In his 1999 Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II writes, “Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath the reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (6). For virtually all of Christian history, the Church has called on artists to make present the Christian mystery, specifically within a liturgical setting. How does a work of art draw us more deeply into the mystery of our faith? Let’s look briefly at one recent example of art that accomplishes this goal.
One recent work of Christian art is James Langley’s 2002 The Hidden Years Triptych. Commissioned for the chapel at the Opus Dei headquarters at Murray Hill Place in Manhattan, the triptych – a work of art divided into three panels – consists of three scenes from the hidden life of Christ: at the left, The Rest on the Flight to Egypt; in the center, Jesus in the Workshop of Saint Joseph; and to the right, The Death of Saint Joseph. Not only does this triptych show remarkable artistic skill, it also achieves its purpose as a work of sacred art by presenting quite successfully the central mystery of our Christian faith: the Incarnation. Without a doubt, The Hidden Years Triptych, in its chapel setting, portrays clearly and unequivocally that Christ is fully man and fully God.
The triptych’s panels trace the hidden life of Christ from his infancy, through his adolescence, and into his adulthood. We see before us the reality of a truly human life. Christ shares with us the conditions, human traits, and circumstances common to all people: birth, family, work, death. These three scenes, personal and intimate, draw our hearts closer to the reality of Christ’s earthly life, and enable us to believe more deeply in the mystery that the Word was made flesh and that God became man – like us. This is the central, ineffable mystery of God’s action in our world and in the life of each and every one of us.
Artistically, each scene is composed as a complete, cohesive unit and can quite easily stand alone. Yet, the scenes are linked to one another by architectural elements which the artist has carried from one panel to the next. For instance, in the first scene Mary nurses the infant Christ as she rests against a wall that, in the central panel, forms part of Saint Joseph’s workshop. As well, the window at the right of the workshop is the same window that sheds light on the Holy Family in the right-hand panel. This unifies the narrative. This is not a trio of unconnected, unrelated events, but rather significant moments in the continuous course of Christ’s hidden life.
Yet to portray some touching moments from the life of Christ is not the sole purpose of The Hidden Years Triptych. It is an altarpiece, and as Cardinal Ratzinger says in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “[t]he altarpiece is like a window through which the world of God comes out to us” (p. 130). Indeed, the triptych does show the sanctity of the Holy Family and the divinity of Christ – the figures are haloed. However, it is within the chapel setting, and particularly within the celebration of the Mass, that The Hidden Years Triptych fulfills its true purpose.
In the chapel, the triptych is installed directly above the altar. On the altar is the tabernacle, which houses the Risen Christ in the Eucharist. Thus, Christ’s Real Presence in the sacrament stands before the images of his presence on earth. When we come to the chapel for prayer or adoration, we complete the moment: we offer our prayers to the Lord, whom we see as a man in the pictures of the triptych, and whom we know as God in the Real Presence on the altar. During the celebration of the Mass, the moment becomes sublime. The priest elevates the consecrated host against the backdrop of the altarpiece. In this moment, in this true image, Christ appears before our eyes as True God and True Man. Yes, he is truly man – we see him in the triptych. Yes, he is truly God – we worship and adore him. Yes, he is truly present – he is raised before our eyes.
Through this juxtaposition of image and sacrament, we visually unite Christ’s divinity to our human nature: he was and is one of us. And, by taking on our nature, he draws us up to the Father and into the mystery of his very self.
Given its imagery, setting, and place in the context of the Mass, The Hidden Years Triptych is an invitation to meditate more deeply on the mystery of the Incarnation and to discover anew Christ who is at once fully God and fully man. The fact that the triptych is complete only within the sacred context of the liturgy is significant. As a work of sacred art, commissioned precisely to aid Christians in worship, its true end is to guide the viewer towards union with God. The “vocation” of sacred art is to engage the mind, heart, and will in the mystery and reality of the event of the Mass and of the Presence made present there.
This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.