I recently visited the Denver Art Museum to see the Degas: A Passion for Perfection exhibit, which runs until May 20th. My kindergartener summed up the thematic content: “Horses and dancing girls.” With this inspiration, Degas’ genius spanned an array of materials — graphite, charcoal, ink, pastel, paints, and sculpture — as well as a spectrum of vision, from rough sketches and undefined abstraction to unexpected color and precision of line (sometimes in the same piece). Following from his study of classical artists, Degas developed new techniques to explore the contours of modern life.
As Catholics, we have abundant opportunities to enter into the beauty of our faith through art — old and new. Here are some recent books to guide us on a pilgrimage of the arts.
Painting serves as a good entry point into the Catholic arts and Madeline Stebbins’ Looking at a Masterpiece (Emmaus, 2017) provides not only over 40 paintings, but also guides us in how to understand them. It is a large book, which reproduces the paintings in beautiful fashion. Chapter 19, “A Beautiful Journey,” features Francesco Botticini’s “The Three Archangels with Tobias (c. 1470) and typifies the pilgrimage through the arts, as we imitate Tobias in being led by the hand through a journey of beauty, drawing us more deeply to God.
Gijs van Hensbergen also leads us on a tour of the greatest modern church with his The Sagrada Familia: The Astonishing Story of Gaudi’s Unfinished Masterpiece (Bloomsbury, 2017). Hensbergen describes the complexity and paradoxes of the church and its architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose cause for canonization has been opened. Sagrada Familia, a shrine to the Holy Family, is thoroughly modern and even surrealist, while conveying a truly transcendent and beautiful vision.
Anthony Esolen offers us not simply a theoretical overview of great Christian hymns, but a guide through these hymns, with an accompanying CD, in his Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (TAN, 2016). He arranges the book’s chapters based on major themes, such as the psalms, major events of salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the Eucharist. This beautiful guide could help Catholic singing to come alive again, both in the home and in parishes.
The reading and memorization of poetry were common practices not too long ago. Joseph Pearce hopes to get us reading beautiful, classic poems again with his Poems Every Catholic Should Know (TAN, 2016). He includes the poetry of some great saints, such as Francis, Gertrude, and Robert Southwell, Catholic artists such as Dante, Chaucer, and Hopkins, as well as other great writers of the English language. In Pearce’s own contribution, he describes the Christian poetic spirit, responding the presence of God: “Thus transfixed / in transient transfiguration, / the impression / of mind’s gaze / becomes expression / and finds praise” (282).
Dr. Joshua Hren, professor of literature at Belmont College, has founded a new Catholic press to publish both classic and contemporary works of Catholic fiction, Wiseblood Books. An accomplished writer himself, he recently released a collection of short stories, This Our Exile (Angelico, 2017). In the line of Flannery O’Connor, Hren uses the violent afflictions of our culture to contemplate our pilgrimage through this place of exile, hoping to arrest us into a greater awareness of life’s underlying spiritual realities.
The Eternal Pilgrimage
When people ask me what great classic of literature they should read first, without hesitation I answer: Dante’s Divine Comedy (though it helps to read Virgil first). Wyoming Catholic College professor Jason Baxter offers an entry point into the work with his A Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s Divine Comedy (Baker, 2018). Baxter offers a wonderful introduction to Dante and a section by section commentary, taking the reader through Dante’s own journey through the afterlife, woven deeply with the poet’s own experience of Tuscan culture. Just as Virgil and Beatrice guided Dante, so some extra support helps to catch the Divine Comedy’s historical and spiritual references.
An Actual Pilgrimage!
The United States has a richer Catholic culture than we might expect at first, with the Spanish settling many parts of the South and West, the French in the Great Lakes Region and Louisiana, and English Catholics in Maryland. We can experience firsthand the great heritage left behind by these Catholic settlers by going on pilgrimage! Santa Fe, N.M., offers many amazing treasures, as well as the beautifully situated missions of California. For a vade mecum while visiting these missions, see Stephen Binz’ Saint Junipero Serra’s Camino: A Pilgrimage Guide to California Missions (Franciscan Media, 2017). You can also come with me to the Louvre on my Saints, Monks, and Beer pilgrimage this October (rtijourneys.com).
The great heritage of Catholic art should shape our imaginations, anchoring us in God’s truth, goodness, and beauty during our pilgrimage to his heavenly city.