​Cambridge Catholic Art Exhibition Fails Catholicism 101

Occasionally – but only very occasionally – I’m pleasantly surprised to come across an article in the art press in which the author “gets” Catholic art that is the subject of an exhibition. In this case, the author is art historian Charles Hope writing in Apollo Magazine, and the exhibition is “Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”, which recently opened at the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. To his great credit, Mr. Hope takes the exhibition’s organizers to task for displaying a poor understanding of Catholic theology and devotional life, something which more often than not is missing in critical reviews of exhibitions which feature Catholic art.

The idea that many of the paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects from the Renaissance which we admire in our museums were made for the purposes of prayer, is something that is alien to the majority of contemporary critics and curators. The Fitzwilliam show, apparently, is no exception; the Museum must not have bothered to have a devout Catholic priest, theologian, or layperson take a look at their exhibition catalogue first, while it was still in mockup. For example, Mr. Hope notes that a pair of icons containing images of the Annunciation to, and the Assumption and Coronation of, the Blessed Virgin Mary are described as “Christological” rather than “Mariological”.

In explaining the presence of donors, i.e. the men and women who paid for an altarpiece or sculptural group, the exhibition provides the usual stock answer which one comes across in most art criticism about the motivations behind the creation of religious works of art. The idea that the purpose of placing these donors in the completed piece was a chance to demonstrate their wealth and piety is based on an essentially Marxist understanding of history. In this analysis, it is economics which serves as the primary motivating factor, rather than faith.

Rejecting the curators’ assertions that those who appeared in these works were primarily interested in status, by commissioning these objects to show off how elite they were, Mr. Hope makes a – for contemporary art criticism – radical departure from conventional wisdom. “They were not claiming anything at all,” he notes, “but were inviting those who saw their portraits to pray for their souls, with the implication that they, in purgatory [sic], were praying for the souls of the living. In fact, most of the objects in this exhibition, apparently, suffer from a lack of curatorial understanding and acceptance of this concept.

As Mr. Hope correctly points out, the rejection of the doctrine of Purgatory by Protestants created a gulf between Catholic and Protestant understanding of this art. This is a fact which, I suspect, has influenced the mostly atheistic and agnostic views which dominate British high culture today. As Mr. Hope writes, the Catholic concern with sin, death, and the next life “was central to their religious thinking, motivating the construction of family chapels, the endowment of masses for the dead and the religious invocations which were standard in wills.”

This lack of understanding of Catholic theology regarding subjects such as Purgatory is an important and significant explanation as to why so many art critics do not really “get” Catholic art. While many non-Catholics continue to misunderstand Purgatory as a place where one’s final destination is still open to debate, Mr. Hope and Catholics in general understand that under Catholic teaching, everyone who makes it to Purgatory is, in fact, on their way to Heaven – once they finally rid themselves of their remaining imperfections such as remaining bad habits. Msgr. Charles Pope, of our fortunate Archdiocese of Washington, explains how: “even if we were to engage in the folly of thinking we ourselves, or someone else had reached perfection, the truth is we don’t really know what true, God-like perfection is. All I know is, that if I were to die today, God would have to bring to completion the good work he has begun in me.”

While it is true that (sadly) hardly any wealthy Catholics are commissioning beautiful works of religious art these days, for those everyday pray, pay, and obey Catholics like yours truly, the ideas and practices described by Mr. Hope in his review are absolutely relevant. We still request Masses to be said for the repose of the souls of our loved ones, and for those of the loved ones of our close friends and colleagues. We still go on pilgrimages, perhaps lighting candles, leaving flowers, or taking away some token of our visit to remind us of our spiritual experience – and often we do so on behalf of those in Purgatory, who cannot pray or act on their own behalf as they are being purified for Heaven.

That an institution of higher learning of the level of Cambridge should put together such a slapdash and poorly-informed exploration of Catholic theology as expressed in Renaissance art is, frankly, an embarrassment. Unfortunately, such things are mostly the norm, these days. If the fork-tongued pundits who dominate mainstream media cannot be trusted to accurately report on Catholic issues – and they cannot be – then one can hardly expect the institutions which gave birth to said brood of vipers to do any better back at the nest.

If any of my readers should find themselves up at Cambridge for this show, which runs through June 4th, I’ll be curious to read and share your comments with your fellow readers on your impressions of the exhibition.

Pinturicchio – Detail, “Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist” (c.1490–5) The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge

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Lenten Friday Reflection: Jesus and the Courts

As my regular readers know, during Fridays in Lent this year I am abstaining from nearly all use of social media, but will be taking advantage of my Friday blog post to do a bit of reflection on some aspect of the Lenten season. I am certainly no theologian; rather just your standard “pray, pay, and obey” Catholic in the pew. However I welcome the opportunity to share a little bit of reflection with you, if you care to join me, and particularly today when the Gospel reading for this 2nd Friday of Lent allows me to write a little bit about my faith from a lawyer’s perspective.

In my first year of law school at Notre Dame, our Civil Procedure professor repeatedly said that if we forgot everything else he taught us, he wanted us to remember two things with respect to how to handle a civil lawsuit. The first was, and please forgive the language, “Sue all the bastards.” By this he meant that when one files suit, because of the statute of limitations imposed by State or Federal law, it is better to name all of the possible defendants to a suit right away. Otherwise, the statute may run out, and it may then be too late to add a necessary party to the legal action.

The second thing he wanted us to remember, which might sound somewhat unusual for a professor teaching a group of students about how to handle lawsuits, was that “Court is for losers.” This was not his way of disparaging the courts, but rather his way of getting to the heart of the civil legal system, which is ultimately about monetary damages. His view was that if the attorneys involved in a civil suit were not able to resolve their parties’ differences, then one or more or them was not doing his job properly.

As it happens, in today’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, Jesus speaks a great deal about legal matters, and does so by making analogies between the court system on earth, and the Heavenly Court above. For Catholics, this entire passage is an encapsulation of some of our most fundamental beliefs and practices. The duty to forgive, to love, and to seek repentance are the easier conclusions to draw from the reading, of course. However, the practical applications of this reading and its significance in Catholic theology go much further.

Jesus first tells His listeners that they are to behave better than the Pharisees and the Sadducees if they are to go to Heaven.  He explains that it is not enough to live up to the letter of God’s Law, as handed down in the Ten Commandments.  Christ expects His followers to go even further in their application of that Law, treating each other with a spirit of charity, love, and repentance.

He then tells us that if we have anything against our brother, we must leave our gift at the altar, and be reconciled before we may proceed. My Catholic readers will recognize this counsel, from the time they prepared for First Confession and First Holy Communion, as an instruction on how to worthily receive Jesus in the Eucharist. If we examine our conscience, and are aware that we are in a state of sin, then we ought not approach the altar to receive Him in Holy Communion until we have first gone to confession to receive the Sacrament of Penance. Once we have put things right with God and neighbor, then we may worthily approach the altar.

However Jesus then makes a further analogy with respect to the legal system, that is somewhat reminiscent of what I learned in law school from my Civil Procedure professor:

Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.

Taken in connection with the preceding section on how to worthily approach God after making amends with one’s brother, the two portions of this reading would seem a somewhat odd juxtaposition. However for Catholics, they can clearly be understood as an explanation of Purgatory. I will not get into the apologetics of what Catholics believe about Purgatory in this short blog post. Those who are interested in further reading on the subject will find a wealth of materials online, such as this, which provide a good explanation of it.

Suffice to say, if we die in a state of imperfection, but not in a state of unrepentant mortal sin, then we will not be eternally condemned at our particular judgment. Rather, we cannot be immediately be admitted to Heaven until we have been properly purified. In these two sections of today’s Gospel reading what Christ counsels us is that we are better off cleaning ourselves up before approaching God in Heaven, or settling our spiritual debts, before we have to appear before the Divine Judge.

Yet it is important to note that the very last line of Christ’s quoted above is not one of eternal condemnation. Jesus says that failure to settle one’s debts means that one will be imprisoned, and that he will not be released “until” his debts are paid: He does not say in this passage that the person will be permanently condemned. Jesus recognizes that there is a difference between the unrepentant sinner, who fails to admit his sinfulness, and the sinner who realizes and regrets that he has done wrong, but still needs to make amends for his actions. The former are unquestionably going to be condemned; the latter will have to pay their debts before they are allowed to enter into God’s Presence.

Most of us – myself included – will be very lucky if we manage to get into Purgatory, and frankly I will be very happy if I can make it there, even if only hanging by a fingernail, as Father Benedict Groeschel has often said. If we are honest with ourselves, our sin is before us always, as is what our sins have led to, i.e. the suffering and death of Jesus. It is why images of the Suffering and Crucifixion of Christ are so powerful for us, and why we reflect on them particularly during this time of year.

These stories and images remind us that we owe a great debt.  Particularly during this season of Lent, we are reminded that we had Jesus taken before our human law courts, and unjustly condemned to death, and we have to repent of what each of us has done, personally, to bring this about. If we do not, then it will not go well for us when it is our turn to appear in court, for while the Judge in that particular chamber is infinitely merciful, He is also infinitely just in His pronouncements,  and ultimately unappealable.


“Christ Pantocrator” by the Master of Taüll (c. 1123)
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona