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.

RSS Feed

Riddle of the Sphinx, Part I

From Maureen Mullarkey

How many beholders does it take to declare something objectively beautiful? Or not?

Kara Walker. “A Subtlety” (2014)

That is a stumper. The riddle becomes easier to solve if you lower the register and ask how many are needed to declare a thing significant. The answer comes immediately: Not many, just so long as they are equipped to finance the project and generate tactical promotion. In short, those with the assets and affiliations to create both an image and the yardstick by which it is measured.

Kara Walker. “A Subtlety” 2014. 

Who might be those blessed few? One way to find out is to look behind the funding curtain of Kara Walker’s colossal installation, “A Subtlety:The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World,” currently on view in Williamsburg’s doomed Domino Sugar Refinery.

First, though, let us stay with the project itself. That is the thing that is making the news. The backstage stuff can wait until later. 

In keeping with Walker’s signature allusions to race and slavery, her sententious subtitle promises a critique—that is the chichi term —of the sugar trade. The sculpted piece itself conjures up old, postbellum caricatures of black women. Part Sphinx, part black mammy, “Subtlety” is a 35-foot high minstrel effigy, constructed of styrofoam, and coated in 160,000 pounds of sugar. There are reports of people flying into New York for a day trip to gaze at a trumpeted exposé of America’s squalid past, its ill gotten addiction to sugar, and its historic objectification of the black female body. And, truth to tell, for the fun of being mooned by Aunt Jemima.

“A Subtlety” is a clever, brassy, soft-core diversion. Before anything else, it is an out-sized tchotchke too big for its pretensions, most of them resident in the sphinx’s bare rump. Frédéric Bartholdi, commenting on the height of his monumental Liberty Enlightening the World, insisted that the size of an artwork should be scaled to the size of the idea behind it. Critics are out in force inflating the idea behind Walker’s installation, ready to shake a finger at anyone who snickers. Roberta Smith is a reliable guide to the preferred interpretation of whatever removes itself from criticism by referencing race or sex. Her New York Times review strikes the desired note of sanctimony. She looks the sphinx straight in its proffered genitalia and sees the origins of the world:

A powerful personification of the most beleaguered demographic in this country — the black woman — shows us where we all come from, innocent and unrefined.

Awakened by the sight, she rises to jeremiad in loathing of the stigma still on us:

Which brings us to our own self-destructing present, where sugar is something of a scourge, its excessive consumption linked to diseases like obesity and diabetes that disproportionately affect the poor. The circle of exploitation and degradation is in many ways unbroken. No longer a luxury, sugar has become a birthright and the opiate of the masses. We look on it like money, with greed. Heavily promoted, it keeps millions of Americans of all races from fulfilling their potential — an inestimable loss in terms of talent, health and happiness. 

Sphinx on the grounds of Belvedere Palace, Vienna. Photo by David Monneax.

If the pundits had come down sooner from their sugar high, they might have recognized in Walker’s mammy a 3-D variant of an old literary trope: the loathly lady motif that gives us the Wife of Bath. Echoes of Dame Alys and the beastly bride are as resident in Walker’s installation as Al Jolson’s Mammy.  If there is any surprise in the righteous reviews of the installation, it is the absence of all reference to the art history Walker draws on without mention. The sphinx is an ancient—in company with the gorgons, harpies, and griffins of Iron Age Greece—emblem of the tease. And teasing is Walker’s metier. Her mammy sphinx is the latest version, suitably vulgarized for its time, of a rich device: the elusive man-eater Hegel recommended as a symbol of symbolism itself.

Gustave Moreau. Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Busty female sphinxes made cameo appearances among the Romantics; they were popular with the Symbolists as well. Sphinxes are famous for their tricks. No reason, then, Walker—who invokes African charms and whatnots as inspiration—should not play a few herself. Personally engaging, Kara Walker is a canny inheritor of both the accusations of the feminist art movement and the fashion for victim art. Her mock heroic public stance of never “kowtowing to the dominant culture” is as much a put-on as this mammy sphinx. Blatant bias for art that presents itself as a socially conscious statement about the condition of the world is the  keynote of the dominant culture of arts bureaucracies. Add a bit of shock value—here, mammy’s upturned hindquarters—and you have a complete repertory of cutting edge conventions.

Lead sphinx possibly by Pietro Tacca (17th C.). Parc d’Enghien, Belgium. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont.

In the end, Walker’s installation is as orthodox as it is dishonest. It relies on the reigning politics of identity to provide meanings that are not there. The content of the piece hovers somewhere between vague sympathies and the eye, settling nowhere. Devoid of information, this is entertainment packaged as labor history and cultural commentary. In place of historical knowledge, the installation substitutes a knowing stance, an image of content where very little exists.  Posture without substance dissolves the capacity to understand the past on its own terms. Therein lies the obscenity of “A Subtlety.” One more bare backside in our face won’t harm us. The descent of history, including recent history, into image will. 

Francis in Wonderland

From Maureen Mullarkey

‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. [Jeremiah 6:14]

There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. [Lord Acton]

The papacy is swaddled in sycophancy in the best of times. Add to that the exultant adulation induced by celebrity culture. It is a heady mix that can beguile a decent man into a grandiose conception of himself that blinds him to the limits of his office. And encourages conceit in his own sympathies.

Anonymous. Pope Innocent III Approving Rules of the Franciscan Order (16th C.). Monastery, Cholula, Mexico.

Francis’ excursion into Middle East politics illustrated the danger of a pope assuming office as a saint-in-waiting. His incautious behavior ought to have received more scrutiny from the Catholic press than it did. Instead, the amen chorus crooned about peace, prayer, and fraternal dialogue, as if fine words pull the sting from the scorpion’s tail.

Any claim that this was a trip for religious purposes was disingenuous. Clearly it was not. Helicoptering directly into PA controlled Bethlehem from Jordan, bypassing the diplomatic route out of Jerusalem, was itself a political act. As Fr. Kamal Khader of the Latin patriarchate in Jerusalem told Agence  France-Presse, “It’s a kind of sign of recognizing Palestine.”  It was an opening move that lent credence to the earlier Israel National News report:

Rabbi Sergio Bergman, a member of the Argentinian parliament and close friend of Pope Francis…said that the pope intends to define himself as the “Che Guevara of the Palestinians” and support their ‘struggle and rights’ during his visit.

Doubtless, that was off-the-cuff hyperbole. Still, coming from an old friend, it indicates something worrisome about Francis’ affinities. And his ambitions. Possibly, Francis sees for himself a role similar to that of Karol Wojtila in Poland? But John Paul stood with the force of NATO behind him, in the persons of Thatcher and Reagan. The last thing needed in the Middle East is a grandstanding pope using the Petrine office as a platform for high-profile and misleading sanctimony.

Abraham Oertel. Kingdoms of Israel and Judah (16th C.). From the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Antwerp.

Kissing the Israeli-built barrier as if it were the Wailing Wall at the very point where anti-Israel graffiti would show to Palestinian advantage? Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary, is a model of restraint:

But by stepping into the controversy over the security barrier, the pope left the realms of both religion and state protocol to lend his enormous international credibility and popularity to the Palestinian narrative about the fence. That he was led to a particular spot on it that was filled with English as well as Arabic graffiti was the perfect photo op for those who attempt to argue that its placement is a symbol of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s foes have attempted to claim that the fence is a new version of a Nazi ghetto wall in which Palestinian victims are hemmed in and deprived of their rights. The truth is that it was built reluctantly by an Israeli government that did not wish to divide the land in this manner but had to do something to make it harder for Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists to cross into Israel to slaughter innocents. Rather than a tangible manifestation of Israeli colonialism, it is a monument to the bloodthirsty decision of Palestinian leaders to wage a terrorist war against the Jewish state when they could have instead had independence and peace.

Francis’ reckless empathy endangers the prospect for coexistence he seeks. Good intentions notwithstanding, all the hackneyed pieties of “Peace, peace!” obscure the unyielding fact that sometimes peace has to be imposed. And vigilantly guarded.

Caroline Glick wrote in The Jerusalem Post of a telling incident ignored by fawning media. During a public meeting with Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister mentioned innocuously that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Francis rudely interrupted his host to interject “Aramaic.” Flustered, Netanyahu responded, “Jesus spoke Aramaic but he knew Hebrew.”

Anonymous. Jesus Among the Doctors (15th C.) Chapel of St. Sebastian, Lanslevillard, France.

Netanyahu was right the first time. Francis was both impolite and wrongheaded. Whether Jesus spoke Aramaic or Hebrew at table with family we will never know. We know only that as a Torah observant Jew, Jesus certainly spoke Hebrew. In the multi-lingual society of his time, Hebrew was, as it still is, the sacred language of Judaism. Luke tells us: “As was his custom, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up for to read [the Torah and Haftarah].” The twelve year old Jesus could not have discussed the fine points of Torah in temple without speaking Hebrew. Nor could he have spoken readily with the Samaritan woman at the well since Samaritans spoke Hebrew, not Aramaic. A generous amount of textual evidence for Jesus’ knowledge of Hebrew exists.

Francis’ imprudent—and needless—discourtesy was surely not lost on the Palestinians.

Justice is not achieved by trying to split the difference between a terrorist state and a democratic one. God help us all if the West is as luckless in a pope as Americans are in a president.

Gerardus van der Leeuw

From Maureen Mullarkey

Whoever writes about religion and art comes into contact with two sorts of people: Christians of the most varied stamp, and connoisseurs of art. Both are rather difficult to get along with.

—Gerardus van der Leeuw

Stay awhile with Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950). His lyrical and provocative analysis of consonance—and distance—between beauty and holiness is indispensable for any lover of the subject. There was no one better prepared than he—poet, theologian, philosopher, historian of religion—to write a theology of art or discuss the problems of a theological aesthetics.


Anonymous woodcut. Dancing Peasants (16th C.). Staatsbibliotek, Berlin

Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art
, first published in Germany in 1932, was widely known in Europe decades before being published in English. Writing the preface to the 1963 translation, Mircea Eliade called it “the masterpiece of his maturity.” Van der Leeuw surveys all the arts with the eye of a lover—dance, drama, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music. He locates the origins of each in man’s religious sense, and goes on to describe their historical growth away from those beginnings.

At the end of each chapter, he outlines the theological burden of the particular art under discussion. Chapter headings read: “The Theological Aesthetics of Music,” “The Theological Aesthetics of the Image,” et alia. The significance he finds in each testifies to the harmonic character of his own religious sensibility:

The dance reflects the movement of God, which also moves us upon the earth. The drama presupposes the holy play between God and man. Verbal art is the hymn of praise in which the Eternal and his works are represented. Architecture reveals to us the lines of the well-built city of God’s creation. Music is the echo of the eternal Gloria.

Anonymous painting. The May Tree (16th C.). Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

As he well understood, the effort to define a theological aesthetics is a hazardous undertaking, as delicate as it is dangerous. He does not presume to map where those two paths, beauty and holiness, cross. Nor does he desire to. Each is complete in itself, an absolute: “Religion and art are parallel lines, which intersect only at infinity and meet in God.”

How can we make art itself religious? At what point or in what way does art become religious? Van der Leeuw rejects the questions as empty:

This would be too external, as though holiness and beauty were two ingredients which can be mixed together according to certain principles. . . . There is no particular art that can be designated religious. Still less is there a religion which we could call aesthetic. There is only a single art and it is first of all art. There is only a single religion, and it is always and everywhere religion.

His chapters on dance are the most exhilarating for me. Not sure why. It is the art I give the least thought to. Perhaps because of that separation, I am grateful for van der Leeuw’s bridge over the gap. He opens with a quote from Johan Huizinga’s study of man at play, the delightful Homo Ludens: “Dance is one of the purest and most perfect forms of play.” His insistence on the original unity of dance and religion begins in the Stone Age. In prehistory resides both the wellspring and the summit of creative dance:

The art of beautiful motion is far and away the oldest. Before man learned how to use any instruments at all, he moved the most perfect instrument of all, his body. He did this with such abandon that the cultural history of prehistoric and ancient man is, for the most part, nothing but the history of the dance.

We must understand this literally. Not only is prehistory mostly dance history, but dance history is mostly prehistory. Like a giant monolith, the dance stands in the midst of the changing forms of human expression. Not only as an art, but also as a form of life and culture, the dance has been grievously wounded by the general disappearance of culture.


Costume design for the ballet Narcissus. Leon Bakst (1911).

It is no stretch to believe that Hans Urs von Balthasar owes much to van der Leeuw. (With equal debt to Clive Bell’s 1914 theory of Significant Form.) For that reason, Catholics have a particular interest in this Dutch scholar. But there is a better, more gracious reason: his breadth of scholarship, intellectual daring, profundity of insight, and grace of style.

Van der Leeuw represents one of the earliest attempts to distinguish between theology and the study of religion as a cultural practice grounded in history. A minister of the Dutch Reformed confession for a time, his own immersion in the thought and language of Christianity tends to blur the intended distinction. Yet it is just that cloud of reciprocation that makes reading him so compelling, particularly to a Christian audience. This, despite possible disagreement with his conclusions or challenges to his approach.

Listen to the timbre of his commentary on architecture:

The City of God, the New Jerusalem, needs no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:22). But in the old Jerusalem, building must go on; God’s house as well as ours.

His prose remains, to this day, more limber and comely than any that has followed its lead. Only the lover sings, we are told. Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art is that rare thing: scholarship that rises to song.

Sacred Sound

From Maureen Mullarkey

A person who is passionately fond of music may quite well be a perverted person—but I should find it hard to believe this of anyone who thirsted for Gregorian chanting.

—Simone Weil

Is there any such thing as a distinctly sacred sound? Can any single sound summon us to the divine? Does any particular one convey the essence of holiness? Lead to the depths?

In absolute terms, no. Sacred sounds are as various as the cultures and the instruments that produce them: a ram’s horn, a kettle drum, trumpet, or sitar. Bells, cymbals, gongs, and bamboo flutes are liturgical tools that speak to diverse peoples of that hidden reality which has no sound. Music and song, rendered in a treasury of modes, are native to worship. And to mystery.


Luca della Robbia. Cantoria, detail (1399-1400). Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Still, for Western Christians no other sound brings the holy to utterance so completely and with such soaring beauty as Gregorian plain song. In Sacred and Profane Beauty, Gerardus van der Leeuw, theologian and musician, lauded the gentle melancholy of it.

He called it “a foretaste of the calm of paradise,” and saw it as an analogy in sound to the visual art of Fra Angelico. Searching for an example of harmony attained—its struggles resolved and no longer apparent—he named Gregorian chant:

. . . [as] the sung prayer which has ascended to God through all the centuries and in all churches, and to which Pius X referred as “praying in beauty.” The Gregorian melody breathes a peace and a clarity, a calm and a self-possession, which makes it comprehensible that the Church, having progressed through the dizzying heights and chasms of polyphony and romanticism, always returns once more to the unison of Gregorian plain chant. Nor will a Reformed Catholic Church music be able to do without it.

Van der Leeuw was writing as a Dutch Protestant in the 1930s. But his comment held prophetic import for corporate worship within Roman Catholicism decades later. Abandonment of chant was a nod to the culture of modernity and its conceits. Gregorian chant did not come into being as an occasion for the expression of personality. Like the majestic severity of Romanesque architecture, it is the purest form of expression of steadfast faith in another order of existence. We sing to our Rock, our Redeemer, in chant.

Square notes, from a 16th C. Venetian manuscript. Rossini Conservatoire, Bologna.

Let me illustrate with a story:

A family friend recently attended the funeral of a colleague. An older man with wide professional affiliations, my friend is no stranger to memorial services and funeral Masses. But he confessed that he had never been to any like this one before. Just what was this extraordinary thing? It was a traditional Latin Requiem, the ancient Mass of the Dead that had escorted Catholics to their graves for centuries. Displaced in the Sixties, it has narrowed since into a curio, a fragment of a heritage almost in exile. It was no surprise that this man had never encountered it.

The setting itself was an act of prayer. The draped coffin rested in the sanctuary, below the altar step. The priest was vested in black, our color of deepest grief. No organ played. There was no other sound but the tones of the priest chanting the liturgy, accompanied only by a choir of six voices. No flowers lightened the timbre of mourning. This was Lent; the austerity of the season was in communion with the gravity of death. The exalted serenity of Tomás Victoria’s choral melodies filled the little church. The music lent a resonance and depth to the choreographed movements of priest and servers that non-Catholics attending could discern.

My friend is sensitive to the power of music and gesture. Deeply moved, he confided to me the loveliest thing: “It felt like the service was a call to conversion.” A non-Christian, he did not mean conversion to Catholicism. He meant a change of heart. Metanoia. In that moment, he recognized in the dignity and solemnity of the old Mass—a numinous ballet—a call away from the secular and toward God.

Arguments by apologists go no farther than the reason, that slippery part of us susceptible to blandishments of every stripe. Gregorian plain song touches the soul.

Of Sausages and Saints

From Maureen Mullarkey

I like to think it speaks well for John XXIII that the mandatory miracle had to be waived on his behalf. There was none to be found, not a trace. No pious Catholic had the heart to come forward with a crumb of evidence that the man who had convened Vatican II—its touted spirit and all its works—was released from purgatory so soon.

No need to fret over the waiver. It is just possible that John was either too reticent or too canny to deliver the customary cure. Better to greet its absence as a signal refusal, a sign of sanctity more compelling than any custom-made cure. Certainly John knows—more keenly now than ever—that miracles, like grace, are everywhere. To pull one out of a zucchetto for his own glory might have seemed ignoble to him, a catchpenny wonder that served bureaucratic concerns over salvific ones. Perhaps he thought the requirement too ornate? Utilitarian?

Daniel Chodowiecki. The Boy with the Sausage Spit (1764). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

There is no way to know. All we do know is that this year’s double canonization, in combination with the coming beatification of Paul VI, opens a window onto the politics of saint-making. Like sausage-making, into which we are advised not to look, it is a less than edifying sight.

This is Rome honoring its own in an end run around debate that continues to dog Humanae Vitae. Not infallibly proposed but infallible nonetheless? Sound in part, unsound in another? In beatifying its author, the Vatican canonizes the encyclical, entrenching it as litmus test to distinguish true Catholics from pretenders. On another level, it buttresses the novus Ordo Missae, experienced by many as desacralized and neophiliac. This year’s triple play is a megacanonization that amplifies and reinforces the authority of a man’s works by venerating the man himself.

Paul’s beatification swats at what Francis is reported to have called, in audience with bishops of the Czech Republic, “a kind of fashion” for the Tridentine Mass. Come October, seminarians drawn to the Latin liturgy are likely to find themselves more marginal than they are now. Parishes on the fence as to whether to introduce the traditional Latin Mass will have a disincentive to proceed. Catholics seeking the solemnity of the old liturgy might have to travel farther to hear the sharp, plangent treble of a Sanctus bell.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The Butcher (18th C.). Private Collection.

At the same time, Paul’s elevation is poised to outjockey resistance to the encyclical’s blanket rejection of any contraceptive act under any circumstance. The logic of principled, good-faith demurrals can be left to suffocate under the weight of Paul’s proclaimed sanctity. A transparent maneuver, the beatification further burdens conscientious Catholics who suffer—and suffer they do—the gap between their own marital scruples and credence in the Church’s teaching authority on the matter. The thunder of denunciation—“intrinsic evil,” “intrinsically disordered”—extended without nuance to non-abortive contraception used by responsible spouses open to parenthood, continues to roar confusedly in many consciences.

Paul’s advancement, conjoined with that of his successors, is a ritual of enforcement. Its object is to enfeeble unresolved opposition by leap-frogging over critical arguments in all their complexity. It looks to blunt suspicions that Paul’s encyclical, however beautiful its hymn to conjugal love, masked a failure of nerve.

The personal holiness of these three popes is not in question. The issue is quite different. What we are witnessing, in triplicate and garlanded with ceremony, is the exaltation of ecclesiastical politics.

There is pathos in that. And danger.

Tammany on the Tiber

From Maureen Mullarkey

John XXIII once remarked that the Vatican was the hardest place on earth to remain a Christian. The pope’s impish bon mot floated like skywriting over the double canonization in St. Peter’s Square on the Second Easter Sunday. On the glittering heels of this production came advance notice of another: London’s The Tablet reported that Paul VI is on the books for beatification this coming October.

Thomas Nast. Boss Tweed. Late 19th C.

Are we at the point where election to the Petrine office is itself a signal of godliness, a guarantee of eventual canonization? Will each pope canonize his predecessor—or two or three of them—with the unspoken assumption that his own successor will return the compliment? Is election a promissory note drafted in white smoke, and redeemable at death for public elevation to the rank of saint? It begins to look that way.

Not only the faithful but their shepherds, too, are susceptible to media-induced semblances of sanctity. Devotion to the aura of sanctity and to the machine that produces it makes cult figures out of mere men. Like that talking snake in Eden, it murmurs in the ear. It excites the illusion that every papal opinion—however lacking in prudence or responsible facts—is oracular.

This expedited exercise in saint-making was a premature apotheosis, a pageant of synthetic piety staged for immediate media consumption. With this as a precedent, canonization risks becoming one more pseudo-event, like bread and circus, thrown to a culture besotted with virtual reality.

In our lifetime, we have watched the papacy descend into spectacle. By now, showboating—from kissing feet to a mega-Mass on Copacabana Beach—is an established feature of the modern papacy. As if spectacle itself could cure the malaise that has emptied churches, closed parishes, and turned cathedrals into pay-per-view tourist sites.

Benedict seemed to have little appetite for the parade. During his reign, he appeared more a captive than an agent of it. Yet even he cooperated with his captor. In his last general audience in St. Peter’s, he lapsed into the kind of mutual deception that fans celebrity culture: “The Pope belongs to everyone, and so many people feel very close to him.”

James Tissot. The Golden Calf (late 19th C.). Jewish Museum, NYC

No, the man does not belong to everyone. Any suggestion that he does is a saccharine oblation to consumers of image. That illusion of intimacy, so seductive and so crippling, is the very ground of demagogic populism. It is a dangerous chimera, as lethal to the judgment of a faith community as to electoral politics. Catholics—popes among them—are no less subject than anyone else to the lure of the star system and its crafted emphasis on personality.

It took no time at all for Francis to degrade into a celebrity. And like any politically astute showman, he takes to the camera for carefully designed photo-ops. (Posing with an anti-fracking T-Shirt in November, he conferred on activist filmmakers the kind of endorsement we expect from Yoko Ono and Matt Damon.) Media-conscious symbolic gestures are mirrored in an airy, imprecise rhetoric that is a receptacle for whatever meaning the public drops into it.

Francis clearly likes the elusive phrase “economy of exclusion.” He has used it before. Imprecise, it is a phrase for rent to fixers and mongers of any stripe. This time he served it to Ban Ki-Moon and visiting attachés of that grand sepulcher on the East River. But what do the words signify? Are they a gloved jab at the crony capitalism disabling his native Argentina? Do they aim at an American president who obligates an unborn generation to insurmountable debts not of its making? Was Francis making veiled reference to the debased status of imperiled Christians in Syria? Or, perhaps, to Islamo-leftism and the price of totalitarian theocracy? Might the phrase have sideways, metaphoric application to Vatican recognition of a Palestinian state that refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist?

None of these. Uttered in concert with an autocratic injunction for “legitimate redistribution” of wealth, our pope was lending his office to apostles of the same tired, ideological hostility toward the market that ends in economic slavery under the guise of social justice. Papal messianism, bolstered by lack of competence in economics, is the road to a familiar hell, however finely paved with lovely intention. 

We know the old curse: May you live in interesting times. This might be a good time to expand the malediction to include the charm of popular popes.

Cathedrals and the Crosstown Bus

From Maureen Mullarkey

Viewed through the radiant trefoil window of aesthetics, my love of Gothic architecture is boundless. Approached through the tighter, denser lens of prayer, however, that love shrinks. It pales and contracts to where I can barely see it. If at all.

The Cloister of Gloucester Cathedral

Christianity’s great truths come to us through a Nazarene carpenter—a tekton, a builder—whose handiwork we have no clue to. Neither do we have the faintest inkling of his response to Herod’s monumental temple complex. The whole of it, with its plaza, porticos, columns, and stairs was a glory of limestone, marble and gold. Yet Jesus directed eyes to the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, to bread, weeds and mustard seeds.

His inattention to cultivated Herodian aesthetics mortifies me some. It pulls me back—sometimes not far enough—from making a golden calf of my own sensibilities and everything they revel in. Once destined for the faithful, Christendom’s magnificent cathedrals remain great goods. But they are not ultimate goods. And when we honor them as ends in themselves, we fall into idolatry. 

Kathe Kollwitz. Woman with a Dead Child (1903)

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a theologian of surpassing lyricism, condensed into a single exquisite stanza all a Christian needs to know—or say—about beauty:

. . . Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

To the Father through the features of men’s faces. The call to charity implicit in that line is the governing principle and crown of the gospels. I cannot dislodge it from memory. It repeats like a mantra, an unceasing reminder that compassion—caritas—is a vehicle for worship. And that our faith is simpler than we make it. Simpler, certainly, than the grandees of theological aesthetics would have us believe.

The greatest cathedral of all, the only one capable of rising to the Paraclete, is the suffering human being next to us. Until we can worship on the crosstown bus, we have yet to greet the living God. 

Kathe Kollwitz. The Widow (1922-23).

Rodin’s “Cathedrals of France”

From Maureen Mullarkey

I should like to inspire a love for this great art, to come to the rescue of as much of it as still remains intact; to save for our children the great lesson of this past which the present misunderstands.

In this desire I strive to awaken intellects and hearts to understanding and to love.

—Auguste Rodin, The Cathedrals of France

August Rodin was an aggressive womanizer well into old age. The love of beauty that served him nobly as a sculptor served him as a man with notable difference. Francis Haskell described him as “Never a man of much moral conviction except in the practice and defense of his art.” For now, then, better to stay with the sculptor’s love of beauty as it manifested itself in his passionate admiration for Christendom’s exalted monuments.

Rodin kept voluminous notes but wrote only one book: Cathedrals of France, originally published in France in 1914 when Rodin was seventy four. It was not translated into English until a half century later. Beacon Press made up for that surprising lapse with its beautifully printed 1965 edition, illustrated with sketches from the notebooks.

The text is not an architectural treatise. It makes no attempt at scholarly appraisal or methodical observation. Compiled day by day through periodic visits to numerous cathedrals, it is thoroughly the work of an artist justifying his personal attachments. And doing so in terms of his craft.

Over decades, Rodin took notes on what he observed and made quick pen or pencil sketches. In 1908 he hired a secretary—first the Symbolist poet Charles Morice, down on his luck; then Rilke—to cull the cathedral passages in preparation for publication. He intended to reignite public sensitivity to the dignity and majesty of their Romanesque and Gothic heritage. (And, it should be added, to spur support for his own sculptural canons which absorbed so much from Gothic accommodation of chiaroscuro.) “The whole of France is in her cathedrals” he wrote, “as all Greece is epitomized by the Parthenon.”

It is open to question just how much the tenor of Rodin’s prose,  often mounting  to Symbolist excess and strains of Mallarmé, is owed to Charles Morice:

This is a morning painted by Claude Lorrain, admirable in depth. Spring is here. I breathe in the delight of spring mornings. The rooster announces the day. An immense sigh is exhaled. Oh marvel! The earth in love! Fresh and happy landscape!

Nevertheless, the bases of judgment are indisputably Rodin’s own. We are the richer for them, informed in their point and sweep by the knowledge of classical antiquity, especially Greek art and history.

Today’s readers need to discount for an overstrung chauvinism that is part ethnocentricity, part disdain for the character of modernity itself. Rodin had little patience for what he saw as the mechanized products and systems of the industrial age:

Will the genius of our race end by passing away like those pale ghosts and vanished forms that no one sees any more? Was it in historical or mythical times that the Cathedral, rowing through space by its buttresses, all sails unfurled, the French ship, the French victory, made beautiful as for Eternity, spread open at its apse the wings of a group of kneeling angels? . . .

But architecture no longer touches us. The rooms in which we consent to live are without character. They are boxes crammed helter-skelter with furniture. . . . How can we understand the profound unity of the great Gothic symphony?

In respect to the frequent crudity of nineteenth century efforts at restoration, Rodin’s distaste for modernity was both well earned and, at the same time, more modern than he knew. His championing of the Gothic seconded Victor Hugo’s earlier defense of the preservation of historic buildings. (“He understood as a poet; for cathedrals are vast poems.”) Rodin lent his voice to the still-young movement to codify principles and practices in maintaining cultural heirlooms. Reading his appraisals of vandalism in the name of restoration remain as instructive now as they were in the early twentieth century.

He was hostile to any method that spoiled the old in order to harmonize it with the new. Commenting on the pediment of Reims, he distinguished between the damaged but still original right gable and its retouched pendant piece. The right gable, untouched, still carried the power to arouse the sculptor’s enthusiasm. Not so its reconstructed companion:

But see how the other gable, restored, remade, is dishonored. The planes no longer exist. It is heavy, worked frontally, without profiles, without equilibrium of volumes. For the Cathedral, which leans forward, this gable is an enormous weight with no counterbalancing weight. Oh, this Christ on the Cross, restored in the 19th century! The iconoclast who believed he had ruined the gable did it no great harm. But the ignorant restorer! . . . By such heavy restoration the equilibrium is changed.

As if it were possible to repair these figures and ornament battered by the centuries! Such an idea could be born in minds that are strangers to the nature of art and to all truth.

Rodin’s personal life exemplified that lack of reciprocity between love of beauty and moral action that beauty cultists pull the shades on. Viewed in light of a bevy of mistresses scrapping over his will with a better-late-than-never mistress-made-wife, his many references to the female form and the feminine nuances of rounded elements resonate in unintended ways. Chaste analogies to architecture do not quite disguise the concupiscence that lurks even in chatter of the transcendental kind. Rodin makes of Woman—how to say it—a lovely piece of architectural moulding. Like Venus de Milo (“first source of nourishment for my intellect”), she is all graceful convexities. And, like a curving balustrade, inviting to the hand.

The fulsomeness of nineteenth century French prose aside, Rodin succeeds in revealing “the grandeurs of the Gothic soul” better than your Michelin Green Guide. There are no obligatory sights to consume. There is only the spirit of place to greet and savor. Episodic and personal, Cathedrals of France is a series of lyrical associations and descriptions that direct attention to minor churches such as those at  Chambord or Étampes. As Rodin knew: “We often learn far more from small things than from great ones.” And with him as company, we look at buildings more sympathetically as anatomies—embodiments of an élan that is so much more than style.

Bible in Glass at the Cloisters

From Maureen Mullarkey
The Gothics set stone upon stone, ever higher, not as the giants did, to attack God, but to reach up to Him. And God, as in the German legend, rewarded the merchants and the warriors, but to the poet what was granted?

—Auguste Rodin, Cathedrals of France

To the poets in stone and glass who created the great Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, God granted the grace of anonymity. To us moderns, that seems a double-edged, if not bitter, grace. Nevertheless, it was an actual one. It enabled unnamed tradesmen to ennoble the corporate worship of their own time and endow future generations with architectural testaments to a transfigured world.

The modern poet/artist is pummeled, hustled, ultimately doomed to create an inflated entity: himself. By contrast, those peripatetic, calloused teams of gifted geniuses—and genius they had—were exempt from the crushing necessity to forge a marketable individuality. That freedom, difficult as the living of it was, yielded powerful expressions of the Christian vision, radiant in stone and pierced by deathless light.

That thought lodged with me standing in front of the unsigned grandeur of the windows that comprise “Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at the Cloisters.” These six Romanesque windows have never left the cathedral since they were created in the late twelfth century. They are here now only because they had to be removed from their settings to accommodate repairs to the stonework holding them.

If there exists any art that can be called Christian, it is stained glass. The term “Christian art” applies most frequently, and accurately, to Christian themes. But the term does not encompass methods of execution. Stained glass—more precisely stained-and-painted glass, a product of the marriage between master glazer and painter—belongs thoroughly to the Christian era. The splendor of stained glass depends for effect on its actual materials and techniques, distinct from subject matter.

The art of glass making itself is ancient. Pliny gives a story, possibly apocryphal, of the invention of it. It was certainly known by the Egyptians in very early times. However, it was not until early in the Christian era that anyone thought of using glass to fill windows. Remnants of glass windows have been found at Pompeii. Caligula had his palace windows glazed. Seneca mentions glazing as one of those contemporary luxuries that adds nothing to contentment of mind. It took several centuries more for the glazier to unite with the Venetian enameller in giving birth to the art of painted-and-stained glass, which is stained glass as we know it.

Figuration on the glass is thought to date back to the Carolingian era. While little material evidence from that age survives, textual references do. And it is indisputable that by the early thirteenth century, stained glass was a preeminent European art form. England and France produced the jewels of their time: Canterbury, Chartres and St. Denis.

Of the stained glass that was once the glory of Canterbury, only a remnant escaped Puritan demolition. History tells of one Richard Culmer, overseer of the cathedral under the Commonwealth, who climbed a ladder sixty steps high with a pike in his hand and “rattled down

Beckett’s glassie bones.”

A stained glass window is a transparent mosaic.  Every change of color requires a separate piece of glass. From 350 to 450 pieces of glass per meter have been counted in windows of the period. This is a stunning multiplicity of refractive surfaces, each one behaving differently. Irregularities in the glass—air bubbles, flaws—fracture the daylight coming through, and split the color of each individual shard into the dancing, vibrating glory that was medieval stained glass.

Matisse’s celebrated windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence are crude by comparison. Sublimity is gone; what is left is a see-through painting by a well-known name. Tourists make day trips to Union Church in Pocantico Hills to see his rose window [ above] and Chagall’s “Good Samaritan” window. Neither leaves the visitor feeling what medievals felt when they entered their cathedrals. The Vence Chapel and Union Church are sacred spaces, to be sure. But the object of devotion is the artist in whose name the visitor arrives and stays awhile. Guests are moved to appreciation, not to wonder, a prerequisite for prayer.

•     •     •     •

An old catechism from the diocese of Tréguier in Brittany asks the question: “What should you do upon entering a cathedral?” The answer reads: “Take holy water, adore the Blessed Sacrament, then walk all around the edifice and look at the stained glass windows.” We can say that the anonymous masters of the Canterbury windows, too, contributed to the catechism. Their modern, acclaimed descendents, lovely as they are, contribute only to guide books.

The Canterbury windows remain on view through May 18th.

Hearts, Sacred and Profane

From Maureen Mullarkey

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

Artist Unknown (17th C.) Chambre des Reliques, Paray-le-Monial

Promoted in conformity to Margaret Mary Alacoque’s apparitions, the devotion’s iconic motif remains edifying to many. At the same time, that excised, free-floating organ looks mawkish, even grotesque—a physiological hovercraft— to many others. Paul Zalonski, a Benedictine Oblate and ardent defender of the devotion, states it this way:

Popular piety tends to associate a devotion with its iconographic expression. . . . Inconveniences can sometimes arise: iconographic expressions that no longer respond to the artistic taste of the people can sometimes lead to a diminished appreciation of the devotion’s object, independently of its theological basis and its historico-salvific content.

Certainly, the handiworks of pictorial imagination have their seasons. But change in the weather here is owed to currents deeper than mere taste. Patterned amid intellectual ferments of the Age of Discovery, the archetypal emblem of the Sacred Heart once resonated with an extra-religious charge that lost piquancy ahead of the piety that drew upon it.

Two key excitements informed the trope: Renaissance revival of dissection, plus European dissemination of priestly copies of Aztec and Maya codices. Lifting of medieval interdict against dissection triggered a revolution in knowledge of the structure and mechanics of the heart. Simultaneously, pre-Columian codices carried the frisson of ethnographic spectacles never before seen or imagined. For the first time, Europeans witnessed other peoples and their practices—specifically, ritual heart extraction.

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Study of the Heart (c. 1500)

Codex Magliabicciano, Museo de America, Madrid

Biblical language is infused with references to the heart as proxy for all that it means to be human. Exodus spoke of “all whose hearts were stirred and whose spirits were moved.” Jesus, too, relied on the same metaphoric device: Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy might.

Origins of Sacred Heart devotion trace back to the second century apologists. Justin Martyr (d. 165) identified Christians as “the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart.” Irenaeus (d. 145) defined the Church as “the fountain of the living water that flows to us from the Heart of Christ.” Both men were approximate contemporaries of Galen, who affirmed ancient ideas of the heart as the seat of sensation and the organ nearest the soul.

The history of the Sacred Heart is yoked to the longue durée of man’s understanding of the heart itself, both anatomically and in symbolic terms. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the heart was as much an object of exploration as the New World. Its topography, newly surveyed and mapped, was exhilarating territory. Andreas Vesalius put back Adam’s missing rib; William Harvey toppled Galen. 

Andreas Vesalius. Engraving from Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543)

 Discovery of the circulatory system encouraged debate about whether the soul could be said to have a recognizable home. Images of the human heart of Christ, palpably and convincingly pictorial, combined scientific expeditions into anatomy with the age-old understanding of the heart as the identifiable, if symbolic, home of the soul.

Arriving in the wake of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises Margaret Mary’s apparitions followed suit with a program (the nine First Fridays), and a mission (to propagate the devotion). Ignatian emphasis on interior visualization to assist meditation prepared ground for the later saint’s visionary endorsement of real images.

While the historical Passion found embodiment in a wealth of visual models, Sacred Heart devotion had depended traditionally on vivid verbal imagery. The language of contemplative prayer and devotional texts had been the reigning prod to empathy. But now explicit depiction had a mandate: “I will bless those places wherein the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and venerated.”

Artist Unknown. Engraved endpaper (17th C.) 

Jesuits had a fitting image ready in hand. However unlikely a cloistered nun had seen depictions of Aztec heart extraction, Jesuits were among the literate elites who did. With a keen eye for pertinence, they were already applying images like the one above—quickened with the temper of the age—to endpapers of books, sometimes to church walls. Claude de la Columbière, Margaret Mary’s confessor and enthusiast, was a Jesuit.

By now, scenes of pre-Columbian practices have dwindled into Art. And we greet the human heart as a pump that can be primed, even replaced. History has drained vigor from the Sacred Heart’s seminal image. What remains is a bleached convention unequal to a revered devotion.