Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reconnecting the Threads of Sacred Art, Theology and Liturgy: Abbot Michael John Zielinski

The following appeared in L'Osservatore Romano (in Italian) on the 13th of November and was written by Abbot Michael John Zielinski, O.S.B., Vice President of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church.

The translation, which is unofficial, was done for the NLM by one of our priestly readers, Fr. GS.

A Need in the World of Architecture and Art:
To Reconnect the Threads of a Dialogue Interrupted For Too Long

By Michael John Zielinski

Can sacred art and architecture simply apply the “contemporary criteria” like any other form of expression, or must they follow a different path?

Just as not all philosophies are equally able to express and signify the revealed truths of faith, so perhaps not all expressive forms are equally capable of 'translating,' in the precious and universal language of art, the Christian faith which has as its proper centre, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth, Lord and Christ and of the resurrection of the body: both deeply “visible, tangible, audible” as the Evangelist John teaches.

If contemporary artistic expressions, particularly those dealing with the sacred, fail to convince the majority of the public, it is because they obey the criteria of “subjective creativity” rather than the desire to represent what has objectively happened in history: God has become incarnate, making the face of the Father visible to mankind. “He who sees me, sees the Father.” (c.f. Jn 14:9; 12:44)

In an age dominated by relativism, in which pluralism is an absolute, independent of the problem of the true and the good how could we not recognize the consequences of such a cultural framework, even in the artistic and architectural arena, in which it sometimes seems that (artistic) works are “apophatic”, incapable of relating the history of God with mankind.

From the knowledge of the situation and the consequent and widespread unease, both on the part of artists and of patrons, there arises the need, admitting of no more delay, to “reconnect the threads” of the dialogue – perhaps too long suspended – between art and faith, between architecture, theology and liturgy.

This is what is occurring in certain Masters courses promoted in Rome: [I am] thinking of the Pontifical Institute of St. Anselm or the Pontifical Gregorian University; but most of all, of the Masters in Architecture, Sacred Art and Liturgy offered and promoted by the European University of Rome and the Pontifical Athenaeum 'Regina Apostolorum.' This Masters course, which enjoys the support of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, is already in its second year and was born not of an initiative “from above” but from the need – I would say the demand – of some architects and artists who turned to “theologian friends” asking for help to understand and deepen the central themes of the faith, so as to translate them into (artistic) works.

In this way, a real need of the world of architecture and art was discovered: a longing for a deepening knowledge of theology, history and liturgy; an authentic desire and will to understand what it really means to “construct the space”, “to imagine and design” the forms of a sacred art not chained down by reality, and therefore (guided instead) by Catholic doctrine, if it wishes to truly bring to fulfillment its own aesthetic, and thereby evangelizing, mission.

To have a goal and desire to transmit a real spiritual or moral content through the beauty of plastic form is not a reduction of the absolute and indispensable gratuity of art and beauty; on the contrary it is the “explosion” of it, its completion, because the expression of one (person) inserted into a history and a community becomes accessible to all, describing the experience (of all). The genius is the one who is able to express, in an extraordinarily efficacious way, that which all live and think: either as a question or as a possible answer, encountered because it is first of all and indeed always 'revealed'.

In this way the Masters was born. Born of a question which gradually has found an answer: certainly involving the best experts both from the artistic-architectural point of view and under the historical, theological and liturgical aspect; allowing “something to happen” in the life of the architects and artists themselves.

If, as the encylical Deus Caritas Est says: “The beginning of being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (DCE, 1) then how could we not wish that this “new horizon” should involve the experience of the sacred and the beautiful, of art and architecture? And how could we not begin to perceive, even if faintly, a “new beginning” even in these delicate fields (of art and architecture).

The Masters, which I have the honour of teaching, explicitly sees itself as “listening to Benedict XVI” - as it is possible to see in the initial course description, accessible from the site of the European University – and from the work of Joseph Ratzinger, “The Spirit of the Liturgy”, it takes its theological, liturgical and consequently architectural and artistic directions.

As a sign of this, the 'scientific' coordinator of the Masters programme is the Rev. Professor Michael Lang, cited by the Holy Father in the introduction to his Opera Omnia, recently presented at the Vatican, and who is a true advocate of the correct hermeneutic of liturgical reform desired by Vatican II.

The Holy Father has repeatedly called for the beginning of a “new liturgical movement”, capable of returning to the fundamental aspects of Catholic liturgy: “There is, moreover, an intimate relationship between the Old and New Testaments: without that relationship with the Old Testament heritage, Christian liturgy would be incomprehensible. The second area is the relationship with world religions. And there is a third aspect: the cosmic character of the liturgy which represents something more than the simple reunion of a greater or lesser number of human beings; the liturgy is to be celebrated within the breadth of the Cosmos, embracing creation and history at the same time.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to the Opera Omnia.)

The Masters in Architecture, Sacred Art and Liturgy places itself within this vision. And so we hope that the skies will brighten [with it].

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