Pater, Botticelli, and Bach

Jan 15, 2018

Credit SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Walter Pater was an influential 19th-century English author and critic, and in 1870 he wrote a fascinating essay about the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. In one passage that particularly caught my eye, Pater wrote, “If [Botticelli] painted religious incidents, [he] painted them with an undercurrent of original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the picture through the veil of its ostensible subject.” 

When I read this, I thought immediately of J.S. Bach. I have no reason to question the genuineness of Bach’s own religious faith, but why is it that Bach’s religious music often proves profoundly moving to people who don’t share that faith, people who feel no connection with the “ostensible subject” of the music? A complex question, but the answers certainly have something to do with Bach’s “undercurrent of original sentiment,” his ability to find and to feel the universal in the particular, and to express his own humanity in ways that reach infinitely outward.

This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.