In the Warsaw National Museum, in the medieval collection, there is a wood sculpture representing Christ sitting, with his head resting in his hand, thoughtful. A big head, the skin covered with what looks like tears. The author is unknown, the date, 1502. The vast majority of the sculptures of Christ show him on the cross and, in the pietàs, dead cradled by the Virgin Mary. I had never seen one depicting Him sitting, pensive, with no signs of divine power, profoundly human, perhaps afflicted by what he expected to come, or by doubt.
It resembles Rodin’s “The Thinker” of 1880, preceeding it by almost 400 years. “Le penseur” was conceived as Dante in front of the hell’s gates. However, despite the similarity in stance, Rodin’s man is strong and muscled; it evokes a hero who has stopped just a moment before resuming action rather than a man overwhelmed by thought and sadness.
Perhaps it is more related to Dürer’s engraving “Melencolia I“, of some years later, 1514, where the female angel has the same gesture of resting the head on her hand. With symbols of mathematics and building around her, she looks dispirited as not knowing what to do next. (Around the time of producing this engraving Dürer wrote “But what beauty is, I know not”).
Four weeks before “discovering” this work in Warsaw, in Oslo and Bergen, I saw two versions of “Melankoli” by expressionist Edvard Munch. In this case, the pensive figure, also with the same characteristic gesture was inspired by an unhappy romantic experience of a painter’s friend.
Melancholy as a state of sorrow when we realize the gap between what we want and what we can, whether it is the redemption of humanity, the creation of beauty, or our personal dreams, melancholy as discouragement when, looking back, we see the gap between what we wanted or could have been, and what has actually become, these are suffering emotions that Buddhism, in its different versions, proposes to eliminate; we should give give up living identifying ourselves with a self that that dreams, wishes, expects, or regrets its past. While being obsessed by future expectations or past events obviously leads to unnecessary suffering, I can not help but think that the ability to dream, imagine different futures or alternative pasts is part of the human condition and something very valuable would be lost if it would disappear. Somehow I would agree with Theophrastus when he suggests in Problemata XXX.I that genius is associated with melancholy and madness.
In addition to this remarkable work, the National Museum of Warsaw has many others that make worth a visit. I would mention “Strange Garden” by Józef Mehoffer, the “Bus” by Bronisław Wojciech Linke, the “Morning” of Łukasz Korolkiewicz, or the transgressing videos of Natalia LL. And last but not least, it has an excellent restaurant with a very affordable menu.