The Church, works of art and their artists have been inseparably intertwined since the early days of Christianity. Art in all its forms was only, truly able to flourish fully and freely following the declaration of freedom for Christians through the Edict of Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 AD. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, as well as theatre, dance and other art forms were then, and of course still are, used to express faith and to present the salvation story to the world. In 599 AD, Saint Gregory the Great, in a letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles, expressed explicitly the importance of paintings in representing biblical narratives, parables and symbols. Parables and pictures were powerful tools in teaching the faith in times when few could read or write. This recognition of the value of art to the mission of the Church continued and grew throughout the centuries to the present time.
Over the last sixty years, reigning popes have each solemnly reaffirmed the importance of the relationship between the Church and artists. At the closing of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 Pope Paul VI (now Saint Paul VI) addressed artists directly and renews the alliance between the Church and artists. He concluded that,
“This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resist the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands.”
Thirty years later, on Easter Sunday, 1999, Pope John Paul II (now Saint John Paul, who was an artist himself) wrote a passionate Letter to Artists praising the importance of their works and attested that their artistic vocation served “humanity as a whole”. He acclaimed that artistic inspiration resulting in art in its most noblest forms is needed for humanity to find its way and destiny. Ten years later, Pope Benedict XVI invited 250 artists from across the world to renew the age-old friendship and encourage new opportunities for collaboration.
In the writings of these three recent popes “the theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art”. Beauty is the essential part of all created works. Beauty will save our lives. It evokes our deep feelings and allows us to contemplate the meaning of our existence. Pope John Paul II remarked to artists that the beauty “which you pass on to generations still to come be such that it will stir them to wonder!” leading to enthusiasm for our existence.
“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us.”†
I believe this last quote resonates so much with us today in our current busy lives in which we are bombarded with incomprehensible amounts of words, sounds and images. We can be drowned by so many impressions all day long that we no longer truly see or hear much at all. We do not have time to just let nature, works of art or the beauty of the moment wash away the problems, sorrow or ugliness of the day. We miss the opportunity to be guided into deeper understanding of life and faith. The average museum visitor spends 15-30 seconds looking at a work of art. This time span is too short to be able to actually see the elements of the work of art, let alone trying to understand and translate the image. Art consists of the seven elements of color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value. Artists often spend days, weeks and months in the perception, composition and execution of their artwork. An artist considers each component carefully, not only to enhance the harmony and beauty of the work but to put in place meaning to the work. As Pope John Paul II says, it is a God given gift to translate the mysteries of the scriptures into forms that enhance our understanding. Works of art have been and remain part of our catechism.
Besides the artistic gift, God has bestowed many different gifts and talents to all of us. My talent may not be artistic, but rather to lead others through works of art and learn to appreciate and to contemplate the significance of colors, use of light and dark, the meaning of empty spaces, textures, design, symbols, and much more. Therefore, during the time of Lent I would like to invite you to a series of reflections through detailed study of selected classical artwork to explore the meaning of Lent and the events of Easter. I hope to share beautiful art with many of you and awaken the desire to slow down, to start seeing and to grow closer to God.
†Quote by F. Dostoyevsky, The Idiot, Part III, chap. 5.
Dr. Ulrike McGregor