ingenious creators of beauty

It’s Sunday, so no link today; instead, we are beginning a ‘serialisation’ of Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, which he published in 1999.

Over the next few Sundays, this blog will publish the Letter to Artists point-by-point.

Each quotation will come with a few of this author’s thoughts but you are invited to read what Pope John Paul says and take his words into yourselves so that you might arrive at your own understanding of what the late, great pope is saying and what it means to you as a Catholic writer

One last thing – in my thoughts, I speak with reference to writers. John Paul, however, is referring to artists in general.

The artist, image of God the Creator

1. None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.

That is why it seems to me that there are no better words than the text of Genesis with which to begin my Letter to you, to whom I feel closely linked by experiences reaching far back in time and which have indelibly marked my life. In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future.

In fact, this dialogue is not dictated merely by historical accident or practical need, but is rooted in the very essence of both religious experience and artistic creativity. The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman).

What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God. In fact, after saying that God created man and woman “in his image” (cf. Gn 1:27), the Bible adds that he entrusted to them the task of dominating the earth (cf. Gn 1:28). This was the last day of creation (cf. Gn 1:28-31). On the previous days, marking as it were the rhythm of the birth of the cosmos, Yahweh had created the universe. Finally he created the human being, the noblest fruit of his design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.

God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power. Obviously, this is a sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: “Creative art, which it is the soul’s good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified with that essential art which is God himself, but is only a communication of it and a share in it”.

That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.

Some Thoughts

  • John Paul pays a terrific compliment at the start of the Letter to Artists. We are ‘ingenious creators of beauty’.
  • As he goes on to state, however, artists are rather to be seen as ‘craftsmen’ rather than ‘creators’. The latter, he states, is what God is.
  • This distinction puts me in mind of what J. R. R. Tolkien said about Middle-earth being an act of ‘sub-creation’. For more on that, see The Tolkien Gateway here
  • John Paul’s compliment is immediately followed by what seems to me to be a slightly discordant note. “None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.” The word I am interested in here is ‘pathos’. In the words of my Oxford English Dictionary, pathos is ‘a quality that arouses pity or sadness’. Is the late pope saying no one can see the way God looked at His creation with pity and sadness more deeply than artists? That’s not the sense I get from what follows (nor from what I know of the start of Genesis when God looked at His creation and saw that it was good.). I wonder if there is a translation issue here?
  • John Paul says that he intends ‘to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists‘. Is this in essence what it means to be a Catholic author? To be in fruitful dialogue with our Church?
  • Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”‘ This is a rather glorious phrase. Imagine it – by writing creatively, you and I are making ourselves in the image of God! That’s quite a thought. What does it mean to be in the image of God? Many things, but one that occurs to me is, closer to Him in spirit. When we are struggling with inspiration and motivation that is a very comforting thought (to paraphrase Gandalf).

If today’s post has inspired you to read the full letter, you can do so at the Vatican’s website here

Pope St John Paul II – Ora Pro Nobis!

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