ART IN A CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -1.
Pope Benedict the great scholar, theologian, and writer of our time has not cited the great intellectual achievements of Christianity. Rather, he names two places where the faith is en-fleshed, in the lives of the saints, and in a concrete and tangible way in sacred art. These two treasures still inspire pilgrimages. I do not understand why the fostering of sacred art is not a priority of evangelization and why it does not have a place in a Catholic university.
-Cardinal Ratzinger -2.
To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.
The first quote above is from the book The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty, Art, Sanctity & The Truth of Catholicism by John Saward, an author prized by Pope Benedict. Indeed, the whole thrust of Saward’s book reiterates what the Pope has said about sanctity and art.
With a few exceptions, works of art in Catholic Churches in the United States are ordered from the catalogs of furniture suppliers, the ones who provide the pews and the candle sticks. This is in spite of the clear urging of the Second Vatican Council almost a half a century ago for pastors to use local artists to create religious works.
Pope Benedict’s beloved predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was also an advocate for the use and importance of art in the Church. In his "Letter to Artists of 1999" he says that the Church needs art and artists need the Church.
Late in his pontificate Pope John Paul II instructs the cardinal electors, who will be choosing his successor in the Sistine Chapel, to look up to Michelangelo’s frescoes for guidance during the conclave, in his poem on theology-in-art:
"It is here, at the feet of this marvelous
Sistine profusion of color
that the Cardinals gather
a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.
They come right here.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision. …
by the vision left to us by Michelangelo.
So it was in August, and then in October,
of the memorable year of the two Conclaves (1978),
and so it will be again, when the need arises after my death.
From the poet author of "The Hound of Heaven", Francis Thompson:
The Church, which was once the mother of poets no less than saints, during the last two centuries has relinquished to aliens the chief glories of poetry, if the chief glories of holiness she has preserved for her own. The palm and the laurel, Dominic and Dante, sanctity and song, grew together in her soul: she has retained the palm, but forgone the laurel. … But poetry sinned, poetry fell; and in place of lovingly reclaiming her,Catholicism cast her from the door to follow the feet of her pagan seducer. The separation has been ill for poetry; it has not been well for religion. 4.
Catholic colleges and universities have preserved intellectual disciplines from earlier centuries with core classes in Theology, Philosophy, and the study of Literature, but they have shied away from any creativity in art. Instead they have embraced Reformation like iconoclastic ideas. And art is partly to blame. As Thompson said "poetry sinned". Art sinned even more. Art became autonomous, no longer serving, but always proclaiming its own newness and freedom from restraint and even freedom from relevance to people’s lives. The self referential stance of Modern Art inevitably had to lead to a complete break with any connection to the real, as most people view it, ending in Conceptual Art, art solely as an idea. So, art has become just an idea that man the creator generates. There is no acknowledgment that he is a creature and there is no realization of the truth of the Incarnation. The Church’s distance from music has not been so great because some consensus has been possible. Bad music hurts the ears. Bad art can be shrugged off and it then lingers somewhere in the back of the brain like a bad dream. An American Catholic might say "I don’t know anything about art", and might think "and I don’t care". The elitism of contemporary art is maintained.
The art educational system has failed. At all levels, from pre-school to graduate school, the dominant idea is that everyone is an artist, there is no distinction of quality, and all that matters is that one express one’s self. There is no such thing as God given ability and art can not be taught. History has shown us a different model based on the idea that all are not equal in the possession of artistic gifts. Artists were apprenticed at age twelve and learned discipline, learned how to mix paint, were taught how to learn by copying (not needing always to be newer, more radical), and at twenty years of age they were ready to make master works. The quality of art works was monitored by the Art Guilds and peer approval. Art today is not about life, it is viewed either as a commodity or as a tool to be used by political ideologies.
I do not know of a Catholic college or university in the United States that addresses the second apologia for Christianity of which Pope Benedict speaks, "contact with the beautiful" through the study of art. The comitment to make art important in Catholic culture as our recent popes have asked requires that Catholic universities make art an integral part of their curriculums. And that should include the making of art not just the historical- critical study of it. It must be alongside Theology, Philosophy, Literature, and Music to transform the culture of death.
Without the holy images, we are in danger of forgetting the face and thus the flesh of the Son of God. The mysteries of the life of Jesus fade from our minds. In the eight and ninth and sixteenth centuries, and again in our own time, Iconoclasm always tends towards Docetism. Robbed of the beauty of sacred art, the Christian can become blind to the beauty of Divine Revelation. And that is disastrous, for, when sundered from beauty, truth becomes correctness without splendour and goodness a value of no delight. 5.
The holiness of beauty is ordered to the beauty of holiness. Sacred art is intended to encourage saintly life. Both are transparent to Christ, radiate the splendour of His truth. Both, in their different ways, are gifts of God. - 6.
Cornelius Edmund Sullivan
1. The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty Art, Sanctity & The Truth of Catholicism John Saward, Ignatius, 1997, frontispiece, first published in The Ratzinger Report Messori,1988.
2. A message that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) sent to a meeting of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation in August 2002. The group was meeting in Rimini, Italy.
3.From a poem on the theology-in-art of the Sistine Chapel. Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel, Pope John Paul II, 2003.
4. Francis Thompson, The Beauty of Holiness, frontispiece.
5. Ibid, p. 25,
6. Ibid, p. 84