Welcome to Part 8 of our read-through of Pope St John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. In this section of the letter he takes a brief look at how art – particularly icons and architecture – developed in the Middle Ages.
If you would like to read the entire letter, you can do so at the Vatican website here
The Middle Ages
8.The succeeding centuries saw a great development of Christian art. In the East, the art of the icon continued to flourish, obeying theological and aesthetic norms charged with meaning and sustained by the conviction that, in a sense, the icon is a sacrament. By analogy with what occurs in the sacraments, the icon makes present the mystery of the Incarnation in one or other of its aspects. That is why the beauty of the icon can be best appreciated in a church where in the shadows burning lamps stir infinite flickerings of light. As Pavel Florensky has written: “By the flat light of day, gold is crude, heavy, useless, but by the tremulous light of a lamp or candle it springs to life and glitters in sparks beyond counting—now here, now there, evoking the sense of other lights, not of this earth, which fill the space of heaven”.
In the West, artists start from the most varied viewpoints, depending also on the underlying convictions of the cultural world of their time. The artistic heritage built up over the centuries includes a vast array of sacred works of great inspiration, which still today leave the observer full of admiration. In the first place, there are the great buildings for worship, in which the functional is always wedded to the creative impulse inspired by a sense of the beautiful and an intuition of the mystery. From here came the various styles well known in the history of art. The strength and simplicity of the Romanesque, expressed in cathedrals and abbeys, slowly evolved into the soaring splendours of the Gothic. These forms portray not only the genius of an artist but the soul of a people. In the play of light and shadow, in forms at times massive, at times delicate, structural considerations certainly come into play, but so too do the tensions peculiar to the experience of God, the mystery both “awesome” and “alluring”. How is one to summarize with a few brief references to each of the many different art forms, the creative power of the centuries of the Christian Middle Ages? An entire culture, albeit with the inescapable limits of all that is human, had become imbued with the Gospel; and where theology produced the Summa of Saint Thomas, church art moulded matter in a way which led to adoration of the mystery, and a wonderful poet like Dante Alighieri could compose “the sacred poem, to which both heaven and earth have turned their hand”, as he himself described the Divine Comedy.
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)
- “… the beauty of the icon can be best appreciated in a church…” I have to admit, I have never thought of icons being better suited to one place rather than another. However, especially after reading Pavel Florensky’s beautiful quotation, it makes perfect sense. And it also ties in with the fact that I have at certain times wanted to read one particular book or another because the story seemed perfect for that moment in time.
- “These forms portray not only the genius of an artist but the soul of a people.” Art as an expression, not just of the artist’s imagination/faith, but of the ‘soul of the people’. At first glance, the pope seems to be suggesting that artists are, at least in a sense, conduits. Well, maybe they are, but they are also observers, and very keen ones at that, whether they do it consciously or not. Unacknowledged legislators of the world? Unacknowledged spies, more like!
- I would have liked to have written more about Section 8 but I have another admission to make: I am simply bowled over. John Paul’s words evoke in me the image of a truly glorious period of art, one which I am very fond of, too fond of, in fact, to be able to write about it. Romanesque… Gothic… Icons… God is good.