Sinful Artists, Sacred Art

This week Apollo Magazine offers a thoughtful piece on the work of the British sculptor Eric Gill (1882-1940), who is the subject of a new exhibition that just opened at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft in West Sussex. I warn you that it’s a difficult article to read, because author James Williams pulls no punches in looking at the rather shocking personal life of the artist in tandem with his religious art – and the piece includes one illustration by Gill toward the end of the article which you may not want to see, if you’re particularly sensitive. But for those of you prepared to read it, it offers a good opportunity for adult reflection and discussion on some difficult aspects of the arts where they intersect with faith.

Gill became a prominent artist at the turn of the previous century, primarily as a result of his sculpture, but also from his work as an engraver and a designer of typefaces, such as that still used by Penguin Books. His art can be seen in many places throughout Britain, but perhaps his most famous and public works are those which decorate Broadcasting House, the Art Deco headquarters of the BBC. When I lived in London, I walked past this building nearly every day on my way to and from school, and admired Gill’s figures of Ariel and Prospero from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which adorn the facade.

After he converted to Catholicism in 1911, Gill received many commissions to create works of art for Catholic institutions, including the Stations of the Cross which he created for Westminster Cathedral, the Catholic cathedral in London. He and his wife formed a lay religious fraternity with other artists interested in Catholic subjects, and went to live in an art colony in Wales. While his views became increasingly socialist as he grew older, he nevertheless continued to practice his faith, even as he supported more left-leaning causes.

Many years after his death, it was revealed that Gill had a voracious sexual appetite, which extended not only to his own adult sisters and grown daughters, but even to the family dog. He detailed his activities in his diaries, which came to light in the late 1980’s as a biography of his life was being researched. Up until then, Gill had been viewed as one of the preeminent British sculptors of the first half of the 20thcentury, and his religious faith was taken to be what it was: a part of his personal and artistic philosophy just as much as his outspoken public opposition to anything resembling fascism.

When the truth of Gill’s personal life became known, right around the time that the clergy sexual abuse scandal began to break, there were calls for his work to be removed from the churches where these pieces were displayed. Although that did not happen, the taint of this scandal now permanently colors his legacy, so that one cannot see his art without thinking of Gill’s private activities. It is fair to say that for many, there is an unavoidable feeling of discomfort in such a situation, and I must say, the more I have looked at Gill’s work after reading this piece, the more disturbed and disturbing an artist I find him to be. Perhaps there is something to be said, after all, for the idea that his art should not be in our churches.

That being said, works by many great Catholic artists who also happened to have considerable sexual appetites are very common in our churches, in Bibles and religious books, and so on. Raphael for example, supposedly died as a result of an evening’s overexertion with his favorite model-mistress, whose features he used in many of his religious paintings. Michelangelo wrote erotic love poems to a number of young men, including at least one of his assistants and two of his models. Late in life Velázquez fathered an illegitimate child during a trip to Rome to paint the Pope, an affair which kept him from going back to his wife for nearly 3 years.

The same proclivities and weaknesses are not limited to Catholic artists, either. Mozart may or may not have been a philanderer, but he was definitely a freemason (a mortal sin for a Catholic), while Fauré had endless mistresses and extramarital affairs. Nevertheless, the religious music of both composers is still performed regularly in churches all over the world. Waugh enjoyed affairs with both men and women, and became both alcoholic and drug addict, but still rose to become one of the most prominent Catholic authors of the 20th century. Indeed, as he famously remarked when Nancy Mitford pointed out that his faith and his behavior often did not jibe very well, he would have been even more of a reprobate if he wasn’t a Christian.

All of these men were great artists in their fields, and yet all them were great sinners as well. None of them were perfect, and yet they all succeeded in revealing something of Divine perfection in their work. If you’re looking for artists who both created great religious works and practiced personal continence, you’re going to find a very short list. With extremely few exceptions, someone who writes a beautiful hymn or paints a magnificent icon is not any less sinful than the rest of us are.

So when it comes to Gill, you’ll have to reach your own conclusions about what to think about his work. Personally speaking, I’m increasingly of the mind that his public art, beautiful though it may be, is tainted because of other art that he created, which inappropriately comingles eroticism and faith. However, I leave it to those with larger brains than mine to figure out what is to be done here.

Every area of creative endeavor is populated by sinners, just as our banks, hospitals, and grocery stores are. Artists are, perhaps, more likely to be unconventional in their personal lives than those engaged in more ordinary occupations. Yet if you care about both the arts and your faith, at some point you have to find a way to reconcile the two, which as we’ve seen are often diametrically opposed to one another. Perhaps in this context Mary Magdalene, the sinner who became a great saint, would be just as appropriate a patron saint for artists, as she already is for those who have suffered greatly from temptation.

Dali, The Dominican, and Forgotten Faith

​After the March for Life last Friday, I rushed over to the National Gallery of Art to meet up with a friend, who wanted a quick tour of some of the highlights of the NGA’s collection. When you’ve only got about 45 minutes to “do” a vast museum before the place closes, you’ve got to be somewhat strategic with your choices. Fortunately, when I asked the gentleman in question whether there was a particular area of art that he was interested in, he immediately said “Italian Renaissance”, and away we went.

At the end of our very speedy tour however, which not only encompassed the Italians but also some Spanish, French, and Dutch Baroque, I made a point of finishing up at “The Sacrament of The Last Supper” (1955) by Salvador Dalí, which at the time it was acquired was the most popular painting in the entire National Gallery. It’s a piece I’ve been familiar with all my life, since a reproduction of it hung in our playroom at home. Despite its initial fame, today Dalí’s large, mystical work hangs in a basement hallway, located on the way to the museum gift shop, where hundreds of people hurry past it every day without even looking at it.

Dalí’s return to the Catholic faith in middle age generated some of his most interesting works, including not only the NGA’s “Sacrament” but the magnificent “Madonna of Port Lligat” (1949), now at Marquette University in Wisconsin, and what is arguably his most popular painting, the massive “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951) in the Kelingrove Gallery in Glasgow. As is the case with all of the artist’s work, the National Gallery’s picture normally requires a bit of explanation, since it isn’t actually a representation of the Last Supper in the way that we understand that term. For reasons of space, I’m not going to attempt that here.

Instead, I’d like to point the reader to the work of an artist you’re probably unfamiliar with, but in whose work I think you’ll see some earlier echoes of what Dalí was trying to do, centuries later. A fellow Spaniard who lived centuries before Dalí, he too came to a deeper religious faith in the middle of his life. In his case, it led him straight into the Order of Preachers, i.e., the Dominicans.

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) was a painter from the Spanish province of Castile, who trained in Italy for a number of years before returning to work in Spain. When I was in Madrid a few weeks ago, I had the chance to take in one of his greatest works, “The Adoration of the Shepherds”, which was painted between 1612-1614 for the Dominican priory church of St. Peter Martyr in Toledo. Interestingly, during the course of executing this altarpiece, Maíno decided to join the Dominicans himself. As a result, he is more commonly referred to as “Fray Maíno”, in reference to his becoming a Dominican friar, much as the Italian Renaissance artist “Fra Angelico” is also commonly known by his Dominican friar name.

For a work that was painted over 400 years ago, there is something strikingly modern about Maíno’s altarpiece. Notice the almost photographic renderings of the gourd and puppy in the foreground, for example, or how the figures look like ordinary people, rather than idealized statues come to life. I particularly love the unusual detail of St. Joseph, on the right-hand side of the picture, who is holding and kissing the Baby Jesus’ arm, while the Child and His Mother smile at each other. There is a wonderful immediacy in the way that Maíno brings us into this scene, as a participant in something that is almost more real than real.

While Dalí’s “Sacrament” is a very different picture, more monumental and symmetrical, there are definite parallels with Fra Maíno’s style. The bread and wine on the table for example, and indeed the folds of the tablecloth itself are, like the details in Maíno’s altarpiece, beyond real. You could almost reach out and pick up one of the pieces of the broken loaf of bread in the foreground. And in fact, that’s exactly what you’re being invited to do: there’s a space right in front, across from Christ, for the viewer to come to the table.

Similarly, while the monks bent in prayer around the table are physical types, who mirror each other on either side of Christ, as in Maíno’s work there is no question that they are taken from studies of real individuals. We cannot see their faces, but we do see their hair, and what incredible attention to detail in the growth and coloring of different types of human hair we can see among these ordinary men. It is fascinating to think that, in the 17th century, Maíno was looking at the human figure in a way that later, through the advent of photography and the exploration of Surrealism, Dalí was able to resume with the same purpose: to express his Christian faith.

Perhaps the reason why the National Gallery has banished this painting to a basement is because we live in a time when elites are embarrassed both by faith and by those who have it. Ancient paintings and sculptures looted from churches and monasteries are considered acceptable acquisitions for museums because they represent the past, rather than the present or the future. Those who openly despise or who are indifferent to Christianity do not want to see Modern or Contemporary paintings or sculptures that celebrate Christian belief: rather, they want to see art that skewers it. The fact that such an overtly Catholic work of art even made it into a major museum is a testament to the enormous popularity of the artist, rather than an appreciation of this particular subject matter.

I can certainly understand why this piece is not to everyone’s taste. Yet for those willing to take the time to look at and try to understand what is going on in this painting, I believe there are many worthwhile things to discover here, both in terms of a deeper understanding of Christianity, as well as a greater appreciation of the history of art. Among these is a realization that, for all of its apparent strangeness, Dalí’s work does not exist in a vacuum.

The Courtier In Aleteia: On The Infant Jesus Of Prague

My latest piece for Aleteia is a reflection on the Infant Jesus of Prague, the famous devotional object from Spain that ended up in Bohemia during the Renaissance. I had never been particularly interested in this representation of the Christ Child until several years ago, when I turned to Him at a very difficult moment in my life. As always, my thanks to Elizabeth Scalia and her staff at Aleteia for publishing my scribblings.