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Is there such a thing as bad sacred art?
Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.
Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art.
When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place.
Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.
Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art. At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.
So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.
“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr with the traditional blessing of the throats.
The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.
From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.
Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats on his feast day. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat and to present such ailments.
According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Thus two candles are used during the blessing of the throats. These candles are blessed the previous day on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. They are often held together by a red ribbon and placed around the neck of the person being blessed. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise.
Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing not unlike other sacramentals such as the sprinkling with Holy Water remain popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.
The feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2) or Candlemas is one of the lesser known feasts in our church today. Its history is complex and rich yet because it most often falls on a weekday very few people even are aware of it. Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of this feast which go back all the way to my childhood.
Our family would attend early morning Mass on that day. Upon entering the church we received a candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle. My current fondness of processions probably dates back to those Candlemas celebrations when I carried the candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We even would light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid.
Many years later, when living in a Benedictine abbey we celebrated the day with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer and the sung psalms were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights and smell the burning wax which even overpowered the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.
Memories are great yet they need to be interpreted carefully. My childhood experience of the feast reveals profound truths but maybe there was a hint of superstition which tainted the use of the candles at home. Or was it the result of a more generous and less complicated faith? My monastic memories, again revelatory of deep faith undoubtedly suffer from some liturgical romanticism.
As a child I always wished we could keep the candle burning throughout the liturgy and even on our way home. I did not quite know why but I thought it made sense. I still imagine this grand procession of all Christians leaving their respective churches on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or any feast for that matter with lit candle in hand, proclaiming to the world that Christ is the Light and we bear witness to Him in word and deed.
On January 27 we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorating the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. It meant the end of the most horrific and extensive form of Genocide the world has ever known as 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) and 15,000 homosexual people were systematically killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Millions of others were also killed or otherwise victimized.
To most of us those days seem so far off and almost unreal. Therefor this day of remembrance is of the utmost importance. On the one hand it invites us to honor the memory of all the Nazi victims. On the other hand it forces us to confront the evil reality of genocide that still exists in our world today.
A few years ago I happened to be in Paris on January 27. Though I had been there before I had never visit the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, the memorial to those deported from France during World War II. There could be no more fitting day to make a pilgrimage to this impressive yet often forgotten monument in the shadows of the more famous cathedral of Notre Dame. As I made my way, my heart was heavy with worry for the human race, given our capacity to inflict unthinkable horror on one another. I also pondered the impact the Nazis had on my own family.
My grandfather and the other men working in my grandmother’s shoe factory were deported to Nazi camps because she refused to make shoes for the Nazi army. The family home was occupied by Nazi officers. When my grandmother died, I inherited her papers including the moving letters my grandfather sent from the camp as well as letters from one of the officers who had occupied my grandmother’s house. The latter include his thoughts on the horrors of the war and his striking plea for forgiveness.
This extraordinary building captures those who enter it from the very first moment, guiding them down the narrow steps, through the courtyard, into the foyer, to the wall of remembrance and the eternal flame. This journey makes visitors face the reality of the suffering of the 200,000 victims who are honored here and beyond them all human suffering. It also provides a timid light of hope for humanity which too often seems untenable and almost absurd.
My walk back to the hotel that day took me past Notre Dame Cathedral. I could not but enter and light a candle for all those who are suffering at the hand of other people. I stayed for Vespers and prayed “Thy Kingdom Come” with more fervor than ever before.
As a result, we take the arts very seriously both within the liturgy and outside the liturgy. That is why we opened our Art Gallery 15 years ago, under the protection of Blessed (soon to be Saint) Pope John XXIII. Local artists as well as national and international artists have exhibited in our Gallery. We have presented art in practically every medium and from every continent. We have mostly exhibited Christian art but have also have hosted interfaith exhibits and have ventured into the broader Sacred Art realm.
Though each of our artists deserves to be written about I selected just one, Steve Olson whom I believe to be representative of all artists who have exhibited in our Gallery. Steve is a local artist with a national following. His work, though not always easy is strong and purposeful. It reveals his search for answers to the more difficult questions of life, and even life itself. John’s work commands your attention and when you finally can pry yourself away it remains with you and calls you back, over and over again. It is not the kind of art you see and promptly forget about. It is the kind of art that stays with you forever.
I clearly remember the moment I encountered the work of art by Steve that is depicted above this text. It has not let go of me since and in return, I have not let go of it either. The colors, the shapes, the textures and the intriguing way in which John made the heads and bodies interchangeable commanded my attention. Even today, 10 years later I cannot walk by it without stopping and pondering its meaning.
When I first saw the work I immediately thought of it as a Pietá, disregarding what John’s intentions might have been. The word Pietá comes from the Latin Pietas which was used in the Roman Empire to refer to “dutiful conduct” toward the Gods. Our word piety is clearly derived from this. The most famous Pietá is undoubtedly the one in St. Peter’s Basilica, carved by the young Michelangelo (1498-1499). In this masterpiece Michelangelo shows a young and serene Mary holding the body of Jesus which does not seem tormented but rather given in abandonment to God. Jesus accepted death as the ultimate consequence of his mission. In other words this Pietá truly reflects Jesus’ pietas or “dutiful conduct” toward God.
Throughout the centuries, artists have created Pietás inspired by their own age. Some renditions are very serene while others, including some later versions by Michelangelo reveal more of the pain suffered both by Mary and Jesus. Some renditions do not even show Mary and Jesus but rather depict unnamed people who like Jesus and Mary fulfilled their pietas or their “duty to God.”
Olson’s Pietá depicts two unnamed people who hold one another. By making the heads and bodies interchangeable he suggests that as humans we take turns in supporting and being supported. Like Michelangelo’s first Pietá, Olson’s Pietá is not really about pain and sorrow, but rather emphasizes our pietas or our “dutiful service” to God. Like Michelangelo’s Pietá, Olson’s Pietá is not about the underlying division and discord, but rather about support, sustenance and in the end about salvation or eternal life.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and thus the Christmas season comes to an end. This would probably come as a surprise to many people as Christmas outside the church has been forcibly erased from our memories with the red and green of Christmas gradually being replaced by the red-only of the next commercial holiday, St. Valentine. In the church, though, the evergreens still stand and the poinsettias, though visibly tired persist.
The two main liturgical celebrations of the church: Christmas and Easter have a time of preparation, respectively Advent and Lent and a time of celebration, respectively Christmastide and Eastertide. The Christmas season is punctuated by a number of liturgical celebrations, in chronological succession: the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year unless January 1st falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on December 30th; the solemnity of the Mother of God on January 1st; the solemnity of the Epiphany mostly observed on the Sunday between January 2 and 8; and the feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany unless Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8 when the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day.
The more ancient of these celebrations, namely Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, together with the Birth of the Lord were originally celebrated as one big celebration of the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ on January 6. This unified feast predates the separate celebration of Christmas on December 25. There is evidence of the celebration of the Epiphany by the end of the second century, while the earliest known reference to Christmas is no older than 354 AD.
The word Epiphany is the English transliteration of the Greek Epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, and manifestation. The feast of the epiphany is thus the feast of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was also known as the Theophany or Theophaneia in Greek, meaning the revelation or appearance of God.
The original feast of the Epiphany celebrated the four major epiphanic moments in the life of Jesus all bundled in one. The first epiphany being the revelation of Jesus as God to Israel symbolized by the announcement to the shepherds which we now celebrate on Christmas. The second is the revelation of Jesus as God to the gentiles symbolized by the Magi which is celebrated on Epiphany in the churches of the west. The third is the revelation of God as the Trinity which is now celebrated on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The fourth major revelation is God’s desire to make all things new which happened at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine. Though not accorded its own feast, the reading recounting this event is now read on the Sunday after Baptism of the Lord during year C, thus in close proximity to the other three celebrations.
The main theological reason why these epiphanic moments are now spread out over several celebrations is due to the importance of each one of them in its own right. The goal of each celebration is twofold: first we celebrate each epiphany so we come to know God better and second we celebrate each epiphany so we may in turn lead lives that reveal God to the world.
As we conclude the rich celebration of the Christmas season let us re-commit ourselves to reveal to the world in deed and in word what has been revealed to us. May each epiphany of God inspire us to become ourselves an epiphany of God to the world in turn.
The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Mgr. Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors. They are grand and shiny and to most, they are inviting.
All kinds of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race and in age, in social status and sometimes in creed. Some people almost run up the majestic stairs to fling open the grand doors and bask in the beauty of the building. Others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. They hesitantly open the heavy doors and almost sneak inside.
Having passed through the doors some people simply pause in awe after releasing an audible gasp. Others walk a familiar path to a beloved shrine where they light a candle and kneel down in silent prayer. Some people slide into a pew, pull down their hood and take a nap. Some come here to hide from the cold, or even to hide from the world. The Basilica doors indeed are a great access point to the building.
Yet, more importantly they also symbolize the entrance into the church and the entrance into the Body of Christ. Families walk through them as they bring their newly born babies for baptism. Young people with families in tow enter this building, often for the first time to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. Excited brides and eager grooms pass through these doors separately to merge from them together after the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage. Seminarians in cassocks, deacons in stoles, priest in chasubles and mitered bishops pass through these doors to celebrate the sacrament of Holy orders. Ailing and burdened people pass through them seeking forgiveness and healing. Many people pass through these doors, Sunday after Sunday seeking nourishment on their earthly journey as they come to celebrate Eucharist. And at the end of our lives, our bodies are lovingly carried through these doors for a last visit to the church before we are laid to rest.
The Incarnation Season, including Advent and Christmas, is a great time to meditate on the doors of our Church as we remember how Mary and Joseph found them closed when they were looking for a place to spend the night. Locked out, they were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus, the one who became the door to salvation for all humankind.
During this season we are invited to open wide our doors. We are invited to open wide the doors of our souls to Christ. We are invited to open wide the doors of our heart to all who need our love. And we are invited to open wide the doors of our homes to all who need shelter.
And as Pope Francis reminds us over and over again, the church ought to do the same. Too often, the beautifully crafted doors of our cathedrals, churches and chapels are closed to too many people, literally as well as symbolically. Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all, asks the church to do no less than that: to open wide our doors to welcome all. No matter where someone is at on their earthly journey, they are welcome in the church as the church is not a palace for the privileged and perfect but rather a shelter for those who are suffering and searching.
May the beautiful doors of our Basilica never exist to keep people out, but rather be a constant invitation to the entire Body of Christ with all its bruises and burns to enter and find hope and healing.