June 17, 2009

If we must do something new, let tradition and the Church take us there

By David Clayton *

Every time I paint I have to ask myself two questions: what will I paint? And how will I paint it? The answers to these questions govern the content and the style, respectively, of my finished painting and in turn their conformity to what is good, true and beautiful.

It was a surprise to me to learn that style is just as important as content in the Christian tradition. If an artist was to follow the modern secular outlook in art, then style is simply a matter of individual taste. Christian tradition however, I found out, takes the matter of style every bit as seriously as content. So how can I proceed when answering these fundamental questions?

Perhaps the most important factor that governs my ability to do this is an understanding of the nature of the human person and his relationship with God and the rest of creation.

All of creation is made by God so that we might know Him through it. Therefore an image of any aspect of creation must do this also – so a landscape, for example, must portray the beauty of the scenery depicted in such a way that the image draws the person who sees it to God, its Creator. Mankind has a privileged place in the hierarchy of Creation and so when painting the human figure, there is a special responsibility of the artist to reflect the truth and beauty of the human person. Because the human figure consists of a profound unity of body and soul, the artist must reveal both. So the figure must have a recognizable human body, but in addition must be portrayed as a thinking feeling person. When we meet someone in the flesh, so to speak, we know the spiritual aspects of a person most obviously through observation of their actions and words over a period of time. The artist who paints (or sculpts) is forced to create a snapshot, frozen in time. Nevertheless he must somehow reveal the spiritual through the material. To this end, the good Christian artist will introduce controlled deviations from a strict photographic representation. This partial abstraction when done well reveals more, not less, of the reality of what is portrayed.

To abstract means literally to draw out and so in this context the artist is drawing out the truth. It is this process of partial abstraction that gives an artist or artistic tradition its characteristic style. When that style reveals truth the product is a beautiful idealization. When it hides truth, as much modern art does, the result is an ugly distortion.

The identifiable traditions of authentically Catholic art are distinguishable from one another stylistically because they seek to reveal different aspects of humanity. Those who have read John Paul II’s Theology of the Body will be aware that there are different stages of human existence. First, there is man before the Fall, called Original Man, when Adam and Eve were ‘naked without shame’ and enjoyed innocence that comes from dependence upon God. Second there is Historical Man, mankind after the Fall, experiencing the fear and resentment that results from a dislocation in the relationships with each other and with God. Though not as good as man ought to be, Historical man is still good and has the potential for sanctity. As historical men and women, we are all too familiar with this aspect of the human condition. Third there is Eschatological Man: in this stage we fulfill our human purpose, partaking of the divine nature in heaven in communion with the Trinity in a perfect exchange of love and in perfect and perpetual bliss.

The iconographic tradition reveals Eschatological Man. Drawing on biblical episodes such as the Transfiguration, the style shows for example the divine light shining from the saints and eliminates the illusion of space to show that the heavenly dimension is outside time and space. The baroque reveals Historical Man, so in contrast with the iconographic style, the baroque creates an illusion of space using devices such as perspective, and shows deep cast shadow from external light sources. Shadow represents presence of evil and suffering, which is contrasted with brightly lit areas representing the Light that overcomes the darkness. The gothic is the third Catholic figurative tradition that is cited in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Pope Benedict XVI as an authentic Catholic liturgical tradition. This appears to oscillate between the styles of Eschatological and Historical Man. Like the spires of the gothic churches, they reach up to heaven, but they are firmly planted on earth. It might be argued that this reflects the fact that although we can never fully make that transformation to Eschatological Man in this world, there is nevertheless a continuum between the two states along which we can make progress through the transforming process of participation in the sacramental life of the Church. The late-gothic artist Fra Angelico, for example, used elements of both the visual vocabulary of the increased naturalism that was developing around him, such as perspective and shadow and the iconographic prototype of light and ‘flatness’. His selection depended upon the theological point he wanted to communicate.

I am not aware of a tradition that has emerged from a focus on the theology of Original Man.

When I want to paint the human figure, the first question I should ask myself is, ‘What form of man?’ If I decide that I will to portray Eschatological Man, then rather than trying to develop my own individual style, the sensible thing is to go to the iconographic tradition and let the principles of that tradition guide my hand. This will not lead to pastiche, for every truly living tradition is defined by principles, rather than strict rules, which are reapplied in every age. So, for example, someone who knows icons can recognize within that tradition geographical variations and place it to with, perhaps, 50 years. Only if I am seeking to communicate something previously uncommunicated should I look to create something original; and then I should do as artists did in the past and seek out the guidance of the theologians, philosophers and liturgists of the Church.

Does this rule out any new forms? Hasn’t it all been done already? This will be clear as time progresses. But it is conceivable to me that discussion on how to create the image of Original Man could create something that previously unimagined in art. Certainly in his Letter to Artists, John Paul II called on artists to find new ways to represent human sexuality as gift. Maybe this will be the art of the next age? But if it is to be so, it will be a dialogue between the artists and the theologians, philosophers and liturgists of the Church that will shape the new form, just as similar dialogues shaped the established ones.

This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.

David Clayton is on the board of the Foundation for Sacred Arts, and Artist-in-Residence at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, Merrimack NH

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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