Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Work of the Artist - Incarnating Beauty and Truth

On this feast of the Epiphany, I am taking an opportunity to begin an exploration the role of art and the artist in expressing the beauty and truth of faith and its relationship to how that expression enhances or impedes catechesis. Translating abstract truths into a reality that can be perceived through sight or sound, when done well, creates not only a sense of delight, but expresses something about the grace of God. It is a form of incarnating reality which can reveal, in beauty, an epiphany of perceptible truth. 

 All of us can no doubt think of examples of art which is bathed in a sense of divine mystery. One of my favorites is the sensuous and enthralling Bernini St. Theresa, at left.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, relates the artistry of God in the incarnation of Christ to what the human  painter, sculptor, architect, musician, poet, dancer, dramatist and film-maker does:

This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.

This short but well-crafted letter is well worth the read.  He goes on briefly to explore the relation between art and the expression of mystery and the history of art in the church. He also says:

In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.

The Pope concludes with an appeal to artists and craftspersons to rediscover the nobility of art and to go beyond the mundane to the genuine expression of spiritual truth:

I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that 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.

Bringing the two mysteries together - God and man. This is what the Incarnation of Jesus did - and it was revealed to the world in the Epiphany. Good Christian art expresses mystery. At its worst, functional becomes pure kitsch - the plastic Jesus which I have on my dashboard is the classic example (although my friends often find it not only amusing, but an intriguing object that reveals something about the nature of the driver.) While I admit I have a personal weakness for religious kitsch (see photo - a treasure from my extensive collection) I also recognize that domestic art that is done well does express the beauty of spiritual truth.  More about that in upcoming posts.

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