A Rich Chapter

Today we start our second month of Pope Saint John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999). If you would like to read the full apostolic letter, you can do so at the Vatican’s website here.

Art and the mystery of the Word made flesh

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”.

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.

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.

In the history of human culture, all of this is a rich chapter of faith and beauty. Believers above all have gained from it in their experience of prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis. But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world.

Some Thoughts
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)

  • …the central point of reference…” The Law forbade any representation of God. But when Jesus Christ came, He became the visible face of God and the means by which we understand the truth about ourselves. I have just written the above sentence in minutes but I think it will take a lot longer for me to understand what I have said – especially in respect of Jesus and us.
  • [He has] unveiled a new dimension of beauty…” This makes better sense. As I see it today, this new dimension is not a beauty that did not exist before the Incarnation but a previously known beauty that is now seen – thanks to the Gospel – in a new, deeper, Christ-like light.
  • Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of “immense vocabulary” (Paul Claudel) and “iconographic atlas” (Marc Chagall)” Full marks to Claudel and Chagall for their very evocative ways of seeing Sacred Scripture. What they say is true and a great challenge. If we revel in scripture’s vocabulary and ‘map work’ that is all to the good but we mustn’t overload our works with meaning and thus make it obscure and a barrier rather than a doorway.
  • … all of this is a rich chapter of faith and beauty…” This is just a beautiful phrase of its own account but what I also like about it is the fact that it reminds me not to get lost with God in creative works alone. God is elsewhere, too! His house has other rooms, and His story has other chapters out there in the world.

Letters to Artists
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Pope Saint John Paul II Ora Pro Nobis!

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