Incarnation and Art

Incarnation and Art

from the “Christ window,” 1970
Fraumunster, Zurich, Switzerland
At a recent meeting with Daniel Cardinal Dinardo (Archbishop, Galveston-Houston), some members of the Pope John Paul II Forum asked the Cardinal Archbishop what aspects of the legacy of Pope John Paul II he would most like us to pursue and highlight. He was emphatic in his statement that he thought it was the connection between faith and the love of beauty. Thus, I have been re-reading his Letter to Artists (1999) (found here) As the Christmas season comes to a close I offer some thoughts from Pope John Paul II on the great inspiration for beauty that flows from the mystery of the Incarnation. These passages are from his Letter to Artists (1999), §5.
The Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the invisible and ineffable God by means of “graven or molten image” Dt 27:15), because God transcends every material representation: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes visible in person: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son born of woman” (Gal 4:4). God became man in Jesus Christ, who thus becomes “the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself”. (See Fides et ratio §80)
Any understanding of images must respect both the positive and negative aspects of the relationship between the image and the original — on the one hand, the image is NOT the original and so it must obscure or hide the reality behind it. Fittingly, therefore, would one refuse any image for God so as to emphasize the transcendence  of God and admit the poverty of the human capacity for seeing or understanding him. But an image also has a positive dimension, it betokens a presence as well as an absence. So an image is a way to the original, a refraction of the intelligible mystery that is. With Christ we enter into a totally new situation because he is the perfect image of the Father. Christ intensifies the mystery of existence as he serves as the “central point of reference” for all understanding of man, world, and God himself. Art and philosophy both will be drawn to the life of Christ to enter more deeply into the mystery or “enigma” of human existence and our relationship to God.
This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.
This paragraph is very rich and memorable. Art itself is a kind of “epiphany” and Christ is the “prime epiphany” as Pope John Paul II writes. “God who is mystery” yet shows himself to us. Revelation. From the prime epiphany there has flowered forth a great array of beauty. Walk through any art gallery in this country (almost) to find the beauty of the prime epiphany. In the beauty of the lillies . . .  And this art is not a set of museum pieces. As the Incarnation is not a thing of the past, but a present reality, so too the art continues to radiate. John Paul II correctly notes that  “the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good,” and a “new dimension of beauty.” The Gospel is filled to the brim — and it is an inexhaustible source for the beautiful. And this is true for the Bible as a whole —
Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of “immense vocabulary” (Paul Claudel) and “iconographic atlas” (Marc Chagall), from which both Christian culture and art have drawn. The Old Testament, read in the light of the New, has provided endless streams of inspiration. From the stories of the Creation and sin, the Flood, the cycle of the Patriarchs, the events of the Exodus to so many other episodes and characters in the history of salvation, the biblical text has fired the imagination of painters, poets, musicians, playwrights and film-makers. A figure like Job, to take but one example, with his searing and ever relevant question of suffering, still arouses an interest which is not just philosophical but literary and artistic as well. And what should we say of the New Testament? From the Nativity to Golgotha, from the Transfiguration to the Resurrection, from the miracles to the teachings of Christ, and on to the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles or foreseen by the Apocalypse in an eschatological key, on countless occasions the biblical word has become image, music and poetry, evoking the mystery of “the Word made flesh” in the language of art.
The historical intersection of religion and culture demands the public acknowledgment of faith and God. We cannot understand our own heritage, we cannot appreciate our own past approaches to the beautiful, without an understanding of theology and an appreciation of the historic creeds. Dante, Bach, Shakespeare, Mozart, Rembrandt, Milton et al — unintelligible without this creed, still “filled to the brim” with terrible beauty  — 
Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem, factorem cæli et terræ, visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.Et in unum Dóminum Iesum Christum, Fílium Dei unigénitum, et ex Patre natum, ante ómnia sæcula. Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, Deum verum de Deo vero, génitum, non factum, consubstantiálem Patri: per quem ómnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos hómines et propter nostram salútem descéndit de cælis. Et incarnátus est de Spíritu Sancto ex María Vírgine, et homo factus est. Crucifíxus étiam pro nobis sub Póntio Piláto; passus et sepúltus est, et resurréxit tértia die, secúndum Scriptúras, et ascéndit in cælum, sedet ad déxteram Patris. Et íterum ventúrus est cum glória, iudicáre vivos et mórtuos, cuius regni non erit finis.Et in Spíritum Sanctum, Dóminum et vivificántem: qui ex Patre Filioque procédit. Qui cum Patre et Fílio simul adorátur, et conglorificátur: qui locútus est per Prophétas.Et unam, sanctam, cathólicam et apostólicam Ecclésiam.Confíteor unum baptísma in remissiónem peccatorum. Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam ventúri sæculi. Amen. 


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