Blessed and Beautiful: Picturing the Saints
by Robert Kiely
Yale, 288 pages, $40

What I discovered,” writes Robert Kiely in this sumptuously illustrated book on Italian Renaissance paintings of the saints, “were images often infused with tenderness, exquisite sentiment, erotic vigor, but also ambiguity, irony, even humor, and not necessarily less inspirational because of this.” His analyses emphasize the mystery of Christ’s incarnation and the often paradoxical ways in which the saints recapitulate that image.

Mary, for example, is, like Jesus, “often spoken of in terms of paradox: humble/regal; weak/strong; maiden/mother.” Kiely, a professor of English at Harvard, notes that in the vivid, tactile art of Caravaggio, Mary is portrayed as both womanly and holy, as “a flesh-and-blood Mary with a gusto and pleasure that do not preclude reverence.” The artist’s Madonna dei Palafrenieri shows her as “a figure of enormous dignity and beauty. In leaning slightly to support her son, she reveals the full breasts of her womanhood. Her sexuality and sustaining presence seem, for a precarious split second, in perfect balance.”

Throughout the Italian Renaissance, Mary’s beauty is always emphasized, whatever the experience. Her beauty is portrayed as a three-year-old child, ascending the Temple stairs at her presentation at the Temple (described by Jacobus de Voragine in his Golden Legend ), but also when she is the Mater Dolorosa beneath her crucified Son, descending into the arms of her grieving comforters, and revealing “the compelling (potentially healing) nature of empathy.”

St. John the Baptist’s paradox emerges in his contrasting portrayals, be it as Donatello’s gaunt ascetic or Titian’s physically vigorous man of the desert. Temporally, he stands as the last of the Old Testament prophets, prefiguring Christ yet misapprehended by some as the Messiah, and deferred to by Christ himself when he receives baptism. In paintings by Leonardo and Caravaggio, “It seems to be John’s lot to be double but not duplicitous; not quite this, not quite that; some of both”Jew and Christian, rival and friend, Elijah and Bacchus, Isaiah and Narcissus, diva and doorman.”

Such tensions emerge even more starkly in St. Mary Magdalene. Although there is no scriptural evidence of her sexual sin, Donatello sculpts a penitent “wraith withering away from fasting,” chastely draped by rags, and Titian paints a nubile nude with flowing hair. In Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli’s version of the Resurrection scene in the Convent of San Marco, “the elegant postures and pleasant exchange of looks suggests a minuet in which each partner knows his or her role. This is not a shocking, disturbing scene in which Mary overreacts but a quiet beginning of a heavenly dance.” In contrast, Titian’s version is markedly erotic, but, for theological as well as artistic reasons, reflecting the belief that the risen Christ “revealed his full humanity to individuals according to their needs and abilities to ‘see’: to Thomas through touching his wounds, to Peter and John through feeding them breakfast, to Mary Magdalene through exposing enough (not all) of his male flesh.”

St. Augustine provides an especially complex instance of incarnational tensions. In his Confessions , he describes how he came to renounce the Gnostic dualism of the Manichees. He recognized the limits of Platonic thought in which he found the Logos but never the Logos made flesh, yet he consistently privileges spirit over flesh, even as he poetically, sensually renders the distracting plenitude of creation. A proto-iconoclast, he did not believe that churches should be decorated with images, and yet he acknowledged that enfleshed persons require the mediation of tangible images.

In The Confessions , Augustine admits his continuing tendencies toward distraction, such as looking up to watch a dog run after a rabbit, when his intention is to engage in intellectual work. In Vittore Carpaccio’s Vision of Saint Augustine , the saint gazes attentively out the window, but with a little dog on his left and a sheet of music on the floor, both symbolizing the distraction even of the greatest human minds. Thus the artist, like Augustine, reminds us of the limits of our embodied existence this side of heaven, where our bodies and souls will be transfigured”and will remain eternally, lovingly attentive to the Creator.

Yet here on earth, despite the limits, we can give thanks for the blooming confusion of creation. As Kiely concludes his chapter on St. Augustine:

Melodies and metaphors, toothaches, erotic dreams, naked feet, fistulas, fingernail clippings and hair shavings, faithful dogs, and disobedient monks have not yet been transformed in the Maker’s caldron and resurrected into a new and better life. While waiting for that day, the artist-theologian fluctuates between image and abstraction, body and soul, and in so doing, imitates, perhaps not altogether unconsciously or perfectly, the Mediator whom he struggled throughout his life to understand and love.

In St. Catherine of Siena, Kiely discovers a spirit surprisingly akin to St. Augustine’s. Famous not only for her tender care for the sick and dying but also for her efficacious orders to priests and even popes to (in her words) “be a man!””she fasted and suffered not out of masochism or hatred of the flesh but as a passionate means of identifying with her beloved Jesus Christ. Indeed, paintings such as Fra Bartolomeo’s Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena and Giovanni de Vecchi’s Saint Catherine of Siena Drinking from Christ’s Wound forthrightly reflect an erotic physicality.

However, although Catherine gained fame as a preacher, few paintings depict her in that role; many others suggest a more passive femininity, especially those depicting her receiving the stigmata. As Kiely comments, canonization and “the double-edged sword of institutional approbation” can dilute the bracing potency of the saints. In Catherine’s case, more artists should have shown her capacity to evangelize and speak boldly.

Midway through the book, Kiely includes a chapter tangentially focused on St. Lawrence but largely an appreciation of the art criticism of John Ruskin. Raised evangelical, Ruskin fell in love with Catholic art when traveling in Italy.

Kiely’s description of the way Ruskin looks at a painting can be applied to his own work in this book: “The critic’s moment of insight or identification is a sharing that is personal in tone and almost sacramental in its implications. Ruskin presents himself as a witness to the transformative power of art. His is an exemplary case of willing and disciplined susceptibility to that power. He challenges . . . the viewer and reader to study first and only then let the imagination see.” So too does Kiely, whose book bears witness to the recent words of Pope Benedict XVI: “Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith.”

Paul J. Contino is professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University and coeditor of Christianity and Literature.