A non-believer on Christian art

Aaron Rosen, in the atheist magazine New Humanist, acknowledges that much of Western art reflects Christianity.  The iconography, themes, and vocabulary of images derives not just from religion in general, but, very specifically, from the Christian faith.  Somehow, he says, the figure of Christ is just overwhelmingly powerful.

This is even true in modern art.  Even apparent attempts to subvert religion, such as the notorious “Piss Christ”–a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine–end up re-enforcing the power of the Christian message.

What better way to meditate on the torments and degradation of Christ than to see his form submerged in urine? Meanwhile, the beauty of the image, suffused in a hazy, golden light, invites us to consider a salvific message – the “good news” of Christ’s victory over death.

So this unbeliever urges his fellows to open themselves up to this uncanny quality of Christian art:

The supposed enmity between modern art and religion dissolves. The question of how to get the “godfearing” to appreciate modern art may still be a relevant one, but it isn’t necessarily the most interesting. In light of the religious roots and preoccupations of so much modern art, maybe we should start asking what the “god-less” can learn from modern art. Indeed, perhaps the gallery is uniquely poised to foster a productive encounter with religion for even the most avowed atheist. In the inoculating ambiance of the gallery, a modern Christ perched on a plinth, or framed along the wall, can commune with the same skeptic who would quickly scuttle by a church.

After looking at a crucifixion painting by the Jewish Marc Chagall–his response to the Holocaust–Rosen suggests that Christian art is intrinsically mind-blowing, which he tries to turn into an aesthetic quality.

This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.

For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.

via Aaron Rosen – Divine Image | New Humanist.

This supports what I have often said, that the way to reach today’s postmodern unbelievers is to emphasize the wild, ineffable, mind-blowing mysteries of Christianity (e.g., the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Sacraments).

HT:  Joe Carter

What a great painting! All of that spectacular spiritual reality going on above, and the people down below, while faced with an earthly manifestation, don’t see it, just looking around in incomprehension. That says it all about worldly unbelief.

The sacramental imagination

A common notion in studies of Christianity and the arts  is “the sacramental imagination.”  It goes like this:  Christians with a high view of the sacraments believe that spiritual realities are mediated by means of physical things.  Christian artists with those beliefs, therefore, can easily employ images derived from the material world in order to communicate their faith.  This is also why so many Christian artists are Roman Catholics, a church whose sacramental theology encourages this kind of imagination.

That may be.  But it occurred to me–while contemplating that “Luther and the Body” article I blogged about earlier in the course of this road trip that I’m still on (driving long hours giving time for just thinking)–that Lutheran sacramental theology offers a basis for this sacramental imagination more than Roman Catholicism does.

The Roman Catholic view of Holy Communion teaches that the physical bread and wine is no longer present. We receive Christ’s Body and Blood only.  We perceive the “accidents” of bread and wine, their appearance, but the only “substance” is that of Christ.   This take on the physical material reality seems to be more that of Eastern monism–that the physical realm is an illusion–than an actual affirmation of the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual.

The Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence, though, teaches that the bread and the wine, in their physicality, are still present, as is the actual Body and Blood of Christ.  (Again, don’t call this “consubstantiation,” which is the Roman Catholic attempt to explain this  teaching in terms of their own “substance” and “accidents” distinction that Lutheranism rejects.)

The mode of Christ’s presence is explained not in terms of different “substances” but in terms of “the ubiquity of Christ.”  That is, just as God is omnipresent without displacing the existence of other objects, Christ, because of His personal union of the divine and human natures, can be, in His body, present in bread and wine.   Not that He is in the Sacrament only in the sense of God being everywhere, but in a unique sacramental union in which He is present specifically through the Word of the Gospel, his body and blood being given and shed “for you.”

Now, this kind of teaching first of all is going to encourage those who believe it to think of God in Christ as being not far above the universe, looking down, as the imagination of many Christians has Him, but, rather, as being very close.  God, of course, is both transcendent and immanent, but the latter often gets minimized, which it can’t in Lutheran spirituality.

Furthermore, Lutheran theology also teaches the presence of God in vocation.  (It is God who gives us this day our daily bread through the vocation of the farmer and the baker; God milks the cows through the work of the milkmaid; God creates new life by working through mothers and fathers; vocation is a mask of God, etc., etc.)  This again encourages people to see the spiritual dimensions of the physical world.

For artists, it means that not only physical images can manifest the spiritual realm, the very act of creating–whether by paint, words, film, or whatever medium one’s vocation involves–manifests not just the presence of God but His activity, that He creates by means of human creation.

King Herod’s face

Biblical Archaeology Review has published a portrait of one of the king Herods, one of the “tetrarchs,” based on computer enhancement of images on rare coins of the time.  This is not the Herod who slaughtered the innocents–that was Herod the Great.  Nor was it the Herod who killed John the Baptist and who questioned Jesus–that was Herod Antipas.  This was Herod Philip II, who did, however, rule in Galilee when Jesus was there.   So Jesus might well have seen him.  From the article:

Herod Philip II (4 B.C–34 A.D.), one of the sons of Herod the Great and ruler of the eastern Galilee and the Golan during the time of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, was the first Jewish ruler to have his portrait emblazoned upon a coin.

Coins with portraits of Herodian kings are extremely rare because of the Jewish religious prohibition of graven images. Only a handful of Philip’s coins have survived, and even these are well worn with largely indistinct busts.

Biblical coin specialist and researcher Jean-Philippe Fontanille has developed a new technique to recover the original minted impressions of ancient coins. Using the latest in computer imaging technology, Fontanille superimposes digital images of multiple ancient coins from the same issue, adjusting for differences in size and orientation. After keeping the best-preserved parts of each coin image, digitally removing worn or missing areas, and then merging and blending the remaining elements, Fontanille produces an “idealized” composite of the coin as it would have appeared in ancient times.

via Strata: Did Jesus Know This Face? | Biblical Archaeology Review | Bible History Articles.

Herod Philip II

Art vandalism as art

In a high culture that no longer believes in beauty or meaning, art becomes reduced to interesting gestures.  Consider this “work,” as described by art critic Blake Gopnik:

On Saturday evening, in the back room at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea, veteran dealer Magdalena Sawon gave me an early glimpse of a work called “Stolen Pieces,” which she said has never been exhibited. Made by a young Italian couple, Eva and Franco Mattes, but kept secret since the mid-90s, it consists of a display case full of tiny chips from significant works of art, snatched or snapped off by the duo over a two-year crime spree. The artists did the deeds between July 28, 1995, and July 29, 1997, in museums all around the world.

The loot includes a manufacturer’s label peeled from the aquarium in which Jeff Koons floated his famous basketballs in 1985. There’s a short length of shoelace from a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture. There’s a little blob of lead from an installation by Joseph Beuys, and a couple of threads from an Andy Warhol. Perhaps most significantly, there’s a tiny chip of porcelain from the urinal “Fountain” of Marcel Duchamp, taken from an unspecified exhibition.

The artists also claim to have lifted bits from works by Kandinsky and Rauschenberg. Sawon says the piece is being unveiled now because the statute of limitations has run out on its thefts.

Now the works that were damaged were arguably negligible themselves, though they are very valuable and belong to somebody.  But I’m thinking that what makes this sort of thing “art”  is its ability to provoke serious commentary from  art critics:

“Stolen Pieces” may not look that great, but like so much of the work made in the 20th century — like so much art, ever — “Stolen Pieces” gets its force from the questions it raises.

– Did these artists’ tiny thefts much affect the works they stole from? Does it really matter that one of Kienholz’s big junk piles is minus one bottle cap? How many of these museums’ visitors would have ever noticed or been touched by the alterations?

– Does “Stolen Pieces” finally deflate the old cliche that a true masterpiece is something “from which nothing can be taken and to which nothing can be added without harm”? There’s hardly a single work by an Old Master that doesn’t look substantially different than it did when it was fresh, and yet we still find plenty to admire in them. (In fact, people objected like crazy when Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling was returned to some semblance of its original bright colors.)

– Originally, weren’t most of the targeted works themselves all about attacking old-fashioned notions of the precious work of art whose every detail deserves to be worshipped? Before he became famous, Oldenburg let his viewers touch and take away his ultra-sloppy works of art. I can’t imagine that César could have seen the speedometers on his crushed cars as equivalent to so many brushstrokes by Titian, to be preserved at any cost. Did Beuys really treasure every blob of metal scattered during one of his anti-object performances?

– By making almost imperceptible alterations to other works of art, Eva and Franco Mattes have created a significant new one. Does that leave the world of art a richer place or a poorer one? (So long as no other vandals follow in these artists’ footsteps, that is. But once the Matteses’ move has been made, there’s no reason for anyone else to repeat it.)

via Blake Gopnik – Couple stole more than other artists’ ideas.

Significant new art?

Iraqi Christians erect statue of Jesus

How about this for a defiant, death-defying public confession of faith?

The Christians of northern Iraq have chosen to defy mounting attacks by extremists by erecting a statue of Jesus modelled on the giant Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.

The sculpture is only a tenth of the size of the 40-metre (130-foot) iconic statue that towers over the Brazilian city, but it has become a popular site for visitors in Hamdaniya, the north’s largest Christian town.

“The idea of the statue is not to say Christians were here in case we leave,” said Bashar Jarjees Habash, the city’s coordinator of Christian affairs. “But the idea of building the statue of Jesus opening his arms is to send a message of peace to everyone to say that we want to live in peace with all,” said the 48-year-old. “The people of this area have always tried to live in peace with everyone, even those who fight and threaten them.”

In February, Human Rights Watch called on Iraq’s government to do more to bolster security and protect Christians after a string of deadly attacks on the community ahead of last month’s elections.

“The statue might be small if we compare it with what Christians did for Iraq over hundreds of years. The statue is stone and can be removed at any time, but the history of Christians cannot be abolished,” said Habash. “We have a great history, we are very loyal to Iraq,” added the official charged by the church with preserving religious monuments.

The brick and plaster structure is in the middle of Hamdaniya, a city populated by 45,000 mostly Syriac Christians as well as a Kurdish Muslim community that makes up about 10 percent of the inhabitants.

Its construction was initiated and carried out by two local security guards who also have artistic skills. Using their bare hands, it was a labour of love. “With the help of 20 volunteers, we built the statue in less than a month and we spent about 150,000 dinars (128 dollars),” said one of them, Alaa Naser Matti. . . .

“We have chosen to make a Jesus with open arms because it means that the city has been placed under his protection and he wants to spread peace in Iraq,” said the 41-year-old.

via <a href="http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jwOrnvOa-jzNyIWYTOzeVtrlu7ag">AFP: Iraq Christians defy threats to erect Rio-like Jesus statue.

Click the link to see the picture, which I couldn’t copy for some reason.

Beauty & physics, liberal arts & liturgy

Catholic artist and educator David Clayton makes connections between science, aesthetics, classical education, and then, for good measure, liturgy:

In excellent his book, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, describing the consistency between the Faith and the discoveries of science, Stephen M Barr describes the scientific investigation of a grouping of sub-atomic particles which he refers to as a ‘multiplet’ of ‘hadronic particles’. He describes how when different properties, called ‘flavours’ of ‘SU(3) symmetry’, of nine of these particles were plotted mathematically, then they produced a patterned arrangement that looked like a triangle with the tip missing.

‘Without knowing anything about SU(3) symmetry, one could guess just from the shape of the multiplet diagram that there should be a tenth kind of particle with properties that allow it to be placed down at the bottom to complete the triangle pattern. This is not just a matter of aesthetics, the SU(3) symmetries require it. It can be shown from the SU(3) that the multiplets can only come in certain sizes….On the basis of SU(3) symmetry Murray Gell-Man predicted in 1962 that there must exist a particle with the right properties to fill out this decuplet. Shortly thereafter, the new particle, called the Ωˉ was indeed discovered.’

This result would have been of no surprise to anyone who had undergone an education in beauty based upon the quadrivium, – the ‘four ways’ – the higher part of the education of the seven liberal arts of education in the middle-ages[1]. The shape that Murray Gell-Man’s work completed was the triangular arrangement of 10 points known as the tectractys. As described in my previous articles for the New Liturgical Movement, this is the triangular arrangement of the number 10 in a series of 1:2:3:4. 1, 2, 3 and 4 are the first four numbers that symbolize the creation of the cosmos in three dimensions generated from the unity of God; and notes produced by plucking strings of these relative lengths we can construct the three fundamental harmonies of the musical scale. . . .

‘The traditional quadrivium is essentially the study of pattern, harmony, symmetry and order in nature and mathematics, viewed as a reflection of the Divine Order. When we perceive something that reflects this order, we call it beautiful. For the Christian this is the source, along with Tradition, that provides the model upon which the rhythms and cycles of the liturgy are based. Christian culture, like classical culture before it, was also patterned after this cosmic order; this order which provides the unifying principle that runs through every traditional discipline.  Literature, art, music, architecture, philosophy –all of creation and potentially all human activity- are bound together by this common harmony and receive their fullest meaning in the liturgy…

When we apprehend beauty we do so intuitively. So an education that improves our ability to apprehend beauty develops also our intuition. All creativity is at source an intuitive process. This means that professionals in anyfield including business and science would benefit from an education in beauty because it would develop their creativity. Furthermore, the creativity that an education in beauty stimulates will generate not just more ideas, but better ideas. Better because they are more in harmony with the natural order. The recognition of beauty moves us to love what we see. So such an education would tend to develop also, therefore, our capacity to love and leave us more inclined to the serve God and our fellow man. The end result for the individual who follows this path is joy.’

When the person is habitually ordering his life liturgically, he will tap into this creative force, for he will be inspired by the Creator. Meanwhile all those multiplets of hadronic particles in the cosmos will be giving praise to the Lord.

via The Way of Beauty.

HT: Cathy Sneidman


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