Friday, January 27, 2012

Artists and Liturgy

One of the books that I go to again and again for inspiration is a simple, dark gray, wirebound volume with the simple word, liturgy, running down the right-hand side of the cover in all caps. As an object, it is modest, unassuming, yet dignified. Like all good books, like all art, and like the liturgy, itself, its true glory is only revealed through repeated experience of its content.

The proper title of this work is A Sourcebook about Liturgy. Edited by Gabe Huck and published in 1995 by Liturgy Training Publications, it is a compendium of quotations about worship, art, theology, and life. Every time I open it, I find a new treasure that I had never noticed, or am reminded of one that I had once loved yet had forgotten. Here one such piece, found on page 52, in a section called “The Love of Matter.” Rembert C. Weakland, writes,

The artist has to be a bridge builder between the contemporary art world that surrounds us and our own worshipping needs. The artist has to be a bridge builder between the liturgical expressions of the past that form the very best of tradition and the prayer needs of the present. The artist also has to be a bridge builder between the realities of our secular society and the sacredness of our worship. It would seem impossible to me for anyone to fulfill that role without being a person of deep prayer and faith.

I don’t know anything about the author except that he, himself, must be a person of the kind of deep prayer and faith that he upholds as necessary to the artist who would create art for worship. When I read his words, I feel a thrill of recognition, of agreement, of delight that someone has written down what I, also, believe. In many traditions, those who make the ritual objects for the community are valued more for the depth of their faith than for their artistic excellence.

And yet, there is a counter-argument. In the last 500 years of our Western tradition, at least, artistic excellence has been considered much more important than the piety of the artist in commissioning works for the church. Consider, for instance, the infamous story of Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi. Veronese was notorious for his licentious living, yet was considered such a good artist that he was commissioned to paint a Last Supper to replace one by Titian that had been burned in a fire. Veronese filled his huge canvas with jugglers, dwarfs, German mercenaries, and other supernumeraries. This drew the wrath of the Inquisition, who were incensed at the idea that such impious figures might have been present at the last meal that Jesus had with his disciples. Since they might have been present in the house of a tax collector, however, simply giving the painting a new title saved Veronese from punishment and the work was accepted by the friars who commissioned it.

 More recently, in the middle of the 20th century, Father Marie-Alain Couturier invited the most renowned artists of his time to create works of art and even design entire churches even though most of them professed no faith at all and some were actively anti-religious. Although he did hope that some, at least, might be converted, his true project was to restore great art to a central role in the church. He believed that all true art – by which he meant art made by the best artists – could reveal God to the faithful. Thus, through Couturier’s influence, Le Corbusier designed the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp; Henri Matisse created the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence; and Marc Chagall, Pierre Bonnard, Germaine Richter, Georges Rouault, Matisse and others contributed works to the church Notre Dame de Tout Grace at Assy.

As an artist, I was taught to revere all of these works as monuments in the Modernist tradition while looking askance at works made from a stance of faith. As a liturgical scholar, I was taught that the purpose of art in a worship space is to serve, rather than to compete with, the liturgy. Today, standing with one foot in each of those worlds, I look with double vision at any artworks I encounter in a place of worship. I ask, Is it good art? Is it good theology? Does it serve the liturgy? I rarely ask about the faith of the person who made it. Maybe I should.

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