Monday, June 06, 2011

A Coalition For Beauty?

One of the great aspects of the present pontificate, in my view, has been the Holy Father's frequent considerations on the place of beauty in the liturgy and in general. This has brought an all too neglected -- or maligned -- subject more frequently to the fore for consideration, debate, and so on.

Today on Sandro Magister's site Chiesa, the topic of beauty arises. I was particularly interested in the intervention by Jean Clair on "The Cult of the Avant-Garde and the Culture of Death" as well as the proposal of Enrico Maria Radaelli that "a universal debate, not merely artistic, but theological, liturgical, ecclesiological, philosophical, a multi-year and multidisciplinary symposium" be convened; a "coalition for beauty." Radaelli appears to also raise the point of the importance of ensuring we have set our own house in order (i.e. the Church) so that, presumably, we might more effectively engage the world without.

Only Beauty Will Save Us

by Sandro Magister

ROME, June 6, 2011 – This July, Benedict XVI will again meet with artists, a few hundred of them from all over the world, less than two years after the previous encounter in the Sistine Chapel (see photo).

That art, together with the saints and before reason, is "the greatest apologia for the Christian faith" is a thesis that Benedict XVI has supported on a number of occasions.

For him, beauty is "the most attractive and fascinating way to come to encounter and love God."

But this thesis is not having an easy time at all today, that is at least since, a couple of centuries ago, "the thread of sacred art was broken": the title given by art historian Timothy Verdon to an essay of his published in "L'Osservatore Romano" on March 28, 2008.

Enrico Maria Radaelli, a philosopher of aesthetics, poses a paradoxical question in his latest book:

"What would be learned by the millions of faithful who visit the Sistine Chapel if its noble walls and its famous vault had been painted, not by Michelangelo, but by a Haring, a Warhol, a Bacon, a Viola, a Picasso?"

Radaelli's new book is entitled "La bellezza che ci salva [The beauty that saves us]." And its subtitle is a whole program in itself: "The power of 'Imago', the second Name of the Only-Begotten of God, which, with 'Logos', can give life to a new civilization, founded on beauty."

It is three hundred pages of metaphysics and theology, enhanced with a preface by the philosopher of "common sense" Antonio Livi, a priest of Opus Dei and professor at the Pontifical Lateran University.

But they are also pages of blistering criticism of the tendency that has overthrown a fruitful, centuries-long relationship between Christian art and faith. Without sparing the hierarchs of the Church, whom Radaelli accuses of abdicating their magisterial role as beacons of the faith, and therefore of Christian art as well.

Radaelli writes that in order to turn back the tide, it is not enough to have a few sporadic encounters between the pope and artists. In his view, it is necessary to convene in the Church "a universal debate, not merely artistic, but theological, liturgical, ecclesiological, philosophical, a multi-year and multidisciplinary symposium, the name of which could be the simple but clear 'Coalition for beauty'."

Radaelli names those whom he has approached, at the Vatican or outside of it, and who have adhered to the idea: Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the pontifical council for culture; Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the congregation for the clergy; Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo and former secretary of the congregation for divine worship; Abbot Michael John Zielinski, vice-president of the pontifical commission for the cultural heritage of the Church; Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums; Valentino Miserachs Grau, president of the pontifical institute of sacred music; Timothy Verdon, president of the office for catechisis through art of the archdiocese of Florence; Roberto de Mattei, historian, vice-president of the National Research Center; Nicola Bux, consultant for the congregation for divine worship and for the office of pontifical liturgical celebrations; Ignacio Andereggen, member of the pontifical academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

With a polemical thrust, Radaelli observes that "we need more courage" to organize this "Coalition for beauty" than for a Courtyard of the Gentiles. Because – he explains – dialoguing outside of the temple with the profane world may indeed be just and meritorious, but even before this the Church should see to it that the cathedral of doctrine does not fall into ruin, "full as it is of unknowing but no less genuine Lutherans, Arians, Gnostics, Pelagians."

But it is not a given that in the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the question brought into focus by Radaelli is silenced. In the first of these dialogue meetings desired by Benedict XVI and realized by Cardinal Ravasi, held in Paris in March of 2011, there was one speaker who brought it to the attention of all in fiery form.

This speaker is Jean Clair, a world-famous art historian, member of the French Academy and conservator general of the French artistic heritage.

Moreover, on June 2, the feast of the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the theologian Inos Biffi writing in "L'Osservatore Romano" developed the theme of the beauty of the truth of God with accents similar to those of Radaelli's book: another sign of authoritative attention to the question.

The following are some of the passages from the contributions of Jean Clair and Inos Biffi.



by Jean Clair
Paris, Courtyard of the Gentiles, March 25, 2011

[...] There are in the history of the Church singular episodes like, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the astonishing popularity of the Goliards, itinerant clerics who wrote erotic poetry and rather obscene tavern songs, and dedicated themselves to making burlesque parodies of the Mass and sacraments of the Church. But the Goliards did this to criticize a Church whose errors they were denouncing. There is nothing of this, today, in the artists of the avant-garde, who have no relationship with the Church, not even the desire to mock it. The movement of the Goliards was connected with an era of great religiosity and mysticism, not with a manifestation of indifference.

They could be only the singular deviations of a few jokers, if the proliferation of these aesthetic incursions into the churches of France, and the similarity of their nature, exhibitionist and often coprolalic, did not lead us to ask ourselves about what relationship Catholicism has today with the notion of Beauty.

I will limit myself to a few examples:

- In a little church of Vandea in 2001, next to the casket of a sainted healer who brings pilgrims from far away, another casket full of antibiotics was installed.

- More recently, in the baptistry of a big church in Paris, a huge machine has been installed that pastes a resinous material, "the sperm of God," on enormous baptismal certificates, sold on the spot at 1500 euro apiece.

- In Gap, the bishop has presented a work by an avant-garde artist, Peter Fryer, depicting Christ naked with his arms stretched out, strapped to an electric chair, like a Deposition from the Cross.

- In 2009, at a little church in Finistère, a stripper, Corinne Duval, in the course of a contemporary dance performance subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, ended up dancing naked on the altar. [...]

What I see being reborn and developing in these libertine cults so similar to those practiced by certain Gnostic sects of the second century effectively seems to me a new gnosis, according to which the creature is innocent, the world is wicked and the cosmos imperfect.

I am not a theologian, but as an historian of forms I am struck, in these cultural works called "avant-garde" that today presume to bring into the churches the joy of suffering and evil – whereas traditional worship once used to combat these with its liturgy – of the obsessive presence of bodily humors, privileging sperm, blood, sweat, or putrefaction, the pus in the frequent evocations of AIDS. Naturally, also urine, which, in regard to the 'Piss Christ' by the artist Andres Serrano, "indispensable star of the world of art and of the market" according to Mr. Brownstone, was proclaimed a "bearer of light" in a homily by the priest, Robert Pousseur, who had been charged with initiating the French clergy into the mysteries of contemporary art. [...]

The Church has allowed itself to become fascinated by the avant-garde to the point of presuming that the unclean and the abominable presented to the view by its artists are the best doors of access to the truth of the Gospel. In the meantime, various stages have been marked which I do not dare to call a trend.

During the 1970's, the Church did not want anything from contemporary art other than abstraction. After the windows by Bazaine in Saint Séverin there were the windows by Jean Pierre Reynaud at the Abbey of Noirlac, then those commissioned from Morellet and Viallat for Nevers, and from Soulages for the abbey of Conques, the face no longer existed, the body no longer existed, the crucifix itself was replaced with two pieces of wood or welded iron. The bloody battles of iconoclasm seemed never to have happened. Iconoclasm had become a normal state of affairs. [...]

How many of the works in the state museums concern Catholic iconography? 60 percent? 70 percent? From the crucifixions to the depositions in the tomb, from the circumcisions to the martyrs, from the nativities to the Saint Francis of Assisis . . . Unlike the Orthodox who kneel and pray before icons, even when they are still found in museums, it is rare, in the grand gallery of the Louvre, to see a believer stop and pray in front of a Christ on the cross or in front of a Madonna. Should we regret this? Sometimes I think so. Should the Church ask for the restitution of its assets? I tend to think this also. But the Church no longer has any power, unlike the Vanuatu or the Haida Indians of British Colombia, who have obtained the restitution of the instruments of their faith, masks and totems . . . Should the Church be ashamed of having been at the origin of the most prodigious visual treasures that have ever existed? Being unable to have them back, could it not at least become aware of the duty not to leave them without explanation in front of millions of museum visitors? [...]

The Catholic religion has long seemed to me the most respectful of the senses, the most attentive to the forms and smells of the world. It is in it that one also encounters the most profound and the most compelling and surprising tenderness. Catholicism seems to me above all a religion not of detachment, nor of conquest, nor of a jealous God, but a religion of tenderness.

I know of no other that, for example, has exalted maternity to such a degree. [...] What religion has depicted so many times, from Giotto to Maurice Denis, the child in all the stages of childhood, gestures, expressions, childhood emotions, with his appetites and curiosities, when he is standing on the knees of his mother? How could the present-day Church have turned its back on such riches? [...]

In the work of art born from Christianity, there is also something else, with respect to visual harmony and piety. There is also an heuristic approach to the world. [...] The artist is at the service of God, not of men, and if he depicts the creation, he knows the wonders of creation, he preserves in his spirit the fact that these creatures are not God, but the testimony of the goodness of God, and that they are praise and a song of joy. I wonder where this joy can still be felt, the joy that is heard in Bach or in Handel, in these cultural manifestations so poor and so offensive to the ear and to the eye, to which the churches now open their worship.

Without a doubt, this has been and remains today the greatness of the Church: it was born from the contemplation and adoration of a child who is born, and fortifies itself with the vision of a man who rises again. Between these two moments, the Nativity and Easter, it has not ceased to fight against the "culture of death," as it so rightly calls it.

This courage, this persistence make even more incomprehensible its temptation to defend works that, in my eyes, to the "doors of my flesh," smack only of death and despair.

God without Beauty is more incomprehensible than Beauty without God.



by Inos Biffi
From "L'Osservatore Romano," June 2, 2011

[...] By definition, theology "says God." And this "saying" the truth of God has a beauty of its own. [...] This was the conviction of Saint Augustine, who spoke of the "splendor of truth," and was repeatedly echoed by Thomas Aquinas, [...] attributing the prerogative to be "splendor and beauty" to the Word, who in the mystery of his transfiguration and ascension has effused and poured it out in his own glorious humanity, the inexhaustible end of the contemplation of the blessed. [...]

It is said that the dogmas are true. One must go farther, and say that the dogmas are beautiful. [...] One must continue and observe that the beauty of the mystery is not only that which appears through theological discourse, as intellectual aesthetics, through "the architectural organization of ideas," but also [...] that which pours forth from the "cathedrals of stone," or in the aesthetic of the visible, and, we would add, of poetry, of music.

So the divine beauty is found to attract the "sensibility," emotivity, imagination, ecstasy, which, under the attracting impulse of the mystery, manifest and expand it in turn.

Let us recall the hymns of Ambrose or Manzoni, or the Lauds of Jacapone da Todi, but above all the "Divine Comedy" of Dante, which is not a course in dogmatic theology, and yet rises to the highest, and one might even say unreachable, poetic version of the faith and of its dogmas: it is the Christian "beautiful," taken to the sublime heights of poetry.

In this line of aesthetics, we could also recall how "enchanting" the mystery has been made and still is made by sacred music, liturgical and non-liturgical, which begins with the mystery itself, presenting and providing a taste of it in the form of song and melody. The musical repertoires of the Church, an immense patrimony of Masses, oratories, motets, are in turn musical cathedrals. [...]

This is what has always happened in the Christian tradition, which has looked at the mystery with "the eyes of the heart enlightened" (Eph. 1:18). [...] It is precisely by the exercise of the truth and beauty of the faith that Christian culture has arisen, the fruit, more than of friendly and submissive dialogue, of surprising and unprecedented creativity. [...]

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