The previous post ended with reference to what “the centuries have wrought.” A reader emailed me to ask—hopefully—if I was referring to modernism. No, not at all. In mind was the kind of emasculate anti-art rampant on plaques, statuary, prayer cards in funeral parlors, and too often in our own churches. Side altars, especially. Pictorially equivalent to sob songs, the stuff mimics Renaissance and Baroque painting but is sorely disconnected from the achievement of its prototypes.
Mass produced sentimentality has been the hallmark of Catholic art since the 1840s flooded the market with a cascade of devotional stuffs from French companies located around the church of Saint-Sulpice on the Left Bank. A taste for it lingers in much of the disdain directed at modernism in the arts. Particularly in relation to religious subjects, even sophisticated Catholics are prone to uncritical favor toward imitations of the premodern. Whatever comes closest to Renaissance realism or the Baroque figuration of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is considered more spiritual, more authentic, than anything that reveals twentieth century authorship.
Compare the gravity of Bramantino’s depiction of the risen Christ with the emotional tenor of the modern resurrection scene that follows it. Bramantino evokes the suffering of a man newly risen, in the flesh, from his descent into hell:
Simon Dewey, a popular contemporary painter of “Christ-centered art,” gives us a male model coming out of a bathhouse on Fire Island. We’ve seen that face before, but where? In GQ? An old Marlboro ad?
Thomas Merton phrased things nicely: “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His tolerance of the pictures that are painted of him.”
And of His mother, too. The pansied piety of Marian kitsch denatures the Theotokos. In the coronation scene, below, Mary is a fluff of cotton candy; the blond putti flutter over her like so much pastel confetti. Not least among the image’s offenses is the exaggerated refinement of the hand holding the ceremonial rod as if it were a teacup. A traditional symbol of authority, the mace dwindles here into something close to a gilded swizzle stick:
In the accustomed bloodless cliché, grace streams from Mary’s hands like gas from a stovetop jet. This manikin is not so much virginal as bleached, pasty, mincing. Here she steps on a skinny green snake that would barely threaten a frog. Not much as a symbol of a demonic force seeking the ruin of souls:
Miriam of Nazareth lived under Roman occupation. She likely witnessed other crucifixions before she endured the sight of her own son on the gibbet. She named her infant Yeshua, Aramaic for the name we call Joshua. Her boy was the namesake of a Jewish hero, a battlefield commander who brought down the walls of Jericho and conquered the Canaanites. In the minds of Jews of Miriam’s time, the image of Joshua was then what it remained for centuries after in biblical illustration:
That is not the choice of a girl without mettle. Mary, meek and mild? Only if we attend to the definition of meek offered by Fr. George Rutler in his May 12th sermon:
The spiritual “meek” are not milquetoasts, or spineless wimps. The Greek praus for “meek” means controlled strength, a suppleness like that of an athlete. Without praus, a surfer would stand stiff and soon fall off the surfboard, and a boxer would be knocked out with the first punch without agile footwork.
Art’s expressive power is not necessarily benign. Bad art has its own pernicious effect, working its way on religious sensibilities like corrosive salts on a fresco. Images resonate apart from their subject matter. They can mislead. An understanding of this led German writer Hermann Broch—a convert to Catholicism and major figure among the early Modernists—to declare kitsch not only a perversion of taste but also “the element of evil in the value system of art.”
Granted, that might be going some. Nevertheless, it is worth asking ourselves to what extent simpering or banal religious art drains us of the force and fortitude faith requires in a faithless world. Or, more pointedly, a world with Islam rising. I sometimes wonder: if Miriam of Nazareth were to rechristen any one of us, what name would she pick?