Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Developing a Canon and Schema of Liturgical Art for the Churches of the Roman Rite (Part 1)

Anyone who has ever read a book on Eastern icons will know that the Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches have a well-established way of arranging the icons in their church. Not only are there clear directions on who or what to paint and what style to paint it in, they also know exactly where they are supposed to put each piece of sacred art in their churches. Furthermore, it is clearly understood how each image relates to the others, and how each person ought to engage with each piece of art in the course of the liturgy itself.

For example, when the Ukrainian Catholic National Shrine of the Holy Family in Washington, D.C., put out a call for icon painters a couple of years ago, they did so in accord with this tradition. In my understanding, the rules are not absolutely rigid; most Eastern Rite churches will conform to them while accommodating some aspects that are particular to the church community, adding an icon of the church’s patron Saint.

What should we do in the Roman Rite? I know of no established schema with anything like canonical status. The Church’s guidelines such as the GIRM, Canon Law, and (in the US) a booklet produced by the bishops called Built in the Living Stone, offer suggestions as to the broadest principles for the choice of art. However, apart from asserting the centrality of the Crucifixion and images of Our Lady and the Saints, they offer little that is specific regarding what images are particularly appropriate. I do not quarrel with a single word of these documents, but I do think we need more.

This being so, the question arises: what might the ordering principles be for establishing such a schema? Tradition and the innate sense of what is appropriate would have guided patrons in the past, and for centuries this worked well. Nowadays, things are different. We have had our own iconoclastic period, which has left us disconnected from tradition in so many ways; I think that now some analysis of basic principles and a look at past practices would help us to reestablish a proper ordering of the images in our churches.

My hope is not that a set of rigid rules will be drawn up, but rather, a more detailed set of principles and recommendations by which a pattern of art can be drawn up that would be in accord with tradition. Such principles should reflect authentic liturgical praxis, and also be particular to the congregations for whom they are primarily intended. I could imagine a whole series of different schemas might develop that are all consistent with these principles.

We can take heart in this from the example of the Eastern Church, which did much scholarship in the 20th century to reestablish the iconographic tradition as a living tradition, and to present a coherent account of traditional practices. As a result, in a relatively short time, church architecture and art have flourished in the Eastern Rite in such a way that in Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Churches now have the self-confidence and know-how to create churches and art that are as splendid as any in the past. We can do this in the Roman Church as well if we wish to.

Here are the points that occur to me. The following is presented as a starting point from which I hope a discussion might develop, not an exhaustive analysis.

First, we need a study of Scripture so that we understand the Old Testament types, and the New Testament basis of the sacraments and the liturgy. This will focus particularly on the Rites of Initiation (Baptism and Confirmation) and the Eucharist.

Second, we need a study of the texts and meanings of the words of the Rites, and especially of the Mass; and, in that context of the Mass, of the Roman Canon in particular. This is what will create a characteristically Roman template.

Third, we need to study the example of the Eastern Rites and see how their imagery is connected to the Divine Liturgy, with a view to understanding how this can be done well in the West as well. While we do not want simply to copy iconostases as a template, there is much to be learned by studying the principles by which they are ordered.

Fourth, in the light of all of the above, we should study the examples of earlier Roman churches so that we can understand why things were done as they were. This is not always easy, as images are moved and replaced over time. Perhaps ancient mosaics and wall paintings are the most reliable indicators of past practice in this regard.

Fifth, we must consider liturgical action: we need to re-develop a way of participating in the liturgy that encourages engagement with art in harmony with the highest end to which our worship is directed, so that the art actually influences our Faith through the activity of worshipping God.

1. Scripture
I have recently attended a series of online scripture courses that are designed to connect the traditional imagery of the Church to its scriptural roots and to the liturgy. This has been an eye-opener for me. The books that the course relied upon, apart from the Bible and the Catechism, were The Bible and the Liturgy.by Fr Jean Danielou, and Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity by Robin Jensen.

As part of that course, it became clear to me that there is a need for general re-ordering of the rites of initiation so that Baptism, Confirmation, and their culmination in the Eucharist are understood and connected in people’s minds. It will be difficult to create a pattern of art ordered to these if their meaning is misunderstood by most people who go through them because of this misplaced order. We have just heard about how this change was instituted in the diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire by His Excellency, Bishop Libasci. I understand that there are now 11 dioceses in the United States which have done this.

Also, it seems to me, these rites would be better done in connection with regular Sunday liturgies rather than quietly on a Saturday morning, as they still are for adults at the Easter vigil. The whole parish community should welcome a new member into the body of Christ, and be re-catechized each time these and the Mass are celebrated. This is how an effective and ongoing mystagogy - a deepening of the mysteries - might happen.

Art will teach people about the meaning of these sacraments by giving a pictorial commentary on what is happening, and for much of this, Scripture will be the source. There is hardly a passage in the Old Testament that doesn’t in some way anticipate what happens in the New, and there is so much of the New that relates in some way to these three sacraments.

It is often said that the images of traditional churches, such as the stained glass windows of Gothic churches, were intended as Scriptural lessons for those who could read. I doubt this. Images in churches should be chosen not to direct our attention to the Bible, but rather to focus our attention on the liturgy. The goal of art in a church is to give understanding about what primarily happens in the church, the worship of God. Certainly many of the images are rooted in Scripture, and those who understand what they are seeing would know and understand Scripture too; but art reflects Scripture, because the Bible is, fundamentally, a liturgical document. It was written to be read in the context of the liturgy, and it contains the blueprint for the sacraments and the Christian life, which is lived in its fullest in the liturgy. Scriptural art is in church, therefore, not to instruct us in Scripture as an end in itself, but to offer an account of the same truths which are in the Bible and are relevant to the liturgy.

That is why there are also many images which are liturgical, but not Scriptural, such as those of the Saints. Their presence through the year tells us that they are worshipping with us in the heavenly liturgy, and reflects the order of feasts and commemorations in the liturgical calendar. Images relating to many feasts are a visual accounts of a theology which is more than a strict narrative of a Biblical passage, and derived from many aspects of Tradition.

This being so, one might ask: why do I stress Scripture so strongly, why not just catechize directly on the meaning of the liturgy? The answer lies in identifying our worship as a living out of the story of salvation that Scripture tells. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently read Fr Robert Taft’s book The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, in which he makes the point that in order to profit from praying the liturgy as a whole, including the Hours:
...one must be a person who prays and whose life is penetrated with the Scriptures. The Bible is a story of God’s ceaseless calling, drawing, gathering and of his people’s constant waywardness. And the Fathers and monks of the early Church, in their meditation on this ever-repeated story, know that they were Abraham, they were Moses. They were called forth out of Egypt. They were given a covenant. They knew the wandering across the desert to the Promised Land was the pilgrimage of their life too. The several levels of Israel, Christ, Church, us, are always there. And the themes of redemption, of exodus, of desert and faithful remnant and exile, of the Promised Land and the Holy City of Jerusalem, are all metaphors of the spiritual saga of our own lives. (p. 371)
In my opinion, the general inability of creative Catholics to connect this grand drama, revealed in Scripture and the liturgy, to each personal story lived out by non-Catholics in wider society, is the cause of much of the division between contemporary culture from the culture of Faith. This divide is described by Benedict XVI in the Spirit of the Liturgy, and, if we accept his analysis, has existed for at least 200 years. Every aspect of human activity, and hence of the culture, can potentially be penetrated, to use Fr Taft’s word, by the Scriptures, but people can’t give away what they haven’t got. Artists, dramatists, composers and writers need to be catechized so that they grasp this, and are able to infuse their work, obviously or subtly, with this message so that it connects with those whom we wish to evangelize.

Within the books of the Bible, there should be a special emphasis on Genesis.
Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation - its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation.(CCC 289)
Artist, patrons and priests, therefore, must understand the ultimate end of both Scripture and holy images in the liturgy. When this is done, a church can be adorned from floor to ceiling with images that are united to the worship of God. There is no distraction if it is all derived from and points to the liturgy. There is a place for non-liturgical, devotional art, too, but it should never be such that it dominates or detracts from that which is directly connected to the liturgy. It was the overabundance of devotional imagery in the period before the Council, I suggest, that led to a desire to strip much of the art away. Unfortunately this was over-zealously implemented!

In regard to the place of Scripture, consider the schema for the baptistery in Florence, a Romanesque structure of the 11th and 12th centuries. The building itself is octagonal, which reflects the symbolism of Christ’s Resurrection as the eighth day of creation. It is adorned with symbolic geometric art, and in the interior, the dome has a complex schema that reflects the biblical types of the sacrament.

Plan of the mosaic ceiling : 1. Last Judgment. 2. Lantern. 3. Choirs of Angels. 4. Stories from the Book of Genesis. 5. Stories of Joseph. 6. Stories of Mary and Christ. 7. Stories of St. John the Baptist.

This is only part of it, for the doors of the Baptistery - perhaps even more famous than the building they were made for - also show a whole series of scenes from the Old and New Testament. You can read about this on the Wikipedia entry for the Baptistery, from which all the above images come. There is more information on how baptisteries in the early Church were decorated in Robin Jensen’s excellent book Baptismal Imagery in the Early Church.

I do not suggest that the baptistery should always be a separate building, but it should at least be a separate place, perhaps close to the entrance of the church, so that after baptisms there might be a procession to the main body of the church building.

There are equivalent types and narratives rooted in Scripture that could be the basis for imagery for Confirmation, for example those relating to the Holy Spirit; and to the Eucharist as well and these, especially the latter, should adorn the main body of the Church.

This article will continue in a second installment.

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