Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Domestic Religious Art – Gateway to Mystery or Kitsch?

In the previous post, I noted Pope John Paul II’s letter to artists, in which he requests that Christian artists go beyond functionality: “…you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.” My question in this post is whether the visual art we are exposed to on a regular basis accomplishes that.

Catholic homes have long been filled with objects intended to remind the home’s occupants of the truth and beauty of the faith. While sometimes these can be quite beautiful when well-chosen, but quite often they fall into the realm of cliché or Catholic kitsch – inexpensive plastic statues, overly sentimental images of Jesus, the Blessed Mother or the saints, piously rolling their eyes toward heaven. I have a collection of vintage religious objects that includes seashell religious diorama TV lamps, a molded plastic light-up altar (with monstrance) that plays Ave Maria, and more. As I mentioned previously, I have the proverbial plastic Jesus for my dashboard (pictured.) These objects make me smile, they give me a warm feeling about the period of time they are associated with, but they never illuminate anything about mystery.

It is not just vintage items that participate in this kind of mass-merchandising version of the faith. Open any current religious goods catalog and browse through pages of plastic and resin statues, crucifixes, plaques, candleholders, magnets, visor clips, framed art and note cubes with images and “inspirational” quotes – you will find little of mystery and only very occasionally beauty. Mostly what you see is merely marketable cuteness or an unimaginative literalness, of which John Buscemi, in his article in the current issue of Today’s Liturgy says “being too literal in our images constrains the imagination rather than freeing it.” When was the last time you saw a wall crucifix that actually pulled you into the heart of Paschal Mystery?

However, some quality domestic art not only delights the eye but teaches in a memorable way. I’d like to share in this space a few glimpses of an artist not very well known here in America. A friend gifted me a while back with a set of vintage children’s religious prints of the Beatitudes by a Belgian illustration artist named Jean Gouppy, popular in Europe in the mid-20th Century. I was entranced by the bright clear colors and obvious charm of the art. While these might possibly be seen by some as the 1950’s equivalent of Precious Moments, there something sincere, simple and luminous about these prints and other art by Gouppy that I have since collected.

These images speak of a simpler time. Gouppy, whose images decorated countless posters and holy cards depicting sacraments, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, Christmas scenes and the everyday life of a Catholic child, depicted a time when priests carried the monstrance in the street and children dropped to their knees reverently as it passed.

Gouppy’s wonderful image of St. Nicholas, journeying with a donkey full of toys, accompanied by one of the small cherubs in pajamas that always appear in Gouppy’s pictures, bespeaks a saint filled with reverence toward the Christ Child he celebrates as he carries out his act of charity. Here, at least, is a gateway into an unsentimental view of the saint. The toys, donkey and angel are sweetly rounded and charming. The saintly Bishop Nicholas is not. His obvious holiness as he leans into his journey speaks of strength and resolve.

This is not great art, but it is good art. It speaks of the holy - not loudly, but in a quiet whisper. Art in our homes would do well to speak this softly of mystery, hope, piety, holiness and joy.

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