Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Book Recommendation: A Journey with Jonah, Part Three - Art and Literature Through Centuries

Life Imitating Art: How the Culture Communicates the Faith to the Skeptical and So That They Might Convert 

A Journey with Jonah - The Spirituality of Bewilderment, by Fr Paul Murray O.P. including God Took Pity a commentary of the Book of Jonah by Joseph Ratzinger. Pub. Word on Fire Institute, 2021.
In this third posting about this little book, I consider how artists might apply an understanding of both the Faith and the beliefs of non-Christians to channel their creativity, and create works of art to engage with all people through contemporary culture. I focus mainly on visual art, and secondarily on literature and poetry, but the principles apply just as much to any creative field.

In his extended essay on Jonah, Fr Paul Murray refers to the fresco painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel of Jonah awakening under a shrinking gourd. Michelangelo’s image is unusual, although certainly not unique in the canon of sacred art, as we will see, in showing Jonah under the gourd. 

The most common representation of Jonah tends to focus on his being swallowed by, present within, or emerging from the fish. For example, this contemporary icon carved by Canadian iconographer Jonathan Pageau follows a typical iconographic prototype.

We see Jonah emerging from the fish with the city of Ninevah in the distance. He is holding a scroll of the prayer of Jonah, sung at Orthros in the liturgy of the Byzantine Churches:
I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, 'I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple? The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!
The following Western examples from the late Romanesque and gothic periods follow similar themes. This one dates from 1280:
This next one is from a 17th-century Armenian hymnal, completed in Constantinople by a priest named Yakob Pēligratc‘i:
And this was painted by Giotto in 14th-century Italy:
Michelangelo’s depiction of Jonah differs from these both in style and content. Stylistically, as with all 16th-century Italian art, the inspiration is pre-Christian, coming from the sculpture of classical antiquity and the Hellenistic period. The theme, however, is drawn from one that was common during the period of early Christianity and which overlapped with the late antique period. Here is a 3rd century AD sculpture of Jonah asleep under the gourd.
This pose is based upon a common theme in non-Christian sculpture, that of the Greek myth of Endymion, who remains young and beautiful forever by being perpetually in sleep. Here is a sculpture of Endymion from the 2nd century AD:
And, here again, is a painting from the Roman catacomb of the 4th century AD (already referred to in part 1):
In Michelangelo’s painting of Jonah, he is awake and looking upwards with (as best as I can identify) two cherubs watching. I do not claim to know the artist’s thought processes, but simply by looking at the images, a simple visual comparison gives the impression that he is looking for inspiration in the composition to this earlier period in the Christian tradition. Michelangelo does not copy directly, however; he changes the angle of view, and, while retaining the strong gesture with the arm, modifies it to suit one who is awake rather than asleep.
This would make sense, it seems to me. The High Renaissance was a period of enthusiastic and renewed interest in classical, pre-Christian culture, and it would be natural for a 16th-century artist to play to this interest.

There is an important point to understand here: in order to connect with people of the 16th century most powerfully, Michelangelo chose neither a mere copy of the 2nd-century Endymion, nor of the 3rd-century Jonah, but instead created a fresco inspired by and adapted from these forms. He was an artist who knew that the Christian audience of his day had a great interest in classical art and mythology, and unlike that of the Gothic or Romanesque period, would respond to a painting in that style. He clearly had an awareness of the tradition and reverence for these artists of the past, but also understood, it seems, that he must adapt what they did, without straying from what is authentically Christian. As a young man, he was a member of the circle of intellectuals, writers, philosophers, and artists put together by Lorenzo de Medici. But his art was designed to appeal to all people, going beyond the circle of elites that he necessarily occupied as part of his training.

Accordingly, every Christian artist today must resist the temptation to be satisfied with impressing the cognoscenti and their friends at dinner parties, not resting until they can connect with the mass audience, appealing to their innate and common sense of what is beautiful and what speaks of God and his Church. In today’s world, this may mean seeking inspiration from a different style of Christian art, or it may mean generating something previously unimagined, that nevertheless participates in the tradition.

This is exactly the message of Benedict XVI in his book A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today. In the quote that follows (p. 106) he is talking about music specifically, but everything he says applies to every aspect of the culture, including visual art. He begins by referring to the flawed anthropology (already referred to in this discussion because it is indicated in the book of Jonah itself and described by Fr Paul Murray in his essay), in which man’s spirituality is viewed as being limited to himself and does not connect him with the God of religion. This modern concept of creativity, and hence, the process of inspiration that precedes it is, he says, also flawed. Man in this distorted picture is an entity that is closed in upon himself, and does not receive, but is only productive. This is a wellspring of creativity that runs dry very quickly, as he points out:
In the existential radicalization of this approach, nothing meaningful at all precedes human existence. The human being comes from a meaningless factuality and is thrown into a meaningless freedom. The person thus becomes a pure creator; at the same time his or her creativity becomes a mere whim and, precisely for this reason, empty. According to Christian faith, however, it belongs to the essence of human beings that they come from God’s “art,” that they themselves are a part of God’s art and as perceivers can think and view God’s creative ideas with him and translate them into the visible and audible. If this be the case, then to serve is not foreign to art; only serving the Most High does it exist at all. Music [or visible art, DC] does not become alienated form its purpose when it praises God and praises Him in such a way that it becomes “proclamation in the great congregation” (Ps. 22:25). On the contrary, only from this willingness does it renew itself again and again. It is precisely the test of true creativity that the artist steps out of the esoteric circle and knows how to form his or her intuition in such a way that the others - the many - may perceive what the artist has perceived. In the process, the three conditions for true art specified in the book of Exodus are always valid: artists must be moved by their hearts; they must have understanding, that is, be skillful people; and the must have perceived what the Lord himself has shown.
If we are to truly to connect with ‘the many’ as Ratzinger refers to them, creative Christians must also go beyond the culture of faith and reach out to the wider contemporary secular culture too, for that is the culture that non-Christians will see, and Christians engage with outside the context of their church. Historically the wider culture drew stylistically on the popular but noble culture of faith so that, for example, portraits and landscapes might speak of the Creator in a style that is formed within the Church. This is how we build a secular culture that draws people in and directs them to an encounter with Christ. It is a secular culture that is rooted in an assumed faith, rather than one that is explicit.

The theme of continual re-creation as the sign of a living artistic tradition echoes the line from Ratzinger in A Journey With Jonah, in which he says that the story of Jonah is a parable that “ The present is explained over and over again to different generations, and it is only the light of the future - ultimately in that light that comes from God - that the present can be understood and lived correctly.”

This then is also a challenge particularly to the writers of the current age to create new works. We ought not, as a rule, to re-write the prayers and hymns of the Church in her liturgy with each generation. The place for writers to engage with their audience is in screenplays, dramas, novels and poetry, in which they tell stories that draw on the universal themes of the faith, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly.

In A Journey With Jonah, Fr Paul Murray give us many examples of poems and novels that do just this, dwelling most of all on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. He also quotes the 20th-century playwright Wolf Mankowitz, a poem by the late 2nd-century Christian writer Tertullian, a 15th-century Florentine mystery play, an anonymous medieval poet from the Jewish tradition, and the 20th-century poems of Hart Crane, Robert Frost, and Thomas Merton, and the 19th-century poet Frances Quarles.

The artists that he draws upon to illustrate his points are perhaps obscure to many people today and relatively unknown, perhaps rarely read, and even then, reluctantly so when they are assigned by a literature teacher! This book will not popularize the literary forms, and for this reason, is unlikely to draw many new people to the Faith directly. However, most were popular artists in their day, and did achieve the goal of escaping the circle of the esoteric. Every artist who aspires to create noble and popular works today must reverence the canon of great artists of the past in his chosen field, so that he may understand how they connected with people in their day. Therefore, I encourage writers to study this book so as to see how the great writers that Fr Murray refers to incorporated the themes of Jonah into their work so well. Tolkein and Lewis understood the general point behind this, which is the source of their popularity.

We need artists in every other field of creation too! People respond to different aspects of the culture differently. I am not literary at all, and am much more interested in visual art, architecture and music. In my case, the greatest Christian novel or poem of the 21st century could millions of readers... but I wouldn’t be one of them. I don’t read poetry or much fiction. I have never read Tolkein, for example, (I found The Hobbit dull, and never got any further than the first few pages), and at my age have long since stopped trying to cultivate an interest in it. But I do realize, of course, that not everyone is like me, and so I want to see writers creating great Christian works. This is a call for 21st-century Inklings!

I will finish with a range of artistic representations of Jonah. The first is by Herrad of Landseberg, an Alsatian nun, abbess, and author of the Hortus Deliciarum, a pictorial encyclopedia specifically written for the edification of the women in her convent. As an artist, I look to her and other early Gothic and Romanesque artists for stylistic influences that might connect with the modern age. Her style of line-based description of form evokes, in my mind at least, thoughts of modern illustration and animation. If I were to paint this, I would try to introduce the rhythmical lines we see in the fish into the waves, the buildings, and the figure too, while retaining the method of describing form with line and light washes of color. Time will tell if I am right, it’s just a personal view!

Here is a range of contemporary iconographic representations:

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