St. Luke and the Smashed Statue

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, the Gospel writer and good friend of people like St. Paul and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who among other things is honored as the patron saint of artists. It is also a good opportunity for us to reflect on the importance of art to Catholics, particularly in light of what happened over the weekend with the scandalous destruction of a statue of the Virgin Mary by members of the Occupy Wall Street movement. As has been reported elsewhere, though of course not in the so-called mainstream media, the group broke into a church in Rome, smashed the doors of the sacristy, and desecrated a crucifix. They then carried a statue of Our Lady out into the street, smashed it into the pavement, and then jumped on it to smash it even further.

Those who have visited my ongoing web project Catholic Barcelona where I am cataloguing the interesting churches, chapels, and other Catholic sites in Barcelona – a project currently on hold as I await my next trip to that city in December – know that such actions infuriate me both as a Catholic and as a lover of art. People of the same political persuasions as today’s current batch of “protesters” escalated their movements into a virulent form of anti-clericalism in Spain in the 1930’s, and did tremendous damage to the Christian fabric of Barcelona in particular. One need only see what was done to sites such as the formerly magnificent Jesuit church on the Ramblas to begin to imagine what artistic losses we have suffered as a result of such actions.

Interestingly enough, in the late 19th century a number of Catalan cultural figures were seeking to bring together like minds to try to integrate their artistic careers with the Christian faith and combat such secularism, and decided to seek the patronage of St. Luke. In 1893 they formed The Artistic Circle of St. Luke, and sponsored lectures, exhibitions, courses, and the creation of a study archive for their members and the benefit of the public. The group thrived during the same period that Barcelona was undergoing a phenomenal artistic and cultural renaissance, with the work of architects like Gaudí, painters like Miró, writers like the Folch i Torres brothers, and political cartoonists like my own great-grandfather – all of whom were members of the Circle. Because of their Catholic association, the Circle of St. Luke was forcibly closed for several years by the leftists beginning in 1936, as part of their efforts to stamp out the Christian faith in Barcelona.  Although they later reopened, they have gradually lost some of their focus, and have become today something less than what they once were, i.e. cultural figures who sought the patronage of the patron saint of artists and the integration of their Catholic faith with their artistic output.

Those of my readers who are not Catholics may not have a full understanding as to why the iconoclasm displayed by the individuals shown in the Occupy Rome vandalism is so appalling to those of us of the Catholic faith. From an artistic point of view, the particular statue that was destroyed in the attack was not of any great intrinsic significance. The image is a fairly standard, mass-produced one, probably made of molded and painted plaster, that one could purchase from a religious supply house. It is not as though the protesters broke into one of the great Roman churches and smashed a sculptural masterpiece by Michelangelo or Bernini.

Nor, must it be said, do Catholics need art in order to be able to worship God, which is a common misconception. The Church recognizes that, for many people, an image is a tool can help focus one’s prayer life. Yet the images themselves are neither worshiped nor necessary, as such images are in pagan or animist religions. After all, the same religion that built the lavishly decorated Jesuit churches in Rome – full of statues, pictures, and so on – also built the stark, minimalist churches of the Cistercians and Trappists, where there is little or no decoration at all.

The Catholic view of such artistic objects is that they are the equivalent of family portraits and photographs, which most of us display proudly in our homes to remind us of our departed loved ones, whom we hope to meet again in the next life. We do not worship the photo of grandpa on the bookshelf in the family room, nor the portrait of a great-great-aunt that hangs in the upstairs hallway. These things are simply reminders of our connections to these people, and they work as visual stimuli to cause us to remember them and to think about them, and probably more frequently than we otherwise would, if these images were not on display before us.

Similarly, while I was not fortunate enough to have met someone like St. Dominic, the great 12th century Spanish religious founder and preacher, I can have a statue or picture of him on my desk as a reminder.  The image of him, as imagined by an artist, helps me to recall his life, his preaching, and the work he did for Christ. And with that reminder, hopefully I will also be reminded that I should try to follow his example of obedience to God’s Will, and to speak out on behalf of the Faith when given the opportunity to do so.  Should the statue be broken or the picture destroyed I will regret its loss, of course, but it is not by any means necessary that I should have one.

Whether through acts of blasphemy, scandal, or the like, the destruction of an artistic image of Jesus, or one of the saints like the Virgin Mary, cannot destroy God or His Church. Catholics do not need images to worship God, or honor the men and women who have served Him, any more than, in a secular context, we Americans need things like gravestones, memorial plaques, the Lincoln Memorial, or Mount Rushmore. In the end, the destruction of this particular image by leftists in Rome only hurts those who actually destroyed it, for unless they repent of their malice they will someday have to answer for what they have done.

For those of us who are Catholics, perhaps we should ask St. Luke, as the patron of artists, to encourage this parish community in Rome to come together after this act of destruction, and see whether someone can get them a replacement statue for the parish church, so that the parishioners will once again be able to reflect on the life of the Blessed Virgin – someone whose life story so captivated the interest of St. Luke himself – and pray for the conversion of those who sought to harm God by such shocking, but ultimately futile efforts.

Detail of “St. Luke” by El Greco (c. 1605)
Cathedral of Santa Maria de Toledo, Spain

Banal Blasphemy in Beijing

A new exhibition opened in China this weekend, showcasing art that mocks Christianity just in time for the birthday of the Church on Pentecost. Entitled “The Road”, the show at the Pace Gallery’s Beijing outpost features recent paintings by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, whose work has become something of a Kelly bag these days, i.e. a “must-have” for the cognoscenti. In the show, Yue explores a number of themes from the life of Christ and the saints, portraying them in his immediately recognizable, one-trick pony style. Yet his work is so repetitive and derivative, than it is a bit like buying a fake Rolex off the street.

Yue’s talent, such as it is, is to paint images of figures wearing reptilian expressions usually described as “smiles”. Personally, his figures always seem to me to be laughing rather than smiling, given that I do not know many people who shut their eyes tightly and open their mouths wide when they smile – but there you are. The heads of these figures are almost always based on Yue’s own head, which is painted onto the body in a disproportionate size.

According to the website for the show, which not only explains the exhibition but also provides much-needed laughter on a Monday morning:

In his newest exhibition, Yue’s work takes on Christian forms. The strength of Western culture has pushed more than a few Chinese people into an existence stripped of its cultural core, making them into nomads, wandering in the space between two cultures. By altering the semantic relationships between the people and space in the original works, the works seem almost to dissolve away, neatly avoiding the contradictions and embarrassment inherent to any collision between two cultures. As the curator Leng Lin stated, “Confronted with something you don’t completely understand, a smile can mean rejection, or confusion. But it can also mean inclusion and acceptance.”

[N.B.: I suspect whoever wrote this description used to work at the undergraduate admissions office at Georgetown.]

The Pace Gallery is based in the United States but, as is always the case in the international art market, they followed the money. As was the case in Japan 20-30 years ago, all the new billionaires in China need works of art to cover the walls of their luxury homes, and as back-up investments in case the stock market sours. Some of these people will, as the Russians have done, use their new wealth to purchase their country’s antiquities, in order to repatriate their cultural patrimony, particularly pieces which made their way out of the country as a result of Communist totalitarianism. Other collectors however, are simply interested in being perceived as trendy hipsters, and it is to this group of customers that galleries like Pace cater with exhibitions such as this.

Scrolling through the images of the show, we first see a “Baptism of Christ” where all of the Yue clones are wearing speedos. Next is a work entitled “Annunciation”, copying the background of Fra Angelico’s famous version in the Priory of San Marco in Florence, but eliminating the figures of the Angel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin. This is displayed near a tondo entitled “The Crowning of Thorns”, showing a single figure wearing a crown of thorns on a swirly, psychedelic background.

Next comes a rendering of “The Entombment”, which copies the figural arrangement of Caravaggio’s masterpiece in the Vatican but again features all male figures in speedos; this hangs near a “Deposition from the Cross”, where there are no figures and the deposition appears to already be over. The exhibition concludes with a piece entitled “Resurrection”. To me, this last seems to be a mistake in titling by the artist. I cannot immediately identify what painting Yue is copying, but the composition would seem more likely to be the second appearance of Christ to the Apostles after the Resurrection, given the gesture of the figure in the lower left, who would therefore represent St. Thomas.

From a technical standpoint – and I know one of my regular readers in particular is going to say I am being too charitable – Yue has some understanding of composition. Admittedly, in these works he is generally doing little more than copying the well-thought-out compositions of better artists than he. As a sort of contemporary surrealist his would not be an unusual practice, but Yue does not appear to have much fun doing it.  There is no “gusto” in his work.

Not unlike the far more talented surrealist René Magritte, Yue has an eye for graphic impact but little skill in the application of paint. Many people, this writer included, love the work of Magritte for its humor, but his technique as a painter admittedly left much to be desired. In Yue’s case, his style is so clearly dependent upon artists like Magritte that, when combined with Yue’s high school art student understanding of light and shadow, the whole comes off as counterfeit.

With respect to the question of blasphemy, simply put Yue is not really any good at it.  Based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the use of imagery in the Church, contemporary artists like Yue seem to be operating under the collective impression that by mocking Christian iconography they weaken the Christian message.  Catholics know that paintings are pathways to prayer, rather than objects required for the survival of the Faith.  This is why the stark minimalism of the Cistercians, for example, can co-exist alongside the Baroque exuberance of the Theatines: for those who find visual clues helpful, they are provided, and for those who do not need such clues, they can be eschewed, but in neither instance are they necessary. We do not like images that insult our Church any more than we would like images that insult our family and friends or our country, but we also know that God cannot be injured by a work of art.

In sum then, at least in this particular show, Yue is trying to box above his weight as an artist.  He exhibits both a lack of artistic skill and a lack of understanding of the subject matter which is all-too-typical in the post-modern world. The end result is that this reviewer is left both unimpressed and unmoved.