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.