Archive for May 2008

Ars around St. Blog’s

May 30, 2008

As promised in the previous post, here are the links to the posts around the Catholic blogosphere I’ve seen on Art and Beauty recently:

From Jimmy Akin: Why is Christian Art So Lame These Days (hat tip to lots of people)

From GodSpy: Beauty goes Underground (hat tip to my wife)

From Argent by the Tiber: Barbarians at the gate

And there’s one more I remember reading that I can no longer find… oh well…


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

May 30, 2008

There have been a few posts around the Catholic blogosphere on beauty in art that I haven’t linked to yet, partially because others have. Look for some links in a bit, but I wanted to start the first in a series of discussions on the nature of Catholic art. Now these are mostly thoughts in search of an argument, so I ask the reader to bear with me, and most of all, chime in with comments.

In the Western world, there is the concept of mimesis (from the Greek word meaning ‘imitation’). Since Plato thought poets were nuts, we’ll ignore him and start with Aristotle’s view of mimesis. In his Poetics, Aristotle presents mimesis as the chief aim of art, and in particular, drama. So what is art imitating? Life.

A piece of drama, or art, according to Aristotle, can in large part be judged on how close it represents real life. Now, there’s some important nuance here – while an audience must be able to relate to the characters and events of the play, at the same time, there should be some sort of distance between the audience and the events or persons being dramatised. Only in this way can the audience feel catharsis – in other words, if the audience feels they are too close to the characters in a tragedy, the emotions built up by watching the play won’t be released. So there is a bit of a paradox here – the mimesis or representation of life in art should be close to real life, but not too close.

I think this paradox continues in Eastern Catholic and Orthodox icons. Icons are representations of Christ, or of the saints, but they are highly stylized so that they do not resemble a real person too closely. This includes a prohibition on three dimensional art, such as statuary. The aim in this instance is not, of course, to produce catharsis but to emphasise the holiness of the person being depicted.

In the Roman tradition, this stylization is not emulated, and we are all familiar with classic Catholic statues. But any representation of the human figure in a religious context is unique to Catholicism and Orthodoxy amongst the Abrahamic faiths, since in Jewish tradition any depiction of God was strictly forbidden, and in Islam, any visual representation of living beings is a big no no.

So what makes Catholics and the Orthodox willing to depict Christ and the saints in art? The reason is one of the central tenets of our faith: the Word was made flesh, and God became incarnate among us; God chose to enter the material world as one of us, fully human and fully divine. 

This central mystery of our faith leads us as Catholics to a different understanding of the material world as well. In all that God has created lies the beauty and holiness of God. In the same book recently alluded to by Pope Benedict, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes Catholicism “supplies a multitude of external forms, in which the Spiritual may be clothed and manifested.” In our art, one of the chief things we are trying to ‘imitate’ or represent is that sacred mystery of the Incarnation.

And in another sense, Catholic artists are all humble imitators. “Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God””

The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman).

What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God.

From Pope John Paul the Great’s Letter to Artists (see link on sidebar).

From here, we still need to discuss sacrament and mystery, touch on some comments about allegory, and we’ll see where we get.

In St. Louis, in addition to TLM training

May 30, 2008

seminarians train in the fine art of…lightsaber dueling.

Quote of the week…

May 28, 2008
Occasionally one runs across a most interesting quotation in the unlikeliest of places…
In art, Catholicity was utterly bowed down to by my relatives and their friends, because without it this great art would not have been. For, as scientists and dreamers have proved that gold cannot be made until we know as much as the earth, so uninspired artists have proved that religious art can only grow under conditions known solely to the heart that is Catholic. Every religious school of art which has departed from imitation of the Old Masters has forfeited holiness in depicting the Holy Family. 
From a letter by Elizabeth Hoar to Sophia Hawthorne, from Memories of Hawthorne by Rose Hawthorne.

Notre Dame, Our Mother

May 24, 2008

When I saw this image both on Fr. Z’s blog and Amy Welborn’s, I thought it was one of the more stunning, modern images of Our Lady. I was particularly struck by the Chinese characters, and how, at least to this western eye, and non-Mandarin speaker, they hearken to the tradition of gold stars on a blue background. This traditional imagery is associated with Our Lady, and has a rich history in Catholic art.

So where does this imagery come from? Long before the the University of Notre had a Golden Dome, and the Fighting Irish donned the gridiron, the colors blue and gold have been associated with the Virgin Mary. Blue can indicate royalty and fidelity, and it is associated with heaven and eternity. Gold also can indicate royalty, but the true source of the golden stars is in the Book of Revelation, where Mary is depicted with a crown of twelve stars.

Incidentally, in the early days of the European Union, some disturbed individuals objected to the EU flag having twelve golden stars on a blue field, thinking this was a conspiracy by the Catholic states to somehow give Catholic prominence to the newly found organisation. Now, that would be great if it were true, but seeing as they can’t even get a recognition of God in the constitution, I’m a bit skeptical of this grand conspiracy. But I digress.

In many images, you will see the Blessed Mother with a crown of twelve stars, particularly if the image is the Regina Caeli, or Queen of Heaven. But several gold stars on a blue background is a common decoration of church ceilings.

Perhaps the pre-eminent example of this imagery is at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame (right). Okay, okay, sure there might be some better examples in Europe, but come on, give a Domer a little leeway, alright?

There are also other connections between stars and Mary – the morning star, Mary Star of the Sea (Stella Maris). But here’s your one, true chance for some serious Catholic Trivia…

What was originally on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, prior to Michelangelo’s frescos?

Gold stars on a blue background. 

Notre Dame de Sheshan

May 24, 2008

Our Lady of Sheshan, pray for us.


Virgin Most Holy, Mother of the Incarnate Word and our Mother,
venerated in the Shrine of Sheshan under the title “Help of Christians”,
the entire Church in China looks to you with devout affection.
We come before you today to implore your protection.
Look upon the People of God and, with a mother’s care, guide them
Look upon the People of God and, with a mother’s care, guide them
along the paths of truth and love, so that they may always be
a leaven of harmonious coexistence among all citizens. 

When you obediently said “yes” in the house of Nazareth,
you allowed God’s eternal Son to take flesh in your virginal womb
and thus to begin in history the work of our redemption.
You willingly and generously cooperated in that work,
allowing the sword of pain to pierce your soul,
until the supreme hour of the Cross, when you kept watch on Calvary,
standing beside your Son, who died that we might live. 

From that moment, you became, in a new way,
the Mother of all those who receive your Son Jesus in faith
and choose to follow in his footsteps by taking up his Cross.
Mother of hope, in the darkness of Holy Saturday you journeyed
with unfailing trust towards the dawn of Easter.
Grant that your children may discern at all times,
even those that are darkest, the signs of God’s loving presence. 

Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China,
who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love.
May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world,
and of the world to Jesus.
In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high,
offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love.
Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love,
ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built.
Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!

(from the Vatican Website) 


Look for a future post on this image, Our Lady of Sheshanand the Basilica of Our Lady of Sheshan. But for now, please say a prayer as the Pope has requested.

New Illuminations

May 20, 2008

A reader informed me of these beautiful illuminated stations of the cross, done by modern illuminator Jed Gibbons for the chapel on Enders Island in Mystic, Connecticut. The island is home to the Institute for Sacred Art – where you can learn the arts of icon writing, chant, stained glass and even manuscript illumination. These traditions of Catholic art are always in need of new practitioners – so use those talents God blessed you with, and get thee to Enders Island.