Art and the Illuminative Way

The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)
The Madonna and Child w/ Saints (Beato Fra Angelico)

Thus far, meditating on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s First Phase of Holiness we’ve touched on some significant themes: 

  • That the first stage is illuminative, a burning bush moment when God reaches into our existence to lead us by a better more meaningful way.
  • That the first stage is ethical, inviting our humanity to grow and exercise itself for the sake of virtue
  • That the first stage is sensory, lived our preeminently through relationships of deep friendship (i.e. Sts. Paul, Timothy and Titus)

Today we consider another sensory dimension of the Illuminative Phase: ART

The reflection could not be more timely.  Just yesterday President Rouhani of Iran visited Rome.  Italians were shocked to find that their own Capitoline Museum had literally boxed off nude statues in deference to the Iranian president’s religious concerns during his tour.  Personal aside: As a lover of Roman/Art and a former resident of the Eternal City, I was deeply hurt by this decision on the part of the Italian authorities.  Perhaps if Italian President Mattarella ever visits Iran, the authorities their will consider our religious/cultural beliefs by unveiling their female citizens and serving a pork roast with a robust chianti for the state dinner.

Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) ITALY OUT
Covered Nudes in the Capitoline Museum 1/26/16 (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA via AP) 
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Greek Bronze Bust currently on view at the NGA’s “Power and Pathos” Exhibit

Art has been an illuminative part of human history from the beginning.  Our earliest ancestors recorded… and in some ways extended… the reach of their lives in cave paintings (for example).  Classical Western civilization had a love affair with art, to be sure.  Evidence of this is currently on display at the National Gallery’s exquisite exhibit of Greek bronzes, “Power and Pathos”   And of course Christian civilization inherited and extended this appreciation for art as God became visible entering into his own Creation, the revealed, incarnate image of the Father.  Art illumines the way to God and can play a significant role in the first stage of holiness.

The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC
The Cathedral of St. Matthew, Washington, DC

All that said, the relationship between the West and art has not been without its critics.  Recognizing arts power for good and for evil, Plato recommended banishing certain artists from his ideal Republic.  The Byzantine Empire once tried to destroy all Christian art, latching on to the idea that art was idolatrous.  This iconoclasm was ended by the Church, which, without denying that one could sin by making an idol out of art, discerned that the holy goods that art could inspire were well worth the risk.  Later, proponents of the protestant reformation banished art from many of their communities for similar reasons.

How can we concisely describe the incredible illuminative power of art?  Regarding ethics (again, part of the illuminative way): what is it’s relationship with art?  Donald Beebe, in an insightful exploration of Florentine aesthetics at the time of the reformation had this to say,

“Art functions properly when it leads the beholder to worship and to emulate correct behavior.  It functions inappropriately when it exists for its own sake, when its didactic message goes unheeded or is the occasion of heterodoxy or sin.”  Beebe goes on, “As God’s creation, nature is the artist’s teacher.  In the same way, a sudden learns to draw by copying drawings produced by the master’s intellect.  Little by little, the student learns the style of the master, as the master learned to cry creation that in turn originated by the ingenio of God.”
(-Beebe, Donald.  Savonarolan Aesthetics and their Implementation in the Graphic Arts.  In: In No
Strange Land
, By: Jonathan Robinson, CO.  Angelico Press, 2015. pg.115)

Whether or not one subscribes to such an ethically-oriented sense of art is another conversation, but for our purposes, exploring the illuminative way, I think Beebe’s words are a great guide.  Along those lines, as a very practical resource, I highly recommend reading The Beauty of Holiness: Sacred Art and the New Evangelization by Jem Sullivan, PhD.  A local DC luminary in her own right, Dr. Sullivan offers a great review of the role art can play in spirituality, especially in terms of using art as a source of meditation (lectio divina).  It’s a useful essay to have in mind as you walk the streets of DC admiring our public art and architecture, hopefully drawing from it an inspiration to holiness.

For further rumination on the role of art as it inspires ethics and illumination, consider two secular reflections:

PBS’ American Experience: The Rise and Fall of Penn Station
and
Cinque Henderson’s article posted this morning on The New Yorker, “Anthem of Freedom: How Whitney Houston remade ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ ”