Art illumines the story of faith

Jared Staudt

A story in its most basic form conveys a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. It wouldn’t be a good story unless it also had heroes and villains combatting one another in a dramatic plot with ample dialogue. Nothing may transmit the human story as a whole better than art: the earliest traces of humanity can be discerned on the walls of caves, the first monumental architecture arose in Ancient Near East, the Greeks and Romans captured the human figure in its perfection, the full blossoming of the arts unfolded in Christian Europe, and we’ve experienced the slow demise into the abstraction of modernism. The great authors of this story have spoken to us through images and sounds, capturing the thrust of human aspirations and darkness. Their testimony speaks to us despite the efforts of iconoclasts, revolutionaries, and the avant-garde to silence them and undo beauty’s role in lifting the human spirit.

No one has captured this story better, in introductory fashion at least, than E.H. Gombrich, author of the best-selling art book of all time (selling over eight million copies): The Story of Art (Phaidon), first published in 1950, most recently printed in 2018 in its 16th edition. I’m using the book as the text for “Icon: An Exploration Catholic Art & Culture,” a live online class meeting Tuesday evenings this fall and spring. The book, with its many color images, will guide our exploration, as together we contemplate the masterpieces of Christian art. Gombrich himself conveys the excitement of getting deep into the history of art: “One never finishes learning about art. There are always new things to discover. Great works of art seem to look different every time one stands before them. They seem to be as inexhaustible and unpredictable as real human beings. It is an exciting world of its own with its own strange laws and its own adventures … Nothing, perhaps, is more important than just this: that to enjoy these works we must have a fresh mind, one which is ready to catch every hint and to respond to every hidden harmony” (36). The heroes of the story are Constantine with his great basilicas, the monks illuminating Gospel manuscripts, the geniuses of the Renaissance, such as Michelangelo and Raphael, and the Baroque painters Caravaggio and Rubens.

These artists attempt the impossible: to unveil the mystery of the human person by helping us to see what lies hidden within. It’s not enough to follow the general outlines of the story of art to truly enter this unveiling; it’s important to get deeper into details of the masterpieces of each age. A new book looks at this portrayal of the person in stone during the Gothic middle ages: Jacqueline Jung’s Eloquent Bodies: Movement, Expression, and the Human Figure in Gothic Sculpture (Yale, 2020). The book serves as a manifesto for engaging art in a living, three-dimensional way through its expression of figure and space in relation to one’s own physical presence before it. Jung points out the difficulty of photography in capturing this experience and tries to overcome it, partially at least, by providing many photographic angles, from different distances, of the art she engages, such as the Pillar of Judgment in Strasbourg and the Wise and Foolish Virgins of Magdeburg.

In fact, Jung introduces the works of art themselves as protagonists in the great story. She speaks of the highpoint of Gothic sculpture as producing works that were intentionally interactional by involving “an awareness of and responsiveness to beholder’s movements … It was a matter of figures simultaneously assuming a greater physical resemblance to real people in their proportions, volumes, and physiognomies, while also becoming increasingly assertive in their engagement of beholders and labile in the appearances presented to them … It is eloquent speech, exceeding the basic facts of its content to engage with its audience, to persuade them that its subject matter is real, relatable, and relevant. It is charismatic, in the sense that it aims to uplift, and ennoble its audience by dazzling them with its extraordinary grace, beauty, and strength” (19).

Jung makes a strong case for the study of art. Not only does it draw us into the drama of the human story, it helps unfold our own story. Christian art in particular seeks just the kind of experience she describes, drawing the view into the transcendent reality of the people and events it depicts. It draws us into the sacred narrative of salvation history, making us a character within the story of salvation, meditating upon our entrance into the supernatural realm through grace. Christ is the hero of this story, with the saints serving as supporting characters, but Christian iconography, music, and literature inspire the Christian to share in the actions of Christ so that they can belong to us as well. Sacred art forms the imagination and emotions so that they can dispose our minds and wills to conform to the reality of the Word made flesh through the drama of the liturgy and prayer. It provides an important guide as we navigate the story of faith and life.

COMING UP: Restoring Humanity: Combatting social and spiritual ills

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The Church’s task of evangelization includes restoring human life and culture. Jesus promises in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I make all things new.” Even though this will happen fully in the new creation to come, the restoration begins now as God’s grace heals and elevates human life, both individually and socially. I explore how the Church’s mission of evangelization touches human culture through issues of nature, beauty, family life, education, and society in my new book Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence, 2020). The book makes a case for how culture can provide a means for living our faith and building Christian community in a secular world. This vision of restoration can also be seen in some important books that unpack the nature of how the Church confronts and heals the ills facing modern culture.

Remi Brague, a noted French philosopher, has addressed the dead-end that we’ve reached in modern culture in his Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (Notre Dame, 2019). The modern world began with borrowed goods, he contends, taking premodern, Christian principles such as reason and human dignity as its starting point, although they have now lost their foundation and have gone mad. “What becomes of the virtues or ideas — or rather truths — that it has driven to madness? My thesis is that they are to be salvaged from the straitjacket … and given back their sanity and dignity — a dignity which is premodern in nature, that is, rooted in the ancient-cum-medieval worldview” (4). He argues that the modern project has failed as it does not provide a compelling vision of life’s purpose and its extreme autonomy has proven self-destructive. Releasing truth from its straitjacket will entail reentering into dialogue with God, breaking out of the failed task of creating meaning for one’s own life. It also requires entering into creation as something given, as well as into the conversation of history. The future of our culture is an open question and for those who would live to preserve it, they will need to “know that whatever bears the stamp of humanity, such as historical achievements, depends on the will of people to uphold them. If this will should fail, those achievements would crumble down and disappear forever” (114).

Why would anyone want to allow the great achievements of the past to crumble? R.J. Snell’s work on the vice of sloth (or acedia) examines the internal disposition that leads to a hatred of life and an unwillingness to give oneself to others in joy and love. In Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Angelico, 2015), he describes the deep spiritual malaise that has overtaken our culture. “Moderns struggle to find the world beautiful, or good, or of worth, and once the world and things of the world are thought worthless in themselves, they bore us. Further, we struggle to find worth in other persons or ourselves. However horrifying, we find this boredom impossible to give up — we like boredom — because the meaningless of the world allows us to treat it and others and ourselves exactly as we wish” (60). This “revolt against limits” creates a “freedom without definition” and an “internal instability” that results in “tedium, restlessness, wanderlust, hatred for place, prideful and frenetic activity, floating from task to task” (62-63). We have fallen into a nihilism that creates a deep spiritual sloth that refuses to accept communion with God and others as the true path to freedom, because it is seen as burdensome and restricting. In contrast, Snell speaks of the weightiness of ordinary things through which we yoke ourselves to reality and to one another in love. “God’s instruction is needed, and yet God often teaches through ordinary things, through things available if we would attend” (96). Life is good and it calls us out of ourselves to find meaning in things which, though ordinary, call us to greatness of soul.

A key solution for restoring humanity, therefore, comes from living differently each day in simple but profound ways. Another book teaches us how to attend to important social graces: Mitchell Kalpakgian’s The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization (TAN, 2014). Daily habits of hospitality, letter writing, dignified dress, conversation, and friendship will help to rebuild culture, because “these traditional arts cultivate in persons a desire to give and be generous, to appreciate and be grateful, to please and to be thoughtful, to think of the happiness of others and of ways to bring joy to their lives, and to cherish the gift of a person as a blessing from God” (viii). Rather than boredom or sloth, rediscovering lost arts cultivates joy in everyday life and infuses it with purpose by relating meaningfully to others.

Speaking of one example, Kalpakgian explains: “Occasions of hospitality cultivate certain virtues in the host: the art of cooking as an act of love; the art of pleasing guests; the art of creating an attractive, cheerful inviting atmosphere; and a spirit of generosity and the joy of giving. These festive banquets also develop particular virtues in the guest: the ability to be convivial, pleasant, and gregarious; the willingness to be at home in the company of all ages; the practice of self-forgetfulness in taking an interest in the lives and experiences of others; the skills of courtesy and civil conversation” (4-5). These arts do not simply recover trifles from the past but are ordered toward restoring relationship and even sanity. “Thus, good conversation at its best restores common sense and cures folly, dispelling exaggerations, clichés, and silly ideas by its sobriety” (33). We can see how these simple realities provide needed healing for mad truths and spiritual sloth, because “once the pleasure of things replaces the enjoyment of people, the entire quality of civilization suffers” (50). “Wisdom and love,” on the other hand, “are rewards that honor effort, dedication, and fidelity” (66). These virtues call us out of ourselves to others, and ultimately to God, and provide the missing purpose and happiness we need to restore the dignity of human life to modern culture.