|Detail from Michelangelo's The Last Judgement|
Radaelli's new book is entitled "La bellezza che ci salva [ The beauty that saves us]." And its subtitle is a whole program in itself: "The power of 'Imago', the second Name of the Only-Begotten of God, which, with 'Logos', can give life to a new civilization, founded on beauty."
It is three hundred pages of metaphysics and theology, enhanced with a preface by the philosopher of "common sense" Antonio Livi, a priest of Opus Dei and professor at the Pontifical Lateran University.
But they are also pages of blistering criticism of the tendency that has overthrown a fruitful, centuries-long relationship between Christian art and faith. Without sparing the hierarchs of the Church, whom Radaelli accuses of abdicating their magisterial role as beacons of the faith, and therefore of Christian art as well.
Radaelli writes that in order to turn back the tide, it is not enough to have a few sporadic encounters between the pope and artists. In his view, it is necessary to convene in the Church "a universal debate, not merely artistic, but theological, liturgical, ecclesiological, philosophical, a multi-year and multidisciplinary symposium, the name of which could be the simple but clear 'Coalition for beauty'."
... The article continues with a passage from French author and world-famous art historian Jean Clair. Jean Clair gives a few examples of avant-garde "art" that has been installed in various Catholic Churches in France, then goes on to give his opinion. I was the most fascinated by his comments. This section leads back to the first passage concerning what would people learn if someone like Picasso, a member of the "avant-garde" mentioned below, had painted the Sistine Chapel as opposed to Michelangelo, and the ideas that motivated the former as opposed to those that inspired the latter. The Frenchman says:
I am not a theologian, but as an historian of forms I am struck, in these cultural works called "avant-garde" that today presume to bring into the churches the joy of suffering and evil – whereas traditional worship once used to combat these with its liturgy – of the obsessive presence of bodily humors, privileging sperm, blood, sweat, or putrefaction, the pus in the frequent evocations of AIDS.
The Church has allowed itself to become fascinated by the avant-garde to the point of presuming that the unclean and the abominable presented to the view by its artists are the best doors of access to the truth of the Gospel. In the meantime, various stages have been marked which I do not dare to call a trend.
... Unlike the Orthodox who kneel and pray before icons, even when they are still found in museums, it is rare, in the grand gallery of the Louvre, to see a believer stop and pray in front of a Christ on the cross or in front of a Madonna. Should we regret this? Sometimes I think so. ....
The Catholic religion has long seemed to me the most respectful of the senses, the most attentive to the forms and smells of the world. It is in it that one also encounters the most profound and the most compelling and surprising tenderness. Catholicism seems to me above all a religion not of detachment, nor of conquest, nor of a jealous God, but a religion of tenderness.
....In the work of art born from Christianity, there is also something else, with respect to visual harmony and piety. There is also an heuristic approach to the world. [...] The artist is at the service of God, not of men, and if he depicts the creation, he knows the wonders of creation, he preserves in his spirit the fact that these creatures are not God, but the testimony of the goodness of God, and that they are praise and a song of joy. I wonder where this joy can still be felt, the joy that is heard in Bach or in Handel, in these cultural manifestations so poor and so offensive to the ear and to the eye, to which the churches now open their worship.
Without a doubt, this has been and remains today the greatness of the Church: it was born from the contemplation and adoration of a child who is born, and fortifies itself with the vision of a man who rises again. Between these two moments, the Nativity and Easter, it has not ceased to fight against the "culture of death," as it so rightly calls it.
This courage, this persistence make even more incomprehensible its temptation to defend works that, in my eyes, to the "doors of my flesh," smack only of death and despair.
God without Beauty is more incomprehensible than Beauty without God.
The article concludes with a passage from the author Inos Biffi's "When One Breathes the Breath of Beauty," of which I have included a few sections, partly because they too are wonderful, and also because they have to do with music. I love his comment on musical cathedrals!
By definition, theology "says God." And this "saying" the truth of God has a beauty of its own. [...] This was the conviction of Saint Augustine, who spoke of the "splendor of truth," and was repeatedly echoed by Thomas Aquinas, [...] attributing the prerogative to be "splendor and beauty" to the Word, who in the mystery of his transfiguration and ascension has effused and poured it out in his own glorious humanity, the inexhaustible end of the contemplation of the blessed.
... In this line of aesthetics, we could also recall how "enchanting" the mystery has been made and still is made by sacred music, liturgical and non-liturgical, which begins with the mystery itself, presenting and providing a taste of it in the form of song and melody. The musical repertoires of the Church, an immense patrimony of Masses, oratories, motets, are in turn musical cathedrals. [...]"