Sunday, August 12, 2007

The myth of Catholic art: an unmanifesto
From Fr Gordon Anderson’s new blog (with art as well as religion — he is a Continuing-church* priest serving a busy congregation in Florida and an accomplished modern painter)
Thomas Merton phrased things nicely: “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His tolerance of the pictures that are painted of Him.”

And of His mother, too.

Too frequently, this means the kind of art rampant on cards in funeral parlors, the visual equivalent of sob songs.
Exactly like the 1890s novena hymns Thomas Day rubbishes.

(Sturdy, singable old Protestant hymns, which musicologist Day approves of, aren’t liturgical but are tolerable. I can hear them at High Mass without wanting to throw things... and can sing along. Hooray for chant and polyphony, Eastern and Western.)

Too many people both on the Western ecclesiastical left and right seem to think this is representative of the Western Catholic tradition!

Another point of Day’s: pseudo-folk hymns are a continuation of this theme... with a creepy dose of ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ (also true of some of the bad art) added.

What’s obviously missing to those who know the Orthodox tradition is the idea behind the icon: not just pretty pictures but a quasi-sacramental presence.

(I’ve seen horrible things done to icons and not just by church liberals and New Agers playing with them. Among the worst was from some conservative Novus Ordo people who doctrinally should know better: using icons of Jesus and Mary as signs for the men’s and women’s lavatories.)

The problem is art is reduced to the didactic or decorative so it’s not surprising you end up with superficial tat like Pweshus Moments** (or burlap ruining a perfectly good Godward Victorian sanctuary) on one hand or abstract nonsense on the other (the stuff nobody really likes but it used to be hip to pretend to).
Historical perspective is helpful. It surprises Western Christians to learn that the Orthodox deem all of what we consider sacred art — from Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel to Bernini’s marble Madonna and Child in the Vatican — to be, in reality, wholly secular.
Much of it is!

Examples that aren’t, which follow many of the same principles (sometimes in imitation) as icons: mediæval Italian church painting (much of Italy was Byzantine-ruled), pre-Raphaelite painting (like the murals in some Anglo-Catholic parishes) and the artwork from Beuron in Germany during the legitimate liturgical movement*** (which said the same critical things about pious art).
I do not think it possible for anyone to [literally] commit the sin of idolatry, because there is no-one so stupid as to believe an image is actually his or her god.
— Lawrence James

Of course that sin is possible but what he says is largely true of the world’s religions.

I agree with Fr Anderson that one need not ape the styles of the past to be orthodox, objective and Godward. (But there’s nothing wrong with re-creating the style of more pious ages.) An unpretentious A-frame — like a local post-war Anglican or Lutheran parish church — can work if one uses one’s simple furniture with orthodox, Godward text and posture (like ‘the eastward position’). Even the abstract or Jetsony churches of the mid-C20 work if it’s obvious they were made to fit the requirements of the old missal.

As Fr Anderson is with the visual arts I am with music: of course I love the old stuff but also like Schoenberg!

*Thirty-year-old conservative break-away churches from the Episcopalians. But most of their people today, including Fr Anderson, are not ex-Episcopalians.

**I still like Ref’s idea for an ‘Obscure Moment from the Bible’ statue in this style: Jael, Sisera and a peg.

***Which wanted to move people away from nearly exclusive devotionalism towards Mass-and-office practice, the actual prayer of the church, the liturgy. Not gutting and whitewashing churches and pulping and rewriting texts but teaching the people to read, sing and love the existing liturgical books (in the early C20 — the old missal and breviary). Just like slum Anglo-Catholicism there was often also a social-justice component to all this: the Catholic Worker (not theological or liturgical liberals at the time — Dorothy Day never was!) and the now-gone Friendship House were keen on it.

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