Elsewhere: Newman Against the Nazis

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White Rose members Hans and Sophie Scholl. (Source)

A big thanks to Fr. David Abernethy of the Pittsburgh Oratory for bringing to my attention an article in the Catholic Herald about the influence of Cardinal Newman’s thought on die Weiße Rose. Apparently the Doctor of Conscience was an important impetus for their resistance to Nazi oppression. From the article:

The man who brought Newman’s writings to the attention of the Munich students was the philosopher and cultural historian Theodor Haecker. Haecker had become a Catholic after translating Newman’s Grammar of Assent in 1921, and for the rest of his life Newman was his guiding star. He translated seven of Newman’s works, and on several occasions read excerpts from them at the illegal secret meetings Hans Scholl convened for his friends. Strange though it may seem, the insights of the Oxford academic were ideally suited to help these students make sense of the catastrophe they were living through.

Haecker’s influence is evident already in the first three White Rose leaflets, but his becomes the dominant voice in the fourth: this leaflet, written the day after Haecker had read the students some powerful Newman sermons, finishes with the words: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace! Please read and distribute!”

Read the whole thing. And pray that Bl. John Henry Newman might, by his intercession, assist us in the struggle against every tyranny.

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God is Real, Not Nice

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Colorized detail of Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law, by Gustave Dore. (Source)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the spiritual father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, launched his movement in the nineteenth century with an assault on the Frankfurt Reformers entitled “Religion Allied to Progress.” Hirsch decries the new forms of liberal, secular religion he saw animating the well-to-do populations of Jews in Germany.

“But behold! The prophet of the new message came into their midst with the cry of ‘religion allied to progress’; he filled the blank, pacified their conscience and wiped out their shame. With this magic word he turned irreligion into Godliness, apostasy into priesthood, sin into merit, frivolity into virtue, weakness into strength, thoughtlessness into profundity. By this one magic phrase he distilled the ancient world-ranging spirit of the Torah into a single aromatic drop of perfume so fragrant that in the most elegant party dress they could carry it round with them in their waistcoat pockets without being ashamed. By means of it, he carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms. By means of this one magic phrase he so skilfully loosened the rigid bonds of the old law with its 613 locks and chains that the Divine Word which until then had inflexibly prohibited many a desire and demanded many a sacrifice, henceforth became the heavenly manna which merely reflected everybody’s own desires, echoed their own thoughts, sanctified their own aspirations and said to each one: ‘Be what you are, enjoy what you fancy, aspire to what you will, whatever you may be you are always religious, whatever you may do–all is religion; continue to progress, for the more you progress the further you move from the ancient way, and the more you cast off old Jewish customs the more religious and acceptable to God will you be….'”

These prophetic words came to mind as I was reading Dr. Ulrich Lehner’s excellent new offering, God Is Not Nice (2017). Published by Ave Maria Press, the book is a cannon-blast through America’s spiritual miasma. His target? The false image of God as a nice guy. I’m afraid that, as the book shows, He isn’t very “nice” at all. He’s so much better than that.

Each chapter considers one of God’s attributes as revealed in the Scriptures, the Magisterium, and Church History. How wonderful to come across a work of theology that isbrace yourselfactually about God! Gone are the boring and programmatic encumberments that so often clog up the pages of the theological press. Lehner is centrally concerned with God’s character, and only secondarily with what that must mean to us, His creations.

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Lehner drinks deeply of the Scriptures. He often returns to Old Testament narratives of encounter with a God who surpasses every expectation. (Source)

It is also one of the most erudite pieces of popular religious writing I have ever read. Sprinkled in among the obligatory references to the Inklings are much heavier hitters. One finds ideas drawn from Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, John Crowe Ransom, Rodney Stark, Robert Spaemann, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many more. Lehner’s prodigious knowledge of philosophy was especially apparent, as he deftly maneuvered between classical Thomism and recent German thoughtnot exactly the fare one expects from a major Church Historian. God Is Not Nice also has the distinction of being the only book of popular devotion I’ve encountered that speaks favorably of Erich Fromm (and cribs some of his ideas). It is to Lehner’s credit as a teacher that the reader never feels as if he’s suddenly entered rare air. He presents some difficult concepts with a simplicity that never sacrifices substance. An eighth grader could read and, more importantly, understand the text. So could an Evangelical. The book never ceases to be Catholic, but one is hard-pressed to find many insights that are so uniquely Papist as to dissuade Protestant readers. Its broad appeal comes not from a watering down of the Faith’s distinctives, but a consistent penetration of those things which lie at the very heart of the Christian life.

The book is also imbued with a deep humanity. First, Lehner’s understated humor crops up now and again, such as the time he casually compares the Prosperity Gospel preachers to Nazis (62). Or when, at the start of a chapter on intimacy with God, he writes, “Nakedness in public is a clear no-no” (80). It is difficult to imagine Lehner writing that line with a straight face, and impossible to read it with one.

The humanity of the text lies in its content as well as its style. Although Lehner hardly ever proposes specific ideas for spiritual renewal, the call to conversion is constant, simple, and universal enough that it all feels eminently practical. It works in large part because Lehner never invests his project with the unwieldy freight of, say, the hopes and failures of socially conservative American Christianity. This book is not The Benedict Option. Sure enough, Lehner is critical; for example, I was surprised to see such a forthright condemnation of the Enlightenment from an author who has made it is his life’s study. But Lehner never carries his criticism into the unpleasant realm of polemic, as Dreher so often does in his own book. What matters to Lehner is the individual human soul, not the social conditions under which the Church must forge her way through history. He is realistic about the quotidian quality of our spiritual lives. Everything must come back to the individual’s relationship with God, a relationship largely shaped by the perfectly ordinary moments of our day. The book never leaves this vision.

That isn’t to say that Lehner advocates a purely individualistic spirituality, like some eighteenth-century revivalist, red in the face, handkerchief flailing. I was struck many times by the familial note in Lehner’s work. Instead of shying away from appearing in his own workthe hallmark of a bloodless academicLehner grounds his spiritual call to arms in his own life. Lots of the book’s wisdom is drawn from its author’s experience of parenting. We read, in a chapter on God and suffering:

In fact, many of our children learn from the first hour of Sunday school that God wants everybody to be happy. Some parents might object that a different image of God would terrify children. I don’t think so – and I am speaking with the experience of parenting five kids. (100)

Or elsewhere, in a discussion of the Redemption:

A nice god might pardon us without care for our repentance, but so would a terrible parent who is not interested in us becoming mature and responsible persons. (118)

Or this charming anecdote, while pondering human freedom and what we really mean when we say that the Lord is “a God of Surprises”:

Of course, God is omniscient regarding all our actions and thoughts, but he leaves us our freedom and seems to choose to be surprised. I cannot help but compare this to my own parenting. When my younger children prepare a surprise present for my birthday, I usually find traces in the kitchen and the living room: crayons, pieces of paper, glue sticks, and first drafts with ‘Happy Birthday’ on them. Nevertheless, I choose to be surprised when they hand me their work of art. I think that with an omniscient God, it must be somehow like this. (126)

It thus didn’t come as too great a surprise when, at the end of his text, Lehner turned to a brief yet powerful meditation on St. Joseph. In some sense, St. Joseph is the paragon of all that Lehner advocates. He dwelt with God day to day in an intimacy unclouded by the various pretty illusions to which we all fall prey. Instead, St. Joseph drew the strength he needed from a true knowledge of God’s character. That knowledge created a great love and humble awe in him. For us, as for the Frankfurt Jews of Hirsh’s day, God is little more than a plaything or bric-a-brac, “relegated to a mantelpiece long ago and…only taken down on Sundays.” (106).

It was not so with St. Joseph. He knew the awful and living God as a human being, as one beloved. But for St. Joseph, that God wasn’t “nice.” After reading Lehner’s book, we too may be lucky enough to know that God’s not nice. He’s real.

When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

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St. John Damascene and the St. Virgin Tricherusa, Giovanni Gasparro. Here we see Gasparro depicting a legend from the Saint’s life that is particularly appropriate for an artist. The work also represents the unity of Western and Eastern visual traditions in the transcendent Divinity. (Source)

Recently there came into my newsfeed an article by Hilary White Obl.S.B. of What’s Up with Francischurch?. The piece was an extended criticism of Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist whose paintings inspired a few of the meditations I have written before on this blog. As someone who has long admired Mr. Gasparro’s Neo-Baroque art, I was happy to see that Rorate Caeli recently profiled one of his pieces. Ms. White was, it seems, partially responding to this attention. However, the more I read of her article, the more I found myself in stark disagreement with her analysis and broader philosophy.

While I have in the past appreciated her reporting as well as the monastic spirit she brings to her work, I confess that I was surprised at the poor quality of her post. I would not ordinarily seek out controversy, but as it seems that Ms. White’s post is making the rounds of the Tradisphere, I felt it imperative to offer a counter perspective.

There are many problems with the article. It is a textbook example of how not to write about art and theology, failing comprehensively at description, prescription, and imagination. She focuses too heavily on one work, Gasparro’s St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus. When she looks at other examples of his art, her analysis – if that is the right word for her summary denunciations – always remains far too cursory to do justice to such a talented artist. And while she notes that Gasparro is a master draughtsman, she follows up this comment with the presumptive assertion that Gasparro “is someone who still approaches sacred subjects with a distinctly modernist mindset.”

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St. Pius X Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

There are overarching philosophical problems with Ms. White’s argument. But I’d prefer to begin with her shoddy treatment of the material itself.

To start with a small, but, I think, a representative example; Ms. White claims that in Gasparro’s portrait of Pope St. Pius X, the light falls on the Pope’s face in a sinister way. She writes,

 

But the painting of Pius X is underlit, a type of lighting that we associate with evil. If you see horror movies, the light is often placed this way on a face to give it a frightening, even demonic effect. It’s what springs to mind: where does a light come from if it’s up from below? Still, is hell’s light this white, electric glare?

This effect, illuminating the facial structure from an odd and unnatural angle – light doesn’t usually come from the ground up, still less heavenly light – the underside of the brow ridge lit up, giving the eye sockets a sickly, sunken appearance, etc… None of that is going to be found in genuine devotional sacred art.

An interesting idea, but one that misses the mark.

For one thing, the Pope is not underlit. It would be more accurate to say that he’s side-lit. There is a striking similarity in the way the light falls in Gasparro’s piece and the photograph of St. Pius to which Ms. White compares it. Nor is side-lighting unusual in Catholic art. Zubarán’s famous St. Francis in Meditation (1635-39) uses almost exactly the same angle for a much more sinister effect.

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St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, Giovanni Gasparro. In which a saint is underlit, and with good reason. (Source)

Her rather contrived interpretation requires one of two presuppositions: first, that the symbolic lexicon of sacred, or, indeed, Western art is so narrow as to entail only a very limited range of connotations in the use of light, and secondly, that Gasparro’s work is intrinsically profane, deceptive, or downright evil. Neither of these assumptions is fair to the the artwork. They obscure its meaning rather than illuminate it.

But this point is relatively minor compared to some of Ms. White’s other egregious analysis. She dismisses Gasparro’s oeuvre as “surrealist, not sacred art,” with particular attention to his common motif of multiplied hands. She takes exception to the way he depicts faces, as well. Once again, we can see this tendency on display in her take on the Pius X portrait:

Giuseppe Sarto – even in death – had a very “beatific” face, handsome and always with a very assured and calm expression. I can’t imagine him ever making a face like the one in the painting. In fact, it looks more like what you’d get if you cloned Pius X and added a few drops of Nigel Farage.

She goes on to suggest that the “lumps and bumps” on the face of Gasparro’s Pius X are unsound, and that his expression inappropriately reflects “apprehension, not adoration.”

I’ll admit, the likeness is imperfect. She’s not totally off to note the resemblance with Nigel Farage, an unfortunate quality of the painting. Nevertheless, these indignant statements reflect more on Ms. White’s failure of imagination than they do Mr. Gasparro’s art. Moreover, mightn’t the Pope’s face also convey a whole range of emotions? Instead of apprehension, couldn’t the Pope’s expression show humble supplication? Or simply the holy Fear of God that priests ought to hold in their hearts as they offer the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? And might not Pope Sarto have made much the same face at the altar as he spoke the sacred and secret words to the Almighty? Is she really incapable of imagining him “ever making a face like the one in the painting?” Sure it’s not that hard.

Ms. White continues in this vein at some length.

The “light” from the Eucharist isn’t actually light. It illuminates nothing, there is no reflection of it on the face or hands or vestments. The halo is equally dead as a light source, since it falls on nothing. The only light on the figure is from this lower left white source – like a stage light. The non-light from the Eucharist could be a signal; is he saying, “This is NOT the light of the world”?

One gets the impression that the message of the painting is that Eucharistic theology is deception; there is no light from the Host, the celebrant does not believe; his face says “this is all theatre & flummery”

In fact, the more you look at it, the more the feeling grows that this is actually a parody of sacred art. As a friend of mine commented, “His face in no way looks beatific.” There’s something in this hyperrealism, all the lumpiness and the harsh white lighting, that doesn’t say heavenly to me, but psychotic. They seem like subtle corruptions of reality.

What an extraordinary concatenation of assertions.

A few questions come to mind immediately. First, why must the Eucharist necessarily illumine anything? There are, of course, discernible rays of light emanating from it, and any ordinary viewer who sees the painting would probably understand what is meant spiritually. But why should that light be seen to rest on anything in particular, when it’s already an unearthly light to begin with? Secondly, why do halos need to be light sources at all? David Clayton has argued at New Liturgical Movement that:

…the art of the High Renaissance and Baroque is aiming to portray historical man (and not as with the icon eschatological man united with God in heaven), what the artists are doing might in fact be consistent with this. One might propose that because the aura of uncreated light, the nimbus, would not be as visible (to the same degree at any rate) in fallen man, even if that man is a saint. So it would seem that the artist might choose not to portray a halo very faintly, as a slight glow, or even not at all.

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The Madonna Benois, Leonard da Vinci. One of the paintings to which Clayton draws our attention – note that the halos of both are just golden circles, not lights. (Source).

Clayton’s division between iconography and art is an important, to which we will return, in a certain sense, later. For now, I’ll merely note two facts: a) it is extraordinarily commonplace in Western art to find halos that don’t function as any kind of light source, and b) the halo in Gasparro’s painting of the Pope is a diffuse but definite illumination. I can’t help but feel I am looking at an altogether different image than Ms. White, based on how badly she has described it. Instead of attempting to determine what the artist is actually communicating with what he has shown, Ms. White has given us a testimony of her own reactions.

Where she does attend to the painting as such, she uses the overly suspicious hermeneutic of a conspiracy theorist. The least probable and most malignant of interpretations come to the fore. Instead of merely asserting, as she is free to do, that Gasparro has painted a bad bit of sacred art, she instead goes so far as to accuse the artist of parodying the sacred.

There may be something grotesque, kitschy, or even campy about Gasparro’s oeuvre. But the grotesque, kitsch, and camp are three typical Catholic idioms. Look at the little prints of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts surrounded by roses of all colors, adored by angels in little white gowns. Look at the gargoyles that grow like frightful stone pimples from the corners of our Cathedral spires. Look at the contorted muscles and thorn-choked skin of the Isenheim Altarpiece. Look at the Rococo churches that dot the landscape of the old Hapsburg Lands. Look at the Spanish processions of Holy Week, with all those peaked hoods and gilt statues in the streets. Look for the buskins and buckles of the pre-conciliar clerics. Look at the huge folds of watered silk enshrouding cardinals and archbishops and all manner of monsignori in that more confident age of the Church’s triumph. Look indeed at the splendid choir dress of the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest in our day! Look at Cardinal Burke in his glorious cappa magna (incidentally, Gasparro has done a charming portrait of him, too).

There is something delightfully other, delightfully weird, delightfully over-the-top about our religion. And surely, all of this is meet and right. The priest is other. The Church is other, and should appear mad in a world gone mad. Flannery O’Connor (probably) said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Whatever its actual provenance, I take this saying as a true maxim of Catholic life in the modern world. I don’t mind if our art reflects that tendency for the strange, even if it disturbs us a little. I would be more suspicious if it didn’t.

We are all of us living as strangers, both to the world and to heaven. Gasparro’s art confronts us with this quality of strangeness, throws it back in our face – and startles us. Good. The Gospel is a very startling tale indeed.

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Torculus Christi. Mystic press with St. Gabriele dell’Addolorata and St. Gemma Galgani, Giovanni Gasparro. One of his more overtly weird pieces, but one that is deeply rooted in Catholic mystical and artistic tradition. (Source)

Moving on to a few of Ms. White’s other statements, we come to her distinction between surrealist and sacred art. I happen to be working on a piece right now that will argue that surrealism is an artistic movement that, purged of its original anticlerical animus, can open up plenty of new avenues for a specifically Catholic spiritual art. Indeed, there is already quite a corpus of work that we might reasonably call Catholic surrealism, and I hope to incorporate it into that argument. In the meantime, I refute her argument thus.

Ms. White also takes exception with Gasparro’s very common use of multiplied hands in his paintings. She writes in one of her more patronizing captions,

He seems to be really big into this creepy thing with the multiple floating hands. This is what I would call “schtick” and it is common among highly trained younger artists who think that having a schtick will get them brand-recognition.

This wholesale dismissal is maybe the worst part of the essay. Once again, it evinces a refusal to engage with what Mr. Gasparro has put on the canvas for our consideration, summarizing it tidily in order to condemn it tout court.

Gasparro’s multiplication of hands – or, in some cases, other body parts – serves two functions in his art. First, it can express the passing of time. In The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola (2015), the doubled set of hands represent discreet acts. Secondly, it can express numerous levels of spiritual meaning that otherwise might be missed through a more conventional image. Manipulating gesture opens up the image. This is particularly true in Gasparro’s Speculum Iustitiate (2014), St. Nicholas of Bari (2016), and his deeply moving portrait of Pius VII, Quum memoranda (Servant of God, Pope Pius VII Chiaramonti) (2014).

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The Miracles of St. Francis of Paola, Giovanni Gasparro. (Source)

The doubling invites the viewer to consider each act or spiritual meaning in turn and to ponder how the subject may be acting in each case. The multiplication of hands invites us into a secondary, meditative dimension of the work. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I have found his work a very fruitful spur to precisely this kind of spiritual meditation.

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Transunstanziazione, Giovanni Gasparro. This image would be perfectly at home in a church. (Source)

Take one of Gasparro’s finest pieces, Transunstanziazione (2009). I will repeat here what I wrote about it in my Corpus Christi piece:

Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the samethey are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.

The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.

The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacredsomething ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?

Every time I return to this painting, I find something deeper in it. I’ll add that the multiplication of hands is a trope that exists in the work of that most unimpeachable of Catholic Artists, the Blessed Fra Angelico, who uses it in virtually the same way as Gasparro.

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The Mocking of Christ, Fra Angelico. Here he uses hands in the same ways that Gasparro does – to telescope sequential events into one image, to provide an insight into hidden action, and to lead us into meditation. Two of my Facebook friends noticed the formal and spiritual kinship between the two artists. (Source)

Of course, I don’t expect Ms. White or anyone else to have the same approach to every work of art as I do. If she finds Gasparro “creepy,” that is her right. But it is not an argument against Gasparro’s Catholicity. It is a subjective and affective assessment of his art, and thus it lies more in the realm of taste than aesthetic theology. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having and describing a visceral reaction to a work of art. I’m perfectly happy to say de gustibus and leave it at that.

Unfortunately, Ms. White expatiates about what constitutes “sacred art,” which, she claims, is emphatically not what Mr. Gasparro is doing.

She writes,

Knowing nothing about him other than what he paints, I have no idea what this artist intends – and that right there should tell you that he’s NOT doing sacred art – but it seems that in general hyperrealism simply isn’t going to work for devotional art. It’s always going to come across as strange and parodic, because the purpose of devotional painting is not to depict ordinary earthly reality – with all its “warts” – but a supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality, that can only be occasionally glimpsed in this life by seeing the saints.

Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.

Where do I begin?

First of all, it doesn’t matter what the artist intends. We emphatically don’t need to know the artist’s intentions to appreciate what exists in the constructed world of the art-object. It can be helpful, but it really isn’t necessary. “Intention” is one of those terms that is always so heterogeneous and slippery as to be virtually meaningless. Consider the range of “intentions” that might be implicit in any work of art. Most artists of the Renaissance probably intended to produce images that would please their wealthy patrons so that they could keep eating. Moreover, it seems that a great deal of eros generated quite a lot of the Western canon. No doubt at times the souls of the artists were illuminated by the grandeur of their work. But we can’t possibly know to what extent the deeply fallible men (and they were almost all men) intended to invest their work with a consciously spiritual meaning.

What’s more, Ms. White’s dislike for “hyperrealism” as well as “surrealism” leads her to miss the fact that Gasparro’s work strikes an incarnational balance between the two. His subjects are recognizably human, but in the strange art-world he depicts, they are charged with the heavy presence of a mystery far beyond their humanity. They share our condition while pointing towards a world that stands beyond it.

It bears mentioning that her dislike of “ordinary earthly reality – with all its ‘warts'” would necessarily strike Caravaggio from the canon of Catholic masters. Of course, Gasparro resembles Caravaggio more than any other artist. Perhaps she would be glad to see him go. Who else would disappear under Ms. White’s discriminating eye? Rubens and his corpulent maidens? Matthias Grunewald and his unpleasant crucifixions? How about Carlo Crivelli and the sly, malevolent eyes he gives to his saints? What are we to do with the Mannerists and all the distended limbs that litter their canvases? And although he was no Catholic, are we to write off the value of Rembrandt’s religious work because he dares to show the uneven surface of human flesh? Would this not be precisely the least Catholic impulse of all – to fly from the corporeality of our existence, and of the way God uses it?

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Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio. This magnificent portrayal of Judith’s triumph over the wicked general is apparently not “sacred art” under Ms. White’s criteria. (Source)

Ms. White insists on idealism and devotionalism in sacred art. Anything that fails in either of these qualities must be consigned to the great heap of Modernist parody.

Yet both of these are deeply misbegotten efforts. First, when she speaks of “supernaturalised, idealised and perfected reality, a redeemed reality,” she is using the language of iconography. There is indeed much to commend the hallowed iconographic traditions of the Greeks and Slavs (not to mention the Armenians). But Byzantine icons are subject to strict canons, types, and lineages. An iconographer’s process and material are, to a certain extent, determined for him. Longstanding customs surround the production and ritual use of the icons. Part of the reason that theologians can work from the icons as a source in their writing is that those customs safeguard and guarantee the orthodoxy of the images. And the spirituality they have fostered over the centuries is one I admire; it has quickened my own Christian life.

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The Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph, Giovanni Gasparro. Something nigh-unprecedented like this devotional image would be impossible if Western art followed strict canons like the Byzantines do. (Source)

Nevertheless, that’s not what we do in the West. While some artists have managed to give us glimpses of a transcendent realm of sophianic glory (one thinks of the Cusco School and some of those Catholic surrealists I was talking about), they are certainly not obliged to do so by force of tradition. One can lament the fact that we developed a much freer sense of sacred art. I don’t, both because I like statues and because I think the relative freedom of artists has been an enormous boon to civilization and the Church.

We can definitely learn from icons, in part because they remind us of where our own tradition has been. Before this year’s terrible earthquake, Ms. White’s own monastery had a wonderful fresco that captured precisely this quality of enrichment from the East that can and should be productively pursued by Catholic artists. But we ought not make the spiritual vision of the East normative in the West, just as we would decry any effort to impose Western forms on the East. And so I entirely reject her attempt to foist on Western Catholic art the strict confines of the icons.

Secondly, I’m bothered by instrumentalist approaches to art, including an assessment that rests heavily on whether the piece in question is “edifying” or “devotional.” That’s a largely meaningless standard – much more indistinct than the question of whether something is beautiful – since it places the center of the art’s meaning and quality in the affective response of the viewer rather than its own constructed reality and the way that construction interacts with transcendental standards. Namely, beauty.

The idea that specifically sacred art should be a) “devotional,” and b) in a church is a narrow, limiting, overly contextual approach to art. It is only helpful in the strict sense of guidance for church decoration. If Ms. White had limited the purview of her argument to what should count as specifically Liturgical Art, that is, what type of art should be placed in a church for the public veneration and instruction of the faithful in a ritual context, she might have a point. But she doesn’t write within that important qualifier. Instead, she uses Mr. Gasparro’s oeuvre to think about sacred art in general, and arrives at the rather flattening dictum that “Sacred art is devotional art. If it isn’t devotional, it’s a parody of the sacred.”

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Blessed Pius IX Pontifex Maximus, Giovanni Gasparro. Because artists who are really modernist heretics are drawn to depicting Pio Nono in prayer. (Source)

The conclusions she draws are totally unworkable as a Catholic approach to aesthetics. Imagine how much poetry and how much music we would have to surrender if we tried to carry the standards of idealism and devotionalism into the other arts in any kind of normative way.

Catholics should be concerned about the quality and orthodoxy of their sacred art. Insofar as Ms. White’s article represents that concern, it is an admirable effort. I’ll add that Ms. White and I probably share a similar exasperation with some of the trends in poor church art and architecture that are so maddening today. Likewise, we no doubt share a desire for a renewal of the Catholic arts. But Ms. White’s artistic philosophy smacks too much of Savonarola. While she is willing to summarily cast Gasparro’s art into the bonfire of the vanities, I contend that he is one of the Church’s most important living artists, alongside Daniel Mitsui, Matthew Alderman, Raúl Berzosa, Ken Woo, Alvin Ong, and others. I also share Rebecca Bratten Weiss’s views on the arts more broadly. We Catholics, and especially those of us who consider ourselves fairly Traditional, are sometimes too “self-referential” (if I may borrow a term favored by the Pope). As Weiss notes:

Toni Morrison, for instance, is a Catholic Nobel laureate whose works are filled with themes of community and redemption. But the Catholic critics who enthuse over Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene regard Morrison only as a controversial writer on race relations. “She’s not practicing,” they might say, as an excuse to ignore her. And yet, C.S. Lewis, who is revered in their circles, was never even Catholic at all.

Mary Karr – the keynote speaker at the conference – not only is a Catholic convert, but wrote extensively about her conversion, but is deemed by some not to be a “real” Catholic writer, because of her openness about certain sexual issues. And yet Graham Greene was a notorious womanizer who slept with over 300 prostitutes, was condemned by church spokespersons in his time, and closed The End of the Affair with the prayer: “O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.”

Perhaps the critics who are timid about these powerful Catholic writers working right now in our midst are waiting for someone else to “baptize” them? Perhaps they are waiting for someone else to say “I heard God there” – because they, themselves, have not learned to open the inner chambers of the ear? Because we do not have a robust Catholic arts culture that teaches us to open all the portals for reception, but instead have embraced a misnamed “Benedict Option” which is all about putting up walls and barriers, drawing those lines in the sand.

I concur, and would extend the same sort of criticism to Ms. White and those who support her view of the arts. Let us not fall into that old trap of mistaking the modern for Modernism. Christ is King over all. Let Catholic artists explore the plenitude of that Kingship over all, in all, and through all – even if looks strange to our worldly eyes.

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Christ the King, Giovanni Gasparro. May we always serve Him with ardent charity and zeal for the beauty of His house. (Source)

 

The Best Depictions of the Subtle Doctor

I’ve taken a major interest in Scotus recently. His Christology and Mariology seem to be treasures that remain largely unexploited by contemporary theologians, in part because he was recognized as being in the right about a doctrine that became dogma almost two hundred years ago. He is at the center of ongoing debates about the advent of secularism and modernity, debates which I am not competent to comment on at this time. Nevertheless, I thought it might be fun to examine some of the ways that Catholics (mostly Franciscans) have memorialized him in art over the course of the last several centuries. In some sense, the variety of depictions here tell a story of a lineage long overshadowed by other, more influential streams of thought. Thomism in particular has had a near perennial appeal within the Church, whereas Scotism, it seems, has largely been a niche concern. After all, Scotus has not yet been canonized or joined the ranks of the Doctors of the Church. This inequity arose from a variety of factors. No doubt, the fate of Scotism has come partially from Scotus’s own difficult style and vast intelligence. There’s a reason he’s called the “Subtle Doctor.”

May my small collection here help rectify that oversight on this, his feast day.

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John the Scot (c. 1266 – 8 Nov. 1308), appearing in what must be one of his earliest depictions: an illuminated capital. (Source)

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A Renaissance portrait of the Blessed John Duns Scotus. One point that people forget about Scotus is that he defended the rights of the Church against Philip IV, who had wanted to tax church properties. For his bold stance, he was exiled for a few years from Paris. (Source)

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Perhaps the most famous, a late-Medeival, early-Renaissance portrait of Scotus. The name of the artist escapes me. (Source)

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An early modern engraving of Scotus, probably early to mid 15th century. (Source)

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Here he is with St. Albert the Great, one of the Dominican Doctors. (Source)

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Scotus the Scholar. Age and provenance unclear; my guess is late 17th century, though it may be later. (Source)

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Scotus receiving a vision of the Christ Child, 17th or 18th century. Although chiefly remembered for his metaphysics and Mariology, Scotus made major contributions to Christology, defending the Patristic idea of Christ’s Absolute Primacy. (Source)

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From the early modern period, it became typical to depict Scotus with representations of the Virgin Mary, whose Immaculate Conception he famously defended. This piece, probably from the 18th century, is one such example. It also contains a pretty clear criticism of Aquinas – Scotus looks away from the Summa to gaze lovingly at Mary (Source: this very friendly take on Scotus by a prominent popular Thomist)

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A slightly more dramatic iteration of the same theme. Scotus is inspired by the Immaculate Conception. (Source)

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My single favorite image of Scotus is this ludicrously over-the-top Rococo depiction of Scotus and the Immaculate Conception triumphing over heresy and sin. He holds the arms (no pun intended) of the Franciscan order. His defense of the Immaculate Conception surpassed the doubts of even his own order’s great luminary, St. Bonaventure. And what a marvellously simple argument it was, too. Remember: POTVIT DECVIT ERGO FECIT. (Source).

Izamal Duns Scotus Adopte rest

Likewise, this totally marvelous Colonial Mexican painting from the Franciscan monastery of Izamal, Yucatan, is something else. Rare is the saint granted wings in traditional iconography, though the trend was not uncommon in early modern Mexican art (Source)

Joannes Pitseus, Scotus 1619

The mystery solved! This version by Johannes Pitseus comes from 1619, and served as a model for the Izamal piece. Here, it’s clearer that the heads represent various heretics, including Pelagius, Arius, and Calvin. (Source)

Landa Duns Scotus

This ceiling relief from Landa, Querétaro, uses the same iconographic lexicon. It seems that the Franciscans of colonial Mexico had a set of stock images to propagate devotion to their own saints. (Source)

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Here’s another unusual image of Scotus. In this mural of Mary Immaculate, or La Purísima, we see Scotus alongside St. Thomas Aquinas…and wearing a biretta! A remarkable addition, unique among all other depictions of the Subtle Doctor that I know of. (Source)

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Moving away from Mexico, we come to this rather uninteresting French portrait of Scotus. Not all 18th century portraits of the man are elaborate bits of Franciscan propaganda. (Source)

 

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A late 18th or early 19th century depiction of Bl. John Duns Scotus. If this is in fact an English painting, its creation at a time of high and dry Anglican Protestantism poses interesting questions about the use of Scotus as a figure of national pride. (Source)

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I’m unsure of how old this image is; my guess, however, is that it represents a 19th century imitation of late Medieval and Renaissance style. (Source)

Albert Küchler (Brother Peter of Copenhagen) - Immaculate Conception with St. Bonaventure, Francis, Anthony and Blessed John Duns Scotus - Rome - Pontifical University Antonianum

A great 19th century painting of the Immaculate Conception by Danish Franciscan Albert Küchler. Scotus, who is on the bottom right, is here depicted alongside other Franciscan saints – S.s. Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, and Bonaventure. (Source)

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This looks like a Harry Clarke window, though it may just resemble his style. In anyway, we see here Scotus holding a scroll with his famous argument for the Immaculate Conception epitomized – “He could do it, It was fitting He should do it, so He did it.” (Source)

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John Duns Scotus, once again contemplating the Immaculate Virgin and offering his mighty works to her. (Source)

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Another stained glass window, this time indubitably from the 20th century. We see here Scotus worshiping the Christ Child and his Immaculate Mother. (Source)

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Scotus depicted in on the door of a Cologne Cathedral, 1948. He represents the supernatural gift of Understanding. (Source)

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A contemporary statue of Scotus. (Source)

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Scotus with a modification of the Benedictine phrase. “Pray and Think. Think and Pray.” Not a bad motto. (Source)

 

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A 20th or 21st century image of the Blessed Scotus (Source).

Elsewhere: The Josias Podcast

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St. Peter’s, Rome, Viviano Codazzi, c. 1630. (Source)

Since I am currently gnawing my way through the historiography of Late Antiquity, I thought I’d take a quick break to refer you to what I’m sure will be a commendable and highly useful project. Our friends over at The Josias have started a podcast, which will no doubt be a fine resource for anyone wishing to understand a) Catholic Integralism, or b) Neo-Thomistic political theories more generally. Their first episode is chiefly on the Common Good. Give it a listen here.

Plotinus on Beauty

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“Pythagoreans Celebrate Sunrise,” Fyodor Bronnikov, 1869. (Source).

A wonderful passage, taken from Ennead I.6. The translation is drawn from this page.

VI. For, as the ancient Oracle declares, temperance, fortitude and every virtue, aye, and wisdom herself, are purifications. Wherefore the sacred mysteries are right when they say enigmatically that he that is not purified shall, when he cometh to the House of Hades, lie in the mud. For, through their baseness, the filthy are friends of the mire, just as swine, whose bodies are unclean, delight to wallow in it.

For what is true temperance unless it be not to give oneself up to the pleasures of the body, and to flee from them as being neither pure nor belonging to that which is pure? And fortitude is not to fear death; and death is the separation of the soul from the body. He who desires to become alone will not fear this. Again, great-ness of soul is contempt of mortal concerns, and wisdom is the exercise of intellect turned away from that which is below and leading the soul upward to the heights.

When therefore the soul is purified, she becomes form and reason, altogether incorporeal, intellectual, and wholly of the divine order whence is the fountain of beauty and all that is akin thereto.

The soul borne upwards towards intellect puts on a marvellous beauty. Intellect, and that which comes from Intellect, is the beauty which truly belongs to her and is not foreign to her; because, when united to It, and then only, is she truly soul. Wherefore it is rightly said that the beauty and good of the soul consist in her assimilation to God; for it is thence that her beauty comes and the gift of a better lot than her present one. Moreover, beauty is that which has real being, but ugliness is the nature opposite to this. It is this that is the first evil; just as beauty is likewise the first of things beautiful and good. Or it may be that goodness and beauty are one and the same. Therefore, we must investigate the beautiful and good, and the ugly and evil, by the same process; and in the highest rank we must place the Beautiful Itself, which is also the Good Itself, of which Intellect is the immediate emanation and the first beautiful thing. But soul is beautiful through Intellect, and other things are beautiful because they, in turn, are formed by the soul, whether it be in actions or in pursuits and studies. And as to bodies, when these are spoken of as beautiful, it is still the soul that makes them so; for she, as something divine, and as it were a portion of the Beautiful Itself, makes beautiful, in so far as its nature will permit, all that she touches and overcomes.

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Plotinus. (Source)

VII. We must ascend, therefore, once more to the Good, which every soul desires. If anyone has beheld It, he will know what I say, and in what manner It is beautiful, for it is as good that It is desired, and all appetency is towards goodness. But the attainment of the Good is for those who mount upward to the heights, set their faces towards them, and strip off the garments with which we clothed ourselves as we descended hither. Just as those who penetrate into the innermost sanctuaries of the mysteries, after being first purified and divesting themselves of their garments, go forward naked, so must the soul continue, until anyone, passing in his ascent beyond all that is separative from God, by himself alone contemplates God alone, perfect, simple and pure, from Whom all things depend, to Whom all beings look, and in Whom they are, and live, and know. For He is the cause of Being, Life and Intelligence. If, then, anyone beheld Him, with what love would he be inspired, with what desire would he burn, in his eagerness to be united with Him! With what bliss would he be overcome! He that has not yet beheld Him may desire Him as Good, but, to him that has, it is given to love Him as Beauty, to be filled with wonder and delight, to be overwhelmed yet unharmed, to love with true love and keen desire, to laugh at other loves, and to despise the things he formerly thought beautiful. Of such a nature is the experience of those who have beheld visions of Gods or angels—no more do they seek aught of the beauty of other bodies. What, then, shall we think of one who beheld The Beautiful Itself and by Itself, pure and untouched by flesh or body, existing neither in earth nor in heaven, because of Its very purity? For all these are contingent things and mixed, nor are they primary but proceed from It. If, therefore, he beheld That which provides for all things, which, remaining in Itself, gives to all and receives nothing into Itself, and if, remaining in the contemplation of This and tasting of Its bliss, he should be assumed into Its likeness, of what other beauty would he then have need? For This, since It is Beauty Itself and the First Beauty, makes those who love It beautiful and beloved. And this is the greatest and ultimate task which lies before the soul, for the sake of which all her toils are undertaken— not to be left without portion in that most sublime vision, to obtain which is to be blessed by the vision of blessedness, but not to obtain it is wretchedness. For not he that has no share of beautiful colours or bodies, or of power or dominion or kingship, is unfortunate; but he that lacks this one thing alone, for the sake of which it were well to let go the possession and kingship and rule of the whole earth and of the sea, aye, and of the heaven itself, if a man, by leaving behind all these and looking beyond them, might be converted to This and behold It.

VIII. What, then, is the way? What are the means? How shall a man behold this ineffable Beauty which remains within, deep in Its holy sanctuaries, and proceeds not without where the profane may view It? He that is able, let him arise and follow into this inner sanctuary, nor look back towards those bodily splendours which he formerly admired. For when we behold the beauties of body we must not hurl ourselves at them, but know them for images, vestiges and shadows, and flee to That of which they are reflections. For if a man rushes towards them, seeking to grasp them for Beauty Itself, then it will be as though he should desire to grasp a beautiful image mirrored in water, and, like him of whom the myth tells, should sink beneath the surface of the stream and disappear. In like manner, he that reaches out after corporeal beauties, and will not let them go, will plunge not his body but his soul into gloomy depths abhorred by intellect, will remain blind in Hades, and both here and hereafter will have converse only with shadows.
How truly might someone exhort us—”Let us, then, fly to our dear country.” What therefore is this flight, and how shall we escape, like Odysseus in the story, from the enchantments of Circe and Calypso? There it tells symbolically how he remained unsatisfied although pleasant spectacles met his eyes and he was surrounded with all the beauty of sense. Our Fatherland is that country whence we came, and there our Father dwells. What, then, are the means for our escape thither? Our feet will not take us there, for all they can do is to carry us from one part of the earth to another. Nor will it avail to make ready horses for a chariot or ships on the sea: all these things we must let go. We must not even look, but with our eyes all but closed we must exchange our earthly vision for another, and awaken that, a vision which all possess but few use.

IX. What, then, does this interior vision see? When it is but lately awakened it cannot behold splendours too dazzling. The soul, therefore, must be accustomed first of all to contemplate beautiful pursuits, and next beautiful works, not those which are executed by craftsmen but those which are done by good men. After this, contemplate the souls of those who are the authors of such beautiful actions. How, then, may you behold the beauty of a virtuous soul? Withdraw into yourself and look; and if you do not yet behold yourself beautiful, do as does the maker of a statue which is to be beautiful; for he cuts away, shaves down, smooths and cleans it, until he has made manifest in the statue the beauty of the face which he portrays. So with yourself. Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labour to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendour of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine. If you have become this, and have beheld it, and dwell within yourself in purity, and there is now nothing which prevents you from thus becoming one, when you have nothing foreign mingled with your interior nature, but your whole self is true light and light alone, not measured by size nor circumscribed by the limitation of any figure, not to be increased in magnitude because unbounded, but totally immeasurable, greater than all measure and mightier than every quantity—if you behold yourself grown to this, having now become vision itself, take courage and ascend yet higher, for now you need a guide no more. Gaze intently and see! This eye alone beholds that mighty Beauty. But if it approach the vision bleared by vices, unpurified, or weak through cowardice, so that it cannot bear to gaze upon such glory, then it sees nothing, even though another should be at hand to point out that which all may see. For he that beholds must be akin to that which he beholds, and must, before he comes to this vision, be transformed into its likeness. Never could the eye have looked upon the sun had it not become sun-like, and never can the soul see Beauty unless she has become beautiful. Let each man first become god-like and each man beautiful, if he would behold Beauty and God. For he will first arrive in his ascent at the region of Intellect and there he will know all the beauties of form, and will say that this is the beauty of Ideas, for all things are beautiful through these, the offspring and essence of Intellect. But that which is beyond Intellect we call the nature of the Good, from which the Beautiful radiates on every side, so that in common speech it is called the First Beauty. But if we distinguish between the Intelligibles, we may say that Intelligible Beauty belongs to the world of Ideas, but that the Good which is beyond these is the fountain and principle of the Beautiful. Or the Good and the First Beauty may be considered under one principle, apart from the beauty of the world of Ideas.

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Dante sees the Primum Mobile (Source).