Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Christian Artist

Today, 18 February, is the optional memoria of Blessed John of Fiesole OP in the Dominican calendar. He is better known perhaps as Beato Angelico or Fra Angelico, and today is the anniversary of his death in Rome in 1455. Pope Pius XII had praised this friar, whose preaching still resounds in his sublime works of art, as one who "transformed his art into prayer".

In 1982, by the motu proprio 'Qui res Christi gerit', Pope John Paul II confirmed the cult of Fra Angelico and declared him to be a beatus. He singled out Fra Angelico, praising him as one who "through his rare natural gifts served the arts, which was an immense spiritual and pastoral advantage, both carrying along and directing the people of God, and thus enabled them to more easily journey to God." In saying so, the Holy Father cited §122 of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God.

In his Letter to Artists in 1999, Pope John Paul II did not fail to mention this patron saint of artists, and he noted the vocation of the Christian artist which is at the service of Beauty. However, an artist can only communicate the beauty of God when he has first encountered the Beautiful One in prayer, and not just by artistic training and ingenuity. As the Servant of God said: "The knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Yet this knowledge too can be enriched by artistic intuition. An eloquent example of aesthetic contemplation sublimated in faith are, for example, the works of Fra Angelico".

Elaborating on this notion, Jacques Maritain had written: "A Christian work would have the artist, as artist, free. But it will be Christian, it will reveal in its beauty the interior reflection of the brilliance of grace, only on condition that it overflows from a heart possessed by grace... And if the beauty of the work is Christian, it is because the appetite of the artist is rectified in regard to such a beauty, and because Christ is present in the soul of the artist by love... A Christian work would have the artist, as man, a saint."

Hence, we see something of the importance of engaging artists and architects and musicians who have a living faith, who know Jesus Christ, the Son from whom all beauty comes; the beauty that is in our world is but a participation in divine beauty. Moreover, Christian art in our churches is of immense spiritual value and consequently, of truly pastoral value, as it is facilitates an encounter with the Beautiful One. In contrast, ugliness and barrenness are not only a distraction but can hinder one's journey to God.

Recently, I had a chance to visit the new reredos installed at the church of St Gregory and St Augustine in north Oxford. Dr Joseph Shaw has already written about it for the NLM. However, on this day when we would do well to pray for Christian artists, and thank God for the gradual revival of Christian art, I thought it opportune to share again some photos of the work executed so beautifully by James Gillick.

Reredos at Ss Gregory & Augustine's
A view of the reredos, which until December 2008 was covered with a wood-coloured wallpaper. The patron saints of the church now flank the tabernacle, and between them is a Virgin and Child. The canopy over the altar has also been restored and enlivened with colour and gilding.

St Augustine of Canterbury
In 597, St Augustine arrived in Canterbury, sent from Rome. St Bede the Venerable recounts that St Augustine and his Benedictine companions "came endued with Divine, not with magic power, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and chanting litanies, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom and for whom they had come". The saint is duly shown carrying an icon, and his hand is extended in invitation to those who dwell in the land to which he first came with the Gospel of salvation.

St Gregory the Great
'Non Angli, sed angeli' is what the future Pope Gregory the Great is supposed to have said at the sight of fair-haired Anglo-Saxon boys being sold as slaves in Rome: tradition has it that he was so struck by this encounter that he set about the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity (Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II,1). Here the pontiff is shown gesturing towards the people in the church, as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovers by his side.

Our Lady of Summertown
As previously reported by Dr Joseph Shaw, the parish priest, Fr John Saward explains: "In the centre of the reredos, and above the two patron saints, is Our Lady with the Holy Child. I have christened her “Our Lady of Summertown” – the name for this suburb of Oxford."

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