Monday, May 29, 2017

Does the Christian Tradition Have a Problem with Smiling and Laughing?

I once heard a speaker claim that one of the reasons it is hard for ordinary Christian families to see themselves in the Holy Family is that all the famous paintings we see of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph always show them utterly serious, dour, and pious, without making room for smiling, laughter, and recreation.

It is an interesting claim. On the one hand, nearly 2,000 years of Christian art, Eastern and Western, concur in rarely portraying Jesus smiling, even as a child; he is never shown smiling as an adult. The Gospels never once show Jesus laughing or smiling, which led G. K. Chesterton to one theory and Umberto Eco to another. Can we say that the entire tradition of countless thousands of images from apostolic times to the present is off-base? Gives us the wrong impression? A false spirituality? The third wave of Iconoclasm which followed in the wake of Vatican II was based on just such loose and facile reasoning. The artistic traditions of the Church are to be praised, not denigrated.

St. Benedict in his Rule warns the monk against coarse or excessive laughter as a form of frivolity, and while laymen are not monks, the monastic life has always been seen as furnishing a high standard for all Christians to live up to, in whatever ways they can internalize its virtues. St. Teresa of Jesus was cheerful and couldn’t stand dour-faced people, that’s for sure. But she bitterly lamented the time she wasted in her youth as a frivolous and talkative religious, and spent her later years tirelessly reforming the Carmelites to make their life more strict, more ascetical, more silent, and more ordered to prayer. She would not tolerate any worldliness.

Yet there is more to the story of Christian art than seriousness. Medieval sculptors and painters had a brilliant knack for making smiling saints who do not look ridiculous or goofy. I have long thought that we can find in the Middle Ages the secret to all beautiful things, for it is an age of faith far removed from the paganism that preceded it and yet innocent of the humanism, rationalism, and the host of further -isms that beleaguered and shattered Christendom in later centuries. Whatever one might make of my grandiose claim, there can be no question about the success of the following images, which must be the envy of modern artists who know that any attempt on their part to carve or paint such naïvely joyful expressions would end in frightful parody.

I took these pictures in three places: the Cloisters in New York; the Musée de Cluny (Musée National du Moyen Âge) in Paris; and the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia in Prague.

The Cloisters



The last painting, from the cloister walk of the Norbertine monastery of Strahov, is especially striking. While I don't care much for it artistically, the artist has, it seems, attempted to place serene and even joyful expressions on the faces of Mary and John, in contrast to the usual extreme grief shown in portrayals of the crucifixion.

The Catholic Tradition is always both/and, not either/or. Therefore, one must make the effort to wrestle with the tensions or paradoxes in the Tradition—those, for example, between action and contemplation, liturgical prayer and personal prayer, seriousness and playfulness, marriage and virginity. It will not do to speak or act dismissively towards either side; neither will it do to arrive at an idiosyncratic interpretation that arises from ignorance and lack of thought. It seems to me that there are profound reasons why Our Lord, Our Lady, and the saints are normally depicted with serious (but bright and penetrating) countenances and that the exceptions do not cancel out this fundamental rule. Immense inward joy is not at all incompatible with an earnest mien: both express the truth that life is not a joke, a lark, a game, an entertainment, but an ecstasy of love from God and to God.

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