When the Eagles Don’t Fit in Capistrano

Matthew J. Milliner

But ask now . . . the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee.
– Job 12:7


The 1950’s, for those who didn’t live through them, can’t help but bring to mind stereotyped images of Red Scare paranoia and dull, domestic misery. Films from The Front to The Hours, from Mona Lisa Smile to Pleasantville have done their work. It was a black and white decade of suburban servitude, absent the living color of limitless personal autonomy we currently enjoy. Never mind the death camps and A-bombs of the decade previous, the aprons and fedoras of the fifties–emblems of static gender roles–were more frightening still. The shackles of normative morality impeded self-realization in that Egypt of a decade, but the counter-culture gave us a Moses, Aaron and Joshua to lead us to the sixties, promised land. Such is the Boomer narrative I inherited by osmosis, which is why it was surprising to discover that the fifties, far from black and white, were in fact a golden age of Christian engagement with visual art.

Catholic literature of the 1950’s is widely celebrated, Flannery O’Connor being then at the peak of her powers; but there was art as well, sustained by a relatively unified pre-conciliar culture, girded by a long-lost Thomistic synthesis. The decade began with the consecration of France’s Notre Dame de Toute Grace in 1950, a church beautified by giants of modern art such as Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, and Georges Rouault. This fusion of Catholicism and modernism culminated when the 1952 and 1956 Mellon lectures– the art scholar’s equivalent to the Nobel prize–were both given by serious Thomists, Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson. With cultural engagement that never lost its doctrinal footing, Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art & Poetry explored modern art’s newfound self-consciousness, while Gilson’s Painting and Reality defended what was then the most fashionable style–abstraction–from the well stocked-arsenal of Christian justification for art. The clarity of thought and excitement in these thinkers is thrilling, and has been recently engaged by Rowan Williams in his book Grace and Necessity; but even after numerous courses in philosophy of art at various institutions, I hadn’t so much as heard them mentioned.

The fifties were kind to Protestant engagement of visual art as well. The founding director of Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr Jr., was no stranger to faith, and sought to marry his committed Presbyterianism with his equally committed taste for European modernism. His ally was theologian Paul Tillich, who enjoyed a significant secular audience for his ardent engagement of modern art. The efforts of Barr, Tillich, Charles Rufus Morey, and others culminated in the National Council of Churches’ 1954 Commission on Art. Wisely, the commission sought first to put the church’s own artistic house in order, countering the “saccharine and effeminate images” that “corrupt the religious feelings of children and nourish the complacency and sentimentality of their elders.” A more appropriate vehicle for Christian spirituality than kitsch, the commission then reported, was abstract art. What’s more, the commission’s conclusions were not logged in a secretary’s minutes and forgotten–they were enthusiastically featured in Life Magazine. Spirits were high. Harvard Divinity School professor Amos Wilder hailed that if the newly transformed aesthetic sensibilities of contemporary Protestants were to succeed, “then the heroic age of Christian sensibility and perhaps a new golden age of Christianity will have come.”

The golden age, however, was just ending. Both Catholics and Protestants in this period could rely on a relatively consilient culture of traditional art practice, what art historians would today call high modernity. But this arrangement was soon to disappear, and the hope for Christian engagement of art at such a culturally respected level seems to have disappeared with it. Pop art soon followed, a genre that intentionally mocked the hallowed status of modernity’s painted canvas. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans defied the settled boundaries of fine art. On the theoretical level, the modernist lamb of painterly purity was prey to a new generation of postmodern critics that descended upon it like wolves. Art was consigned to what is now celebrated as “the expanded field.” The decades to follow gave us conceptual art, landscape art, performance art, outsider’s art, found art, and (most revealingly perhaps) auto-destructive art. The aim was art’s liberation; art’s undoing was the result.

A nearly universal response to contemporary art today–one that impressively transverses race, creed age, or class–is “What?” The situation is encapsulated by examining the latest string of contemporary art’s janitorial confrontations. First, a dirty bathtub in one of Joseph Beuys’ installations was scrubbed clean by dutiful gallery staff. Then Damian Hirst’s exhibit of used ash-trays, half filled coffee cups, beer empties and newspapers was gathered up by a sexton who mistook the art for the remains of art world festivities. Most recently, Gustave Metzger’s art was understandably taken curbside, seeing it was a literally a bag of trash. On the positive side, the series of episodes shows artists increasingly willing to cooperate with museum and gallery staff. Beuys demanded scrubbing, Hirst gathering, while Metzger’s art was all bagged up and ready to go. The crisis is such that one might expect anytime now a major film release lampooning the art world and exposing its motivating misanthropy; which, with the 2006 film Art School Confidential, we already have.

Still, the art world churns on, thanks almost entirely to the money that drives it. Recently the same indictment of contemporary art emerged on journals of both the right and the left. First came an article by the astute New York Sun critic Maureen Mullarkey, writing for the Catholic Magazine Crisis, entitled Painting Money: The Ugly Business of Contemporary Art. Mullarkey meticulously exposed the contemporary art world as our last unregulated stock market, evincing that art now even operates as a currency. Later, that prominent magazine of the left, The New Republic, published an article by Jed Perl entitled Laissez-Faire Aesthetics, which contained essentially the same well-documented accusation. Crisis and The New Republic, on one matter at least, emphatically agree: Art is corrupt.



Art is able to be so manipulated because its previous bases have been jubilantly discarded, such that when the students at William & Mary recently approached their president for permission to have a sex-workers art conference, where strippers and porn-stars were “to dispel the myth that they were anything short of artists, innovators, and geniuses,” the President could find no reason to refuse them. Who would dare deprive anyone of the right to the word “art”? Confusion has displaced criteria. One solution to the resulting theoretical mayhem, wryly offered by the pages of the journal October, is to “preserve the chaos of contemporary theory [about art] . . . even if the intellectual fracas sometimes feels like hell.” Art then, is more than simply dead. Art, if its reigning academic custodians are to be heeded, is in hell, or what art historian Leo Steinberg called oblivion, “the price paid by the modern world for its massive historical retreat from the mythical ground of Christianity.”

As if this breakdown of artistic culture was not enough, there was also the concomitant breakdown of the 1950’s Christian arrangement. The cultural upheaval within Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council left a onetime synthesis shattered. In addition, the hegemony that Mainline Protestantism once enjoyed, has slowly, steadily slipped away. The fifties boasted a coherent culture of art that cared about religious opinion, spurring Christians to make a disciplined, intelligent art world contribution. Today, there is no longer a coherent culture of art, and whatever culture of art there is no long cares about, or is openly hostile to, religious opinion.


There was a lengthy essay written by Jody Bottum not long ago in First Things entitled When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano. The Mission San Juan de Capistrano, a Spanish Franciscan outpost in California, had long hosted migrating swallows, but due to mission renovations, the swallows had found other places to nest. Bottum used this ornithological metaphor to describe a Catholic culture of the 1950’s that once sustained great literature and art, but could no longer. The renovations of post-war Catholicism had driven out the indigenous religious culture, and that culture had not returned. The aim today, Bottum concluded, was to draw the swallows back to their onetime nests, to renew a “thickness” of Catholic culture, one that would permit the “strong Catholic art prior ages knew.” Bottum ended on the note that the swallows may be returning, as there are signs of such renewal today.

The article reminded me of a lecture I had heard nearly ten years earlier, at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Protestant institution. My art history professor there was John Walford, a stately Cambridge-trained Brit, and in this lecture he outlined different strategies for Christian engagement of the world of art, using birds as a typology. There was the phoenix, which sought to resurrect the great Christian art of the past, but ran the risk of merely resurrecting a corpse. There was the parrot, offering only timid imitations of contemporary art. Then there was the bald eagle, which rose above resuscitation or replica with soaring, original talent. The note Walford ended on, however, was not the eagle–such a rare bird–but the sparrow. Eagles, be they Raphael, Rembrandt or Rouault, are needed; but more likely most of us are artistic sparrows. The aim of the sparrow, in Walford’s typology, was not to make an indelible impact on the art world or provide the next chapter in art history (perhaps now too fragmented to even be written). The aim of the sparrow was more modest. Sparrows enhance the life of a local community, providing for aesthetic needs the same way a family doctor or local schoolteacher provide their respective services. The names of these sparrows, explained Walford,

will rarely appear in art books, but their contribution is nevertheless invaluable. They paint or sculpt for the local community much as Van Goyen and Ruisdael did for the citizens of Leiden and Amsterdam.

Walford was suspicious of the Phoenix, and he wanted no part in the education of mere parrots. But to expect to raise up an eagle was to risk raising up an Icarus instead. What he called “grass-roots sparrows” was a more modest, a more realizable goal.

The Wound in the Side

The Wound in the Side

These twin visions–Bottum’s Catholic swallows and Walford’s Evangelical sparrows–afford a realistic prospect for cultural renewal. By their sheer number, such birds can effect change. Swallows and sparrows enjoy established flight formations–what we can call the Christian aesthetic tradition–that the solitary eagle is burdened to invent. A flight of swallows is satisfied with diverse and regular food sources, whereas the eagle sometimes starves itself, and any competitors, in wait for big gallery game. The bald eagle’s treetop lofts, weighing up to one ton, make them rather highmaintenance birds, but sparrows and swallows will find a variety of habitations. Nimble and meek, they are able to delicately adorn the most fecund “exhibition” space that art history has known– the Christian liturgy. Furthermore, a bald eagle is a relatively straightforward, geographically limited brand of bird. But there are Old World and New World sparrows, Grey-headed and Parrotbilled, Cinnamon, Saxaul, Somali, and Sind. Likewise, the famously faithful swallow–single-minded in both nest and mate–can be Brown-throated or Grey-rumped, Pale-footed or Black-capped, named after dwellings as diverse as Crag, Cliff, Barn, Sea or Sand.

Such birds appear unexpectedly. One that I’m aware of has used the community gathered around the website flickr to develop a following for his photography. He shows a humility before the great tradition by reverently quoting from the art historical masterpieces of the past, artfully mixing the works of Bosch or Brueghel into his work. This sparrow stewards the new possibilities for artistic reproduction that the 1950’s could never have conceived, anchoring the bewildering new possibilities of technology in Christian faith.

The sparrow I’m referring to leads vibrant discussions about his pictures with audiences that, under normal circumstances, might not give Christianity a moment’s consideration. His ambitions are on a human scale. One of his pieces is all in response to a friend with cancer; another covers a moral theme, but not moralistically. His photographs explore what he calls the enchanted world of nature; a world not enchanted by art, but by his vibrant faith, which is then reflected in his art. But the highest aspiration of his work is when, in a tasteful and reverent way, it enhances the liturgy. The sparrow is my professor, John Walford, who after decades of teaching art history set out to follow his own advice.

The eagles coming back to Capistrano is a rather horrifying image. At best the mission could support one, and even that would be distracting. Notre Dame de Toute Grace sought to sponsor several, and a case could be made that it is indeed, a rather distracting space. Worshipping there, as I did several years ago, one is tempted to contemplate art history more than the Mass. Even birds as large as seagulls descending on a church only brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock. Perhaps a better model for the renewal of Catholic and Protestant culture is a slow, steady cultivation of serious faithful art, guided by traditional formations, yet free also to move–cautiously– in unexpected directions. The pattern for this is less the Renaissance than the Middle Ages, when the glory of artists gave way to the greater glory of God.

The cult of celebrity–with its exorbitant votive prices–drives the art world today, leaving envy and resentment in its wake: a convocation of belligerent eagles. But rather than competing for prominence, the Christian artist is no slave to fame, knowing that “while two sparrows are sold for a penny . . . not one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” This does not, of course, mean aiming low, excusing substandard art, or eschewing any notice that may result from noteworthy achievement. To return to our exemplar, John Walford has enjoyed due attention. A recent show of his photography was hosted at the Oratorio dell’Immacolata in Piedmont, Italy, and a catalog, An Art Historian’s Sideways Glance, is on the way. Such coverage was never his aim, but came as a delightful surprise. “He who is faithful with little will be entrusted with much.”


The Christian art of today is still in the shadow of the fifties, and it is a long one. Catholics describe the settled culture of the Latin Mass–justifiably–with Edenic adulation, and mainline Protestants still long for a lost cultural moment. The proliferation of Christianity and art organizations today have various agendas; but, one wonders, is the kind of cultural collaboration once enjoyed by Gilson, Maritain, Barr and Tillich the high water mark towards which such organizations desperately aspire? Such a posture would certainly have drawn the censure of Jacques Maritain, who chastised the facile neo-medievalism of his day by insisting, “time is irreversible.” I would suggest instead that we learn from the failures of the 1950’s Christian alliance with high art, not seek to resume it. The engagement of those Christians was vital, but parasitic; and their host organism–high modernism–is dead. Paul Tillich, for all his brilliance, seemed to be using art to make up for what was lacking in his embarrassingly low Christology. Maritain and Gilson are as commendable as ever, but the efforts they put into engaging and defending the abstract art of their day–considering the life of that artistic movement–seems somewhat disproportionate today.

Our new scenario can prove true the folksinger’s maxim that “all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.” Without the listening ear of the art world, we are impelled to listen more deeply to our own Christian heritage. Alasdair MacIntyre ended his justly famous book After Virtue with a frankly monastic call, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another–doubtless very different–St. Benedict.” And lo, our Benedict has come. Catholics need build their nests deep within the crannies of Capistrano. Protestants need meditate all the more closely on the Word of God, which has so much to say about sparrows. Both need learn that Christians carry with them their own warrant for the practice of art, one that was firmly in place long before the category of “art” existed in the first place. Images in worship are vindicated by that rarest and most precious of endorsements, an ecumenical council, namely Nicea II; and to more deeply understand it would be only to take John Paul II, in his encyclical Orientale Lumen, at this word. In short, artistic swallows and sparrows at the beginning of this century can learn much from the middle of the last, but our freshly hostile environment drives us anew to that richest birdhouse of all:

Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King, and my God. (Psalm 84:3)

Matthew J. Milliner is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Princeton University. He graduated from Wheaton College, IL and Princeton Theological Seminary.

John Walford is Professor of Art History at Wheaton College and author of several books, including Jacob van Ruisdael and the Perception of Landscape, Yale, 1991, and Great Themes in Art, Prentice-Hall, 2002.