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.

Blog Tour: Saints Who Battled Satan by Paul Thigpen

I’m honored to be a part of the blog tour for author Paul Thigpen’s latest, “Saints Who Battled Satan”, published by TAN Books. In this compendium, Thigpen looks at the lives of seventeen saints who took the devil by the horns, and won. In the process, he also provides examples and teaching moments, not only about coming to terms with the existence of evil, personified, but also about how men and women throughout the centuries have dealt with that reality in ways that kept them close to God.

As one might expect, if one is a regular reader of these pages, I wanted the chance to review the chapter on St. Dominic, being the Dominican fanboy that I am. Despite the enormous impact that he had, not only on the Church but on world history, St. Dominic is someone who is not as well-known as his friend and contemporary, St. Francis of Assisi. Most Catholics can recall stories about St. Francis preaching to the birds, receiving the stigmata, or setting up the first Christmas crèche, yet if they know anything about St. Dominic at all, it is that he gave us the rosary. Not a bad thing of course, as attributes ago, but as Thigpen points out in his chapter on the saint, St. Dominic became a personal target for the devil as soon as he set foot in Albigensian territory.

As a form of neo-Manicheanism, the Albigensian heresy in 13th century France was well-suited to Satan’s purposes. Believing, inter alia, that there was a good god or spirit who created the spiritual world, and a bad one who created the material world, and that the material world was therefore subject to the whims of the bad fellow, the Albigensians in their puritanism almost paradoxically invited satan in to take things over. Thigpen selects several accounts of how, in his work against this heresy, St. Dominic was not only able to perceive, but easily cast out the devil, even when those around him were enthralled to the enemy. The stories of how he did so strike the modern reader as being somewhat fantastical in nature, I admit. However, as neither you nor I were there at the time, I think we can try to remain humble, recognize that God can do what He wants, and leave the details to the ages.

Interestingly, in some of the instances recounted by Thigpen, St. Dominic does not immediately perceive the devil at work, realizing later what is going on. At other times, the saint actually engages the demon, one on one, and fearlessly. Thigpen is quick to point out, lest the reader begin holding ideas above his station, that St. Dominic was somehow uniquely protected from infernal attacks in a way that most of us are not. Thus, when he realizes the devil is prowling around his priory like a lion, St. Dominic is able to take the beast on a walk around the building, so he can get a satan’s-eye-view of what is going on there, and how the devil takes advantage of opportunities to distract the friars from prayer and good living. It is only the chapter room, where the friars go for confession, that the devil refuses to enter.

One comes away with the impression that St. Dominic was someone keenly aware of the fact that the devil is all around, but who more importantly recognized that in the end it is God alone who triumphs: he believed in the power of God’s Word, not in physical manifestations of the power of evil, an evil which will ultimately be subjugated. St. Dominic’s unflappability provides a great source of encouragement and strength, even when, as happened to St. Dominic himself in the stories recounted by Thigpen, we are set upon by those who would seek to do us harm. We should come through those trying times, as St. Dominic did in one instance, through trust and confidence in what is above, by singing joyfully to God.

As a final note, the reader is encouraged to make use of the appendices in Thigpen’s book. Most of the time, these sections are of little use to anyone other than the specialist reader. Here, however, the author collects a number of brief stories about various saints, and their own encounters with the devil. He also gives a number of quotes and passages written by the saints, on how best to deal with temptations and attacks that may come from below. Even after one has read the entire book, these sections in the back will be a wonderful source of inspiration not only for the average Catholic, but also for writers, homilists, and speakers to use as jumping-off points for further exploration and discussion.

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The Crawleys, The Skywalkers, and Inherited Sin

On New Year’s Day I went to see Episode VII of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” again with a friend, having seen it for the first time on the evening of Christmas Day with my siblings – it deserved a repeat viewing. As has been observed by others, Episode VII has many similarities to Episode IV, or more formally, “Star Wars: A New Hope”. However as my friend pointed out, because so much of Star Wars is drawn from mythology, where gods, humans, and their offspring often repeat the mistakes of the past, even though they can choose to do right or wrong, it is hardly surprising that patterns repeat. That idea stuck with me through the weekend, and so I must tip my hat to his perceptiveness.

I had a similar thought in watching the season premiere of “Downton Abbey” on Sunday. Now in its final season, this sixth outing trotted out many of the same things we have seen before. Lady Mary is once again in danger for getting caught in a sexual dalliance; Lady Violet and Cousin Isobel are at each other’s throats; the downstairs staff make perpetually cute (Carson and Mrs. Hughes) or perpetually woeful (Bates and Anna) or perpetually irritating (Daisy). One could say that, like seven Star Wars films, there is not much more to say in six seasons of Downton Abbey. Yet in taking this attitude, one forgets that family inheritances in these tales are very important. For lightsabers and estates hold a greater symbolic importance here.

Given the irrepressible human need for novelty, it is understandable that some would criticize both of these popular franchises for being repetitive. Of course, even high art can be viewed as repetitive, as the over 100 examples of works of art depicting The Annunciation in the National Gallery here in Washington alone demonstrate. (One also wonders whether the structural similarities between many of Mozart’s Piano Concertos also thereby eliminate them from being worthy entertainments.)

To me however, the stories of the Crawleys and the Skywalkers are not repetitive, but examples of how the same situations can and do appear, time after time, thanks to human nature and Original Sin.

We are all familiar with the saying, “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”, meaning that the descendants of the unjust will continue to feel the ill effects of the bad choices made by their parents, grandparents, etc. We can see this at work in Star Wars, and we also see it in Downton Abbey. The Skywalkers marked their ascendance by the shedding of blood, the Crawleys by the accumulation and protection of wealth. Each succeeding generation of these families is, at least to some extent, restricted by the choices made by those of the preceding generations. And in many instances, those choices were poor ones, the same temptations appealing to members of the same family, one generation after another. One need only read Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” for a real-life example.

If you have ever studied the Bible, you know that it is replete with examples of repeated offenses within families, and the effects such offenses have on the descendants of those who made them. In fact such repetition is so common to come across in the Books of Kings and Chronicles that it is almost as if the author was just dialing it in. One repeatedly reads of how a King of Israel started well, but “he did evil in the sight of The Lord,” such as in committing murder or worshiping idols. Eventually he is succeeded by a son or another relative, who usually ends up doing more or less the same thing.

Although the stories may seem repetitive, it is through their very repetitiveness that God makes his point. David, blessed and specifically chosen as he was by God, screwed up royally, as it were. So did his son Solomon, when he came to the throne, despite being blessed with the greatest of wisdom. By themselves they were incapable of avoiding sin. And yet God was able to make use of them anyway.

The history of mankind is one ongoing struggle, as a result of Original Sin. Our first parents chose to abandon their innocent state and enter into sin. As their descendants, we inherited not only the Free Will they had been given to make that decision, but also their attraction to sin in our own makeup, so that we keep facing the same choices and struggles that they did. To show us how power, greed, pride, and all the rest are offered to each generation in turn, and how each of us must choose, therefore, is not repetitive: it is a reality, one which all of us must learn for ourselves, often over and over.

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