Art Matters: "A doorway to God"

I like this:

Beautiful art is not just for cultural enrichment but is an important way to experience God and become aware of the human thirst for the infinite, Pope Benedict XVI has said.

A sculpture, a painting, a poem or a piece of music can arouse a feeling of joy when it becomes apparent it is something more than just a chunk of marble, a canvas covered with colours, or words or notes on a page, he said.

“It’s something bigger, something that speaks and touches your heart; it carries a message and lifts the spirit,” he said as he held his weekly general audience in the town square at Castel Gandolfo.

“Art is like an open doorway to the infinite, toward a beauty and truth that go beyond everyday reality,” he told 3,000 visitors and pilgrims present for the audience.

But the Holy Father’s remarks jibe even more profoundly (and I hope to explain why today or tomorrow) with Fr. Robert Barron’s soon-to-be-released book which — I’m telling you — is going to become an essential key in the opening of a glorious renewal of understanding and excitement within the church.

As Barron writes:

[the Cathedral of Cologne] speaks of the transcendence, strangeness and radical otherness of God. The building is telling us that whatever idea we have of God has to be abandoned as inadequate, the cathedral is summoning us always to look higher. But that same Cologne Cathedral, which speaks so compellingly of transcendence, preaches just as convincingly the immanence of God. All over the surface of the structure — but especially around the portals — one spies plants, animals, trees, planets, the sun and moon, angels, devils and saints — the whole panoply of creation, both natural and supernatural, vividly portrayed. All of these creatures have to do with God and God has to do with all of them. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” as do the things that crawl upon the earth, and as do the unseen spirits. God is sacramentally represented in all of the complexity of creation. The cathedral, in a word, is simultaneously telling us, in regard to God, “not here!” and “right here!” To grasp that tension is to have the most adequate understanding of the One Who Is.
– from Catholicism; A Journey to the Heart of the Faith

Those who suggest that too much art, too much beauty, is detrimental to worship might perhaps do well to sit quietly amid such beauty — putting aside prejudices or pre-conceived notions, to just sit with it — and see what they discover about God and contemplation and prayer.

Msgr. Charles Pope recently wrote about art, too, specifically the stained glass windows:

. . .stained glass also served another purpose, that of imaging the foundational walls of heaven. For, recall that traditional church architecture saw the church as an image of heaven. Hence it’s design was based on the descriptions of heaven found in the Scriptures. Now among other things, heaven is described in the Book of Revelation as having high walls with rows of jewels embedded in the foundations of those walls:

One of the seven angels…showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates….The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst…. (Revelation 21:varia)

Thus, because heaven had great high walls, older churches almost always had a lot of verticality. The lower foundational walls gave way to the higher clerestory, and above the clerestory the vaults of the ceiling rise even higher. And in the lower sections of the walls, extending even as high as the clerestory, the jewel-like stained glass recalls the precious jeweled gemstones described in the lower walls of heaven, according to Revelation 21.

The compelling effect of a traditional church is to say to the believer, you are in heaven now.

And all of that reminds me of something else Fr. Barron writes, early in Catholicism:

I stand with the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who held that the truth of Catholicism is best appreciated from within the confines of the church, just as the windows of a cathedral, drab enough when seen from the outside, shine in all of their splendor when viewed from the inside. I want to take you deep into the cathedral of Catholicism, because I am convinced the experience will change and enhance your life.

And this, of course goes well with Barbara Nicolosi’s ruminations on art and friendship:

The Bible tells us that in the beginning God made things, and then He stood back and praised those things, as the first immutable art critic, saying, “It is good.” Then, at some point God made a new kind of being that could also make things and praise them. And then God stood back to see what we would do.

This is man’s uniqueness in the created cosmos. If you took us out, nothing would be missing except a recombining of the elements of creation to make new things, and also voices raised in awe and to say emphatically, “How good! So good!” So, if we as individuals are going to experience the satisfaction of filling out our destiny, we have to figure out fast what we are, a maker or a praiser, and then do it with sacrifice and intensity. Some people are both, but to be truly human, all of us need to be at some point in our lives either an artist or an artist’s friend. The order of the cosmos demands both.

Our church is rich in its beauties — spirit, liturgy, tradition, faith — and in its physicalities. Thankfully, she is also rich in beautiful minds such as these.

UPDATE: Speaking of art, Deacon Greg shows us the trailer for what looks to be a must-see of a film, and Max has bad haiku and bad statues, and Fr. Austin Fleming has a poem/prayer for the end of summer

We cannot help ourselves. Art is designed into us, Creator to creature.

Btw, that picture at the top was taken by my hubby last September, on our visit to Rome. Can’t believe it was a year ago, today, that we landed there!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Max Lindenman

    Wow — Cologne cathedral. I haven’t seen it myself yet, but reading of it now stirs a memory of my childhood.

    My dad was a bit of a biliophile. One year for my birthday, he bought me a book called Horrors and Atrocities of the Great War, a compilation of news stories from 1914 and 1915. Some of the stories sounded true, others read like propaganda doled out at British army HQ. It had been published in 1916, I believe, with the aim of raising American ire against the Hun.

    The first section dealt with the German sacking of the ancient Belgian city of Louvain, which was home to a university, a very famous library, and a cathedral. In August of 1914, German infanrymen inflicted so much damage on these landmarks that the press declared their visit a “rape.” One newspaper ran a drawing titled “The Cologne Church Speaks,” depicting a white-robed figure superimosed on the cathedral, spreading its hands in a supplicating gesture. I can’t remember the caption exactly, but it went something like “Louvain, thou art spirit of my spirit, heart of my heart.”

    Maybe this soudns a bit much — after all when the Challenger blew up, a cartoonist captured the nationa mood with a simple, wordless closeup of a crying eagle. But it was very powerful. What I’m getting from Barron is that the Cologne catedral has enough personality to make it almost plausible.

    I agee — art is a wonderful pathway to the divine. What worries me is that Catholics thse days will prefer to see their faith expressed visibly in ways that are big, loud and boastful. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that, at other times not.

  • Mike in Houston

    And the humble art can move also. Of all the wonderful places I have been fortunate to experience this is the one that stole my heart.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    I just wish Catholics would stop using felt as an art medium.

  • TXRed

    The beautiful blue windows are from Sacre Coeur in Paris. If you only go to one church in Paris, skip Notre Dame and visit Sacre Coeur. You have to go through security because it is now part of the French court complex, but believe me, it is worth it. I opted to go to one of the evening concerts in the upper (royal) chapel with the windows. Vivaldi was nice but spending an hour sitting in G-d’s jewel box was better. Notre Dame is impressive (go early if at all possible) and there are other nice churches in Paris if you hunt for them, but Sacre Coeur took my breath away. Cologne is lovely too, in its own way.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    The world’s largest stained glass window, the “Ephesus Window,” is right here in the United States, in Covington, KY. A truly beautiful lesson in theology!

  • Manny

    Wonderful blog. Just to be complete, consider art to include poetry and novels. It is through the transcendence of language and story that we fully realize our humnaity and the God that created it.

  • craig

    TXRed, good observation but please note that the one in the picture is not Sacre-Coeur (which is in Montmartre) but Sainte-Chapelle (on the Ile de la Cite, inside a former royal palace whose name escapes me).

  • Maureen

    Sainte-Chapelle was the first Gothic building ever in the whole world. Its architect was the Abbe Suger. (He’s a main character in the kids’ historical novel, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, which rather engraved him on my mind.)

  • Timothy Jones

    The old Gothic cathedrals made me think of this statement from Chesterton;

    “A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything”

    When you look at the cathedrals, you get this sense that the artists were really in a kind of frenzy to express *everything*, all at once. It is the catholic world view made palpable, that everything matters, and so not even the smallest detail is overlooked as a means of expression. Every form is a significant form. There can be disagreement, I suppose, over whether some effort more or less succeeded, but there can be no disagreement that at least the builders of the Gothic cathedrals were aiming at something sublime beyond words, something dizzying and stupendous. They were aiming to make art for the ages.

    Modern critics saw only the failure of the cathedrals to give complete and perfect expression to the idea of the Sublime. The idea being that, since no mere material art can capture or fully express the pure and eternal character of God (which is true), then it is better not even to try. The attempt to incarnate the eternal Word was abandoned on the egalitarian ground that each individual could picture God in his own imaginative way better than any earthly art could embody (which is manifestly *not* true).

    The exhuberant creativity of the Gothic was supplanted with modern minimalism, where everything was reduced to its simplest form, a blank canvas for the pure spiritual worship of God, untethered to any earthly imagery. The flying buttress gave way to the concrete slab. Scrollwork and filigree gave way to cinder block and drywall. Curves gave way to angles (generally right angles… they are the cheapest kind).

    What are we to make of an art (or a culture) too timid to prefer anything over any other thing? How do such creative minds manage to come down firmly even on matters like “paper or plastic?”.

    The great thing, then, is that the failures of the Gothic artists remain FAR more satisfying, powerful and relevant than any of the “successes” of the modern artists. The moderns aimed low and hit their mark, the artists of the middle ages reached for the infinite and (naturally) fell short, but what delightful and spectacular failure! We should *pray* for the courage to fail as they did.

  • Rouxfus

    I just watched episodes 1 & 2 from the Catholicism Series, the script of which forms the basis of Fr. Barron’s book, and it is spectacular. It really shows off the beauty as a pathway to God angle which the Holy Father spoke so profoundly about.

    Here is the full text of the Holy Father’s remarks on the subject, which give me God bumps when I read it. The words of his beautiful reflection itself provides the sort of joy-filled experience in art which he describes in this passage:

    Perhaps it has happened to you at one time or another — before a sculpture, a painting, a few verses of poetry or a piece of music — to have experienced deep emotion, a sense of joy, to have perceived clearly, that is, that before you there stood not only matter — a piece of marble or bronze, a painted canvas, an ensemble of letters or a combination of sounds — but something far greater, something that “speaks,” something capable of touching the heart, of communicating a message, of elevating the soul.

    I loved the story he tells of his reaction to hearing a particularly sublime performance of an unnamed Bach Cantata:

    I remember a concert performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — in Munich in Bavaria — conducted by Leonard Bernstein. At the conclusion of the final selection, one of the Cantate, I felt — not through reasoning, but in the depths of my heart — that what I had just heard had spoken truth to me, truth about the supreme composer, and it moved me to give thanks to God. Seated next to me was the Lutheran bishop of Munich. I spontaneously said to him: “Whoever has listened to this understands that faith is true” — and the beauty that irresistibly expresses the presence of God’s truth.

    That struck me because one of my favorite pieces of music, which unfailingly gives me that experience of sublime joy, and spoke to my soul even in my formerly pagan and mis-spent youth, is Bach’s Cantata #29 “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir” – “We thank thee, God, we thank thee”:

    I like to imagine that this was the piece the Holy Father was referring to, but that is just a vain fancy on my part.

  • Greta

    Great job on this book and series by a very good priest. I agree that this is good timing for this for Catholics. Together with the Cathecism and the growing group of people devoted to Theology of the Body, it represents solid teaching moment sadly needed by the Church. It is indeed looking like a springtime the JPII often spoke about slowly coming to fruition.

  • Sherwood Rose

    In C.S. Lewis’ “That Hideous Strength”, one of the characters, a young women who is questioning her atheist beliefs, encountering some courageous, dedicated Christians and having deep spiritual experiences, considers the recent flip of her attitudes:

    “Hers ought to have been the vivid, perilous world brought against their (the Christians’) grey formalised one; hers the quick, vital movements and theirs the stained glass attitudes. That was the antithesis she was used to. This time, in a sudden flash of purple and crimson, she remembered what stained glass was really like.”

    This phrase came to mind as I was looking at the beautiful images in this post. Such beauty can indeed lead us to God.

  • jcd

    An interesting post about Archbishop Sheen defending the beauty of the Church. Mr. Voris is in the story.Please read at: