the highest inspiration

Welcome to Chapter 9 of Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists. Insofar as today’s chapter focusses on art at the Vatican it could be seen as being rather self-indulgent but the Holy See ought to be very proud of the artistic treasures it has within its borders and making as much use of them as possible to spread the Gospel.

If you would like to read the whole of the Pope’s Letter you can do so at the Vatican website here

Humanism and the Renaissance

9. The favourable cultural climate that produced the extraordinary artistic flowering of Humanism and the Renaissance also had a significant impact on the way in which the artists of the period approached the religious theme. Naturally, their inspiration, like their style, varied greatly, at least among the best of them. But I do not intend to repeat things which you, as artists, know well. Writing from this Apostolic Palace, which is a mine of masterpieces perhaps unique in the world, I would rather give voice to the supreme artists who in this place lavished the wealth of their genius, often charged with great spiritual depth. From here can be heard the voice of Michelangelo who in the Sistine Chapel has presented the drama and mystery of the world from the Creation to the Last Judgement, giving a face to God the Father, to Christ the Judge, and to man on his arduous journey from the dawn to the consummation of history. Here speaks the delicate and profound genius of Raphael, highlighting in the array of his paintings, and especially in the “Dispute” in the Room of the Signatura, the mystery of the revelation of the Triune God, who in the Eucharist befriends man and sheds light on the questions and expectations of human intelligence. From this place, from the majestic Basilica dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles, from the Colonnade which spreads out from it like two arms open to welcome the whole human family, we still hear Bramante, Bernini, Borromini, Maderno, to name only the more important artists, all rendering visible the perception of the mystery which makes of the Church a universally hospitable community, mother and travelling companion to all men and women in their search for God.

This extraordinary complex is a remarkably powerful expression of sacred art, rising to heights of imperishable aesthetic and religious excellence. What has characterized sacred art more and more, under the impulse of Humanism and the Renaissance, and then of successive cultural and scientific trends, is a growing interest in everything human, in the world, and in the reality of history. In itself, such a concern is not at all a danger for Christian faith, centred on the mystery of the Incarnation and therefore on God’s valuing of the human being. The great artists mentioned above are a demonstration of this. Suffice it to think of the way in which Michelangelo represents the beauty of the human body in his painting and sculpture.(16)

Even in the changed climate of more recent centuries, when a part of society seems to have become indifferent to faith, religious art has continued on its way. This can be more widely appreciated if we look beyond the figurative arts to the great development of sacred music through this same period, either composed for the liturgy or simply treating religious themes. Apart from the many artists who made sacred music their chief concern—how can we forget Pier Luigi da Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Tomás Luis de Victoria?—it is also true that many of the great composers—from Handel to Bach, from Mozart to Schubert, from Beethoven to Berlioz, from Liszt to Verdi—have given us works of the highest inspiration in this field.

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

  • The favourable cultural climate that produced the extraordinary artistic flowering of Humanism and the Renaissance…” How did the Renaissance happen? I don’t know the full answer to that question but what I am pleased about is that it happened after the Middle Ages, a period I am very fond of. This fact tells me that there was something going on in the faith and art of that unfairly maligned period that was good, that was special, and that when it flowered, it gave us the art that John Paul now talks about.
  • … their inspiration, like their style, varied greatly, at least among the best of them…” Here is a valuable message for artists: Don’t be afraid to be different! Keep searching for your voice; finding it will put you in good company whether or not your art is as great as Michelangelo’s et al.
  • … this Apostolic Palace, which is a mine of masterpieces perhaps unique in the world…” This passage reminded me of the specious argument that the Vatican should sell all its artistic treasures to help the poor. Aside from the fact that those treasures are priceless, if the Vatican did sell them, it would only be able to do so once; what would happen when the sale-money ran out? It could invest the money, of course, but year-on-year would that give it more than it receives at the moment from tourists? And how many of the arts would end up in private collections afterwards? Perhaps governments would be the most likely buyers. But how much money would the museums and galleries they kept the art in give to the poor afterwards?
  • Michelangelo gives ‘a face’ to God the Father, Christ the Judge and Mankind; Raphael highlights ‘the mystery of the revelation of the Triune God’; ‘the Colonnade which spreads out from it like two arms open to welcome the whole human family’ – in these few lines we receive a small but valuable lesson in how to interpret the named works. It is a lovely digression to the general overview.
  • What has characterized sacred art more and more… is a growing interest in everything human, in the world, and in the reality of history.” It is a tragedy, however, that sometimes we draw entirely the wrong lessons from this interest – especially when it comes to understanding Humanity, e.g. what makes for a human being.
  • … such a concern is not at all a danger for Christian faith… The great artists mentioned above are a demonstration of this.” How can we make Michelangelo popular – really popular – again?! And what lessons about the human body can he still teach the Church? Has the Faith learnt everything there is to know about it?
  • … sacred music…‘ This final paragraph has a perfunctory feel to it but nevertheless it is good to be reminded of the great composers whose works can raise our spirits to the very heavens.

Pope Saint John Paul II – Ora Pro Nobis

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