When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

 

 

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Rejoicing with Our Mothers

As I write this, I’m on my way home to Pennsylvania for Mother’s Day weekend to visit my parents.  In my family we’ve never made a big deal of either Mother’s Day or Father’s Day – too secular and commercial, my Mother always said.  Realistically however, their children know that they would love a little something, even just a greeting card, to let them know that we are grateful for the gift of life they gave us.

The other day a friend on social media observed that he was unaware of which holiday he was supposed to be celebrating on that particular day of the week.  Secularism has provided us with a wealth of these invented occasions to make up for the emptiness that materialism and the objectification of others has brought to our culture.  If you do an online search for holidays, you will find not only the familiar ones, both historic and religious, but ones you have probably never heard of.  The “Great American Grump Out” was one of a dozen “holidays” that just so happened to fall upon the date in question.

Fortunately, as a Catholic, I have other days that I can mark, which are the Feasts and Saints’ Days celebrated by the Church for centuries.  Sometimes these celebrations have a local flavor, like the floral carpets laid out on sidewalks in Catalonia for Corpus Christi, or they may be more internationally popular, such as eating fatty foods on Mardi Gras, i.e. “Fat Tuesday”.  Other opportunities exist to revive or interpret traditions of your own, such as going out for pints on the Feast of St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers.

While Mother’s Day is really little more than a commercially designed opportunity to make you feel bad and spend money, fortunately it comes during the month of May, which traditionally has been dedicated to Our Lady.  It’s a chance during this Easter season to appreciate the words of the ancient prayer known as the “Regina Coeli”, with its emphasis on how indeed she whom the Angel Gabriel called, “full of grace”, was blessed to be able to see God’s promise to His people fulfilled, in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.  “The Son whom you merited to bear, Alleluia, has risen, as He said, Alleluia.”

Perhaps this Mother’s Day Sunday, that is something for all of us to focus on, more than we do on cards, flowers, or taking our mothers to brunch.  Our mothers said “Yes” to bearing us, their children, and we should each individually be grateful for that.  Yet the “Yes” of this one mother 2,000 years ago in Judea, the one who was made our heavenly mother by her Divine Son even as He was dying on the Cross, led to the hope for eternal life which all Christians share.  Let’s be sure to thank her, too, for being such a good mother to all of us in the Church, through her willingness to seek the Will of God, and for setting an example of perseverance in Faith, no matter what happens, which all of us can try to follow.

Detail of "Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection" by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520) Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands

Detail of “Christ Appearing to His Mother After the Resurrection” by Jan Mostaert (c. 1520)
Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands

 

On That Whole Church-and-State Thing

Yesterday was the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the Patroness of the city of Barcelona.  It is the largest festival held in the city each year, including concerts, fireworks, and so on.  The official ecclesiastical portion of the celebrations centers around the baroque Basilica which houses the statue of La Mercè, as she is known.  On September 24th, a mass in honor of the Blessed Mother is celebrated at the basilica, to which dignitaries and officials are invited, including the members of the Barcelona City Council.

This year Councilman Jordi Marti Grau, head of the socialist bloc on the Barcelona City Council, refused to attend the mass.  On Monday he issued a statement saying he would not attend because he finds the custom “anachronistic”, and was offended by the display of “allegiance to the Church” represented by the City Council in attending the annual service.  At the reception held at City Hall following the mass, which Mr. Marti naturally attended – no leftist will turn down free food at taxpayer expense, whatever their anticlerical opinions – Mr. Marti said his party intends to lobby to change the nature of the present ceremony honoring Our Lady to something that is more appropriate “to a secular society and a secular state. ”  You can read Mr. Marti’s entire statement regarding this issue on his blog.

What is interesting about his view, much as I loathe Spanish socialism in all its forms, is that he has a point.  In this country we would not have to raise the issue of whether it would be appropriate or not for government to become involved in a religious ceremony.  Let me give you an example from American civic life by way of contrast.

The annual Red Mass for the opening of the Supreme Court’s term is coming up on Sunday, October 6th at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington, DC.  Several of the Justices of the Supreme Court will likely be in attendance, as will members of Congress and the Cabinet.  This is not a compulsory event, but rather a tradition in which jurists and members of the government are invited to gather together to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their actions over the course of their working year.

Inevitably there are a few complaints about officials attending such a mass, usually from those who also want to see us drop  “In God we trust” from our currency, so that we can worship someone with inferior intellectual credentials to the Almighty, such as Richard Dawkins.  However in general the American people seem to understand that something like the Red Mass is simply an event, which those invited may choose to attend or not attend as they see fit.  For example Justice Elena Kagan attended the mass last year, while she did not attend the year before; Justice Samuel Alito did not attend last year, but he did attend the year before.

As is the case with much of Spain, for Catalonia at least at present is still legally a part of that country, the festival surrounding Our Lady of Mercy is largely more secular than religious in nature these days.  There is little popular interest in taking part in masses or processions, and more in shopping, becoming publicly intoxicated, and doing rude things in alleyways. The collapse of Christianity throughout Spain has taken place at an astonishing pace over the past 30-odd years since the death of General Franco.

Yet because Spain has always been and remains a majority Catholic country, even if in most instances in name only, these festivals and celebrations dating from a time when there was greater religious faith, or at least more social pressure to pretend that one did have faith, have remained in place even while belief and practice have declined.  In America we do not have any religious holidays on our federal, state, or local government calendars which would cause the services provided by government to be shut down for the day, apart from Christmas.  Though some could persuasively argue that the celebration of Christmas in the U.S. has not been related to Christ for quite some time now.

This of course begs the question, “Whose holiday is it, anyway?”

Mr. Marti argues that there should be a more secular celebration of the mass, which is a rather obvious red herring, since one cannot actually have a valid Catholic mass which is secular in nature.  It would be like asking a zebra to turn itself into a cow.  Rather, Mr. Marti simply intends to force the city into a public affairs nightmare which will cause it to disassociate itself from the Church.  Since there is no way that the Archdiocese would agree to hold some sort of secular mass for the Feast of Our Lady at the Basilica, Mr. Marti will then pressure the city to not attend in an official capacity.  And in a city as generally left-wing and anticlerical as Barcelona, he will find a great deal of support toward achieving his goal.

The irony of this controversy is that in the U.S., even those of us who, like myself, happen to be rather conservative, can understand and appreciate why government needs to be careful about being too close to religion.  Most of the time we do not seem to have a problem with the President or a governor or senator attending a religious service, largely because we have such a wide host of religions, denominations, and sects represented within our population, which of course Spain does not.  Nor do most reasonable Americans take the view that even the concept of the Deity must be removed entirely from the public square.

It does go to show, however, that the generally rather peaceful separation of Church and State which we enjoy in this country is not something which is a part of public life in many others, including those with democratic forms of government.  In the case of Mr. Marti, who is more interested in becoming mayor someday than in anything else, he picks on the Church because he can.  Like his political ancestors who within living memory did things like dig up the corpses of dead nuns and take them out into the streets to shoot at them, Spanish leftists find Catholic institutions an easy target because they tend not to be able to fight back anymore.  Yet even putting that aside, one does have to consider, in a country which is largely no longer Christian, whether Mr. Marti has a valid point about changing the participation of government officials in religious events from official to unofficial status.

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Cardinal Sistach (center) celebrating mass at the
Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy in Barcelona