On Unfulfilled Potential
When a person dies, it hardly matters at what age or under what circumstances, there is almost always a sense of the incomplete. What might still have been achieved? What might have been said or done had circumstances been different? With the death of a child the unfulfilled potential is pitifully obvious, but old age does not defeat aspirations and expectations. I had a friend who lived to 105. Weeks before his death I came to visit him and found him deeply and excitedly involved in writing a never to be published paper about Judo-Christian motifs in Roman Palestine.
As life and death are so unpredictable, circumstance often gets in the way of intentions. Illness, invasion, financial difficulties, any number of circumstances can result in things remaining unfinished. Sometimes the span of time and the effort and expense required to complete something is so great that for long periods the object remains incomplete. The International Space Station is a modern example of what we might regard as an unfinished building. Its construction commenced in 1998 when the first component, Zarya (Dawn), was launched into orbit by the Russians, and the most recent extension was an inflatable space habitat that was added by a private American startup company in 2016. It had been intended that the station would be completed by 2005, but technology and scientific advances have necessitated that it remain in a state of perpetual construction. It is no different really from earlier major building projects such as construction of the famous basilica, Sagrada Familia of Barcelona that was begun in 1882 and is planned for completion in 2026, or the great Gothic cathedrals that really did seem to be under "perpetual construction", like Cologne Cathedral that was begun in 1248 and only completed in 1880.
The incomplete state can become an aim in itself. For example, there are those unfinished elements often seen in old houses in parts of the world that were once under Ottoman rule - a staircase leading to nowhere, a balcony floor at the roof level or a half wall with half window rising above; these being elements constructed without any intention of completing them, but with the aim of enabling to owner to avoid paying the heavier taxes rendered on a completed house. Sometimes the unfinished, whether intentional or not, becomes a virtue in itself, in art for example, in some of Michelangelo's sculptures where the unworked stone gives the sculpture additional power, as if the figure is forcing its way out of the stone. And consider the beautiful portrait drawings by Hans Holbein and Ingres, where only the head and face are worked to a finished state and the remainder is fleetingly sketched. The incomplete state serves to make the faces and characters all the more prominent and real.
But most often, things are not intentional left incomplete, but are so as the outcome of
circumstances; of sudden and unexpected changes that prevent things from evolving as planned. A number of beautiful pieces of twelfth century sculpture have been found over the years at the site of the Church of Annunciation at Nazareth. They are among the finest examples of sculptural work recovered from the Holy Land under crusader rule. The first pieces were found in 1867, a second group in 1908-9 and more were discovered in the 1950's. Those found in 1908-9 are perhaps the finest of these works. They are a group of five capitals, four of which are polygonal in section, the fifth being somewhat larger and rectangular. They all share the same basic design - figures of New Testament saints set in scooped out niches below architectural forms. They were carved in local limestone by an artist who clearly had been trained in the French Romanesque school, and it has long been noticed that they bear a remarkably stylistic affinity to capitals in the Church of Saint Martin in Plaimpied near Bourges in central France. Art historian Jaroslav Folda has assigned them to a planned baldacchino or canopy that was intended for construction above the Cave of the Annunciation, site of the house of the Virgin Mary.* The capitals were carved in the 1170's or 80's, but were never used, and the baldacchino never built. Instead, they were hastily buried in order to preserve them from an expected invasion by Saladin that indeed came shortly after his victory over the Franks at the Horns of Hattin in July 1187. Nazareth indeed fell to the Ayyubids, and when the Christians finally returned in 1229, in accordance with the treaty between Frederick II and Sultan al-Kamil, the plans for the baldacchino had been shelved and the sculptures appear to have been forgotten. In April 1263 one of Sultan Baybar's amirs attacked the town and razed the church to the ground, thereby putting a lid on the project, if indeed anyone at all remembered it and those splendid buried capitals.
* Jaroslav Folda, "The Nazareth capitals and the Crusader Shrine of the Annunciation", Crusader Art in the Twelfth Century, University Park and London, Pennsylvania State, 1986, pp. 3-8.