In Andrei Tarkovsky's remarkable film, The Passion of Andrei Rublev (1966), Rublev observes Boriska, a young boy who is struggling desperately to caste a bell for the church tower, taking over for his father who has died of the plague, claiming that he knows the "secret" of bell making, which his father passed on to him before dying. Although he ultimately succeeds in his endeavor, saving his life and raising the spirits of the village, he has failed. For his father had not given him the secret and so he is destined—cursed even—to make bells without the cherished answer. The boy is cut off from the living tradition that animates his father's work. He must invent it or make it up. The Prince who commissioned the bell and the village who helped make it don't know. But he does. Although no one notices, the boy's defeat seems utterly definitive and devastating. It is at that moment, as Rublev comforts the boy, that he determines to paint the icon of the Trinity that he has been avoiding. Rublev finally breaks his long silence, "We will go to the Trinity Monastery, and you will make bells and I will paint icons."
The bellmaker recapitulates Rublev's journey and is the interpretive key to Tarkovsky's film. Like Boriska, whose father has taught him everything but "the secret" of bellmaking, Rublev's mentor, Theophanes the Greek, cannot give him his reason to paint. Rublev must find it himself. Racked by self-doubt and fear that he paints for the wrong reasons, he gives up painting and takes a vow of silence. And it is then that Rublev comes upon the desperate son of a dead bellmaker, Boriska.
In Melville's Moby-Dick Ishmael states, "Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it." This secret, like that of Boriska's father, is our participation in a living tradition that gives meaning and significance to our artistic and religious practices. For Melville, as it is for Tarkovsky, that living tradition, that "secret of our paternity" can never be inherited. It can only be invented, made up, over and over again. The bellmaker's secret, which Boriska so desperately sought from his dying father, is finding the right blend of clay, manure, and straw to form the mold for the bell. This secret, however, can only be found through trial and error, through feel, touch, smell, and faith. Boriska's defeat, then, ultimately becomes his triumph as he initiates himself into the living tradition of the bellmaker's craft.
Boriska's challenge is also Rublev's. Although he has been blessed with talent, has received the training, and had already enjoyed considerable fame, Rublev lacks the "secret" of painting. He finds it, it seems, as he embraces the exhausted Boriska, after his long journey through self-doubt, not only as a painter but as a monk, as a Christian.
I am working on an exhibition of Miami-based artist Enrique Martínez Celaya that opens October 1 at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City which explores the relationship of figure and landscape in his work through the biblical narratives that have influenced it indirectly through the writings of Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, and Hermann Hesse among many others. The Wanderer: Foreign Landscapes of Enrique Martínez Celaya discloses a world that is stripped to its barest essentials, isolating a space in which we must act, must take a position in relation to the work and in so doing acknowledge their (our) identity as a wanderer ever on the move, never comfortably home, simultaneously cursed and blessed, longing for something more, somewhere else in the midst of landscapes that are ultimately foreign. The Wanderer suggests that we bear the mysterious and enigmatic mark of Cain: "You shall be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth" (Gen. 4: 12).
The biblical narratives themselves are distinct iterations of the figure and landscape theme. From the moment God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the drama of the human project is narrated through the relationship of the figure in and to the landscape (Gen. 1-3). As God banishes our ancient parents from the Garden, the figure's relationship to the landscape is stamped with the impossible desire to return and heavy with the burden of toil and hardship. Abraham and Sarah are called out of the land of Ur to wander the landscape in search of a land that God has provided (Gen. 12); Abraham accompanies his beloved son Isaac on a lonely walk to Mount Moriah to obey God's command to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22); Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt into the desert for forty years (Exod. 13); Jonah refuses God's command to travel to Nineveh and instead flees to Tarshish (Jonah 1: 1-3). And Christ, who recapitulates the entire history of God's people, also embodies this figure and the landscape theme, as he is driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan, wanders throughout Israel and Judah, and dies outside the city.
We do not inherit the secret of faith. We must invent it on our own, like Boriska who lies about having the secret and yet, in the end, possesses it through his own efforts. The project of our lives must be accomplished one decision at a time, alone. This is the secret of a living tradition, the secret of our paternity.