which depended the economies and welfare of very many families. When celibacy was installed, the rule was strictly followed because of the Papal decree. Nuns could engage in a new kind of marriage, a marriage to Jesus, and find spiritual elevation and also full solace in this relation. Men had no such consolation to support them once they entered a monastery and gave the vow of chastity. Homosexuality and paedophilia have been among the side effects that racked the communities. Nothing but tradition and the idea that when priests married divorces and extra-marital relations might add to the issues of the clergy, withholds the Catholic Church from allowing priests and monks to be married once more. But almost a thousand years of tradition are hard to withdraw in the process. Monasteries are after all voluntary communities of men desiring to live together in dedication to works of charity and of spiritualism. Alternatives could only be communities of couple of man and woman. Experiments of such communities have existed but have also not been successful. Moreover, couples living in villages and towns investing in religious initiatives are very common so that closer relations in closed surroundings limiting freedom seem not necessary or desirable.

Franz Buchser painted in his picture another issue of celibacy: the constraint. As long as men entered monasticism of their own free will and in full knowledge of their engagement, this life was tolerable and welcomed. But men and women arrived at monastic life through all sorts of reasons and also by coercion. Families, friends, looking at the emphasis on ideals and having unrealistic views of the life in monasteries, could exert much mind-power over youth. In the Middle Ages one was well fed in monasteries and when one was intelligent but poor and not aristocratic, the abbeys were the only hope on power. Buchser also drew attention to that issue in his picture: the abbot exerts some form of power over the young monk, power that the wise old monk puts into question. What is really best for the young monk is impossible to know, but the elder man interrogates the coercion. He interrogates the abbot on the freedom of the actions and will of the young monk. The catholic Church also and always emphasised free will, but men are men and some use of will-power over younger, less mature and less strong young minds must have been no exception.

Franz Buchser was a painter of realism. He painted simple scenes with an easy talent but without a great and subtle power of expression. He used the medium of painting to express ideas and make controversial reflections. His art of painting was largely subjugated to the narrative, to the literary content of his pictures. In that sense his paintings are examples of the densest narrative content in pictures. With ‘Asceticism and the Joys of Living’ he made a painting on the theme of the dangers and issues of celibacy, on the exertion of power over young minds and also some on the attraction of things forbidden. We are at unease with so much narrative in a painting, but Buchser certainly reached his aims effectively in making viewers reflect on the more difficult problems of religious life.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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