The Renaissance "Older Than The Rocks Among Which She Sits"

Walter Pater

"Older Than The Rocks Among Which She Sits"

Context: English critic, essayist, and novelist, Walter Pater was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was one of the most vociferous defenders of the "art for art's sake" aesthetic doctrine. Spending most of his life in scholarly seclusion at Oxford University, he first gained fame with The Renaissance, a series of essays on artists whose works best reflect the qualities and beauties of the Renaissance era. Of the works he commented: "To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete form possible, to find not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics." He was convinced that one's education becomes complete only in proportion to his increased susceptibility to beauty in its various forms. His purpose, then, was to encourage in his readers sympathetic cognizance of the struggle for beauty in an age of intellectual ferment. Pater, in describing the work of Leonardo, asserts the masterpiece to be La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa. Seated in a marble chair, in a circle of fantastic rocks, she in her beauty is expressive of "what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire." She is the living soul of experience, embodying in her charm all the enigmas of human culture:

. . . All the thoughts and experiences of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. . . .