Many of the great controversies of the Faith’s history have been played out in its visual culture. From the iconoclast mosaics of Hagia Irene to the Tridentine monuments of Bernini to the Jansenist portraits of Philippe de Champaigne and beyond, we find clear expressions of theological tensions throughout the centuries. So it should be no surprise to find the present troubles in the Church reflected in art.
I was recently in Ireland and came across a curious sight. In both of the Catholic Churches I entered during my stay, I found copies of the National Icon of the Holy Family, also known as the Amoris Laetitia Icon.
On a purely aesthetic level, the icon is visually striking. It was clearly written by an iconographer who knew his craft. Specially commissioned for the 2018 World Meeting of Families in Ireland, the icon presents the Holy Family seated at table (in imitation of the the Rublev Trinity), flanked on either side by scenes from the Gospel.
I won’t trouble my readers with the wider ecclesiastical context, as I assume most will already be familiar with the present unpleasantness in the Church. I would, however, point out two significant irregularities in the icon, both in its construction and in its reception.
To the best of my knowledge, it is highly unusual for documents to be the subjects of icons. Only the Creeds of the Church are ordinarily enshrined in the iconographic canon.
To treat Amoris Laetitia as a worthy subject for inclusion in iconography is deeply problematic. An Apostolic Exhortation is nowhere near as magisterial as a Creed of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church speaking in her undivided voice. Icons are meant to manifest the transfigured reality of the Eschaton and lead us to contemplate the presence of divinized persons. Insofar as Creeds are foundational manifestations of the theanthropic Tradition, they are of one piece with the iconographic canon. Thus, we can write icons about them. But to write an icon about a document of quasi-magisterial status and, at best, uncertain orthodoxy is to do violence to the canon itself. I suppose there are those who would defend the icon by saying it primarily represents the Holy Family, and not the Apostolic Exhortation at all. The rather ostentatious title at the foot of the icon vitiates this interpretation.
The other issue with the Amoris Laetitia icon is the way it is being received. Or rather, imposed. The icon itself is currently making the rounds of the Irish dioceses, almost as if it were the Kursk Root Icon or some other wonder-working image. I found laminated copies on a side-altar in one church, and before the ambo in another (not to mention the pocket-sized editions at the back of the church; even these have the words Amoris Laetitia at the bottom). I’m not sure whether either case was really appropriate. I do know that both looked very tacky. And aside from the theological issues I have already described, there is another reason why I find it all so unnerving. It is a political icon, manifestly written and deployed to suppress dissent from the official line when it comes to the interpretation of AL. The image belongs to the Church’s present crisis of confidence, and cannot be read apart from it.
But the Kasperite triptych is not the only recent translation of the Church’s internal divisions into visual media. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. And who should come to the defense of Tradition, but our old friend Giovanni Gasparro? I am still puzzled as to how Mr. Gasparro could have been accused of Modernism, as he continues to produce a body of Caravaggiste work that speaks very clearly to the priorities of Traditional Catholics. Case in point, his new painting.
Like the AL icon, this painting must be read in light of the ongoing disputes within the Church. It would be simplistic, however, to see it as a merely ironic jab at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation. St. John the Baptist’s expression is not one of anger or rebuke. We can read in its calm confidence the firm authority that comes from knowledge of the Truth, as well as the gentleness of love. The Forerunner is not a Pharisee.
I would add that the stark stylistic difference with the Amoris Laetitia icon speaks to an important distinction in sensibilities. In the first case, it occurs to me that the selection of iconography is a very deliberate choice. It borrows the authority of the East – and all its Ecumenical associations – to implicitly justify its theology. I suppose we oughtn’t be too surprised. The dispute over Amoris is in large part a question of whether the Latin Church can accept a theology and praxis of marriage that more closely resembles the Eastern custom. And the man who started it all, Cardinal Kasper, was, of course, at one time in charge of the Vatican’s ecumenical relations with the Orthodox. Yet Mr. Gasparro’s painting is clearly situated within the Baroque, and thus Tridentine, aesthetic. His use of chiaroscuro, his slightly orientalist costuming, and the exaggerated theatricality of his gestures are all emblematic of the conventions of Early Modern sacred art.
In these two representative paintings and their disparate stylistic choices, we see two ways of thinking about Doctrinal Development: horizontal and vertical. The AL icon dramatizes the horizontal view of development. Doctrine can change through ecumenical encounter. Catholicism can move forward by learning from the experience of sister churches (or, in its most extreme iteration, other religions entirely). The Gasparro painting, on the other hand, stands for the vertical notion of development: the faith remains essentially the same through time, and is only clarified or deepened as the ages pass. There are, of course, elements of both views that are true. But the vertical view is the established theory of Tradition that, with some important developments (e.g. Newman), was put forth consistently from Trent to the Second Vatican Council. The question of which model will prevail is the center of the argument about Amoris.
Of course, someone will chime in and object to me reading any meaning into either image from the church political context in which they were produced. Fair enough. But while we should always start with the object in itself, it is not always possible in interpretation to keep art hermetically sealed off from the circumstances of its own creation. To do so in the case of either the AL icon or the Gasparro painting would be to ignore what is, I wager, a crucial context. And if we admit that important factor, we can start to see how the arts are speaking to the wider life of the Church in our own moment.