The Three Ages of Man or Reading a Song is a 1500-1501 is a painting by Giorgione which is presently displayed in the Galleria Palatina in Florence. It has stimulated some further thoughts especially around a recurring comment that has found expression in recent conversations about the future of the Church in these post pandemic days.
We know that society is and always has changed. The Churches in the West have not been protected from these changes. Many have abandoned religion as a legitimate narrative of truth. Numbers of regular attendees have gradually decreased. We look elsewhere for meaning, truth and moral guidance. The comment (expressed in different ways) is this: ‘Our Churches are full of elderly people’ . There may be some linking of decline with age. It may be a longing for things to be different – especially in relation to attracting younger generations. It may be a statement of fact! There may also be some ageism in this. We fear growing older. We want to resist ageing at all costs. I am disturbed by its negative connotations and by our inability to embrace our age and the possibilities that each of these stages of living might bring.
Hold that – let us return to the painting. The subject matter isn’t clear. The title it has today is from the 17th century. Some suggest that the painting depicts a singing lesson or the education of a young man. We might make the assumption that the same man is shown, represented in three moments of his life. What strikes me is the meticulous attention to detail. Look closely at the hair rendered with subtle brushstrokes.
Other commentators have reminded the viewer of the ever-present allegory, often seen in works of Giorgione. In this case music and our deeper shared need for spiritual expression and our desire for harmony at all stages of our life.
Is there a perfect age? How many of us would wish to return to our days of youth? Middle years too bring their demands and strains. Old age can be liberating for some but not for all. We live with fragility at all stages of life. I see perspective, judgement and wisdom in that older man. Perhaps he is inviting us to embrace age with realism and positivity. To do this we shall certainly need to name and embrace our fears and deal with the limiting prejudices which so beset ageing. We might even befriend the elderly stranger in us.
This post first appeared in James’s online blog
In February, James will post a daily #ValuingAge thought or image on Twitter @R_C_Woodward. Join him in this reflection of age and its infinite possibilities. Above all, he says, let us exercise care in the way we think, conceptualise and live with older age in ourselves and others.