We have reached double figures in our read-through of Pope John Paul’s 1999 Letter to Artists. In the tenth section of his Letter, the pope moves from the glories of renaissance art to a discussion about the way in which art and faith have become divided. Does this mean they can no longer speak to each other?
If you would like to read the whole of the Letter to Artists you can do so at the Vatican website here
Towards a renewed dialogue
10. It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes.
You know, however, that the Church has not ceased to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such. Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.
It is clear, therefore, why the Church is especially concerned for the dialogue with art and is keen that in our own time there be a new alliance with artists, as called for by my revered predecessor Paul VI in his vibrant speech to artists during a special meeting he had with them in the Sistine Chapel on 7 May 1964. From such cooperation the Church hopes for a renewed “epiphany” of beauty in our time and apt responses to the particular needs of the Christian community.
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)
- “… [a] humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God…” John Paul goes on to say that this humanism “has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith…” This is a very discouraging opening to the tenth section of the Letter to Artists. ‘Discourage’ is an interesting word to use. Dis-courage. Does the separation of art and faith take away religious artists’ courage? Does it strip us of our bravery? But what, I wonder, does it mean for any artist to be brave, truly brave? One thing it doesn’t mean is being prepared to push boundaries. Anyone can do that. Artistic bravery is a much more profound act than that. But what, exactly?
- “… art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience…” John Paul’s deep Christian faith shines out in this paragraph. For having noted how the ‘new’ humanism has driven a wedge between art and faith he shows that the story does not end there; art still engages with the faith even when its thoughts are elsewhere. This encourages (from dis- to en- in two paragraphs. A relief!) us to look at secular art anew and trace its journey to God when we might have been tempted to write it off as being irreverent and irrelevant. And as writers it also allows us, perhaps, to go further afield in our writings than we might have dared to otherwise.
- “… 7 May 1964…” Who knew of this meeting? Who was the last prelate to mention it? This is the problem with Church teaching. There is so much good there but it gets buried. The documents come and the documents go and Catholics – let alone the world – are none the wiser. Of course, this is why Catholic writers are so important. People read books; they read fiction. We are – potentially – the bridge that John Paul speaks of in the second paragraph. And, of course, we don’t even need to actually talk about the Faith in order to talk about it.
Pope Saint John Paul II – Ora Pro Nobis