Chapter 13 of Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists (1999), and as you can see, the Holy Father has a big question to ask. Art in and of itself doesn’t need the Church but how much richer she is in theme and vision when she lets herself be inspired by the Incarnation.
If you would like to read all of the Pope’s Letter, you can do so at the Vatican website here
Does art need the Church?
13. The Church therefore needs art. But can it also be said that art needs the Church? The question may seem like a provocation. Yet, rightly understood, it is both legitimate and profound. Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable. How then can we fail to see what a great source of inspiration is offered by that kind of homeland of the soul that is religion? Is it not perhaps within the realm of religion that the most vital personal questions are posed, and answers both concrete and definitive are sought?
In fact, the religious theme has been among those most frequently treated by artists in every age. The Church has always appealed to their creative powers in interpreting the Gospel message and discerning its precise application in the life of the Christian community. This partnership has been a source of mutual spiritual enrichment. Ultimately, it has been a great boon for an understanding of man, of the authentic image and truth of the person. The special bond between art and Christian revelation has also become evident. This does not mean that human genius has not found inspiration in other religious contexts. It is enough to recall the art of the ancient world, especially Greek and Roman art, or the art which still flourishes in the very ancient civilizations of the East. It remains true, however, that because of its central doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word of God, Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in inspiration. What an impoverishment it would be for art to abandon the inexhaustible mine of the Gospel!
(of the present writer, not nec. LCWC opinions)
- “… their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable.” I have to admit, I don’t understand the use of the word ‘torment’ here. How can a success, especially one as great as this, be a torment?
- “Is it not perhaps…” I am very much tempted to say, ‘absolutely; and there is no “perhaps” about it. Not since philosophy ceased to be a search for wisdom and became about word games.
- “… artists in every age.” Here, I remind myself that John Paul is not talking about painters only. For I see very little sign that they, and other artists like them, e.g. sculptors, are especially interested in religion these days. My words are unfair, though, for when I talk about ‘other artists’, I mean simply the famous ones whose work gets noticed by the media and wins awards.
- “The special bond between art and Christian revelation has also become evident.” For me, this bond is also a subtle one as it exists in works of art that are not ostensibly about religion at all but yet still tackle religious themes – such as redemption.
- “… the art of the ancient world…” Why has God so blessed pagan religious art? Here, I am reminded of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (or was it C. S. Lewis’?) suggestion that paganism was a preparation for Christianity, which in its turn became the myth-made-true. This is worth thinking about next time we see a statue of Zeus or Aphrodite. God is speaking to us; what is He saying?
- “… Christianity offers artists a horizon especially rich in inspiration…” This is really a klaxon call to the Church to be brave. When people push the boundaries, she shouldn’t be thinking in terms of putting the work down but taking more care to see if it is good, or if good can be found in it despite all. The Church is by her nature both progressive and conservative. Both positions are good but when one dominates over the other, only trouble lies ahead.
- “… What an impoverishment it would be…” Indeed, and what an impoverishment it always is when we reject what we don’t like because it doesn’t fit our conception of what should be. I need to take more care here when it comes to modern church architecture. We all need to take more care here for the sake of the gospel.