All my life, I have been convinced that those paintings of Biblical scenes around the altars of Catholic Churches were put there to teach me a lesson. I was always told that people were illiterate and the pictures are didactic, a hail-mary attempt by the Church to catechize the crowd.
This is incorrect.
Art is not, purely conceived, an intellectual pursuit in the way we think it is. Intelligence is, of course, a necessary condition for the truth of art to break through, but it is not analogous with truth. In other words, dogma is beautiful by virtue of that which shines out from inside, not for the specific, intellectual formulations themselves. A Catholic does not, for instance, adore the Scriptures qua book. We adore the Scriptures because they are an instance of Divine Revelation.
Although the pictures around the altar may be helpful with dispensing factual knowledge, they aren’t a teaching aid akin to a power-point presentation. Those images are true in a much more robust sense of the word. A work of art is true in a very different way than we are used to conceiving of truth, and is not at all related to a photographic representation or a moral truth.
A corollary of this statement is that we might not actually know what an image is.
I have all my life thought that an image is true if the story it tells is historical, the details accurate, and the representation realistic (or at the least, the representation of a non-objective emotion or concept rings true). This means that, all my life, I wasn’t actually seeing the image for what it truly is. It’s a forest-and-trees situation. What I saw was a clever presentation of the exterior of an object (or the subjective presentation of an affective disposition, but in this case the image isn’t so important because theory has overwhelmed it. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion). This is the point – if all we see in a work of art is the exterior reality, then we are not actually seeing the image. The soul is missing.
The concept of truth and image, for Romano Guardini and Josef Cardinal Ratzinger at least, are not limited to the didactic. They are metaphysical. What I am so overcome by in the work of Titian, for example, is that in and through his exquisite modeling of the human form he is painting the soul of his subject. It’s the soul that shapes the body. He isn’t limited to exterior appearances but, through his skill as a craftsman, seeks out interior disposition. He does this through talent, yes, but he also does so by seeking the truth and finding a metaphysical reality that imbues his images with beauty that goes well beyond representational realism. To paint reality is not to take a photograph, it is to see from the inside out.
We must now refer what has already been propounded to the liturgy. There is a danger that in the liturgical sphere as well aestheticism may spread; that the liturgy will first be the subject of general eulogy, then gradually its various treasures will be estimated at their aesthetic value, until finally the sacred beauty of the House of God comes to provide a delicate morsel for the connoisseur. Until, that is, the “house of prayer” becomes once more, in a different way, a “den of thieves.” But for the sake of Him who dwells there and for that of our own souls, this must not be tolerated.
In other words, if we lose the ability to perceive the inner meaning, the very essence of each created thing, then the exterior beauty portrayed is not beautiful at all. It is a stolen kiss, a sentimental cultural parasite.
No, art does not bother about aims. Does anyone honestly believe that the artist would take upon himself the thousand anxieties and feverish perplexities incident to creation if he intended to do nothing with his work but to teach the spectator a lesson, which he could just as well express in a couple of facile phrases, or one or two historical examples, or a few well-taken photographs? The only answer to this can be an emphatic negative. Being an artist means wrestling with the expression of the hidden life of man, avowedly in order that it may be given existence; nothing more. It is the image of the Divine creation, of which it is said that it has made things “ut sint.”
Why do artists find themselves so deeply and spiritually connected with their creation? Why do some describe it as a process akin to giving birth?
A pure craftsman would never speak this way. To repair a washing machine is a simple task and doesn’t require sleepless, anguished nights in order to achieve the goal. A man who has painted the siding of a house doesn’t destroy it in a fit of rage because it is somehow unsatisfying. This is because a craftsman has aims that are, with enough elbow grease, achieved by applying a certain skill-set. An artist seeks far more. An artist is not creating a step-by-step instruction manual. An artist is not simply a newspaper reporter skilled in various media beyond typing an editorial.
We might refer to this, along with Guardini, as the primacy of logos over ethos. “In life as a whole, precedence does not belong to action, but to existence.” An artist speaks a true word about the nature of life. That true word touches deeply on questions of metaphysical significance, and as such it has a connection not simply to a single event or moral teaching but to the whole of life. So, artists and writers, ask not what lesson you have taught through your work. Ask yourself if you have worked truly.
Why are those images there surrounding the altar and lining the arcades of our churches? Because they reveal the true face of God.