Arts in Service to Faith

Elsewhere the Owl has offered a squib called “Performing Art” arguing that altarpieces and other objects in church actively participate in worship by depicting the saints and narratives as indeed present with worshipers. Here follow some specific instances.


Basaiti, Agony in the Garden
Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Basaiti’s Agony in the Garden is a perfect example of an altarpiece that functions as a membrane between the two realms of liturgical space. It has been removed from its proper context, but the marble arch within the painting no doubt replicates the architecture of its surroundings.[1] Jesus kneels at the rock with the disciples are strewn sleeping around him. Patron saints stand on a pavement outside the arch that makes a boundary between them and the narrative scene. The dividing line both separates and joins; we and these patrons together look through it to the praying Christ.

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Yesterday the Owl delivered himself of a post entitlted “Perils of Lay Leadership” that was not well thought out. It did not sufficiently acknowledge the depth of commitment, the self-examination, or the profoundly preyerful work that many lay leaders devote to the church. Our reader Carol justly criticized the item for these faults. I know she speaks from long and costly experience. I hope she and my other readers will allow me to apologize.

Liturgical Moments

Every church member has more and less satisfactory experiences in worship. I complained to my friend Ken about disappointing services in my home parish, so he challenged me to describe what I would consider ideal. My Episcopal parish celebrates the Mass every Sunday, so the question evokes a liturgical imagination different from what we find where the sermon is the main event.

The form of the Eucharist is set in Christ’s Institution of the Sacrament (Matt. 26:26–28 and parallels). Its physical movement, breaking the bread, pouring and drinking the wine, would be recognizable anywhere in the world; a communicant would not need to know the language to follow and participate. Far from being rigid and constricting, the structure of the service frees worshipers from a preacher’s words or emotions. Absolutely any feeling, possibly different for each person present, could arise to be blessed.

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The Idol Disease

A recent post touched upon the power of television advertising. The industry analyzes and divides viewers into demographic categories based on age, race, economic class, gender, and more. People think the entertainment is the product, and the ads are only momentary annoyances. The fact is, the viewers are the product, and there is not a moment when the tube is not selling. The viewers are not free; they are products created by media so that their attention, the time in their lives, can be subdivided and sold for money to advertisers. The genius of our culture is this: Market trumps everything. Market absorbs everything. Market turns everything to Market’s use. Market defines us to ourselves in lockstep with what we buy. Some of the dynamics behind this are technological. After all, we still do not have a very good understanding of the effects of television in our culture. We are just now able to look back the length of a generation.

The personal-psychological cost of this transaction—or to say it straight out, its spiritually destructive effect—is hidden from view. It takes its toll from all of us whether we watch or not. Whatever is broadcast becomes the reality, and whoever does not see him or herself there is lost to view, in effect dehumanized.

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Surprises in History

The Barbarian Conversion:
From Paganism to Christianity

by Richard Fletcher.
Henry Holt, 1997, 524 pp., 36 b&w plate

Here is a very readable and fascinating account of the Christianization of Europe, from the late Roman Empire to the conversion of Lithuania in the person of its king Jogaila in 1385; that is, from the time of Origen to that of Chaucer, a vast span of time. It is a feat of huge erudition to have described it as Richard Fletcher does, with extraordinary nuance, and with reflections on modern perceptions of his subject matter.

Three questions frame Fletcher’s narrative: (1) what were the barbarians of Europe converted from? (2) how did the process work? and ultimately, (3) what were they converted to? None of these questions is easily answerable, given the state of the evidence. In the first place, the peoples of Europe outside the Empire and outside the Church did not record their history and thought. Even inside the boundaries of Christian Europe, which were constantly shifting, records are scarce and full of interpretive problems. Given this state of things, we have to wonder, what did Christianity mean to the converts? In what particulars was it more than a re-christening of old habits? To what extent and how did it transform European society?

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Up from the Fifties

To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

—Jack Gilbert

In the 1950s we heard it said that Americans pursued materialistic Success as an idol that eclipsed better human values. The generation of the 60s preened itself on rejecting that —with a degree of hypocrisy, it must be admitted. Now we have people born after 1970, nostalgic for the “interesting times” they could not possibly remember, raising protests about their own issues. The public atmosphere all along was freighted with public and private moralisms; now it laced with personal attacks, focused on a litany of real and imagined abuses too familiar to need repeating here. The Owl has pledged to avoid the obsessions of the present moment, and we will keep our word, but without detailing them it perhaps behooves us to recall our need for common cause with each other.

A Golden Moment

The generation of the 60s was not the first to discover materialism. That criticism goes back at least to fifth century Rome, but it was still news to the Beats of the 1950s. who were pretty successful at making commercial products of themselves. In that time, two realities converge on us with unprecedented force.

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A Reading of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew can be read as the Evangelist’s effort make a fractious community cohere. Among other rifts he faces is one between apocalyptic and eschatological thinkers. (This would be hard to explain, because, partly because Matthew was successful, we think of the two things as one.) Between the lines, we can also read the concerns of more factions: the narrative of John the Baptist is tied in respectfully; another of Peter, another of James, another of the women; perhaps another of ethnic Canaanite Christians who had never been Jews.

As he goes, Matthew modulates his tone carefully. Near the beginning we have the Jesus who pronounces the beatitudes. Beyond that, Jesus is sweet-tempered, and every needy person he meets adores him. Is there any whiney, manipulative suppliant with a sense of entitlement to healing?. How about the man at the pool who complains that everybody else gets to the water before he does? Jesus heals him; then, seeing him later, warns him to make the prescribed thank offering lest something worse happen to him. The fellow had proved to be a flake when it came to basic observances.

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Performing Art

People who love painting often talk in the present tense about the figures in pictures. In Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece, the Virgin sits on a carved marble throne; the Christ child sucks the fingers of his right hand, and takes grapes from his mother’s hand with his left. Or: in Piero’s Resurrection, one of the four soldiers is falling back in dread; the Christ does not fly, but steps heavily from the sepulcher he is still bleeding; it has been a near thing. This way of speaking reflects an important truth about the pictures we use in worship. They are vital performers; they act; they have a liturgical role of their own which completes ours.

Not much is said about this in books on art history. Scholars dwell on materials, the evolution of technique, and perspective. Or more lately, they talk about sociological issues, such as the status of donors, and their probable political motivations. All these things are interesting, but they do not get to the heart of the matter.

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Easter in Florence

This is the day of days. There are dove shaped breads in all the stores; chocolate eggs bigger than the children who will receive them. The celebration started with a massive peal from the campanile on the stroke of midnight. Probably the first Mass began then, for there was another such peal shortly afterward, where the Gloria or the prayer of consecration would have come. We left our hotel after a quick coffee, to get to the Duomo in time for the 9:00 a.m Mass. It was raining. Arriving more than an hour early, we got a pew about the tenth row, but we were surrounded by standees, and soon became virtual standees ourselves.

The west doors opened with the sound of drums and trumpets. Men in Renaissance dress entered carrying halberds and swords, weapons that could have wreaked real havoc. The procession ended with the archbishop, blessing the crowd as he went. Through the doors we could see the famous carretino, two storeys high, gilded and painted, pulled into the piazza by white oxen. This must have been done within the hour, since there had been no sign of it when we arrived. It is loaded with fireworks. Men rigged a wire to it from a pillar about two storeys high in the crossing.

At the Gloria a papier-maché dove with a rocket in its belly traveled with frightful noise down the wire to the carretino, set it alight, and returned. By this time it was exploding with cascades, roman candles, and flash-bombs. This lasts all through the Gloria. There are multiple hymns by the choir. Their mouths move, but nobody can hear them. The congregation is not here for Monteverdi or Bach, and the choir is not here to entertain tourists. The choir addresses God no less, on behalf of worshipers who stand on the pews with full-throated shouting and weeping. The bells of the campanile peal throughout the consecration prayer.

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