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.
There can be no question that it [religion] has lost the organic relations with culture which it possessed in the great religion-cultures of antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and Culture
Art Be With You
Slogan on website of the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo
Of all the forces that bind Western civilization, no anchorhold has been stronger than the Bible. It has been a monumental, creative driver of Western culture. Scripture provides the vaulting under literature and history; it has inspirited majestic visual art. Our own national identity is indecipherable without understanding the centrality of the Bible in the emergence of modern Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries and of the Puritanism which suckled America at birth.
Abraham Lincoln’s claim that the Bible is “the best gift God has given to man” finds little purchase in contemporary culture. Since the 1960s banned it from public school classrooms, Christians themselves—particularly the young—no longer know what it might mean to grow like a cedar in Lebanon or dance, like David, before the ark. Bereft of a common fund of metaphors and allusions, believers and unbelievers alike are displaced from the civilization that housed us.
To counter this diminuendo the American Bible Society established the Museum of Biblical Art (MoBIA) in 2005. It began bravely as a gallery within the American Bible Association headquarters, overhead of a Bible sales room. Location, off Columbus Circle and near Lincoln Center, seemed ideal. And its fifty-plus exhibitions have been small, imaginative, often splendid jewels.
Luca della Robbia, The Art of Dialectic (1437-39).
Yet attendance lagged. Christopher Dawson's contention that “religion is the dynamic element in culture” does not play well at the box office. After a time, the Bible showroom was swept out of sight and MoBIA sought distinction from its parent. Still, traffic never rose to the quality of exhibition. Now, the ABA is moving to Philadelphia; the building has been sold; and MoBIA—living rent-free these ten years—is scrambling to relocate to an economical space.
To date, the museum's crucial support has been the generosity of the ABA. Come June, MoBIA will be dispossessed, a concept in search of affordable housing. (Why concept? Because MoBIA, like many non-profits using the word museum, has no collection, nothing to store or conserve. It exists as a Kunsthalle, a vacant hall that displays revolving installations of borrowed art works.)
MoBIA needs money. On the eve of displacement, the museum’s new director and fundraiser-in-chief Richard Townsend has responded by expanding the bureaucracy. He hired more staff, enlarged the Board of Trustees, introduced a Director of Finance and Operations, and inaugurated partnership with Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. While the Duomo’s museum is undergoing refurbishment, it has loaned MoBIA works removed from the baptistry, the bell tower and the cathedral in the course of alterations. It is hoped that the prestige of the Duomo will raise the profile of MoBIA.
Enter Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.
Nanni di Banco, St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13)
Expensive to crate, transport, insure, and install, this showcase occasion is oddly disappointing. Its mix of grand and lesser (including badly damaged) works, together with skittishness about the religious basis for the work, has the air of a pre-auction event at an architectural warehouse.
Isolated from their liturgical setting, the art on view bespeaks a Church submissive to secular pretensions. Without intending to, the Duomo and MoBIA collaborate in late modernity’s view of Christianity as a spent tradition, one that requires injections of museum prestige. Museumization allows Christianity to linger as an historical phenomenon, no longer a creative cultural force but compliant with the conceits of a post-Christian culture.
MoBIA follows the reigning practice of translating enhancements for a sacral setting into museum stock on shelves in the cultural pantry. Struggling for mainstream recognition, the museum declares itself a neutral, demilitarized zone that has ceded claim to any investment in the religious substance of the art on display:
The Museum takes a secular perspective on the Bible’s pivotal role in art history, and looks at how this text impacts artistic practice in both familiar and surprising ways. MoBIA is inclusive and non-sectarian . . . .
A pivotal role in art history. There you have it. Not a pivotal role in civilization, but in artistic practice and its revelatory harvest of artifacts. The imperatives of art history form a magisterium tolerable for our times. Every item is presented in standard art historical terms: stylistic affinity, artistic identity, authorship, the like. What they affirm—and why Donatello’s name tops the cast list—is modernity’s conventional reverence for the cult of individual genius.
Donatello and Nanni di Barolo, known as Rosso . Sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham and Isaac (1421).
That said, there are several magnificent sculptures here. The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo, is chilling to look at. The biblical incident is depicted in gestures evocative of what we watch now on YouTube: the knife at the neck of kneeling innocents. The work is on show as the stunning technical achievement that it is, carved from a single block of marble. But what commands attention is the contemporaneity of the image. The full impact of Abraham's fidelity—the ferocity of it—arises from what we bring to the sculpture from life. In Isaac, we see Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach and shrink from the sight.
I came away from the exhibit in love with Nanni di Banco. Outstripped by Donatello and Ghiberti in the art historical sweepstakes, di Banco was co-equal in introducing the expressive realism that is the hallmark of Renaissance sculpture. His monumental Luke the Evangelist, evocative of a Roman consul interrupted in his reading, transcends the era of its precedent and of its making. We know this man. We have met him at conferences, on faculties, on institutional boards. Or perhaps in tweeds in one of David Lodge’s academic romances. That face, that posture—you ache to ask him something.
Across the room are two youthful, standing figures each labeled simply profetino, small prophet. One is attributed to Donatello, the other to di Banco. The Donatello is an all-purpose set piece, useful for filling architectural gaps. But the di Banco is a rhapsody of boyhood on the cusp of manhood. This round-faced boy has the power of life, of breath and movement. I welled up with an urge to bring him food—a pizza, or a home-cooked meal—and listen to him talk. (MoBIA flattens him into “a clear instance of stylistic variety” in the cathedral’s decorative program.)
By any measure, MoBIA has staged fine exhibitions over the last decade that would honor MoMA or the Metropolitan. Biblical themes are indivisible from our cultural history and need not be relegated to an independent institution. MOBIA’s very existence concedes a hidden starting point: that motifs drawn from scripture—and without irony or disdain—have become a world apart from contemporary culture.
Thus, the Duomo’s self-abnegating publicity slogan: “Art be with you.”
This morning's broadcast from Sandro Magister lists the names of our twenty-one new Coptic saints. The essay “Saint Milad Saber and His Twenty Companions” can be read in full here. But let me list their names for you. They died whispering prayers, some calling upon the name of Jesus at the moment of decapitation. By knife. We honor them by name:
Milad Saber Mounir Adly Saad, bachelor
Sameh Salah Farouq, married, one child
Ezzat Boshra Nassif, married, with one son of four years
Kyrillos Boschra Fawzy, bachelor
Tawadraus Youssef Tawadraus, married, three children
Magued Soliman Shehata, married, three children
Mina Fayez Aziz, bachelor
Samouil Alham Wilson, married, three children
Bishoi Stephanos Kamel, bachelor
Samouil Stephanos Kamel, brother of the latter, bachelor
Malek Abram Sanyut, married, three children
Milad Makin Zaky, married, one daughter
Abanub Ayyad Ateyya Shehata, bachelor
Guerges Samir Megally Zakher, bachelor
Youssef Shukry Younan, bachelor
Malek Farag Ibrahim, married, baby daughter
Mina Shehata Awad
Louqa Nagati Anis Abdou, 27 years, married with infant
Essam Baddar Samir Ishaq, bachelor
Hany Abdal-Massih Salib, married, four children
Guerges Milad Sanyut, bachelor
What made Christianity so dangerous [to imperial Rome] was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world.
Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics
Early Christian thinking, like the biblical thinking of the Jewish culture which informed it, was a sedition against the entire pagan world of the sacred. It abolished nature gods: the moon goddess, the gods of thunder, of the hunt, of fertility, the harvest, the waters, all the deities of pagan cosmology. It denied Flora and Faunus sacred status. It cut down the sacred oak, climbed sacred mountains, and built atop the sacred moss.
William Blake. Ancient of Days (1794). Pierpont Morgan Library, NYC.
The radical desacralizing process of nascent Christianity held to the biblical polemic. Jacques Ellul summarized that vision with brisk economy:
God speaks his word and things are. This is all. What this means is that God is truly outside the world, that he is totally transcendent. He is not enclosed in any part of this creation. He is beyond it. He has established a Creator-creature relation, but this is a relation of love, not a sacral relation. . . . The Christian God makes himself known in Jesus Christ and not elsewhere.
Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff’s evolutionary euphoria, in full feather in his Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, undoes all that. Jesus’ roots, like ours, are in the Milky Way. “His homeland is the solar system, and his house is planet Earth.” Jesus is no longer the totality of the Word but, more modestly, its “peak.” The incarnation extends to all humanity who will “also be verbified” by the Word. From this perspective, the biblical intuition of a hidden Godinaccessible apart from Jesus Christis obsolete. It is an androcentric archaism blind to the grand drama of cosmic progress to which ecology is key.
Boff’s dream would re-sanctify planet Earth, reconstitute a pre-modern and non-Christian sense of the sacred. Reported adviser to Pope Francis on the coming climate encyclical, the ex-Franciscan brings to his task the cosmic orphism of Teilhard de Chardin and giddy embrace of the noospherethat notional final stage of evolution from which is thought to emerge, in Boff’s words, “a common consciousness around the Earth, and which would function as the Earth’s brain.”
Artist Unnamed. God the Father Measuring the Universe (13th Century). Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.
The Judeo-Christian doctrine of creation issues from the same linear, patriarchal mind as modern scientific cosmologythat ”rationalist and dualist” system at the root of modern man’s assault on “God’s extended Body.” It has wreaked “massive destruction of the many-colored universe of polytheism and its anthropological significance.” To counter the devastation, Boff exalts the myths of deep ecology:
All the living and nonliving elements are interconnected and make up an organic whole in dynamic equilibrium: the great living being, Earth. It is indeed, as the indigenous peoples and the mystics have always called it, the great and good Mother, Nurse, and Pacha Mama.
Boff would relax emphasis on monotheism. However valid it might be philosophically and theologically, emphatic monotheism is damaging psychologically and politically. Christianity’s struggle against polytheism failed “to safeguard the element of truth” in it:
That truth is that the universe with its variegated beings, mountains, fountains, forests, rivers, firmament, and so forth, is permeated with powerful energies and hence is the bearer of mystery and sacredness.
Entranced by hybrid eco-spiritualities buttressed by Jungian psychology and scavengings from modern physics, Boff argues for “recovery of the aspect of truth in paganism, with its rich pantheon of divinities inhabiting all the spaces in nature”:
Indeed, human beings are inhabited by many powerful energy centers overflowing them on all sides and with the universal Energy shaping the cosmos for billions of years, centers that impart a profound meaning to existence. Throughout history, these transcendent forces have been hypostatized in the form of male and female deities. . . . The deities functioned as powerful archetypes of the depths of the human being. The radicalization of monotheism, as it battled polytheism, closed many doors of the human soul.
. . . To cure humankind of its polytheism, early Christianity subjected the faithful to a violent and harsh medication. . . . A rigid monotheism is not salutary for the soulas if all spiritual riches could be reduced to a single principle.
Venus of Willendorf (Upper Paleolithic). Natural History Museum, Wien.
By their very bodies, women are superior to men in overcoming “the dualisms introduced by patriarchal and androcentric culture.” They are natural bearers of a redemptive cosmology that yields ecological wisdom and “cosmic fellowship.” The insights of eco-feminism are crucial to Boff’s insistence on a new covenant with nature. Women are instinctive beings who refuse rule by reason alone. Hence, they are closer to the “archetypal universe of the personal, group, and cosmic consciousness.”
Boff leans on that rickety epistemology popularized as women’s way of knowing. By the “wholeness of female experience,” women are attuned to “planetary and cosmic sacredness.” Christianity’s assault on female deities disrupted the world’s “gender balance” and created “a break in social and religious ecology.”
Boff is fond of referring to women as generators of life. But strictly speaking, it is men who generate life. Women incubate it. Given the agenda Boff’s rhetoric serves, the distinction matters. So does his revival tent scaremongering. He preceded Al Gore with threats of environmental catastrophe and extermination:
If Gaia has had to rid itself of myriad species over its life history, who can assure us that it will not be forced to rid itself of our own? Our species is a threat to all other species; it is terribly aggressive and is proving to be a geocide, an ecocide, and a true Satan of the Earth.
Our theologian does not like “the species Homo.” Certainly not the Western male variety. He exempts only indigenous peoples and the Eternal Feminine from the dock.
The “imperial and feudal” Church, with its popes and bishops, has been corrupted by the same “linear logic” that has brought humanity to the point of immanent ecological collapse. While there is still time, a new paradigm must be forged. The Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) points the way. Christian conscience must acknowledge the Gaia hypothesis: humanity is not entitled to hierarchical dominance in the sentient super-organism called Earth. It is “the great cosmic community,” not merely man and woman, that is made in the image and likeness of God.
For anyone seeking exercises for initiation into eco-spirituality, Boff suggests K. Keyes, Jr., Handbook to Higher Consciousness; A. LaChance, Greenspirit: The Twelve Steps of Green Spirituality; and some others.
Celestial Globe Drawn on a Flat Sheet (1729). Reiner Ottens, mapmaker. Amsterdam.
First published in 1995, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor remains a vivid witness to the ecotopian vision at the heart of Boff’s advisory role on environmental matters. His recent Francis of Rome & Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church (2014) repeats the twenty-year old mantra. His exultant doctrine of Woman-inflected “cosmic fellowship” still stands:
There are many people who say that the twenty-first century will be the woman’s century. Life is threatened, and they who generate life will know how to take care of all life forms and of our sister Mother Earth herself, as Saint Francis called her. She is alive, she is Pacha Mama, she is Gaia, she is the Great Mother who gives us everything we need to live. Pope Francis will need to strengthen this mission entrusted to women and to all of us.
Boff’s refrain“everything is spiritual”echoes Teilhard’s “everything is sacred.” It is a doctrine that Dietrich von Hildebrand had repudiated decades earlier in his essay “Teilhard de Chardin: A False Prophet.” However sublime the principle sounds, von Hildebrand argued, it bristles with “nihilistic denial of low and high, of good and evil.” Like Gaian dogma, it denies hierarchy to the structures of reality. In seeming to exalt everything, it “results in denying everything.”
St. Hildegard of Bingen. Man as Center of the Universe (12th C.). Biblioteca Statele, Lucca.
The line between the crackpot and the mystical is not at all narrow. It is broad and deep. But the chasm can be obscured with rational-sounding phrases (e.g. “crisis of the social paradigm”) and magpie assemblages of scientific and scholarly references woven together with christological language. Doubtless, it is camouflaged most significantlyand insidiouslyby incontestable concern for the poor.
You will decide for yourself whether to welcome Boff’s environmental counsel to Francis of Rome. Or dread it.
What has happened to Ash Wednesday? Is the wearing of ashes in decline everywhere? Or only in New York City, a sanctuary city for people of every faith or unfaith? Or was I just in the wrong part of town at the wrong hour?
Francisco de Goya. Lent (c.1794). Academia Fernando, Madrid.
I took an early commuter train into the city this morning, and was on the subway to Columbus Circle between 8:30 and 9:00 am. Coming up out of the station, I passed a young woman with ashesthe first I had seen since I left the house. Walking west one block to St. Paul the Apostle, I saw only a single man marked with ashes. A trickle of people were going into the church for ashes. I followed in for mine, turned around, and doubled back to Broadway. On the way, no one else passed me with their foreheads marked.
I was headed for the Museum of Biblical Art for a press briefing by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage in Florence. He had no ashes either; and neither did anyone else attending.
Three people took note of the black smudge on my forehead. Over coffee, a public relations woman greeted me with “Oh, I love your . . .” I thought she was about to say “haircut” but, after a pause, she came up with, “mark.”
A second woman tapped me to sayin the hushed tone women use when they tell another that her slip is hanging or her dress label is sticking up”You have something on your forehead.” She thought she was being helpful. So I smiled and said, “Yes, it’s Ash Wednesday.” She gave me a quizzical look that suggested she had no idea what Ash Wednesday was. Such is the level of ritual comprehension in the press.
Pieter Breughal the Elder. Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.
It was heartening to have a third woman tell me that she had not yet had a chance to get her ashes. But relief did not last long. In the next breath she confided that she was up from Virginia where she lives in an ashram and is used to all kinds of ashes. In all kinds of colors. For all kinds of reasons.
Press business done, I headed back down into the subway, back to the shuttle, and over to Grand Central. Along the way, I scanned the morning crush, looking very hard for ashes. I counted only three more people in the crowd. (Believe me, I was really, really looking.) A total of five in one of the most heavily traffickedfoot trafficparts of the city.
Maybe it was just too early in the day. Maybe Catholics will stop in a church at lunchtime or their way home. Still, on this Ash Wednesday, more than any other day in a very long time, I felt bereft.
A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental; they necessarily are reflected in his theology.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Of all the modern substitutes for religion, it is the aesthetic sense which is the most esteemed.
Edward Norman, Entering the Darkness
That quote above by then-Cardinal Ratzinger leaves me fidgety. I would rather hear about the potential effect on theology of his pilot’s licensehe does have onethan appeals to art, music, nature, the expected perfumes. The guidance system of the papal helicopter, in its ordering of objective elements, bears closer resemblance to religious truth than the emotional promptings of the aesthetic sense.
Marcel Gromaire. The Pilot (1928). Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.
And where does love of nature take the theologian except into the eco-mysticism that installs a shrine to Gaia in the cathedral of St. John the Divine? Contemporary nature piety is the springboard for re-sacralizing the natural world, reversing Christianity’s historic de-divinization of it.
Nature is to be respected. But loved? Nature kills. We can love nature only to the degree of our control of it, our protection from it. (Look in your medicine cabinet for simple cues to your fidelity to nature.) Yes, a sunset is beautiful; but only because the sun is far enough away not to incinerate us.
Tacitus stated it for the ages: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”
Tornado over Oklahoma City area.
Three centuries into the ongoing displacement of religion by aesthetics, talk of beauty is much in the air these days. It ranks among the finer pastimes of polite climbers. On a more significant level, it has thickened into an arena in which Christians struggle to align beauty with salvation history. We speak of beauty now in tones reserved for salvific virtue. Accent on it leaves me wondering if we have strayed off our own turf. We seem to be playing an away game, no longer on home court.
Does Christianity subvert itself by embracing the revelations of an Enlightenment discipline? Are we adapting ourselves to a secular, and secularizing, frame of mind? Is the imperative of beauty a new bondage, this time to the strategies and structures of the world’s source of transcendent meaning? Is emphasis on beauty a surrenderdisguised by religious languageto forces that distance us from the plenitude of our own wellspring: the Galilean Jew we greet in the Creed?
Georges Barbier. Incantation (1923). Illustration for an Almanach.
We can doxologize beautyits value, its boundless variety of formsuntil the clocks stop. But, in the end, we are still left with that bothersome business of how to recognize it, how to achieve it. When talk is done and the table cleared, are we any further along than Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity? He admitted it was impossible to define but “I know it when I see it.”
Aestheticism as Ariadne Waving Goodbye to Oscar Wilde (1882). Punch.
When it comes to visible beauty, I definitely know it when I see it. No doubt about it. Not sure, though, I see it where you do. Besides, do you really know when you see it? Or do you just think you do? Is there a gene for telling the difference? Might taste be shaped by natural selection? Is bad taste an acquired characteristic or a hereditary predisposition? And while we are at it, why are you wearing that ugly tie?
Anonymous. Beautiful Longhorn, Prize Cow (19th C.). Oxford Agricultural College, UK.
It all gets sticky very fast. No conscientious writer on art can offer absolutes, though the temptation to try is great. Authority attaches to schema; honor accrues to pronunciamentos that nail it all down. Art presents a bewildering array of choices. How to pick the right one, the one that speaks well of us? Freedom of choice is risky. Wary of taking our chances, we want beauty clinched in an unequivocal canon. We look for a fixed set of properties applicable from now to kingdom come. It is the lure of the infallible.
Only it does not work that way. Tastes change with the times. Think of the doyens of eighteenth-century taste who despised the Gothic that we so prize today. Besides, it is not a critic’s job to mimic the labor of philosophers and psychologists of perception. The best a critic can do is offer an eyewhich is to say a sensibility, that j’ne sais quoi of things rooted in a life and a conscience.
Mark Tansey. The Innocent Eye Test (1981).
It is impossible to look at fetal photography without astonishment. One of the most exhilarating things about it is its testimony to the sovereignty of our eyes. They are not separate members that grow on their own. The eye is a very organ of the brain! Emerging out of it, an eye is the brain’s emissary to the light. It comes into the world with its own way of knowing, wordless and immediate.
The eye, like friendship, seeks its own society. It functions according to its own principles, likes, and demands, each molded by temperament and circumstances. And it loses its innocence as we all do.
Paulus Potter. The Young Bull (1647). The Mauritshuis, NL.
Mark Tansey’s wonderfully witty The Innocent Eye Test takes aim at the notion of a critic as one who views art through a clear crystalline lens, unclouded by a priori biases or wayward concepts. But in the real world, no such innocent eye exists exceptjust maybein a cow. Tansey’s earnest research team brings a placid milker to gaze at Paulus Potter’s The Young Bull. Does she recognize her Dutch predecessor as the real thing? Did Potter get it right?
Golden Age livestock leaves no mess. Not so the barnyard participant in this investigation. (Note the man ready with a mop on the left.) Viewed from the detached distance of art, Potter’s idyllic livestock is lovely. Less so, its modern avatar.
Note: Bloggers are their own worst copy editors. I had reversed Justice Stewart’s first and last names. All fixed noe.
Your friends are not religious; they are only pew-renters. They are not moral; they are only conventional.
Don Juan to the Devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman
A sense of the holy brings with it a sense of taboo. We tread cautiously in the tenting place of the ineffable. A Presence abides. We dare not profane.
The Vatican’s recently announced Art for Charity initiative directed toward high profile corporations raises a question: Is the Sistine Chapel still the sacred space it was built to be? Or has it slackened into a world class exhibition hall, a Renaissance monument FOR RENT?
The elasticity of the line between sacred and profane can last only so long. At some point pliancy gives out, things stiffen, and choice falls at one end or the other. The initiative’s inaugural event, this past October, suggests that the elastic has dried and begun to crack.
Organized by the Vatican Museums, Art for Charity is a fund raising scheme that invites proposals for swank events sponsored by corporate donors. October saw the first of these commercial transactions. Porsche Travel Club arranged a four-day, 5,000-per-head [ArtNet’s figure] tour of Rome, featuring a private concert in the Sistine Chapel. The concert was performed by the venerable Accademia di Santa Cecilia, founded by Sixtus V in 1585. This was followed by a gala dinner “in the midst of the Vatican Museums,” leaving it unclear whether dinner took place in the chapel or elsewhere in the complex. Proceedings included a visit to Castel Gandolfo and a drive to Lake Garda in the latest Porsche models.
Msgr. Paolo Nicolini, managing director of the Vatican Museums, rejected the word rent: “The Sistine Chapel can never be rented because it is not a commercial space.” Making the chapel “visible” is the preferred term. He told the press:
It is an initiative which will support the Pope’s charity projects. It is aimed at big companies which, through the payment of a fee, can contribute to charity activities.
In other words, the Vatican is poised to solicit cash in exchange for permitting private access to the Sistine Chapel for exclusive corporate patrons. The vulgar word rent need never apply. Good manners demand phrasing appropriate to a premier cultural institution. The Vatican could have no better tutor in this than New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Its downloadable pdf. on the delicate matter of “unique entertaining opportunities and special access” is an exquisite sample of elevated locution:
Entertaining at the Metropolitan Museum is a privilege reserved for its Corporate Patrons and eligible non-profit organizations. For its Corporate Patrons, membership benefits and entertaining opportunities reflect the level of a company’s gift to the Museum.
Privilege. Eligible. Gift. It is in word dances like this that distinguished brandscultural and commercialcurtsy to each other.
The Vatican is simply adopting fund-raising techniques used by museums around the world for several decades. Its arrangement with Porsche indicates public embrace of the entrepreneurial culture already at play in museums around the world. Museums are desirable, high-status venues for corporate entertaining. Large or small, they compete to attract corporate sponsors, offering sponsorship opportunities contracted for a fee. And that is fine. Less congenial, however, is the inclusion of the Sistine Chapel in such transactions. Did the Sistine, intimately bound to the life of the Church, debase its sacral status while enhancing the identity of Porsche in the marketplace of brands?
Reading between the lines of official comments, it is not difficult to discern anxiety to deflect the question. According to CNNMoney, the Vatican hopes other companies will follow suit with similar events. The single proviso is they be art related.
Vatican Museums director Antonio Paolucci dips into the warm bath of contemporary art pieties. Vatican Radio quotes his explanation of the impetus behind the initiative: “Art, too, is charity and love.”
No, it is not. Art bears no relation to caritas; it is incapable of agape. The only aspect of loveif that is the wordthat might feasibly be associated with art is eros. If we must, there is no shame in admitting that something erotic lives in the drive to make it, the pleasure of looking at it, the ache to linger in its company. But that is hardly the spiritually redemptive love that Vatican Radio intends.
Rendering a pragmatic decision in terms of a mystical or virtue-producing superstructure falsifies the enterprise and art as well. It is also dangerous. Ours is an age in which museums make claims for themselves that mimic religion and art is seen as a signal of transcendence. In contemporary culture art is the preferred Real Presence, free of all obligation and no cross in sight. By clothing art in the mantle of religiona gathering current that predates the present papacythe Vatican sanctifies its own secular replacement.
Leave the last word to Louis Bouyer:
We see many Christians attempting to make an alliance between Christianity’s ways and those of the world; and we see Christians who are even tempted to believe that the salvation offered by this world is the true one, and that Christianity needs only to encourage it, to bless it with a cheerful acknowledgment of its worth.
Note: The image above is some wag’s Photoshop comment. Worth 1,000 words.
Beauty is my business as thoroughly as trouble is Raymond Chandler’s. Still, you will never catch me talking about “the beautiful.” I have no idea what it is or what it might look like. A transcendental is a bit like a virtual “friend”you never get to see it. In the lived life, beauty is sensible. It resides in individual things, in matter, the stuff of the world and of man’s hands.
Making things is the artist’s métier. Reflection on the appearance of particular things, and opinions on them, is within an artist’s bailiwick. But the marshlands of aesthetics are not. Neither are the umbras and penumbras of St. Thomas, where adepts scout out what he did not say but might have if he had been born later. This is sacred ground; artists should stay off the grass. Besides, post-Enlightenment steeplechases are no help in the studio.
Praxiteles. Hermes Holding Infant Dionysus (c. 330 BC). Archeological Museum, Olympia, Greece.
The most enduring part of Clive Bell’s influential 1913 essay Art and Significant Form is its opening lines:
It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that. It is certain, however, that about no subject with which I am acquainted has so little been said that is at all to the purpose.
Several centuries of intellectual hunting and gathering have been pledged to the effort to rationalize and systematize discussion of beauty. It is a mischievous topic, better left to philosophers and theologians. Yet even they can skid on it. Listen to Hans Urs von Balthasar:
[Beauty] is that aspect of reality without which the ancient world refused to understand itself. But ‘beauty’ has now become a mere word; while beauty herself has finally now bid farewell, imperceptibly and yet unmistakably, to our brave new world of commercial interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.
It takes chutzpah to make a pronouncement like that. Yet the quote is repeated with worshipful nods of assent, signaling the reciter’s break from the undiscerning masses. But is Balthasar’s allegation as consequential as it sounds? It is confident, sonorous, Germanic. But is it believable? Did the ancient pagan worldwith its hot bull’s blood, temple slaves, and envious godshold to beauty in the conduct of life more intimately or adroitly than our own? Or is it simply that Balthasar prefers Praxiteles to Elie Nadelman?
Elie Nadelman. Tango (1920-24). Whitney Museum of Art, NYC.
Balthasar’s imperious assertion begs all evidence. Beauty has certainly not left the world. Like grace, it is everywhere. We have only to keep our eyes open. The philosophical mind is under no such obligation. It greets essences, not things. Its forte is speculative, not practical, not empirical. It owes no generosity to the tackle and trim of the workaday world.
When it does descend to things, speculation is often colored more readily by statusa socioeconomic biasthan by perception. Remember Henri de Lubac’s comment that Balthasar, his acolyte, was “perhaps the most cultivated man of his time.” It is tempting to ask if the flattery might have been less fulsome if Balthasar had whistled and played the harmonica instead of the piano. Even if he performed with the eloquence and delicacy of the great Belgian jazz musician Toots (Jean-Baptiste ) Thielemans, odds are that de Lubac’s tribute would have had a dent in it.
There exists tremendous beauty in man’s ingenuity in creating the ravishing abundance of goods that deliver us from mere subsistence. All the implements and resources that permit us to live longer and more easily deserve honor in discussions of what constitutes beauty. In reality, there is no inherent opposition between beauty and serviceability. Those who presume to hold a measurethe aesthetician’s sword of Merlinby which to determine true beauty and fix it in place pride themselves unnecessarily.
James E. Allen, The Builders (1932). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
Things created as objets d’art can be quite dreadful; something as ordinary as a salt shaker can be beautiful. It is that very respect for utility that informed the life’s work of Shoji Hamada (d. 1978), the great Japanese ceramicist. Dedicated to the production of everyday wares, he had been drawn initially to painting. He explained his fateful reversal: “Even a bad pot has some use but with a bad painting there is nothing you can do but throw it out.”
Shoji Hamada. Bowl.
When I turn on hot water or come in from the cold, I am reminded of the functional beauty of the network of copper pipes connected to my boiler. And the boiler, in its homely, hard-working boilerhood, is itself a thing of beauty. High intellectual elegance imagined the ignition system that gets it going. A congeries of creative intuitions are hidden in the nerve patterns of vigilant gauges that alert the oil company, several towns away, when my fuel tanks are running low.
We sin against ourselves by believing that beauty has gone out of the world. It has not. Too many of us simply dislike acknowledging how much the ability to create and maintain it on a modern scale is owed to the loveliness of mechanics. To bushings, bearings, cranks, carburetorsevery imaginable category of mechanical designand to commercial enterprises like Weil-McLain and Honeywell who make our boilers and our gauges.
We do live in history, and this age is hard to bear.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment
To be of one’s time means to attend to the nature of the times. It means resisting the siren call of the day’s enthusiasmszeal for environmentalism, sustainability, multiculturalism, global fixes, et aliain order to stay mindful of the root character of those enthusiasms and their ultimate ends. In short, it means becoming a critic of one’s time. Jacques Ellul, devoted to the life of the spirit no less than the life of the mind, was a critic of the highest order.
One of the major interpreters of the twentieth century, his name is less recognized now than it was before his death twenty years ago. It is certainly not as familiar as our own decade needs it to be. By sweet providence, Ellul was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1912. It was a fitting birthdate for a man whose insights are as revelatory now as in the years of their creation. A man with the courage of his intuition, he addressed fellow Christians with the passionand dismayof the Latter Prophets:
The Church is the Bride, but she can be an adulteress. The Church is a community founded by the Holy Spirit, but she may become a community in which the Holy Spirit can no longer speak.
Ellul lived an extraordinary life, leaving a rich and masterful legacy. Active in the French Resistance and deputy mayor of Bordeaux in the immediate post-war years, he was a professor of law and social history at the University of Bordeaux and its Institute of Political Studies from 1946 until 1980. A Marxist at 19, he converted to Christianity at 22. He came of age intellectually in the 1930s within the circle surrounding Emmanuel Mounier and his journal L’Espirit. Ellul drew on Mounier’s personalist philosophy of individual engagement. A Protestant, he was initiated into the same tenets of French personalism which took flesh in this country in the Catholic Worker movement under the tutelage of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.
Ellul became known here in the 1960s for The Technological Society, published first in France ten years earlier. It is an astringent assessment of the threat to man’s personal and spiritual freedom posed by the technological world and the reach of its imperatives. But the range of his criticism and theological insight was far wider, cutting deep into the totalitarian aims and conceits of modern bureaucracy. By la technique, he meant the drive to rationalize and make efficient the myriad workings of human society. He cited politicsla politiqueas another manifestation of the technicians’ illusory quest for political solutions to everything, including moral and cultural problems. Like Karl Barth, he took the fall of man with great seriousness.
As someone who had lived politics from the inside, he did not dismiss politics. Hardly that. His aim was to demythologize it, rein in its totalizing impulses. He wrote The Political Illusion in the spirit of the biblical prophets who called their own times to remember that the true essence of history resides not in political victories or defeats but in God’s judgment on man’s dealings. Rejecting politics as the ultimate guidepost, he cautioned against powers that collectivize man via political channels. Such powers are supported by the Church at great risk to the gospel. By collaborating with the confusion of political or ideological symbols for religious ones, the Church unwittingly subordinates man’s ultimate end to temporal ones. And confounds his freedom.
The New Demons (1973) has a penetrating chapter on Christianity’s subservience to the sociopolitical milieu. A key passage:
[Christians} rush to the defense of political religion, and assert that Christianity is meaningful only in terms of political commitment. In truth, it is their religious mentality which plays a trick on them. As Christianity collapses as a religion, they look about them in bewilderment . . . hoping to discover where the religious is to be incarnated in their time. Since they are religious, they are drawn automatically into the political sphere like iron filings to a magnet.
Ellul was unsparing toward the ardent irrationality“purely religious and mythical”exhibited by men of science when they go political. At the same time, he was equally severe on religious men who confuse politics, including the political postures of men of science, with an avenue to the Kingdom of God. He was harsh toward what he deemed an illusory regard for the absolutizing pretensions of modern bureaucracy, secular or ecclesiastic. Ellul was no friend to the reach of the managerial state, to ideological drift toward collectivism, or to the hubris of schemes for world management.
The Meaning of the City (1970) is first among my favorites. For Ellul, the city, from the days of Cain to our own, represents both the pinnacle of man’s handiwork and the prime site of his rebellion. Charged with the poetry of biblical allusions, the book remains a startling theological reflection on modern urbanized culture. Babylon is his synecdoche for the historical sweep of mortal man’s monumental, and monumentally flawed, instincts and achievements. Rome, Berlin, Paris, Venice, New Yorkadd Vatican City, as wellthey are all the same city for there is “only one Babel”:
All the cities of the world are brought together in her, she is the synthesis of them all (Dan. 3 and 4; Rev 14 and 18). She is the head and the standard for the other cities. She is the very home of civilization and when the great city vanishes, there is no more civilization, a world disappears. She is the one struck in war, and she is the first to be struck in the war between the Lord and the powers of the world.
While his The Betrayal of the West (1975) acknowledges the West’s historic sins, Ellul understands them as the common sins of every civilization. What is peculiar to the West, and to it alone, are its virtues. In his words, the West “represents values for which there is no substitute. . . . The end of the West today would mean the end of any possible civilization.”
We are caught up by a kind of doom from which, it seems, nothing can rescue us, for even the disciples of Christ are rushing headlong to destruction. Only the rejection of everything Western, of everything the West has produced, can now satisfy the very men of the West. Throughout Europe and America we are watching a kind of mystery unfold; we are swept along in a vast procession of flagellants who slash at themselves and each other with the most horrendous of whips. . . . We have smeared ourselves with paint and blood to show our contempt for all that created the great civilization from which we spring. We even scourge ourselves hysterically for crimes we did not commit. In short, we show enthusiastic joy only at what denies, destroys, and degrades all the works of the West.
Despite early attachment to Marxism and continuing sympathy with aspects of its critiques, he rejected its solutions and mourned its encroachment on Christian thinking: “Christianity celebrates its marriage with Marxism and proceeds to slay the old, impotent flesh that was once the glory of the world.”
Ellul understood that the powers and principalities St. Paul warned against are changelings. They mutate with the times, costumed in new movements, sporting new slogans. In his later years, Ellul turned his attention to the dangers of a resurgent Islam. Forthright and prescient, he kept his eye on the enemy as it advanced. And he had the courage to name it.
There is a great temptation today to confuse sociological evolution with spiritual progress, and Christians are the first to succumb to that temptation. Nevertheless, the Bible expressly tells us that the history of mankind ends in judgment. It does not give place to the Kingdom.
Jacques Ellul, False Presence of the Kingdom
Conformity to the world is expressed by the passion for politics, by the politicizing of Christian thinking, manners and action.
Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment
In the cap and bells of Flip Wilson’s Church of What’s Happening Now, Pope Francis is readying an encyclical on climate change. He will address the world’s latest mutation of the grail quest: human ecology. Abandoning nuance for apocalyptic alarmism (“If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.”), Francis has signaled the tenor of his utterance.
It comes as no surprise. Handwriting has been on the wall along the Viale Vaticano from the get-go. At the beginning of his pontificate, Francis revealed himself to be fastidiously attuned to image. He refused to give communion in public ceremonies lest he be photographed giving the sacrament to the wrong kind of sinner. So, when he agreed to pose between two well-known environmental activists and brandish an anti-fracking T-shirt, we believed what we saw.
It was a portentous image. Press toads hopped to their keyboards to correct the evidence of our lying eyes. Francis was neither for nor against fracking, you see. Nothing of the sort. He was simply using a photo-op to assert blameless solidarity with the victims of ecological injustice. (Both a decisive definition of such injustice and its particular victims went unspecified.)
If that restyling were true, then the more fool Francis. But Francis is not a fool. He is an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopoliticaland now meteorologicalthickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.
Later this year, Francis will take his sandwich board to the United Nations General Assembly, that beacon of progress toward the Kingdom. Next will come a summit of world religionsa sort of Green Assisiorganized to lend moral luster to an upcoming confederacy of world improvers in Paris. In the words of Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Francis means “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”
There is a muddle for you. The bishop asserts a causal relation between two undefined, imprecise phenomena. His phrasing is a sober-sounding rhetorical dodge that eludes argument because the meaning is indeterminable. Ambiguity, like nonsense, is irrefutable. What caliber of scientist speaks this way?
Ronald Gunther. Soap Box Orator (c. 1935). Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma.
Conscientious concern for the environment is not at issue. Man’s stewardship of the earth’s resources is to be taken with great seriousness. But debate as how best to effect that stewardship is intricate and ongoing. There are hazards in unraveling divergent, often contradictory, ideas and undertakings bundled together by the media as a coherent movement.
Francis serves an environmentalist mindset that, unlike the traditional ethos of conservation, views man as a parasite (Western man in Francis’ marxisant variant) and understands wealth in pre-modern terms as a zero-sum game. It discards the West’s great discoveryrealization that wealth can be created. The endgame is transfer of wealth from productive nations to unproductive ones.
Boris Kustodiev. Festivity for Opening of the 11th Comintern Congress (1920). Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg.
Orthodox environmentalism resents human sovereignty over the earth we inhabit. It begrudges ingenuity in the transactions we invent with nature and with each other. Its radical form, which beckons Francis and Vatican academics, is atavistic, even animist. Discount the gospel gloss. What matters is the spectacle of the Church imitating the world by justifying political agendas based on still-contended data and half-baked Gramscian dogma. Jacques Ellul, writing in the post-war decades, cautioned against introducing political morals into the Church as a springboard for unexamined action:
Proof is of no avail in the face of the sociological trends which bring Christians irrevocably to do what everybody else is doing, and to think what everybody else is thinking.
Ferdinand Hodler. The Orator (1912). Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Man cannot destroy “Creation.” It is not within his power. Nor is “Creation” a willful entity with Doomsday on its mind. Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda. Francis’s loaded abstractionsa planet “exploited by human greed,” a vague “economy of exclusion,” and that old goblin, “the god of money”echo Reverend Wright’s “A world in need is run by white folks’ greed.” Explicit racial component is absent from Francis’ denunciations. Nevertheless, hearers know which worldFirst or Third?prompts papal hostility.
The world is what it has been and will remain. Satan is still the prince of it. And Francis is imprudent.
With liturgical regularity, Christmastide brings the magic of The Nutcracker. This is the perfect season for it. By December, the year’s worth of adult disdain for all things enchanted has reached a crescendo. “No, Virginia, you’ve been had,” galumph uncomprehending gradgrinds who dismiss fantasy as lying. Childhood’s sensitivity to wonder is put to the test this time of year. Children are made to suffer obtuse grown-ups who refuse to believe that toys come alive, that mice have queens, or have forgotten that nightmares, too, have their bewitchments.
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s own illustration for Nussknacker und Mausekònig (1816). University of Oldenburg.
We owe The Nutcracker to Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, celebrated among the German Romantics of his day. As much a changeling in careers as in name, he was born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann in Königsberg, Prussia, in 1776. Sometime in his thirty-seventh year, he changed his middle name in honor of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Though he continued to use Wilhelm on official documents, he wrote and composed under the name E. T. A. Hoffmann.
Hoffmann had a variegated career as a stage manager, musician, music critic, librettist, artist, and, early on, a law officer in the Prussian army. He wrote and staged a ballet of his own, Arlequin, in 1816, the year in which he wrote what would later become the basis of The Nutcracker. To the extent that we remember him today at all, we are most familiar with his name as the writer of short stories. He was the fictionalized protagonist of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, based on three Hoffmann fables.
Illustration by Gannady Spirin (1996).
Awake to the singular and inexplicable, Hoffmann disliked that breed of rationalists incapable of recognizing even the demonic. He intended The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as an unsettling novella for adults, not children. His seven-headed Mouse King is easily recognizable as a märchen variant of the Beast of the Apocalypse so famously depicted by Dürer. (The Nutcracker ballet, first performed in St. Petersburg, in 1892, to Tschaikovsky’s music, is based on Alexander Dumas père’s later and lighter adaptation of the tale.)
Hoffman created the story in opposition to what he saw as the Enlightenment’s assault on the imagination. He championed intimations of the extramundane, those veiled realms of the empirically unverifiable. A poet in words, music, and line, he defended the authenticity of realities existing outside the scientific world view. This passage from Hoffmann’s “The Perfect Stage Manager” is a sly guide to his aesthetic objectives:
If perhaps you have not already noticed it yourselves, I will herewith reveal to you that the poets and musicians are in an extremely dangerous league against the audience. For their aim is nothing less than to drive the spectator out of the real world where he is so well off . . . when they have completely separated him from everything that he previously knew and liked, to torment him with all possible emotions and passions extremely prejudicial to his health.
As preface to his astute review of the score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Hoffmann wrote that music “reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible.” Doing so, we enter the dark.
Illustration by Artus Scheiner (1924). Prague.
Shortly before Christmas this year, The New York Times permitted itself a guest appearance by Eric Kaplan, author of Does Santa Exist? A heavy thinker, Kaplan explains what it would take to induce belief in Santa: “Maybe I could take psilocybin and have a group of my friends chant, ‘Santa exists! Santa exists!’ while I am tripping my brains out.” He arrives at a boilerplate insight exquisitely fit for threadbare times: “Each belief is the beginning of a voyage of self-discovery.”
Poor Kaplan. The dolt has it backwards. Any Sugar Plum Fairy could tell him that self discovery has nothing to do with it. Not with belief, and certainly not with art. Hoffmann understood that true artistry originates in those ineffable modes of self transcendence that accompany genuine struggle to create. To believe.
Illustration by Dagmar Berkova (1964). Prague.
Before the season ends, try to spend some time with E.T.A. Hoffmann and The Nutcracker. Althea Bell’s translation is lovely, still available as a used book. Any edition with illustrations by Gannady Spirin, Dagmar Berkova, ormy very favoriteArtus Scheiner will get you through the humbug of the coming year. The edition with Maurice Sendak’s lively illustrations is everywhere but not nearly as captivating as others for lovers of book arts.
Jacket illustration for Althea Bell’s translation.