One of the ways to navigate our path into the future is to look back to the past and see where we came from.
A Māori whakataukī [proverb] sums this up well – “ka mua, ka muri” [“walking backwards into the future”]. This is what Europe did in the 1300s after the city of Florence sparked a renaissance (rebirth), a return to the values of the ancient world.
The exhibition Renaissance: The Age Of Genius, which starts today at Auckland’s Aotea Centre and runs until January 29, offers an opportunity to “ka mua, ka muri”.
It may, therefore, be quite important for New Zealanders.
The exhibition shows how an entire continent ended up returning to the ideals of civilisations that existed more than a thousand years earlier. There, they discovered the power of ancient wisdom to inspire and transform. And it all started with art!
Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and many others drove one of the world’s most comprehensive philosophical systems ever.
By abstracting from nature and primal mythology, they changed the way people felt and saw the world.
They showed the ability of the human person to rise to the challenges of the day by producing a thriving civilisation through the inspiration of art, with one foot in the past and the other foot in the future.
In so doing, they allowed people to touch, as it were, the points of intersection between faith and reason, the ideal and the real, and between the ancient and the new.
Surprisingly, and perhaps inadvertently, Europe’s return to the wisdom of ancient knowledge was also a return to what Māori always had in mātauranga [traditional knowledge] and pūrākau [storytelling], a multi-disciplinary, mythological, and unitary vision to understand the world.
Modern Aotearoa New Zealand, therefore, has its roots in both camps.
This is true because the Renaissance was much more than Europe’s rebirth. It absorbed within itself not only the great heritage of the classical world, but also the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples, whether the artists intended to do so or not.
The wisdom of Europe’s “ka mua, ka muri” overlaps significantly with mātauranga and pūrākau in Michelangelo’s casting of the Judeo-Christian separation of the heavens and earth in Genesis 1:7 as Ranginui [sky father] and Papatuanuku [earth mother] disconnecting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling to produce te tangata from both te whenua and te pō.
We can name this image whatever we want! But indisputably, Michelangelo’s scene in the Vatican’s 16th-century papal chapel is a Renaissance rendition of te ao Māori’s cosmogonic myth.
The Renaissance is already part of New Zealand’s own history, because to speak of the Renaissance is to speak of Western civilisation. Even for those who do not share European ancestry or have had little contact with Western civilisation, the Renaissance is still an historical reality that must be taken into account.
Whatever our view, when we speak about the Renaissance, we realise its unique place in history. Even when we consider it only from an artistic perspective, we are still confronted by how much the human spirit can achieve. It is the depth of knowledge that lies behind those scenes that counts!
Renaissance artworks changed the way people saw and understood the world. They made people think and feel differently, which led to personal transformation, ground-breaking discoveries, new social movements and political systems. Therefore, the Renaissance today holds clues to surpass the achievements of the past, as the Renaissance itself surpassed the achievements of classical antiquity.
Such an exhibition must be particularly meaningful for New Zealanders because, having separated the branches of knowledge, we have lost that distinctive multi-disciplinary vision which the Renaissance restored.
Therefore, such an exhibition as Renaissance: The Age Of Genius can play a role in restoring that educational disunity.
Further, this exhibition brings together masterworks from across the globe in a single immersive multimedia experience. Though, perhaps most importantly, Europe’s Renaissance, like ancient Rome and Greece is, in a sense, communis patria, just as Aotearoa is papawhenua for all New Zealanders.
Therefore, seeing Renaissance art today offers a unique opportunity for us all to look back to the past to craft a world for the future.
It presents a synthesis of knowledge, a holistic concept of the world focused on the unity among humanity, nature, creation, science, mathematics, anatomy, geography, religion and even astrophysics.
Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, we are already experiencing our own renaissance through the revitalisation of mātauranga Māori.
Therefore, both the Renaissance and mātauranga Māori would allow us to touch the points of intersection between land and people and between past and future.
This is something that can happen to everyone, to some degree, irrespective of our ancestry and breadth or narrowness of cultural horizon.
- Dr Christopher Longhurst is a theologian.