His genius, however, eventually took a nosedive. Historians assert that his once matchless acumen was steadily replaced by self-aggrandized delusion, an obsession with public perception, narcissistic “tiger blood” like rantings, and other phantasms of that ilk.
Since, unlike today, he couldn’t brand himself into a shameless franchise or simply Tweet-tantrum in real time, Napoleon had to go with the next best thing. He hired painters. In 1804, artist Jacques-Louis David was commissioned to commemorate Napoleon’s self-orchestrated coronation ceremony at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The canvas measures over 500 square feet. Subtle.
Not Short on Ego
It took several years for David to complete the painting because, in addition to its enormous size, Napoleon continually demanded that it be modified. For example, when it was nearly complete he instructed David to speckle more influential figures throughout the assembly and to lower the Pope’s chair so Napoleon would appear bigger and more powerful than His Holiness. In short, the scene is rife with fictitious propaganda used to elevate his status.
Standing before this colossal ode to power was staggering to be sure. It worked. I was impressed. Nevertheless, just down the hall behind bulletproof glass hangs the modest, yet most renowned work of art in the entire world, the Mona Lisa. Fans of all things ironic will enjoy knowing the very portrait that once decorated Napoleon’s bedroom has usurped in spades every effort he made to glorify himself on canvas. The Bible verse, “God chose the things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And He chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful,” seems applicable. Granted, Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo de Vinci. And Leonardo de Vinci was hardly foolish or powerless, but who the heck was Mona Lisa? According to those who’ve dedicated their entire lives to knowing such things, nobody knows this thing for sure.
Mona’s Flawed Perfection
Before it was even finished, the Mona Lisa was inspiring imitations. And by the middle of the sixteenth century it was pronounced divine rather than human in its perfection.
That seems a little crazy to me because Mona Lisa is far from perfect. For one thing she has no eyebrows. Whose vanity permits their likeness to be rendered barring eyebrows? Only someone (unlike a certain General we know) who didn’t manipulate through power or fear the outcome of the masterpiece. It’s this curious “flaw” among other oddly composed elements that created one of the most spellbinding images in the world. Amazing.
Conversely, Napoleon. Look at what resulted from his manipulated overcompensation – a rather unfavorable complex. Bummer.
My Louvre take-away is two-fold: First, we all have a complex of one brand or another, and though I, too, am short and like shiny things, I know I don’t want my complex mimicking that of Napoleon’s. Instead, I’d rather take my cues from the venerable Mona Lisa whose Facebook status might read something like: “Hey friends, even if all you can muster is a weird little grin, that’s ok; let the Master work it out. Quit trying so hard.” Heeding said advice equals timeless beauty – the kind that’s divine rather than human in its perfection.
This leads me to take-away number two: the enormous blessing of having dozens of real life examples who are following Mona’s lead by allowing their Creator to render something extraordinary. They happen to be a bunch of giggly girls on the other side of the world – the powerless who are shaming the powerful. Undeniably the girls at Kwagala Project are masterpieces already inspiring imitations well before they’re finished. And as much as I enjoyed my time at the Louvre, I’d rather spend it with the living, breathing works of art in the slums of Kampala any day of the week!