Friday, April 12, 2013

Food for the Soul

Church of Il Gesu, Rome, Lazio, Italy. 
©© Photograph by Tango7174, available at
This semester, I have been teaching a course called Picturing the Church. It’s a gallop through two thousand years of Western art, looking at the ways that artists have responded to matters of faith and doctrine in paint, sculpture, architecture, and other media. Like any survey course, it’s an impossible task to boil down so many ideas and images into two hours a week spread over fourteen weeks, but I keep on trying.
The other day, I was trying to explain the tension between the intellectual, scientific ideals of the Age of Reason as exemplified in neo-classical art and architecture, and the focus on emotion, passion, and immediate engagement with the natural world so typical of Romantic poetry, music, and painting. Earlier, I had shown them the lush, evocative, Baroque interior of Il Jesu, the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation austerity as embodied in the whitewashed walls of John Calvin’s oratory in Geneva and the equally interior of church of St Bavo at Haarlem as depicted in Pieter Saenredam’s 1648 painting of that name. 

Pieter Janszoon Saenredam
Interior of the Church of St Bavo, 1648

Now, reflecting on that tension, I am reminded that the entire history of Christian art can be thought of as swinging continuously between the poles of austerity and embellishment. The argument goes all the way back to the disciples who argued with Jesus about the expensive ointment that Mary used to anoint his feet. As John tells the story, Judas exclaims “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”[John 12:5 NIV] but Jesus admonishes him to leave her alone, saying that we will always have the poor with us.
In the fifth century, the hermit monk Nilus objected to the proliferation of images in churches, saying “it would be childish and infantile to distract the eyes of the faithful with the aforementioned [trivialities]. It would be, on the other hand, the mark of a firm and manly mind to represent a single cross in the sanctuary.”In the twelfth century, Abbott Suger defended the lavish decoration of the newly-rebuilt Abbey Church of St. Denis against the imprecations of his contemporary, Bernard of Clairvaux, like this:
If golden pouring vessels, golden vials, golden little mortars used to serve, by the word of God or the command of the Prophet, to collect the blood of goats or calves or the red heifer: how much more must golden vessels, precious stones, and whatever is most valued among all created things, be laid out, with continual reverence and full devotion, for the reception of the blood of Christ! . . . The detractors also object that a saintly mind, a pure heart, a faithful intention ought to suffice for this sacred function; and we, too explicitly and especially affirm that it is these that principally matter. [But] we profess that we must do homage also through the outward ornaments of sacred vessels. . . . with all inner purity and with all outward splendor. [Abbot Suger, “De Administratione,” 65-67]
Bernard, meanwhile, wrote disparagingly of the “enormous height, extravagant length and unnecessary width of the churches, of their costly polishings and curious paintings which catch the worshipper's eye and dry up his devotion.” He admitted that such things probably do no harm to the simple and devout, whatever problems it may pose for the vain and greedy. However, he pointed out, for poor, spiritual, cloistered monks such things are at best distractions and at worst invitations to sin. He went on,
But in cloisters, where the brothers are reading, what is the point of this ridiculous monstrosity, this shapely misshapenness, this misshapen shapeliness? What is the point of those unclean apes, fierce lions, monstrous centaurs, half-men, striped tigers, fighting soldiers and hunters blowing their horns?... In short, so many and so marvelous are the various shapes surrounding us that it is more pleasant to read the marble than the books, and to spend the whole day marveling over these things rather than meditating on the law of God. Good Lord! If we aren't embarrassed by the silliness of it all, shouldn't we at least be disgusted by the expense? [Bernard of Clairvaux, “Apology”]
And so today we have both the National Cathedral and plain, unadorned, cinderblock meeting houses, and we still wage budget battles in our churches and our secular legislative bodies that pit the arts against the never-ending needs of the poor.  But the scriptures suggest that maybe we should not be disgusted by the expense, in both time and money, of embellishing our lives. For instance, Psalm 19 praises God's handiwork. It reminds us that it is God's nature to make beautiful things, whether it is the sun or moon or sky, or the laws by which the created world, and we in it, must live. While neither the words "justice" nor "beauty" occur in this psalm, both are implicit in its themes and construction. Too often, justice and beauty are set up as opposing forces, as if it were true that to work for justice is to be oblivious to beauty. But the very existence of this poem of praise, and the many other references both to God's creation and to the human arts, is a reminder that physical food is not enough, that justice includes the beautiful things which are often referred to as "food for the soul."

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