Summary: From the iconoclast controversy we can derive the five principles that should inform our church art

Monday of 3rd Week in Lent

28 March 2011

Spirit of the Liturgy

The onset of a dreaded disease is one of the most stressful events of any life. Today, cancer is the most dreaded, but in the time of the prophets, when no one knew about viruses and few people lived to an advanced age, it was a priestly diagnosis of leprosy that made the blood run cold. So the story of Naaman the pagan general got immediate attention whenever it was told. When Jesus told it, it was to rebuke the Jews, who had given up their divine calling to attract the pagan nations to true praise of the One God. In fact, they gave it up to such an extent that they had let the avaricious Sadducee class turn the Temple’s Court of the Gentiles into a market. So when Jesus prophetically pointed out that prophets were acceptable everywhere except their hometown, they promptly proved him true by trying to murder him.

What we might miss in these stories, though, is their sacramental meaning. The Fathers of the Church rightly saw the story of Naaman, who was cleansed by bathing several times in the Jordan River, as a type of baptism. Jesus, the Son of God, became Son of Mary, immersing Himself in our humanity to the ultimate degree–even to the point of a shameful death–so that we might rise with Him through the sacraments of initiation. God Himself has solidarity with matter, with all that is authentically human.

The Holy Father, as he concludes his study of art and architecture, invites us to contemplate the Baroque church. (Show photo of Munich church.) I don’t know which Munich church this photo was taken in, but Cardinal Ratizinger, now our Pope, must have something like this in mind. He writes, “Again and again, we experience a Baroque church as a unique kind of fortissimo of joy, an Alleluia in visual form. ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’ These words from the OT express the basic emotion that animates this iconography.” Every centimeter of the church is covered with paintings, sculptures, frescoes. And our modern sensibilities, flattened by television, recoil a bit from it. It seems “over the top,” excessive. We forget that falling in love and expressing that love is always offending by excess.

“The Enlightenment,” he continues, “pushed faith into a kind of intellectual and even social ghetto. Contemporary culture turned away from the faith and trod another past [and]. . .lost itself in resignation and cultural abstinence. The last of these led to a new iconoclasm.” (130) In the process, we lost a lot of bad art, mass-produced stuff that came from catalogues. “But ultimately it left behind a void, the wretchedness of which we are now experiencing in a truly acute way.” How, for instance, does a blank, brown wall stimulate faith in the Christ who is represented in sacrifice and eternal triumph at our altar?

The Holy Father gives us some fundamental principles to contemplate as we ask ourselves where we go from here: 1. God has “acted in history and entered into our sensible world. . .images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship.” 2. “Sacred art finds its subjects in the images of salvation history, beginning with creation and continuing. . . [until] the Second Coming.” Eliminate the icons of these persons and you eliminate our sacred history. 3. These images are not dead history but “display the inner unity of God’s action,” and always are visible representations of the living sacraments, especially Baptism and Eucharist. We have a tangible making real of this in the remarkable art that is around the pedestal of our tabernacle, tucked away in the Eucharistic chapel. Moreover, although the crucifix is positioned away from the axis of our church, there is an obvious line that connects the crucified Christ near the altar and the risen Christ at our baptistry. 4. Images of Christ and the saints are not photographs. “Their whole point (133) is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level. . .and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible.” 5. The Western Church needs to develop its iconography. In this, we must affirm that freedom of art “is not a matter of do-as-you-please.” Theology must shape iconography, as I believe it has done in the four principal icons of our parish, the crucifix, the Risen Christ, the tabernacle, and the frieze of Pentecost on the outside wall.

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