Posted tagged ‘art’

Well, there are at least twelve people…

September 12, 2008

standing up for true beauty in art outside Paris. And a handful of disgusted tourists who can also tell art from, well, not art…

Here’s the key quote:

“I paid to see all of Versailles,” said Sylvie Guérin, an administrative technician from Montreal. “I didn’t come here to see a red lobster that I can buy in a gas station in Quebec to go in my pool.”

Also, check out why Pope Benedict loves France over at Rocco’s. Hat tip to TLM in Maryland.

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Art at home

June 7, 2008

Every Catholic home should contain sacred art. My wife and I are just starting to collect items and at the centre of our collection, and at the centre of our hearth, we’ve placed a beautiful icon that we purchased at…a Greek Orthodox Church.

Every summer in South Bend there’s a Greek festival at the local Orthodox church. There’s great food, traditional music and dancing, tours of the church,  and of course, lots of baklava. This year we purchased a censer which can also be seen in the picture. And if anyone knows how to use it properly (and I mean, practically speaking – is the charcoal supposed to burn the incense?), please let me know.

But one of the interesting things about the icon is Mary’s red garments. The icon is an image of the Theotokos (Mater Dei, Mother of God). As discussed in a previous post, the colour most commonly associated with the Blessed Mother in Catholic art is blue. In addition to the previous examples cited, the image of Our Lady of Czeschowa is a prime example (although this image is outside of Western art tradition – it was purportedly painted by St. Luke, and is very much in the Eastern tradition of icons).

In Greek icon writing, the colour red is associated with humanity (through its connection with blood). Blue is associated with Heaven or the Kingdom of God. On a side note, Catholic art also shares some of these associations, but generally uses them in different ways. In the Orthodox icon above, Mary’s outer garments are red, and her inner garment is blue. The red indicates that she is of human origin, and blue indicates her heavenly nature. The art of icon writing is prevalent in the Eastern Catholic churches as well, so I think it’s a beautiful tradition that Roman Rite Catholics should understand better (including myself!).

And one final side note, if you ever have the opportunity to attend a Divine Liturgy at St. Michael’s Byzantine Catholic Church in South Bend – do so.  Most of the church is covered in beautiful icons, and as many of us rediscover our western traditions, it’s important to see how the Eastern Catholic churches have preserved many of theirs.

N.B. I’m using Eastern and Western somewhat loosely here – of course Greek art and icons are in the Western Art tradition, but are outside the Medieval and Renaissance Roman Rite traditions so to speak. Even that isn’t an exact distinction, since the Byzantine style was emulated in the Roman art tradition as well. Hopefully, my distinctions, while not precise, are understandable.

More outside the walls…

June 2, 2008

This is particularly troubling. Secular atheists want to appropriate beauty and art for their own means. From the British Magazine Standpoint, an article by Alain de Botton proposing the creation of a secular religion.

…What would such a peculiar idea involve? For a start, lots of new buildings akin to churches, temples and cathedrals. We are the only society in history to have nothing transcendent at our centre, nothing which is greater than ourselves. In so far as we feel awe, we do so in relation to supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. The pre-scientific age, whatever its deficiencies, had at least offered its denizens the peace of mind that follows from knowing all man-made achievements to be inconsequent next to the spectacle of the universe. We, more blessed in our gadgetry but less humble in our outlook, have been left to wrestle with feelings of envy, anxiety and arrogance that follow from having no more compelling repository of our veneration than our brilliant and morally troubling fellow human beings.

A secular religion would hence begin by putting man into context and would do so through works of art, landscape gardening and architecture. Imagine a network of secular churches, vast high spaces in which to escape from the hubbub of modern society and in which to focus on all that is beyond us. It isn’t surprising that secular people continue to be interested in cathedrals. Their architecture performs the very clever and eternally useful function of relativising those who walk inside them. We begin to feel small inside a cathedral and recognise the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.

In addition, a secular religion would use all the tools of art in order to create an effective kind of propaganda in the name of kindness and virtue. Rather than seeing art as a tool that can shock and surprise us (the two great emotions promoted by most contemporary works), a secular religion would return to an earlier view that art should improve us. It should be a form of propaganda for a better, nobler life…

But let’s think here – can art really point to a better, nobler life without belief in God? What is to define beauty, if truth has no meaning other than what humans decide? What is there to lift us up to, if there is no example beyond ourselves? And isn’t the concentration of today’s ‘art’ on shock and surprise directly related to a decline in faith?

This is precisely why a loss of Catholic traditions in art, music, liturgy, and architecture and the influence of contemporary theories of art in the mass is so poisonous. Just as contemporary art chooses only to offer us veneration of ourselves with no possibility of transcendence, modern church architecture and ‘mass in the round’ wreakovation attempts to bring the focus on the congregation, that group of “morally troubling fellow human beings” rather than pointing us to Christ.

Stepping outside St. Blog’s…

June 2, 2008

You’d never imagine the strange theories that abound. Consider this from a popular economics blog, EconLog:

Religious architecture and art were to medieval feudalism what advertising and commercialism are to modern capitalism: A rather effective way to build support for the status quo using aesthetics instead of argument. My claim, in short, is that Notre Dame played the same role during the Middle Ages that fashion magazines play today. Notre Dame was not an argument for feudalism, and Elle is not an argument for capitalism. But both are powerful ways to make regular people buy into the system.

Now I find this rather interesting. Part of me simply wants to ridicule the preposterousness of this comparison, while on the other hand this blogger has a bit of a point, if a bit misconstrued, or perhaps, too focused on economic systems.

Beauty does attract one to God and the Church, and aids the faith. (I honestly don’t know how it could attract one to feudalism.) One of the points of Ars Catholica is that these externals, whether a beautiful cathedral, a piece of sacred polyphony, or a traditional food tied into the liturgical season, are all ways to bolster one in the faith. They help to create a shared culture, and they appeal to us as the emotional and rational creations that we are. They are not a substitute for the faith, but a means to remind us of our longing for God and our commitment to the faith. Elle doesn’t sell beauty; it sells things that attempt to make the wearer or user beautiful. The Cathédrale de Notre Dame de Paris uses beauty (quite literally with those gothic arches) to point us to look beyond ourselves. So in a since, that blogger is right – both Elle and Notre Dame are using aesthetics to appeal to the viewer. And if we do admit, hypothetically, to his premise that these aesthetics are used to support the status quo, what does it say about today’s status quo?

Your thoughts?

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. 

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.

The Gift of La Sapienza

May 11, 2008

(photo by ex novo from flickr)

On this Solemnity of Pentecost, I am reminded of a piece Zenit’s Elizabeth Lev wrote on the church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza in Rome, designed by Francesco Borromini. Ms. Lev originally wrote back in January after students and faculty at the University of Rome (La Sapienza) protested the Pope’s visit there. Her piece reminds us of the University’s papal beginnings, Sant’Ivo’s design as an answer to the tower of Babel, and what responsibilities come with a Christian education and our sealing with the Holy Spirit. Note the urns and the ring of tongues of flame at the apex of the tower. Read her complete column here.

The exotic spiral perched atop the cupola has been endlessly photographed by tourists, surprised to see such an eccentric touch in Roman architecture. The exterior of Borromini’s church elaborates the same theme as the interior in the lantern at the top of the dome. 

The peak of the dome twisting toward the sky recalls the Tower of Babel of Genesis 11. The grandiose construction was planned by men who thought they could reach heaven through their own ingenuity. God thwarted their plans by confounding their speech so they would not understand each other. 

Borromini crowned his Tower of Babel, however, with a ring of tongues of flame. Here, he evoked Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the heads of the gathered disciples, giving them the ability to speak in many languages and still understand each other so as to proclaim the Gospel among the nations.