Friday, February 29, 2008

Benedict on Art

In February and March 2002, ADOREMUS, the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy published two articles by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Their subject was "Sacred Art". The two articles were:

Art and Liturgy - The Question of Images

Art, Image and Artists: Sacred art, inspired by faith, both reflects and informs the culture Part II

The articles are wide-ranging and worth reading in their entirety

He discusses the history of sacred and religious art going back to early Christian times and the history of the Icon. He discusses the Iconoclastic controversies which affected the early Church and then subsequently (first at the Reformation and then later after the Second Vatican Council).

He makes the important distinction between "religious art" and "sacred art", the latter being said to be almost equivalent in importance to liturgy.

He discusses the rules set down by the Magisterium regarding sacred and religious images and how they have been interpreted in history, and how they are compatible with artistic freedom.

In particular, he discusses what is appropriate and what is not appropriate for images of Christ.

"Again we must ask: Where do we go from here? Let us try to sum up what we have said so far and to identify the fundamental principles of an art ordered to divine worship.

1. The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him.

Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. There will always be ups and downs in the history of iconography, upsurge and decline, and therefore periods when images are somewhat sparse. But they can never be totally lacking.

Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.

2. Sacred art finds its subjects in the images of salvation history, beginning with creation and continuing all the way from the first day to the eighth day, the day of the resurrection and Second Coming, in which the line of human history will come full circle.

The images of biblical history have pride of place in sacred art, but the latter also includes the history of the saints, which is an unfolding of the history of Jesus Christ, the fruit borne throughout history by the dead grain wheat.

"You are not struggling against icons", said Saint John Damascene to the iconoclastic emperor Leo III, "but against the saints". In the same period, and with the same view in mind, Pope Saint Gregory III instituted in Rome the feast of All Saints (cf. Evdokimov, p. 164).

3. The images of the history of God in relation to man do not merely illustrate the succession of past events but display the inner unity of God's action. In this way they have a reference to the sacraments, above all, to Baptism and the Eucharist, and, in pointing to the sacraments, they are contained within them.

Images thus point to a presence; they are essentially connected with what happens in the Liturgy. Now history becomes sacrament in Christ, who is the source of the Sacraments. Therefore, the icon of Christ is the center of sacred iconography. The center of the icon of Christ is the Paschal Mystery: Christ is presented as the Crucified, the risen Lord, the One who will come again and who here and now, though hidden, reigns over all.

Every image of Christ must contain these three essential aspects of the mystery of Christ and, in this sense, must be an image of Easter.

At the same time, it goes without saying that different emphases are possible.

The image may give more prominence to the Cross, the Passion, and in the Passion to the anguish of our own life today, or again it may bring the Resurrection or the Second Coming to the fore.

But whatever happens, one aspect can never be completely isolated from another, and in the different emphases the Paschal Mystery as a whole must be plainly evident. An image of the Crucifixion no longer transparent to Easter would be just as deficient as an Easter image forgetful of the wounds and the suffering of the present moment.

And, centered as it is on the Paschal Mystery, the image of Christ is always an icon of the Eucharist, that is it points to the sacramental presence of the Easter Mystery.

4. The image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs.

Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible.

The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision.

It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the risen Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord. The image is at the service of the Liturgy. The prayer and contemplation in which the images are formed must, therefore, be a praying and seeing undertaken in communion with the seeing faith of the Church.

The ecclesial dimension is essential to sacred art and thus has an essential connection with the history of the faith, with Scripture and Tradition.

5. The Church in the West does not need to disown the specific path she has followed since about the thirteenth century. But she must achieve a real reception of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, which affirmed the fundamental importance and theological status of the image in the Church.

The Western Church does not need to subject herself to all the individual norms concerning images that were developed at the councils and synods of the East, coming to some kind of conclusion in 1551 at the Council of Moscow, the Council of the Hundred Canons. Nevertheless, she should regard the fundamental lines of this theology of the image in the Church as normative for her.

There must, of course, be no rigid norms. Freshly received intuitions and the ever-new experiences of piety must find a place in the Church. But still there is a difference between sacred art (which is related to the liturgy and belongs to the ecclesial sphere) and religious art in general.

There cannot be completely free expression in sacred art. Forms of art that deny the logos of things and imprison man within what appears to the senses are incompatible with the Church's understanding of the image.

No sacred art can come from an isolated subjectivity. No, it presupposes that there is a subject who has been inwardly formed by the Church and opened up to the "we". Only thus does art make the Church's common faith visible and speak again to the believing heart.

The freedom of art, which is also necessary in the more narrowly circumscribed realm of sacred art, is not a matter of do-as-you-please.

It unfolds according to the measure indicated by the first four points in these concluding reflections, which are an attempt to sum up what is constant in the iconographic tradition of faith.

Without faith there is no art commensurate with the liturgy. Sacred art stands beneath the imperative stated in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Gazing at the Lord, we are "changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (3:18).

But what does all this mean practically? Art cannot be "produced", as one contracts out and produces technical equipment. It is always a gift.

Inspiration is not something one can choose for oneself. It has to be received, otherwise it is not there. One cannot bring about a renewal of art in faith by money or through commissions.

Before all things it requires the gift of a new kind of seeing. And so it would be worth our while to regain a faith that sees. Wherever that exists, art finds its proper expressions."