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.
I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher. I am simply a painter whose faith takes color, tone, and bearing from the Catholicism into which I was born.
But even a cat can look at a king. From my placewell beneath the box seats of beauty-minded theologians and theological esthetesI wonder if Hans Urs von Balthasar’s legacy is as wholly salutary as it has become fashionable to believe. This is a risky confession, my brothers and my sisters. I know that. Still, it would be cowardly not to admit inkings that there might be a fly in the liniment. A lovely iridescent rainbow of a thing, but a fly nonetheless.
We thrill to Augustine’s luminous words: “Late have I loved thee, O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.” But the Beauty addressed in the Confessions is met only in prayer. All else is sensible beauty, material gifts to the eye, the ear, the touch. Whether sensible beauty is revelatory, leading necessarily to God, is the cornerstone question buttressing contemporary romance with theological aesthetics. Acolytes of Hans Urs von Balthasar answer confidently in the affirmative.
My own lack of any requisite presumption of finality in the matter keeps me off the train. I can always catch it later at another station. But for now, my ticket stays in my pocket. Let me work around, perhaps obliquely, to some reasons as we go.
“What will I do, O my love, if I cannot praise thee?” Augustine’s cry of the heart is profoundly personal, an enduring proclamation of the soul’s ache to adore. There is nothing here of the modern theologian who is, in the endas Jean LecLercq, O.S.B. reminded in The Love of Learning and the Desire for God “nothing more than a professor.”
Dom LecLercq reminds that, according to tradition until Abelard’s time, “theology is praise of God, and the theologian is one who speaks to God.” He quote Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth century monk: “If you are a theologian you will pray in truth, and if you pray in truth, you are a theologian.”
Balthasar was much influenced by Henri de Lubac, one of the most compelling theologians of his generation. Of any generation. The cardinal complimented his disciple in the guild by saying Balthasar had “restored beauty to its position as a transcendental.”
In mathematical circles, the number pi is also considered a transcendental. But few of us can speak the language of mathematics. The mysterious ebb and flow of the primes, like the behavior of imaginary numbers or the power of the Riemann zeta function, escapes not only our notice but our comprehension. Beautyinvariably conceived in terms of the artsis our default category precisely because it is the easiest to grasp, speaking as it does to bodily sense perception. It has served in this insufficient capacity with increasing assurance since aesthetics hardened into a discipline under eighteenth century Prussian rigor. It was then that sensibility rose on hind legs to mimic sanctity and displace it as a cultural ambition.
That shopworn word creativity sheds meaning whenever it is appliedmisappliedexclusively to the fine arts. Creative intuition informs every facet of human endeavor. It has done, since the discovery of fire. When can we stop talking about it?
“An equation means nothing to me unless it expresses a thought of God.”
Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920)
Ramanujan was a young, unschooled Indian clerk in the Madras Port Authority and a devout Hindu. Isolated from any mathematical tradition but possessed of a stunning aptitude for mathematics, he threw himself, unaided, into prime numbers. His genius cleared pathways through mathematical mazes in eventual, fruitful partnership with the great G.H. Hardy who brought Ramanujan to Cambridge.
Marcus du Sautoy’s comments on Ramanujan, “the mathematical mystic,” in The Music of the Primes are a useful corrective to aesthetic parochialism:
Mathematical creativity is difficult to understand at the best of times, but the way Ramanujan worked was always something of a mystery. He used to claim that his ideas were given him in his dreams by the goddess Namagiri . . . the Ramanujan’s family goddess . . . . For Ramanujan himself, she was the explanation for the flashes of insight that sparked his continuous stream of mathematical discoveries.
Before we can talk about beauty in any substantive way, we have to relinquish the fetish we have made of fine art. One fine starting place is Robert Kanigel’s 1991 biography of Ramanujan, The Man Who Knew Infinity .
Theoretical physicist Paul Dirac (d. 1984) famously gauged the validity of equations that were submitted to him by their “elegance.”
Sometime in the 1990s, an epidemiologist writing in one of the science journals ( Nature ? Scientific American ? I was not taking notes.) called the AIDS virus an “exquisite” particle. That description lodged in memory precisely because,viewed as a morsel of creation, it was beautiful. Its beauty lay in the perfection of its design. It was consummately crafted to accomplish its goal: to kill.
That has stayed with me as a nagging reminder that terror, too, is revelatory. The conflation of theological necessity with beauty untempered, and unchastened, by fear strikes me as a subtle variant of aestheticism radiated by Christological language.
Art is the clearest and most immediate reflection of the spiritual life of a people. It exercises the greatest conscious and unconscious influence on the masses of the people . . . . In its thousandfold manifestations and influences it benefits the nation as whole.
Hitler was an aesthete. He would have found much to approve in papal encomia to artists as “custodians of beauty” (Benedict) or “ingenious creators of beauty” (John Paul II).
An ardent patron of the arts, Hitler drew around him men with an aesthetic bent. (Speer was an architect; Goering, an art collector. Alfred Rosenberg had studied architecture; Goebbels had written plays and a novel.) He insisted that artists were as crucial to society as mathematicians and men of science. He kept Germany’s museums, orchestras, theaters and opera companies going until the collapse of the Reich. His generosity to the arts funded music festivals, traveling art exhibitions, grants, tax reductions for artists, even housing and studio space. Drawn to opera as much as to classical Greek art, Hitler considered it a goal of the state to make opera available to every citizen without regard to income. His annual pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival is legendary.
Hitler’s personal conversation turned frequently to cultural matters; he was fond of declaring an impulse to paint scenic views as he came upon them. Eminent historian of Roman antiquities, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli (d.1975) served as a tour guide to both Hitler and Mussolini in 1938. He recorded Hitler’s expressed desire to rent a villa outside Rome and devote himself to visiting museums anonymously, unrecognized by anyone. Bandelli wrote:
When he spoke this way he left the impression that he might get up one morning and say,”Enough! I have been fooling myself; I am no longer the Führer.” In the case of Mussolini such a thought was inconceivable . . . . But when Hitler spoke this way, he left the impression of being sincere.
Frederic Spotts’ Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics supports Bandelli’s impression:
Over the years Hitler had the same effect on others, who heard him insist again and again that it would be the happiest day of his life when he could take off his military uniform and devote himself solely to the the arts.
The Führer’s distaste for modernist art was widely shared by the bulk of critics of his day no less than the majority of the public. At the outset, modernist art was universally despised by audiences from St. Petersburg to London and New York. Hitler’s aesthetic tastes were hardly unusual. His genius lay in embracing current concepts that linked biological debasement to cultural decline: Degenerate art was the product of genetically unhealthy artists who should be considered social enemies to be crushed. Hitler viewed modernist artists as “criminals of world culture,” “destroyers of our art.” Their works were crimes, creations of diseased imaginations. Modernist culture was a perverse distortion of nature and truth.
The full breadth and specificity of Hilter’s grasp of architecture is stunning. Spotts is especially valuable in revealing the breathtaking extent of Hitler’s architectural ambition, having plannedtogether with Albert Speerthe rebuilding of every major German city. His love of architecture affected even military strategy. The beauty of Italian cities and art was granted a factor in military plans; concern for damage was paramount: “Each palazzo in Florence or Rome is worth more than all of Windsor Castle. It would be a crime if the British destroy anything in Florence or Rome. It would not be a shame . . . in the case of Berlin.”
In 1943, he reversed standing strategy by giving orders that Florence should not be defended against the Allied advance. It was “too beautiful” to destroy. Paris, too, warranted protection: “To save the old city of culture, we limited our air attacks to the airfields on the periphery.” Spotts quotes this reflection, recorded in December 1941:
Mankind has a natural drive to discover beauty. How rich the world will be for him who uses his senses. Furthermore, nature has instilled in everyone the desire to share with others everything beautiful that one encounters. The beautiful should reign over humans; the beautiful itself wants to retain its power.
In Spott’s exhaustive scrutiny of Hitler’s aestheticism lies a whispered caution against the exaltation of that elusive phenomenon called beauty gaining ever more currency among contemporary theologians and self-consciously Catholic artists. Aesthetic drive and aesthetic achievement are not the same. And the drive can be put to any human purpose whatever.
“Woe to me if I do not evangelize”
1 Cor 9:16
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done.
Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler “(1978)
Two thousand years apart, the verses complement each other. St.Paul was a canny evangelist. He knew when to fold (on circumcision and table laws) and when to hold his ground. He staked his mission and his life on the distinction.
What calls this to mind is a reader’s response to the previous post:
Just goes to show you can make up any sort of explanation to justify anything as art. Of course, by Mullarkey’s logic, pro-life Catholics should stop demonstrating in front of abortion clinics.
The respondent’s first sentence is quite right: Language can be tilted and stretched to vindicate any art work whatever. That is why there are press releases. My post, however, did not justify Piss Christ. Rather , it proposed that Christians venture to blunt—declaw, render impotent—offensive provocations. That is not duck soup. It requires a honed talent, however grudgingly achieved, for gamesmanship. (I can hear the groans already: “Casuistry!” “Sophistry 101!”) It is a combat sport worth playing for the opportunities it offers to teach, correct, even—if we get good at it—endear.
Abortion is of an entirely different order. It is not a provocation, not something of which we simply disapprove. Abortion on demand, partial-birth abortion, abortion as last-ditch contraception—these are patent evils to be exposed for what they are. For that very reason, it is wise to keep the powder dry until needed against behaviors and beliefs that are inherently, unambiguously inhumane. Things that merely offend, having been crafted to rile, are nonessential. Not worth the shot. We stymie our own objectives by squandering our voice—and, with it, our credibility—by shaking a finger at art because it gets under the skin. Ask Aesop what happens if you cry “Wolf!” too often.
It feels good, being on the qui vive to catch the art world sticking its tongue out. It is much harder to resist the bait, to hang fire and concentrate on truly demonic adversaries—chief among them, the advancing concept of life-unworthy-of-life. Evangelization is not a matter of pelting anathemas at every affront. It requires, among other substantive things, some humor. And an ear for tone.
Not everyone scrolls through comment sections. So let me repeat here part of another respondent’s observation:
The response of some conservative Catholics is to scold—as if the offender is someone who knows better, who’s been well-catechized and has grown up in a Christian culture.
Nope. We are all missionaries now. Many, possibly a majority of our “Christian nation,” have no more than a passing acquaintance with Christianity and many more no real catechesis—their catechesis has been at the hands of the world . . . .
There are definitely times to speak and affirm what we know to be the truth, but perhaps with less emphasis on aggrieved feelings and with more recognition that the people trying to offend probably know next to nothing about God. Their intent may not be, in the end, really profane. Many of this crowd seem to be aiming at Christ’s followers, not Him, about Whom, unfortunately, they’re not even that curious.
There is realism and kindliness here, and more than a little poignance. To see how her words apply, skip over to Serrano’s statement published in The Guardian , September 28, 2012:
At the time I made Piss Christ , I wasn’t trying to get anything across. In hindsight, I’d say Piss Christ is a reflection of my work, not only as an artist, but as a Christian . . . .
The thing about the crucifix itself is that we treat it almost like a fashion accessory. When you see it, you’re not horrified by it at all, but what it represents is the crucifixion of a man. And for Christ to have been crucified and laid on the cross for three days where he not only bled to death, he shat himself and he peed himself to death.
So if Piss Christ upsets you, maybe it’s a good thing to think about what happened on the cross.
There is no guessing whether hindsight, expedience or age prompted the sixty-three year old Serrano to reach for the high road, inelegance aside. But three days on the cross? No, Andres, three hours . This reveals one reason why some astute priest should have been game enough to ask you in for coffee or cognac back when it mattered.
No matter how galling certain art works, there is an urgent reason for not calling in the sensitivity cops: Claims of shock and grievance are a smoke screen for the ambitions of left-liberal activists and Islamic aggressors. We collude in muzzling ourselves by granting credence to the insidious notion that there exists such a thing as a right not to be offended. If ever an assumption were designed to smother truth-telling in the cradle, it is this one. It is simply not possible to speak candidly—about Islamic violence, gay marriage, abortion, or a host of other issues—without antagonizing one militant advocacy group or another.
When wounded feelings—including our own—are summoned to silence others, the gag pulls a little tighter.
If we believe that the arts are mission territory—and they are—they have to be approached with as much charity and cunning as the dugout of aboriginal tribesmen. There is little to be gained by viewing contemporary art as evidence of the depravity of man. It is bad missionary procedure to openly despise the culture we would transform. Granted, there is much to dismay, much to admonish. But the Church will not evangelize a slipping West while we cultivate our moral vanity by making an idol—or an ideology—of our own disapprovals.
What brings this up? Simple: Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) still draws fire nearly thirty years after its debut. As recently as last September, a group of Catholics demonstrated against it outside the Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in Manhattan’s high rent district. We can count on more panty raids, more brinksmanship. Serrano’s public relations success has spawned a small industry of similar assaults. The perpetual resurrection of Piss Christ has become a game for masochists: Catholics keep presenting themselves to be whipped by dominant free-speechers .
Borrowed from the Left’s own sensitivity squads, aggressive tactics—like those of the Catholic League—misfire in the act of obtaining their objectives. Taking offense is the anticipated and desired response to transgressive art. It bolsters the significance of the offending work and, with it, its retail value. Nothing serves auction prices better than publicity from public outrage. It is a godsend to collectors, gallerists, and artists. Worse, howls of injury ratify popular images of the Church as captious, accusatory and censorious. In the end, bellicose responses feed the anti-Catholicism they are meant to combat.
Three decades are enough for us to realize that a culture war is not a street fight. The difference is pivotal if Catholics are serious about having a humane effect—something more significant than scoring apologies or closing events. The arts, too, wait to be redeemed.
Viewed strictly as an image, without regard to its provocative title, Serrano’s infamous photo is actually pretty. The crucifix floats in a pale golden, effervescent haze. Ginger ale? Champagne? It could easily read as a celebration of the means of redemption. Only the title tells us otherwise.
Imagine the confusion among our culturati if the League had thrown a curve and welcomed Piss Christ as a true picture—certainly not to its taste, but nonetheless valid—of the way the world treats its Saviour. In truth, the world pisses on the Cross every day. Catholics, sinners all, are not exempt.
Imagine a press release along these lines:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
We, members of the Catholic League, acknowledge the power of vulgarity in exposing the raw indecency of sin. While some might have reservations about the prudence of Mr. Serrano’s composition, we unite in applauding the sound theology behind it.
The Spirit works in mysterious ways, even to transforming the questionable taste and bad manners of artists. Not every artist is gifted with powers of exalted expression. But even lesser gifts bear witness to the effects of original sin. They too serve who only stand and stun. Mr. Serrano has given us a graphic image of a point made daily, if less colorfully, in pulpits from Seattle to Amsterdam. Especially Amsterdam.
The League remembers that the Church has its own iconographic tradition that many find unseemly or shocking. We think of statues of St. Agatha carrying her breasts on a plate, like cherry-topped meringues. Then there’s St. Lucy, her eyes served up as canapés. Picture St. Roc, lifting his skirt like a chorus girl to point coyly at horrid sores on his inner thighs. Saint Lawrence is turned on the grill like a pork chop. The crucifix itself is startling, an image of violent cruelty.
Andres Serrano has brought up to date an ancient pictorial pairing of the sacred and the grotesque. He has helped us see the crucifix with fresh eyes. Bravo!
Pssst, Andres! You’re a Catholic, right? Here, take the Mass schedule at St. Agnes. If ever you feel like praying with us—or for us—please come by. Don’t be shy about stopping at the rectory for coffee and crullers after Mass. We’d love to talk about your new work. God bless. See ya.
Blood is either absent or decorously minimized in those images of Jesus’ Passion with which we are best familiar. The death of Jesus is only part of the Christ story; the momentous, history-shattering disclosure comes later. Accordingly, traditional Passion imagery inclines toward a reflective distance from the physical realities of a Roman scourging and crucifixion.
In the earliest crucifixes, the corpus is dressed in an ecclesiastical tunic and its outstretched arms do not bend with the weight of the body. Straight and firm as they are, the outstretched arms suggests either a welcoming embrace or triumphal acclaim—the exuberant gesture of a victory lap. The fresco below is an eighth century addition to the walls S. Maria Antiqua, built in the fifth century and the oldest church within the Roman Forum:
The legacy of Western art is reticent about the actual deed of nailing Jesus to the cross. Few such scenes exist in fresco, on panel, or on canvas. They tend to appear almost exclusively on the conventional pilgrimage series we know today as the Stations of the Cross. These were introducd and popularized—as sculpture—closer to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This fourteenth century panel from Meister Bertram’s Passion altarpiece for the Church of St. John, Hamburg, is one of the few exceptions. Again, there is little blood despite the violent brutality of the tableau. A calculated reserve dictates the scene.
Our customary crucifix presents itself to us as more an emblem of redemption—sign and symbol of our ransom—than an instrument of torture. Bowing to prototypes from medieval and Renaissance painting, it presents a mental image that permits us to look upon the corpus without cringing. Art’s role extends beyond narrative. It exists to penetrate the challenge to contemplation encountered in witnessing a grisly event.
Rubens’ famous crucifixion—to take a single example—presents a muscular Jesus unmarked by the disfiguring whip that left prisoners in a state of half death. Blood runs discreetly from wounds fastidiously marked but deemphasized. Neither in his crucifixion motif nor his deposition does Rubens display the corpus in terms appropriate for a man dehydrated, enfeebled, torn and blood-soaked from the cruelty of the previous day. It is, instead, the figure of an athlete in his prime displaced from a classical gymnasium.
Fra Angelico’s version, universally loved, aestheticizes the flogging with an ethereal symmetry. A transcendent calm infuses the scene. Jesus maintains a graceful contraposto , more like a dancer than a man whose execution is beginning.
It would be a great pleasure to feed representative images onto this post for another ten yards or so. That is my favorite thing to do. Prose is a mere handmaiden to paintings. For me. But perhaps not for you. So let me cut to the chase and admit that all of this has been meant as a segue to Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth (1858-1925), known in art history texts as Lovis Corinth. Student of Bouguereau at the Academie Julian in Paris and, later, director of Berlin’s Sezession , Corinth was the archetypical German Expressionist. In short, a modernist.
He was also a painter compelled by the Passion as a creative motif. Crucifixion scenes occupied his imagination over several years. In 1910, he donated Golgotha for the altar of his hometown church in Tapiau, East Prussia. All that we have is the record of the donation. The painting itself disappeared after the Second World War. Tapiau was left intact, unviolated, during the Second World War. Consequently, it is believed that the painting was looted by the Red Army when it invaded East Prussia at the end of the war. No one quite knows.
I would love to see this vanished work. What is left to us is moving enough: Red Christ painted in 1922, just three years before Corinth died. It is not an easy work to look at. Most people see only the subject of a painting, not the paint or the handling—the art—itself. Red Christ is a beautiful painting of a horrendous subject: the depiction of Jesus pierced by Longinus and encrimsoned with the blood of his ordeal.
The painting is a howl of anguish, perhaps the most gruesome of any Western image of the motif. It is a darker and more agonized evocation of what the Son of Man suffered, for your sake and mine, than anything else in the longue durée of sacred Christian art. It surpasses even Beckmann—and Nolde—who had turned previously to Christ’s Passion to find a paradigm for human suffering. The only valid comparison, historically, is with Matthias Grünewald who drew close to the substance of raw agony.
We are unaccustomed to treatments of the Passion which extend beyond the compositional familiarity of what we revere as the Church’s high patrimony. Our nerves have slackened, gone drowsy, from seeing the Passion through the lens of art tamed by centuries. And by an increasingly self-conscious fondness for what is fast becoming a reigning catchword: beauty.
Note : A careful reader wrote to correct my spelling of Corinth’s birthplace: Tapiau. All fixed above. (It is now Gvardeysk, Russian Federation.)
Earlier this month Sandro Magister’s Chiesa broadcast an interesting particular in the Masses celebrated by Pope Francis:
At the moment of communion, Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio does not administer it himself, but allows others to give the consecrated host to the faithful. He sits down and waits for the distribution of the sacrament to be completed.
At solemn Masses, Francis distributes the eucharist only to his assistants on the altar. And at the juvenile detention center on Holy Thursday, he gave the sacrament to young detainees who approached to receive it. These, however, are exceptions to his habit of abstention. What explains it?
Magister locates the origin of Francis’ practice in a passage from On Heaven and Earth , a series of conversations between then-archbishop Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, biophysicist and rabbi of Buenos Aires. First published in Argentina in 2010, it contains this from Bergoglio:
David had been an adulterer and had ordered a murder, and nonetheless we venerate him as a saint because he had the courage to say: ‘I have sinned.’ He humbled himself before God. One can commit enormous mistakes, but one can also acknowledge them, change one’s life and make reparation for what one has done. It is true that among parishioners there are persons who have killed not only intellectually or physically but indirectly, with improper management of capital, paying unjust wages. There are members of charitable organizations who do not pay their employees what they deserve, or make them work off the books. [ . . . ] With some of them we know their whole résumé, we know that they pass themselves off as Catholics but practice indecent behaviors of which they do not repent.
For this reason, on some occasions I do not give communion, I stay back and let the assistants do it, because I do not want these persons to approach me for a photo. One may also deny communion to a known sinner who has not repented, but it is very difficult to prove these things.
Receiving communion means receiving the body of the Lord, with the awareness of forming a community. But if a man, rather than uniting the people of God, has devastated the lives of many persons, he cannot receive communion, it would be a total contradiction. Such cases of spiritual hypocrisy present themselves in many who take refuge in the Church and do not live according to the justice that God preaches. And they do not demonstrate repentance. This is what we commonly call leading a double life.
For the first time since the conclave my heart did not lift at news of Francis. It hurts to admit it, but this time I was nonplussed. Even disappointed. Our pope has a teaching authority in matters of morals as well as of faith. Because we are subject to that authority, we want it—need it—to be as unambiguous in gesture as in directive and the proclamation of imperatives. I cannot shake discomfort with Francis’ conventionalizing an act that, by its nature, warrants deliberate, focused discernment.
There exist means of keeping photos at bay. Ask any museum. They are expert at blocking photography when they choose on grounds of etiquette, trespass, or both. Nevertheless, the issue at stake here is not about optics. By routinely sitting it out, Francis elevates optics over substance. Refusing to discriminate when discrimination is in order cannot be applauded on grounds of prudence or charity. It is neither.
Nancy Pelosi and vice-president Biden attended the Mass for the inauguration of Francis’ pontificate. Both Catholics, both high-profile boosters for abortion, they stood for communion. (In 2008, then-archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput, called Biden’s support for abortion a grave public fault, adding “I presume that his integrity will lead him to refrain from presenting himself for communion.”) The two received from Francis’ assistants while the pope remained seated behind the altar. Had he distributed communion himself but turned the chalice over to his assistants before reaching two public proponents of what the Church considers a non-negotiable, intrinsic evil, a point would have been made. Instead, a rare historic moment for apostolic witness was lost, sacrificed to Francis’ customary abstention and the protocols of state.
By sending Pelosi and Biden as representatives, our president took a sly, sophisticated swipe at the Church’s condemnation of abortion. In effect, he taunted the Church, confident in the power of diplomacy—the ferocity of manners—to smother witness. Francis’ custom left him not complicit—that is too harsh a word—with the insult but certainly toothless in the face of it. Hoist on the decorums of state and his own inclinations, the pope kept his hands clean. But the price of that is on the scoreboard: Abortion Regime 1, Francis 0.
Americans have a phrase for this: passing the buck . Precisely because the pope’s abstention is a general habit—rather than a targeted gesture—it loses sinew. Any moral vigor his restraint might have is dissipated by indiscriminate application. Efficacy requires a more surgical, less theatrical, employment. Without that, abstention shrivels to theatre. Mere style.
Observant readers will have noted another worrisome thing in Francis’ 2010 statement. The species of sin he specifies (improper management of capital, paying unjust wages) are the stock bogeymen of Marxist grievance. Charitable organizations who do not pay their employees what they deserve . Who are these employers who “have killed indirectly”? We have been around this block before on behalf of that abstraction, the exploited worker. What, precisely, determines what any employee deserves without reference to a specific employee in a specific context? Generalized swats lend themselves easily to class resentment and all its familiar mischief. They contribute to demagogic mystifications, illuminating nothing.
The statist bureaucrats of Jorge Borgoglio’s native Argentina nationalized private pensions—the savings of responsible citizens—while he was archbishop. It was an act of theft more consequential than the mundane imperfections of unnamed charitable organizations. Colossal public debt and deficits are more formidable enemies of the common good than Marxist-lite hobgoblins in the workplace. Surely Francis knows this. Let us pray his reign is marked by the boldness to say so.
We who live in the Western world at the present time continue to suffer under the reign of a great tyranny — the tyranny of artistic modernism.
New English Review , August 2012
It gets tiring, this lingering need to swipe at modernism. To the extent a date applies, the waning of modernism hovers between the late 1930s and the end of the Second World War. Yet seven decades later, one Quixote or another still gallops forward to tilt at the carcass. Beating a horse in extremis is unseemly. And doltish. It keeps us from recognizing the singular achievements of this fluid and variegated offensive against Victorian-era academies.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, modernism’s heyday, biblical imagery still held purchase on Western culture. One stunning example of modernist reimagining of a traditional subject is Max Beckmann’s Deposition:
Beckmann reintroduced the sepulchral, nightmare quality that centuries of familiarity have drained from—to take the closest example—Gerard David’s Deposition :
David evokes the graveyard that was Golgotha—“place of the skull”—by scattering bones in the foreground. With that gesture he observed the customary iconography which separated skeletal remains from the corpus of Christ. Beckmann, steeped in death as a volunteer medical attendant on the Belgium front in the First World War, reversed David’s diagonal composition. He turned his eye, and ours, to the skull beneath the taut-drawn skin of the dead Christ. The corpus is distorted by rigor. Violent death reveals itself in tortured angularities: feet contorted upward to display wounds from the underside; arms stiffened into unsupported extension, locked in unnatural outreach. Emaciated shoulders and clavicle tell their own tale. Skeletonization has begun.
Julius Meier-Graefe, a modernist art historian—one of the few included by the Nazis in their attack on “Degenerate Art”—commented on the severity of Beckmann’s initial post-war work, so reminiscent of Gothic painting. Writing in 1919, he interpreted Beckmann’s Deposition as a collective indictment on their place and time:
These paintings are anything but decorative. Their disposition is much more violent. An almost mystical embitterment impels such forms. The voluptuousness of pain . . . A fleshless Grünewald—fleshless, not soulless. The details spell out the want of ardor of our machine age . . . Color, which could soften the factual details, is despised . . . The apparition stands with inexorable clarity. But it is nonetheless animated. These terrifying figures [indicate] a prodigious self-conceit . . . embraced by an entire nation, which sinned extravagantly and atones extravagantly, which by means of monstrous instruments of torture has its rotten flesh burned away so that its spirit might come to its senses.
The imitatio Dei is not a matter of copying. It is a matter, first, of comprehending; and, then, of seeking forms to render that comprehension. Modernism did not abandon form. Rather, it sought a means of creating fresh forms for interpreting the world—the world of our own time—not merely duplicating what greets our senses. Or repeating routinely what we love in the art of an earlier age.
The previous post ended with reference to what “the centuries have wrought.” A reader emailed me to askhopefullyif 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 Brocha convert to Catholicism and major figure among the early Moderniststo 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?
Bernard Berenson called Piero della Francesca “the mighty Tuscan.” Among contemporary painters, he remains the best loved of Renaissance painters, influential to a range of modern artists whose debt to him might not be readily apparent. Nevertheless, renowned as he is among artists, he is not widely known to American audiences.
When a respondent to my previous post sent a link to Piero’s Madonna del Parto , it jolted me into contrition for having neglected to say a word about the gem of a Piero exhibition that opened at the Frick in February. This rare and marvelous opportunity ends this coming Saturday. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa . I have hogged it to myself, returning several times to bask in it. And, yes, pay homage to the enigmatic and majestic Piero.
Piero was better known in his own day as a mathematician, an authority on solid geometry and the author of a treatise on perspective. Little of his art survives, much of it having fallen victim to renovation fever over the centuries. Most of it was executed in fresco; fresco cycles do not travel. To boot, the Victorian era, smitten with Raphael, never gave Piero a nod. Hence, a current audience’s relative lack of acquaintance with an artist who, today, ranks with Leonardo as both artist and man of science. To see his work in its full splendor requires winding through small Tuscan villages—the Way of Piero—an itinerary that begins in Arezzo and Perugia, moves on to Monterchi, through Rimini to Urbino, and Sansepolchro, Piero’s home town.
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels , owned by the Clark Institute, Massachusetts, is one of only three works by Piero in this country. An oil on panel, it is one of the uncommon transportable ones; yet this is only the second time in sixty years it has been visible in New York City. It is the heart of the Frick exhibition and a glorious initiation into Piero’s particular genius.
This Virgin, like all his Marys, has the impassive, thickset solidity of an Etruscan farm girl. Four angel sentinels stand sturdy and substantial. They bear wings, but more as emblems of station than locomotion; nothing ephemeral marks this watchful quartet. These seraphs are as firm-footed as Wim Wender’s angelic pair in Wings of Desire . A husky, self-contained toddler, Christ reaches for a pink carnation, foreshadow of the crucifixion, in Mary’s grasp. He puts out his hand without affect, composed, as inscrutable as his mother.
Roses, too closely identified with Venus and profane imagery, frequently gave way to the elusive charms of the carnation—more sharply defined than the rose—in fifteenth century painting. Piero blends them easily together. His Virgin’s throne, set under the open sky [beyond the frame of the detail here], is decorated with stylized rosettes. Living flowers repeat in the garland worn by the farther angel, symbol of paradisial rapture. “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds,” cry celebrants in the Book of Wisdom. When, for whatever reason, a Renaissance painter chose against the rose, he painted a carnation. A rosebud or a pink carnation—let us not fret the allegorical difference.
Plants, fruits and flowers came into full fashion as visual metaphors in the art of the Renaissance. They are the fragrant, unspoiled things—good gifts—loved by antiquity and, so, embraced by antiquity’s self-chosen heirs. In the hieratic serenity of Piero’s composition we find the interplay of symbolic motifs that have become part of the heraldry of the Church.
The freshness of Piero’s achievement has held for more than six hundred years. His work speaks today with a grace and power made ever more precious by what the centuries between us have wrought.
Pray for us O holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.