Monday, June 6, 2011

The Church Needs Beauty

These are a few passages from a great article I read off of The New Liturgical Movement blog. This is a fantastic blog - despite the rather misleading title - faithful to the Magisterium and working for the return of beauty and sacredness to the Catholic liturgy all over the world in all its forms. In this article the need for beautiful art and music in the Church is discussed, the need for dialogue, and a return to true art in rejection of the erotic ideas put forward by the modern movement in art. The article begins with an article by Sandro Magister titled, "Only Beauty Will Save Us."

Detail from Michelangelo's The Last Judgement
"What would be learned by the millions of faithful who visit the Sistine Chapel if its noble walls and its famous vault had been painted, not by Michelangelo, but by a Haring, a Warhol, a Bacon, a Viola, a Picasso?"

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. [...]"


Mary said...

I like parts of this, but some parts linger on a touchy topic, at least for me. The whole "darkness depicted in art" thing... Maybe I just can't read (which is HIGHLY possible) but was he saying that it was bad- that it shouldn't be at all? I mean, if that's what he's saying, than I do take issue. What is a crucifix but the most beautiful in the most dark? Granted, the cross triumphed over evil, but sometimes I think people get a bit too skiddish about darkness in art. Yes, I realize saying "darkness" in art is vague, but I only say that because I have yet to discover definite guide lines on the subject. I'd yet to find where it is said authoritatively that THIS is good/beautiful/permissible. and THIS is bad/not beautiful/not permissible. I am fascinated but the whole beauty/truth/goodness/the world needs beauty discussion. One of my favorite topics, but sometimes, again, I think somethings are taken too far.
And who knows, maybe I totally misunderstood the article.... :)

Emily Starr said...

I agree that "darkness" is a very vague term. I don't think he's talking about darkness in the same way that "darkness" is depicted in a crucifix. He's talking about vulgar, irreverent depictions - if you read in the original article the section from the Frenchman he gives a few very specific examples of bad religious art from the avant garde. (Here's the original article : .) Depictions like this in art are, first of all, blasphemous and are contrary to the vocation of the artist: to be a channel of gifts one does not own and can never fully understand, but whose "yes" makes the presence of Christ among us possible."