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




Wipe Out: A Lesson in Being Human

While I read the news from Spain every morning, I often cannot share the stories I read with a wider audience, since not all of my readers are fluent in Spanish. Fortunately however, a story about an attempt at art restoration gone horribly, horribly wrong in Spain has attracted enough international attention to warrant reporting in English. According to news reports, a 19th century fresco painting of Christ at the moment when Pontius Pilate declared, “Ecce Homo,” located in the historic 16th century church of Our Lady of Mercy in the Aragonese town of Borja, was horribly “restored” by an elderly parishioner acting without permission.  She began by scraping off huge sections of loose paint, and then re-painting what can only be described as a rather blobby substitute over the bits she had ruined.

The fresco had begun to flake due to some moisture problems in the building, and was in need of preservation and restoration. Ironically, the local center for cultural studies had recently received a donation from the granddaughter of the artist, Elías García Martínez, to undertake restoration of the painting. Experts will now have to assess whether anything can be done to bring it back: though from the look of things, I suspect they cannot.

The woman responsible, who is in her 80’s and lives in the neighborhood, has come forward and admitted what she did. It was not intended maliciously, but rather she appears to have been unaware that efforts to raise funds to restore the painting were underway. It is telling that the effort to undertake this restoration began in 2010, and yet no one noticed what this woman was doing until August 2012. The church is apparently left open all day long, but there must not be many people visiting it if this ongoing work of hers passed unnoticed for such a long time.

Much of the reporting describes this painting as a “masterpiece”, when it fact it is not. More to the point this alleged “masterpiece” is really just a fresco version of the highly sentimental, colorful, holy card designs still sold everywhere. The fresco is – or was – a pious work of art, but it is not a great painting by any means. In this respect the continued inability of the secular media to understand the Church, let alone art, comes shining through in this story.

That being said, once we get past the images of the destruction of this work of art and calm down a bit, we come to look more clearly at the woman at the heart of this story. It seems to me that most of us do a pretty good job of making a mess of our own lives, without having to look to this woman’s actions in horror and say to ourselves that we would never have done something so stupid. In fact, we do stupid, self-destructive things all the time. Sometimes we do so with the best intentions, but more often than not we are simply selfish.

We have all sat down to eat something like pizza, knowing it was too hot and had to cool off a bit, but decided our appetite was more important than being prudent. The end result is that we scalded the roof of our mouth, suffering pain for days. What’s more, we don’t limit ourselves to self-inflicted harm as a result of own stupidity. No, we go out and spread it around to others, acting recklessly or foolishly in what have become accepted parts of our everyday life.

Take driving, for example. Do you speed, scream at other drivers, or sail along through heavy commuter traffic or intersections while talking on the phone, thinking you can perfectly control a gigantic pile of metal traveling at speed because everyone else is operating under the same delusion? How many more times will you be lucky, and avoid injuring or even killing someone?

Being human means we are going to do stupid things. We are going to eat pizza that is too hot, drive 90 mph in a 65 mph zone, and yes, even some rare percentage of us will wipe out a work of art. We will say and do things in our personal or public lives, that we will all regret.

The point is, when that happens – and it will – we need to stand up, admit what we have done, and ask forgiveness, and accept the consequences. We also need to make amends, if possible, by putting ourselves last, and those we have injured, first. To do otherwise than admit to one’s shortcomings and mistakes, is to have an over-inflated sense of ego, not worthy of any of us. And while in this case there is not much that can be done by this woman, on a practical level, to save this work of art, perhaps in the example of her failure we will all learn something.

Original, Underway, and After images of
“Ecce Homo” by Elías García Martínez (c.1890)
Santuario de N.S. de la Misericordia, Borja, Spain

On Art, Architecture, and Snazzy Suits

I have stated on this blog many times that one of the great merits of both social and new media is the ability to connect people in the hope of some good thing coming out of it.  While it is true that many of us may not be in a position to put what we like to do ahead of what we need to do, by making an effort to reach out to others we may be able to make use of our talents, abilities, and interests in ways which our day-to-day lives do not always permit.  I do not work in the fields of art and architecture, for example, and yet I have been able to build upon my knowledge of and enthusiasm for these fields as a result of the possibilities afforded by the increasingly connected world in which we live.  I want to take this opportunity to encourage you to do the same, gentle reader, by giving you some examples from some of my own experiences of how you might go about doing so as well.

Yesterday in the mail I received copies of a catalogue from a new exhibition at the venerable Fortnum & Mason, on Piccadilly in London, who as you may know have been the grocers to the British Royal Family for many years.  They were sent by my friend Rupert Alexander, a hugely talented English artist whose work appears in the exhibition, because in the section on his work the catalogue  quotes from an essay he commissioned me to write about his painting for his website.  It was an odd thing, realizing that the Queen may very well have read some of my writing – or perhaps Kate or Camilla – when they visited the exhibition recently.

Rupert and I initially connected because I saw a piece about him in The Telegraph online, and I wanted to convey my appreciation for his work. I found him online via an internet search, I emailed him, and he replied: simple as that.  We slowly started talking back and forth about his work, our respective points of view on art, sending each other links, and so on.  Eventually, we got to meet in person when he and his wife spent their honeymoon in the United States, and both proved to be as lovely in person as they were online.  Today our connection continues, and in the note which accompanied the catalogues he sent, he let me know that he had enjoyed listening to my recent appearances on SQPN’s “Catholic Weekend” podcast – which he listened to, by the way, even though he himself is not a Catholic.  The point is, both of us made an effort to connect using new media and social media, and the end result is, I daresay, a positive one.

You cannot always guarantee, of course, that the result will be positive, for just because you reach out to someone on Twitter or Facebook, or via e-mail and the like, they may not necessarily respond, or they may do little more than give you a cursory acknowledgement.  I have met a number of people both in real life and via online media who seem unable to figure out how to go about reaching out to people, how to follow up once they have done so, and what to do if their efforts are not successful.  Allow me to give you an example of how I usually go about starting this process of investigation.

Thanks to my friend Eric Wind over at the National Civic Art Society, I learnt this week of an art project taking shape in the Tuscan city of Pisa.  Luca Battini, a young Italian artist, is undertaking the interior decoration of the monastic church of St. Vito, which he will cover with an enormous, 1,700 square-foot Renaissance-style fresco depicting the life of the city’s patron saint, St. Ranierus.  It is estimated that the painting will take at least three years to complete.

As you can imagine, if you are a regular reader of these pages, I found this an intriguing bit of news.  I did an internet search and found Maestro Battini’s blog which, while not updated frequently, he or his assistants clearly do maintain as they are able.   In scrolling through the archived posts, I noticed that last year he completed a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, which he personally presented to His Holiness.  The technical skill employed is accomplished and slick, without however being a “look at me” sort of production, and the end result is a very pleasant, but unsentimental image of the Pontiff.

I have written to Signore Battini using the email addresses I found on his blog, briefly telling him about how much I enjoyed learning about his work, that I would be doing a blog post in which I mentioned him, and that I would follow up and send him a link to the post.  Now the ball is in his court.  He may write me back, as Rupert did, or he may not, as was the case with George Shaw, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in contemporary art last year and whom I attempted to contact via the gallery that represents him.  And even if Sr. Battini does write me back, there is no guarantee that we will have anything further to say to one another.

The point is, one must make an attempt, or one will never know.  Most human beings experience some degree of shyness or awkwardness at times, which is only natural.  And no doubt many find the idea of sending a message to a total stranger to be somewhat off-putting, particularly if that stranger is someone better-known than we are.  However whether famous or ordinary, the method should be the same.

In my experience, the best thing to do is be brief, and to the point.  Explain why you are contacting them, open the door to the possibility of a reply, such as by asking a question or indicating that you will be sending some follow-up information that may prove to be of use to them, and then thank them for their time.  If they do respond, do not use email or tweet #2 to spill out everything about who you are and why you are worth getting to know.  The vast majority of productive relationships are formed through a slow build of revelation of shared views and experiences, rather than a sudden explosion of information on either side.

However, even as we keep in mind that using new and social media to reach out to others does not mean the recipient of your communication must befriend you, by the same token nor do you have to befriend everyone you want to contact, if there is no real basis for further communication.  For example, recently I caught a bit of a 50’s-60’s style musical group performing on television, and rather liked the (admittedly flashy) suits they were wearing.  I found their website and e-mail address, wrote a brief email complimenting them on their talents and asking who made their suits.  One of the members e-mailed me back with the information, for which I thanked him, and that was that.  I do not anticipate any further contact, since I do not enjoy that style of music, even if it requires good vocal skills and a finely-tuned ear.

These few examples will hopefully encourage you to try to do the same thing, when you feel compelled to reach out to someone else online.  Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the internet, through a combination of using both new and social media, can prove rewarding on many levels.  However the first step is perhaps the most difficult: recognizing your own humility, while simultaneously overcoming the fear of rejection.   You may not always make a new friend or contact, or obtain the answer to a question you have, but you will never know unless you try.

Italian artist Luca Battini at work