Watch the video as the contest winning artist creates a series of pictures in sand by candle light, remembering what Ukrainians call the "Patriotic War". People in the audience were so moved that some of them began to cry.
"Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled: my own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel." (Luke 2:29-32)
Picture: The Purification of the Virgin, by Laurent Pécheux, 1729-1821. Photo by me at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon.
In its mid-April e-newsletter, the Discalced Carmelite curia includes an article titled A Carmelite Museum in Andalusia (Spain), in which the order's curia encourages Carmelite communities that have a "notable artistic patrimony" to consider placing it on public display. The article particularly mentions the website of a Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Antequera, Malaga, Spain, founded in 1632. The monastery has opened a museum for its works of art, some of them centuries old.
The website allows an online virtual tour. Start here. Choose "Visita Virtual al Museo" and then click on each of the options under that heading, starting with "Entrada al Museo." Some options have only one page of photos. For others, such as the entrance ("entrada"), there are several pictures that you can click on. For the entrance, for example, there are 3 photos of the exterior and one of the beautiful interior with its characteristic blue and white Spanish tile, woods, and architecture -- a work of art in itself.
On a related them, there is an earlier post here called Art, Detachment and the Beauty of God about the importance of religious art in the present day Church and in the views of Discalced Carmelite saints St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
In a chapter titled “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty,” in Pope Benedict XVI's book On the Way to Jesus Christ (meditations written while he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), he wrote about hearing a Bach concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein in Munich. Following one great aria, he and Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann, sitting next to him, looked at each other and said, “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.”
The Pope described the totality of true beauty in the paradox presented in the two antiphons for Psalm 45 in the Liturgy of the Hours for Lent and Holy Week, in Evening Prayer for Monday of Week II in the four-week Psalter. The antiphon for Lent (“Yours is more than mortal beauty; every work you speak is full of grace”) is the same antiphon used the rest of the year, drawn from third verse of the Psalm (“You are the fairest of the children of men and graciousness is poured upon your lips.”) The antiphon for the same Psalm in Holy Week, paradoxically, is “He had neither beauty, nor majesty, nothing to attract our eyes,” drawn from Isaiah 53:2. The contrast points to the beauty of the truth of Christ’s suffering. “Beauty is knowledge,” the Holy Father wrote, “indeed, a higher form of knowing, because it strikes man with the truth in all its greatness.”
Art as Motivation toward the Transcendent
In the Final Document of its Plenary Assembly, in 2006, the Pontifical Council for Culture drew from the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord, in which von Balthasar spoke of the value of beauty compared with the good which “has lost its power of attraction” and the proofs of truth which “have lost their conclusive character.”
Drawing from von Balthasar and other sources, the Council for Culture stated:
“The way of beauty replies to the intimate desire for happiness that resides in the heart of every person. Opening infinite horizons, it prompts the human person to push outside of himself, from the routine of the ephemeral passing instant, to the Transcendent and Mystery, and seek, as the final goal of the ultimate quest for wellbeing and total nostalgia, this original beauty which is God Himself, creator of all created beauty.”
St. Edith Stein observed the truth of such art in Finite and Eternal Being, mentioning “the artist, who penetrates through the purely external and factual to the primordial archetype” who “can present more of the truth than the historian who remains within the limited circumference of external data.” The work of such artists who remain within the bounds of tradition, she said, “will be truer even in the sense of historical truth than the work of a historian who does not penetrate beyond the surface of external facts.” The historian presents facts, while the artist presents the essence of what a subject should have been and was destined to be. Although artistic truth is bound to the human work of the art itself, its existents have transcendental truth.
St. John of the Cross wrote of the importance of art in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. He contrasted art as a path to the transcendent with a more materialistic and worldly view of art in which some people would look at the art for its value as material wealth, or for the honor given to the artist. In Chapter 35 of Book 3 of The Ascent, he wrote of “delightful spiritual goods,” in which he included the “motivating goods” of “statues, paintings of saints, oratories, and ceremonies.”
St. John spoke of works of art as “vital to the divine worship and necessary to move the will to devotion.” He said that “we should always take advantage of them in order to be awakened from our lukewarmness.” However, he also warned that “many rejoice more in the painting and ornamentation than in the object represented.” He thus encouraged that our focus should be on the devotion to which such art draws us, rather than on “the elaborateness of the workmanship and its ornamentation.”
The message of St. John of the Cross is that contemplatives should always look at religious and liturgical art such that we are drawn by the art’s transcendent motivation toward an experiential knowledge of the divine, rather than looking at it with materialistic eyes.
The Pope, similarly, in On the Way to Jesus Christ, contrasted the Christian view of beauty with “two fires”
to be opposed: (1) the “cult of the ugly” which sees the beautiful as a
deception and sees only what is cruel and vulgar as true, and (2)
“deceptive beauty” that gives rise to “a desire for possession” as when
Eve in Genesis saw the fruit of the tree as beautiful.
Both St. John of the Cross and the Council for Culture considered art’s effect of drawing people toward the divine depicted in it. God who draws us toward the transcendent is in our inner selves, drawing us toward friendship and union with Him, toward the divine.
Our True Desire Is for the Beauty of God
God is who and what we truly desire, and the artistic truth of religious art serves its purpose when it guides us toward God and into contemplation of the divine.
The Council of Culture wrote, “For the believer, beauty transcends the aesthetic and finds its archetype in God.” All Christian artwork, they said, leads along a path that reveals the meaning, origin and end of our terrestrial journey, a passage that “becomes real in Jesus Christ, who is Himself ‘the way, the truth and the life,’ (Jn 14, 6) the ‘complete truth.’ (Jn 16, 13)”
“The beauty and goodness and joy of created things are means for knowing and enjoying things divine. (Once it had tasted those joys, however, it asked itself: And yet, what must heavenly things be like?)
Ultimately, what we enjoy is not the art itself, but rather a taste of the divine. When art has motivated us toward that joy, the object of the art itself may no longer serve its purpose for the moment. The transcendent toward which it motivates us will always surpass the work of art that drew us there.
Art and Detachment
Art thus serving the purpose of drawing us toward the divine, we may consider whether the art itself ever becomes unnecessary. The answer is no. While devotion to God, and detachment from material things, can enable someone to accept the loss of a work of art that has been meaningful to them, we never reach a point where we no longer need art at all.
In The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, St. John of the Cross said that people who direct their devotion to God and the saints depicted in Church art do not need many images. Instead, they “seek the living image of Christ crucified within themselves,” and when works of art are taken from them (as would have happened to many people in his era, when churches were stripped of art during the Reformation), “they remain calm.” They are not attached to the object of art itself, but rather to God and to spiritual things depicted in the art, and those are not taken from them.
Yet such detachment does not reach a point where we have no more need for art. In the same era, his fellow Discalced Carmelite founder, St. Teresa of Avila, explained in Relation V that she had learned from the Lord that it was wrong to deprive herself or her nuns of artwork as the Protestants did:
“I had read in a book that it was an imperfection to possess pictures well painted,— and I would not, therefore, retain in my cell one that I had; and also, before I had read this, I thought that it was poverty to possess none, except those made of paper,— and, as I read this afterwards, I would not have any of any other material. I learnt from our Lord, when I was not thinking at all about this, what I am going to say: ‘that this mortification was not right. Which is better, poverty or charity? But as love was the better, whatever kindled love in me, that I must not give up, nor take away from my nuns; for the book spoke of much adorning and curious devices—not of pictures. What Satan was doing among the Lutherans was the taking away from them all those means by which their love might be the more quickened; and thus they were going to perdition. Those who are loyal to Me, My daughter, must now, more than ever, do the very reverse of what they do.’”
Thus, she and St. John of the Cross both supported the need for art and its motivation toward the transcendent. Living the beatitudes and even the monastic vow of poverty never reaches a point where a person should abandon art. Detachment from the object can enable people to accept the loss of a particular picture or statue, as a lost object of value, and a contemplative may want fewer items, but that does not mean we should deprive ourselves of the motivating value of art.
Art and Evangelism
The proper use of beauty as a pathway to the transcendent has an evangelistic aspect, which has been seen in the recent Vatican Masses at which Pope Benedict XVI has presided. His view of the evangelistic value of beauty is seen in On the Way to Jesus Christ. There, mentioning that icons and great works of Christian art lead us “on an interior way, a way of transcendence,” he added:
“I have often said that I am convinced that the true apologetics for the Christian message, the most persuasive proof of its truth, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated on the other. For faith to grow today, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to come in contact with the beautiful.”
The use of beauty in local parishes can similarly become a means of leading parishioners and those who may visit at Christmas, Easter, or an occasional wedding or memorial service, to contemplate the transcendent. Whether or not parishes are designed, and parish art selected, to look contemporary, a high priority should be the choice of art and architecture that reflect the transcendent, and the beautiful that draws people to contemplate the beauty of God and heavenly things.
Beauty as a Statement of Faith
I think the use of beauty as a statement of faith might also affect our selections of clothing and religious jewelry that we wear to Mass, and the rosaries we use in churches and other public places. St. John of the Cross pointed out that every rosary works the same way regardless of the expense of the materials. That makes the greatest sense in the context of consecrated religious life, in which the rosaries may be seen only by other cloistered nuns and friars, and in which the greatest evangelistic impact may result from living ordered lives of simplicity and poverty.
Outside of that context, other factors might also affect the selection of rosaries and religious jewelry, and even the clothing we wear to Mass. All of those things can reflect a worshipful reverence for God. They reflect our priorities, in a context in which the money spent on a rosary may be viewed in comparison with what we spend on other things. Without becoming materialistic, a layperson could communicate the artistic beauty that reflects the transcendence of the beauty of God, in the choice of a beautiful Bible, jewelry, rosary and other items that other people see.
In all of this, the beauty of a life lived in relationship with Christ Himself is what we should most seek, and what we want others to see in us. Where the art in our environment serves that purpose in our lives, in our prayer and in the choices we make, we are living contemplatively and evangelistically in relationship to beauty.
From the reader who sent me the picture of Marco d'Oggiono's Assumption pollitico, posted on Friday, here is a photo of the village of Oggiono, Italy, where Marco d'Oggiono was born and where the pollitico is still found in a parish church: