Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.

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Of Sausages and Saints

From Maureen Mullarkey

This year’s double canonization, in combination with the coming beatification of Paul VI, opens a window onto the politics of saint-making. Like sausage-making, into which we are advised not to look, it is a less than edifying sight. Continue Reading »

Bible in Glass at the Cloisters

From Maureen Mullarkey

If there exists any art that can be called Christian, it is stained glass. The term “Christian art” applies most frequently, and accurately, to Christian themes. But the term does not encompass methods of execution. Stained glass—more precisely stained-and-painted glass, a product of the marriage between master glazer and painter—belongs thoroughly to the Christian era. Continue Reading »

Hearts, Sacred and Profane

From Maureen Mullarkey

Devotion to the Sacred Heart is deeply rooted in the traditions of the Latin Church. Its prompt to compassionate meditation on the sufferings of Christ, to gratitude and contrition, is venerable. Less so is the iconography that attaches to its modern form. Continue Reading »

Beauty & Accidents of Perception

From Maureen Mullarkey

Nature is terrifying. Aesthetic distance from dread of it increases only in proportion to our mastery over it. Shelter from it frees us to make art of our aesthetic promptings, so easily confused with a spiritual consciousness.

It is snowing as I type this. Icicles two and three feet long hang from the gutters. A struggling andromeda outside the front door is bent in two by the weight of ice. My long curving, uphill driveway, treacherous in bad weather, is impassable. No oil truck could make a delivery if my tanks were low; no EMS, if needed, could get to the door. I am snowbound. Still, I am blessed with a stocked refrigerator and a working generator to keep heat on and lamps lit if a tree limb falls on a power line. 

Watching it fall, I am reminded how much the beauty of snow— my perception of it—owes to central heating. Put another way, it is the saving fact of my lovely boiler, the electricity that keeps it going, and the indwelling charm of steam radiators that permits me to look out my double-paned window and take aesthetic pleasure in what Longfellow called the “poem of the air.”

The arts of the engineer partake as fully in the creative intelligence as any other.

Those misled by romantic poetry or far gone in devotion to pathetic fallacies—Mother Nature, the bosom of Mother Earth, our weeping planet—dote on what they insist is the intrinsic beauty of nature. A kind of demonology arises around sceptical demurral from that faith in inherency. Dissidents suffer the predictable brickbats: Materialist! Utilitarian! Shallow pragmatist! There is just no arguing with cultists. The most you can do is wish on them a sustained, possibly curative, power outage in freezing weather.

Burst pipes, numb fingers and toes, and the threat of hypothermia have a way of depressing the altitude of lyric flights. Remove the interior reverie of a well-housed, sherpa-lined and Gore-Texed admirer from the view, and what we see is a relentless, lethal threat to life. 

A few winters back, two frail, elderly townspeople here froze to death outside their own doors on a snowy day like this.

One lived alone. She had ducked outside briefly for a quick chore—to scatter crackers to birds? take out garbage?—without bothering with boots or coat. Whatever the reason, it was supposed to have taken only taken a few seconds. But, without thinking, she locked herself out. She could not get back in; neither could she get herself through the snow to a neighboring house with anyone home. It was a week day. Neighbors were at work. No one nearby was around to hear her calls for help.

The second woman was the sole caretaker of her older, bedridden sister. She had stepped out the back door, slipped on icy stairs, and fell into snowdrifts. She could not get up. The sister, asleep in a room on the other side of the house, never heard any cries.

The snow fell as indifferently on both doomed women as it does on the Alaskan cedars and Douglas firs outside my window. To anyone watching unawares, it looked lovely coming down. To the two women trapped under it—metabolic heat draining out of them— each crystal flake was a cinder from a frigid hell. Far from the warming light of the Good. 

We have art, Nietzsche wrote, so that we will not be destroyed by the truth. But his aphorism, too, was a piece of art. We are better served by taking note of how art itself can destroy the truth of things. 

 [The delightful graphic, above, was an ad for cough medicine that appeared in an Italian magazine at the height of the lethal epidemic of Spanish Influenza, 1918-20.}

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Of Calendars and Memory

From Maureen Mullarkey

The sixties were generous with gifts that keep on taking. I cannot help thinking that one of them was the Church’s 1969 calendar revision for January 1. 

The Church began withdrawing recognition from the circumcision of Jesus in the sixties. Today, circumcision itself is under threat in once-Christian Europe, from Switzerland to Scandinavia. Because it is practiced by both Jews and Muslims, it is tempting to see moves against the ritual as the sour fruit of secularist ideology. And there is partial truth to that. But the entire story, followed closely by Commentary, is darker. Moreover, hostility to ritual circumcision pre-dates current concern over Muslim presence in Europe.

For centuries the Latin Rite had commemorated the date as the Feast of the Circumcision. John XXIII’s 1960 calendrical revision distanced the date from its traditional association by means of the simple descriptor, Octave of the Nativity. In 1969 Paul VI declared January 1 for the Solemnity of Mary, displacing the Circumcision. Five years later—and only twenty years after Pius XII’s inauguration of the Queenship of Mary—Montini dropped the Feast of the Circumcision from the Roman liturgical calendar.

Did Marian devotion require additional ecclesiastical encouragement? Catholics were already in possession of significantly more Marian feasts than Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, or any Christian denomination. The proliferation of them over centuries calls to mind something Yves Congar admitted to having experienced in his research for I Believe in the Holy Spirit. Coming forward in time, he found increasing references to Mary where he expected the sources to mention the Holy Spirit.

Over thirty days of the General Roman Calendar are dedicated to Mary. Each of them— whether dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Sorrows—originates in her identity as the Mother of God. Mary has claim to the entire month of May (“’Tis the month of our Mother/ the blessed and beautiful days.”) and reigns over October, dedicated to the Holy Rosary. Central to our cultural history, her image has fired Western imagination down the ages. Marian apparitions are celebrated as historic events. She is the Second Eve, “the guarantee of Christ’s true humanity,” in Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase.

All honor is due the woman who gave flesh to our Redeemer. A Galilean country girl, with capable hands and dusty feet, clothed the uncreated God in creaturely humanity. That is miracle enough to stun us onto our knees and keep us there. Catholics are in no danger of forgetting it. Rather the opposite. We risk making a godling of the Mother of God.

What we jeopardize is precisely what the Feast of the Circumcision held in view: the Jewishness of the woman and her son. The Logos entered history enfleshed as a Jew. To assume flesh was to assume ethnicity as well. Ours is not a cosmic Christ but a Jewish one.

“We are all Semites,” Jacques Maritain was fond of saying. If we leave our Jewish taproot untended, let it wither, we untether ourselves from Jesus of Nazareth. The old Feast of the Circumcision helped keep us mindful that the truth of Jesus is two-fold. His divinity does not erase his humanity.

True man, Jesus of Nazareth was a faithful Jew, subject to that first, infant blood-letting that symbolized his people’s inherited covenant between God and Abraham. Raised in an observant family, he read Torah in synagogue, ate, dressed, and prayed in the spirit of first century Judaism.

Michael Novak, in his 1994 essay “Jacques Maritain and the Jews,” had this to say:

Christianity needs a vital and living Judaism, in the concrete world of history as it is, in order to help it to understand its own inheritance. For many of the foundation and preconceptions and starting places of Christian life have been, and still are, protected and nourishied in a vital Judaism. This witness of Judaism is concretely indispensable to keeping the Jewish tradition alive also within Christianity itself.

Jesus’ Judaism bestows an ancestral bond between Christians and Jews. Once, we had a holy day of obligation to remind us of the imperishability of that kinship. Not any more. It is gone at that very moment in “the concrete world of history as it is” that—with Islam rising—we are chastened by its absence.

•     •     •    •

Richard Prosquier, a French Jewish cardiologist born in Poland in 1945, tells of his father being ordered to drop his trousers by the Nazis in order to establish his identity. It is safe to say that when such orders come again, it will not be Muslims asked to expose themselves. 


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Keeping It Lite

From Web Exclusives

Anna Ancher. The Funeral (1891). Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. It was a gift from the Sixties, our user-friendly funeral Mass. Every time I attend one, I come away convinced that resurrection is in the bag. In keeping with the confident, self-affirming modern cosmology that animates our . . . . Continue Reading »