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Here’s the abstract from the talk I’ll be giving, and the other talks look juicy, too. Bishop Conley will be there, among others.
The Poet as Troublemaker – Why the Church Needs Artists
Like the angel of God who troubled the waters of a pool to bring healing, the Catholic artist leads his fellow man back to wholeness. In his person, the artist experiences the encounter with reality in a unique way. Through poesis, he voices the response of God, re-calling man to himself, re-making the broken world.
His agony is to bear the weight of glory in form, to utter what cannot be uttered, to become at once fully himself and also negative space for the presence of Christ. The world cannot fathom him, has no category for the subordination of self-expression to Truth. And, sadly, the Church may also be confused about her artists – wary of our worldliness, discomfited by our struggles, embarrassed by our vulnerability, and blind to the need for the trouble and mess we make.
So, the Catholic artist feels at times lonely, unappreciated, misunderstood, unloved within her own home. We must, then, understand ourselves more fully, let the calling to be an artist dwell in us more richly, support one another, and provide for the Church the very forms by which she may grow able to receive and nurture our gifts.
Charlotte will open with her poem A Poet’s Apologia, weave in lines from other poems in which she has taken up this theme, and close with Rooster – a rousing call to artists to ‘be the answer’ the world needs.
Each speaker at the Sept 14-16, 2016 Catholic Artists Conference has a bio featured on the Speakers page at http://www.catholic-artists-conference.com/speakers.html Their abstracts appear as individual blogs here at www.Catholic-Artists.org.
Thanks to a friend who lets the Spirit move her, I now own a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry. I’m enjoying lots of lovely morsels from In Praise of Mortality, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Rilke wrote these Sonnets to Orpheus after the First World War left him bereft of words. He was paralyzed by the horror and destruction, but turned a corner in the effort to reconcile it with his vocation. As he saw it, a poet is called to praise, to “grasp and give shape to” his world, to name the world in gratitude for the goodness shining through it.
Here, the mythological Orpheus, prefiguring Christ in a form of preparatio evangelium, overcomes the darkness with the gift of his own life, and with his song. These sonnets, like the psalms, bear, through the art of poetry the tensions of real life in a dark but hope-filled world. Rilke’s joy in and union with Creation gave me a sense of his return to hope through the naming of the world that is poesis. “Tell me, Orpheus, what offering can I make to you, who taught the creatures how to listen?” Clearly, the appropriate offering for God’s gift of Creation is gratitude.
Speaking of a galloping horse, Rilke tells Orpheus “He embraced the distances as if he could sing them, as if your songs were completed in him.” Of forest animals he says, “…it was not fear or cunning that made them be so quiet, but the desire to listen.” Of an apple he writes, “…this sweetness which first condensed itself so that, in the tasting, it may burst forth and be known in all its meanings…” What a beautiful refusal to let an apple become an empty mental construct, or an impotent label. For Rilke, creation is actively calling to us – a super-Reality, and not an inert stage set for a meaningless play.
It’s impossible to do justice to poetry with excerpted lines, though I have many juicy favorites in this book. Since we are, ourselves, accosted in this day by the darkness that threatened to overwhelm this poet, I’ll give just one of his poems, whole, so you can sense the beauty of the rest.
“Only he who lifts his lyre
in the Underworld as well
may come back
to praising, endlessly.
Only he who has eaten
the food of the dead
will make music so clear
that even the softest tone is heard.
Though the reflection in the pool
often ripples away,
take the image within you.
Only in the double realm
do our voices carry
all they can say.”
(IX in Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus, in In Praise of Mortality.)
I hope that you who weekly eat the food of the dead, the Eucharist of the risen Christ, will take his image with you in the pool that is your interior being. There, His voice will carry, and through you be carried into the world. He is the double realm in whom we may live, move, and have being, and He has overcome death so that we may be free to praise Him endlessly. The heart of Christ, seen through Rilke’s reflections on Orpheus, “is a winepress destined to break, that makes for us an eternal wine.”
There’s so much more to love in this little volume, but go find your own, or make friends with someone who will think of you in dusty bookstores.
On my living room wall you’ll see the painting, A Drawing In, by Peggy Shopen. It’s a pastel look across a tree-shaded lawn to a house that is tucked behind two large tree trunks in the middle distance. Though the artist is a good friend, and I’ve admired her work, I had not had such a sense of personal encounter with a piece until seeing this. I felt a spontaneous, non-analytical sort of ‘bonding’ with the painting.
How much of my response had to do with the fact that this particular house is one I’ve known intimately as a place of warm, human, Catholic fellowship and ‘culture building’? This home and the artist are ‘devoted to the service of fellow men,’ but does the painting reveal that to the viewer who does not know them? These questions intrigue me, though I don’t think I can answer them definitively.
The painting would, I think, bring viewers to a higher understanding of beauty, because it clearly portrays its subject – a simple, unassuming house – as a thing that is beautiful, that is seen with a deep appreciation of its interior, or hidden goodness, and as worthy of the work of an artist. Certainly, the painting points to the universal value of the home as a safe haven, and also to the value of the natural setting in which the house sits cradled and which forms an antechamber that seems to be bigger than the wood-enclosed rooms of the actual structure. This is so much entwined, for me, with my personal awareness that the artist really does perceive this tree-embraced ‘front room’ as an extension of her home, but I believe any viewer would sense this.
Because the natural beauty around the house so predominates, you could say the artist has placed the work of God-as-artist deliberately in a position of precedence over even her most-cherished personal sphere.
I love the way the sense of ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ keep changing in this painting. The interior is the house, protecting an ‘inside’ from the elements, but it is also the deep-and-beckoning, almost spherical negative, open space framed by tree trunks that suggests the artists’ soul and calls to mine. The exterior is the outdoor world, but then is also the mere structural combination of old wood and fading paint that suggests the mortality, or temporary nature of such passing things as houses, possessions, and bodies.
This artist is a painter and iconographer, not a ‘word person,’ yet her painting’s title is another delight for me – an extra, poetic gift to me in a brief, three-word verbal enigma. “A Drawing In” plays on all the elements I’ve discussed in the painting – the ‘drawing in’ of friends and family to the shelter and joys of home life, and the artists’ literal drawing of ‘in’ – as the interior of her soul glimpsed inside a humble structure by those with eyes to see.
So, I offer these observations with joy, because writing this has helped me to see both my dear painting and my dear friend more richly.
Berlinghieri’s St. Francis (select link for larger image in a new window) appears behind the altar of San Francesco in Pescia, Italy. It is an excellent example of art ordered to divine worship.
First, the Catechism instructs us in choosing sacred, or liturgical art, that such art is appropriate if it principally represents Christ (CCC 1159), expresses the same Gospel message as Scripture (CCC 1160), glorifies Christ through the representation of individual saints who have, in Him, revealed man as an image or likeness of God (CCC 1161), and moves us to contemplation in harmony with the Word of God and hymns of the Liturgy (CCC 1162). This image of St. Francis answers to its high calling at every point.
St. Francis’ miraculous reception of the stigmata – participation in the very wounds of Christ – is represented in both the central and in a side image which emphasizes his perfect receptivity to the will of God. Scripture’s injunctions to serve the poor (Proverbs 19:17, Acts 20:35, and many more) and neglect not good works (1 John 3: 17-18, James 2:14-26) are evoked in three side panels, in which St. Francis humbly serves the poor. St. Francis, casting out the demons of Arezzo, as depicted in another side panel, is the very image of Christ glorified and of man raised to share in Christ’s own dominion over the angelic realm. (Hebrews 1:4, Lk 10:17-19, Eph 2:6, Mt 10:1, Mk 3:14)
The image of St. Francis preaching to the birds on the left of the central figure leads us to contemplation of Christ’s Redemption of all Creation through His restoration of mankind (Romans 8:19-22) and reminds us of St. Francis’ own hymn of Creation – the Canticle that praises God in all created things in a voice that is reminiscent of the Liturgy of the Hours, where Daniel’s canticle of praise is so frequently featured (Daniel 3:57-88). This small moment in the life of the saint, offered, literally, ‘on the altar of Christ’ in union with the Sacrifice and Resurrection in which all things are redeemed and restored, is lifted to its true significance. Every aspect of St. Francis’ life is shown here in its true light – as offered to Christ – and thus illuminates the sense in which every believer brings the offering of his own being to God in the celebration of each Mass. “The presentation of the offerings at the altar takes up the gesture of Melchizedek and commits the Creator’s gifts into the hands of Christ who, in his sacrifice, brings to perfection all human attempts to offer sacrifices.” (CCC 1350)
Turning to the criteria given by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) in The Spirit of the Liturgy, we are further confirmed in our sense that this painting is an exemplary piece of liturgical art. The Cardinal’s five principles are:
1) “Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship.” 2) Images of salvation history, from the Bible and from the history of the saints “have pride of place in sacred art.” 3)Sacred images must point to “the inner unity of God’s action” and “to the sacraments,” and emphasize the Paschal Mystery, inasmuch as Christ is represented, in three aspects: Christ Crucified, Risen, and as “the One who will come again and who her and now hiddenly reigns over all.” 4) Sacred art must be the fruit of contemplation and prayer “undertaken in communion with the seeing faith of the Church.” and 5) Sacred art must not (indeed, cannot) come “from an isolated subjectivity,” but emerges from the submission, by the artist, of his skill and freedom to “the logos of things” – reality as understood through the norms and doctrines of the Church, as opposed to that which is merely apprehensible to the senses. The inward formation of the artist by the Church, and his openness “to the ‘we’” of the Body of Christ protects his work from “imprisoning man” in art that does not do justice to the fullness of Truth.
The St. Francis altarpiece, again, gets high marks for liturgical use according to Cardinal Ratzinger’s criteria. Offering, as it does, beautiful images from the life of a saint, and as far as a viewer can tell, painted by an artist who is prayerfully formed by and submissive to received Catholic doctrine, this painting succeeds on the (perhaps most important) level of pointing to the Paschal Mystery. Though it is not an icon of Christ himself, the painting evokes the Passion through the stigmata of St. Francis, the Risen Christ through the Saint’s ministry to the poor, and the glorified Christ in the two images of Creation fulfilled in Christ’s perfect dominion: the birds’ docility toward, and the flight of demons at the Word of God. The Holy Bible in St. Francis’ hands (the ‘logos of things’ per Cardinal Ratzinger) speaks of his and of the artist’s sense of the primacy of the Word of God, as revealed in Scripture. The full deposit of Faith – the unity of these Scriptures with the Tradition of the Church of Christ – is made explicit by the juxtaposition of the Bible with the wound-marked hand of St. Francis.
The concern of the artist for the ecclesial ‘we’ is evident in his invitation to the congregation to place their gifts on the altar, following the example of St. Francis, whose life and works – like ours – makes sense only in the position of an offering to Christ, and in his placement of St. Francis’ vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (symbolized by the three knots of his rope girdle) directly in line with the elevation of the Host. Maryvale’s Art, Beauty and Inspiration coursebook teaches that, “Paintings for altar pieces receive their full meaning, sense and purpose, then, not from what is depicted, but from the celebration of Mass….One way of discerning whether a painting may have been an altar piece is to see what is placed in the centre-front area of the painting. This is an extremely important part of a painting. For an altar piece it may be left relatively empty because of the head and shoulders of the priest standing here before it, and, of course, because of the elevation of the sacred host at the consecration.” (Module 2 Coursebook, pg.75)
If we ask the question, as suggested, “…into or towards what, in the painting, is the host being elevated?” we find the further element of liturgical action has been accommodated by Berlinghieri in this painting. It’s as though, at the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament, this entire piece would come to life. In the person of Christ, we believers are raised up through the chastity, poverty, and obedience of discipleship toward the sanctity of sainthood, and toward participation in the redemptive suffering of Christ. In the unity of received doctrine – the revelation of the Word of God – we are formed into His very Body for the sake of the coming of the Kingdom into this world – through our receptivity to Him, our proclamation of His message, and our works.
Clearly, this artist aims to raise our sites toward an eternal destiny that is not limited to what we can apprehend through our natural senses. He accomplishes well the task of creating art that truly serves the Liturgy, and by extension operates to draw all men toward Christ.
Giotto’s painting, The Wedding Feast at Cana, (select link for large image in a new window) portrays the literal and spiritual senses of this story. From John 2:1-11, we have the story that is the basis for the painting. Its details are conveyed in a simple, straightforward way. At the table from which the bride and groom face their roomful of guests sit, among others, Jesus (signified by the cross-marked gold halo) and his mother, Mary (signified by her blue robe and gold halo). Mary has turned toward the servants who attend the wine jars. This would seem to be the moment when she says to them, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) Obligingly, the servant girl on the right fills the jars with water per Jesus’ instructions (John 2:7: “Fill the jars with water…”). The steward tastes red wine (“…the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine…” John 2:9). The servant beside him, clutching at his arm, is, perhaps, eager to try for himself a bit of the wine he hears praised by his surprised supervisor (“…you have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:10).
There seems to be a direct line of sight from the amazed steward back to Christ, seeming to contradict the fact that, in the story, the steward immediately credits the bridegroom with the provision of this fine wine. This would seem to be a redirection of the viewer’s understanding of the story ‘upward’, toward its spiritual meaning. On the literal level, the bridegroom – as is fitting at his wedding – is the central figure. On the spiritual level, the ‘bridegroom’ has become a type, or sign of Christ. Giotto has even robed them in similar garments to emphasize this unity of meaning.
The feast itself – noticeably lacking any foods but bread and wine – is now seen as an image of the Eucharistic feast. Both Christ and the bridegroom raise hands of blessing over the bread, and the servant girl in the center seems to bow before it reverently. The girl in pink, arms folded, gazing intently at Jesus, might have seemed idle as a servant, but now reminds us of the Mary who sat still in the presence of Jesus while her sister, Martha, bustled around, busily preparing a meal for Him. (Lk 10:38-42) Each, in her own (though outwardly opposite) way, gives Him reverent attention – as these two servant girls, back-to-back, clearly do.
On Christ’s left sits a young man who seems to be listening to the narrator, St. John, who tells this story in his gospel account. Their oblique perspective on the scene suggests again that the literal events are meant to be seen and understood on another, spiritual, level. The young man sits, hands folded, more like a student/disciple than an active participant in a festive meal. He represents, perhaps, all those who would later be instructed through St. John’s retelling of the story of this feast.
The bride looking toward her husband mirrors Mary’s gaze at the miraculous wine – a direction of our gaze toward the moral sense that reverberates all through this painting. “Listen to Him,” says the girl on the left. “Learn of Him,” says St. John. “Bow to Him,” says the girl in green. “Follow His mother’s example,” says the bride. “Do as He tells you,” says Mary. “Take, and drink!” says the steward. The moral instructions conveyed by these events and by the artist’s careful rendering could not be clearer. Eventually, the viewer’s eye is drawn upward, past these ‘lower levels’ to a much higher plane.
Though the blue of the heaven-like ceiling is only a few feet above the seated guests, its distance is amplified by a three-part horizontal band. The colorful wall stops abruptly at the plastered white wall, where a decorative molding further accentuates the separation of the upper level. Finally, an almost crown-like balcony, carved with three rows of crosses and topped with six small urn-shaped finials lifts our eyes to what must be the highest meaning – the eternal significance – of this story. A seventh urn, much larger than the six, is centered precisely over the bridegroom, raising our understanding of the sign of ‘new wine’ to the sense in which a wedding feast prefigures the eventual fulfillment of the new covenant in the Wedding Supper wherein Christ will receive His Bride, the Church. “At Cana, the mother of Jesus asks her son for the needs of a wedding feast; this is the sign of another feast – that of the wedding of the Lamb where he gives his body and blood at the request of the Church, his Bride.” (CCC 2618)
Also directing our gaze fully upward is a vertical line of bright white paint at the left margin that seems to indicate quite a bright light shining from that direction, which also brightens the left side of the ‘crown balcony’ and flows across the white table cloth, over the white water jars, and even over the obedient servant girl in white. The dual movement of this light suggests the vertical-and-horizontal of the Cross, and also highlights the three gestures of blessing as it moves through Christ, man (the bridegroom) and Mary toward the fulfillment of the promise of finest wine.
The anagogical level leads us to the covenantal significance of this (and of every) wedding and of the Eucharistic feast. The literal wedding – like the natural elements of bread and wine, or the temporal covenant of natural marriage, is overshadowed and suffused with new life and meaning by what must be the Holy Spirit – shown as light, movement, and power. Because this wedding feast prefigures the Last Supper, at which Christ instituted the Eucharist, it also directs our attention “toward the fulfillment of the Passover in the kingdom of God” (CCC 1403). The Eucharist is the sign of the marriage covenant of Redemption between Christ and His Church (Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20, CCC 1405). The Old and New Covenants are joined together definitively in the feasts of Passover, Cana, and Eucharist, where all eyes are directed toward the coming kingdom, where the sign of Marriage, the signs of Bread and Wine, the signs of blood and water,and the sign of the Cross will be fulfilled in glory. (CCC 1359-1363, CCC 1334, 1335)