In today’s extract from his Letter to Artists (1999), Pope John Paul II looks at how the first Christians received and adapted pagan art to their own time and circumstances before having to confront the iconoclastic crisis in the eight century.
If you would like to read the whole Letter you can do so at the Vatican website here
7. The art which Christianity encountered in its early days was the ripe fruit of the classical world, articulating its aesthetic canons and embodying its values. Not only in their way of living and thinking, but also in the field of art, faith obliged Christians to a discernment which did not allow an uncritical acceptance of this heritage. Art of Christian inspiration began therefore in a minor key, strictly tied to the need for believers to contrive Scripture-based signs to express both the mysteries of faith and a “symbolic code” by which they could distinguish and identify themselves, especially in the difficult times of persecution. Who does not recall the symbols which marked the first appearance of an art both pictorial and plastic? The fish, the loaves, the shepherd: in evoking the mystery, they became almost imperceptibly the first traces of a new art.
When the Edict of Constantine allowed Christians to declare themselves in full freedom, art became a privileged means for the expression of faith. Majestic basilicas began to appear, and in them the architectural canons of the pagan world were reproduced and at the same time modified to meet the demands of the new form of worship. How can we fail to recall at least the old Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, both funded by Constantine himself? Or Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia built by Justinian, with its splendours of Byzantine art?
While architecture designed the space for worship, gradually the need to contemplate the mystery and to present it explicitly to the simple people led to the early forms of painting and sculpture. There appeared as well the first elements of art in word and sound. Among the many themes treated by Augustine we find De Musica; and Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Prudentius, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus and Paulinus of Nola, to mention but a few, promoted a Christian poetry which was often of high quality not just as theology but also as literature. Their poetic work valued forms inherited from the classical authors, but was nourished by the pure sap of the Gospel, as Paulinus of Nola put it succinctly: “Our only art is faith and our music Christ”. A little later, Gregory the Great compiled the Antiphonarium and thus laid the ground for the organic development of that most original sacred music which takes its name from him. Gregorian chant, with its inspired modulations, was to become down the centuries the music of the Church’s faith in the liturgical celebration of the sacred mysteries. The “beautiful” was thus wedded to the “true”, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal.
Along this path there were troubled moments. Precisely on the issue of depicting the Christian mystery, there arose in the early centuries a bitter controversy known to history as “the iconoclast crisis”. Sacred images, which were already widely used in Christian devotion, became the object of violent contention. The Council held at Nicaea in 787, which decreed the legitimacy of images and their veneration, was a historic event not just for the faith but for culture itself. The decisive argument to which the Bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: if the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities—his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible— then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents.
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)
- “The art which Christianity encountered in its early days…” Recently, I attended a talk on Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic period where the speaker compared Hellenistic sculptures to those produced during the time of Classical Greece. Sculptors in Classical Greece were concerned with finding beauty in perfection. Their heirs, however, were intent on making their sculptures as real as possible. From a strictly Christian perspective could we argue that this allowed art to tell the story of salvation in a way that would never have been possible if artists had only been interested in the beauty of perfection?
- “How can we fail to recall…” At this point, I must also recall St Augustine of Canterbury’s question to Pope Gregory the Great during his evangelisation of the English people (This story appears in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, which I do not have to hand so forgive me if I get any of the details wrong). Augustine asked the Pope what they should do with the pagan shrines – destroy them? That would seem the obvious answer, but Gregory said no; convert them. Get rid of pagan icons but use the building if you can. This seems to me advice for the ages for God is not necessarily absent in non-Christian things.
- “The “beautiful” was thus wedded to the “true”, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal.” This paragraph is really hard for me to read objectively. That is because I like the Church’s older forms of liturgy and music – a lot. And although Vatican II has given us much of value, I am embarrassed when I look at hymns of my time and churches built since the 1960s and compare them to what went before. The temptation is to see all as worthless but that is a temptation that must be resisted.
- “The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents.” Nicaea concludes the matter started in the time of the Israelites when God forbade representations of Himself to be made. The bishops who affirmed the legitimacy of icons are really the patrons of all artists, everywhere.
Pope Saint John Paul II Ora Pro Nobis!