Forty one years ago, a deranged Hungarian stood in front of one of the most beautiful works of the spirit which art has created. Without warning, he leapt at the marble statue and dealt it repeated blows with a hammer, smashing off the left arm, and leaving the face severely damaged. Shattered fragments of Michelangelo’s Pieta lay strewn across the floor of the Vatican before staff and shocked onlookers could react. It took more than five months just to collect and identify the various fragments – one tiny chipping being identified as the eyelid of Mary, who in the statue holds the body of the crucified Christ, her son.
Why did this man commit such a terrible act of destruction? Even given his apparent mental instability, why destroy such beauty? The principal damage to the marble was directed, not at the crucified body which she supports, but at the figure of Mary. But Michelangelo does not show us Mary’s features contorted with grief, as was customary with a portrayal of the Pieta. Instead, her features seem to embody a transcendence which lifts both her and us beyond the greatest pain of the soul which a mother – and specifically this mother – has to endure: a manifestation of beauty which for one man apparently proved unbearable.
It seems that it is not just the acceptance by Beauty of the Beast which should concern us, but also the reverse. We are at times the Beast who needs to accept a transcendent and confronting Beauty. In Afghanistan the Taliban, driven by religious fanaticism, reduced with dynamite the centuries-old serene statues of the Buddhas of Bamiyan to dust and broken rubble. Many other examples of such destruction of created beauty are provided by history. What is beautiful must, it seems, be destroyed for one reason or another. And such destruction is not limited to the created works of artists both known and unknown. An idyllic valley is flooded to make way for a giant dam. Whole forests are cut down and reduced to waste land, or for housing development. The natural world around us, the most beautiful treasure which we have in our care, is ransacked, either for its resources or in the name of a dubious progress.
It is as if the human soul is torn between that soul’s need for the experience of beauty and an equal need to destroy it. In the story of Beauty and the Beast we all recognise the inner work to which Beauty has to commit herself before she is able to accept the appearance of the Beast. But what tends to be overlooked is the equal commitment which the Beast needs to make in order to accept – and to allow to exist – the soul-healing appearance of Beauty.
The drawing is a portrait by Kahlil Gibran of his mother Camille, who stands in front of a frieze from the palace of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal depicting a wounded lioness.