How to interpret the art of God
IN A GATHERING of academics and theologians, an amateur art critic must of necessity take a seat in the back row. However, prestigious professions can be dangerous. As we know, ivory towers can be conducive to vertigo, and theology is the only truly existential discipline: to teach matters central to one's own personal truth is a frightening responsibility. In this context, let me position myself: I believe absolutely in the truth of the divine Mystery; I believe relatively in the truth of the words in which we make the Mystery intelligible. As for art, I am convinced it can be a way to this Mystery and that its images may make visible to us the manner in which different generations have understood it. We move always between truth and fact, between spirit and form. Both art and theology seek to keep the balance right, to know when to stress the difference between truth and fact and when they are inseparably united.
To take an instance from the Passion: St John sets Mary at the foot of the Cross, which most historians (though not Raymond Brown) think unlikely to be factually accurate. It may not be fact, but it is profoundly true. In all the ways that matter, poetically, Mary was there with her Son. Applied to the Resurrection, the same distinction holds. The truth of the Resurrection is essential to our faith, but the facts of it, how and when and where, are irretrievable and relatively unimportant.
The distinction may seem simple to us now, 2000 years after the event. It was not simple for the early Church. As long as crucifixion remained a method of execution, one of great pain and humiliation, the Church found it impossible to show images of their Lord on a cross. Intellectually they accepted that He died, and died in a revolting manner, but the imagination could not picture it. Paleo-Christian art cannot come to visual terms with the death of Christ, and hence cannot image forth His resurrection. One is dependent on the other. Until the death became an experienced reality for them, truth as opposed to impersonal fact, there are only delicate symbols of what had happened. Artists drew an emblematic cross which bore Christ's monogram: they were showing His triumph over death, not death itself and the resultant rising.
Crucifixion by Cimabue, San Domenico, Arezzo, c.1270: We have numberless images of Jesus on the Cross, all infinitely moving, like Coppo di Marcovalido or Giotto or Giunta Pisano, showing with sensitive compassion the suffering and courage of the Lord. His body lies across the wood like a great curve of human pain, transcending death only by his determined acceptance. It is not only a human being in death, but one who accepts death for some greater good, which all who view the cross know is their salvation. Such images need the counterweight of the Resurrection. It did not end there, in pain and fortitude. It led on to glory triumph over death for all who live. Yet the images of this are few. From
now on, it is the Passion that predominates. We can find great pictorial and sculptural images of the Passicn on every side: we search for the images of the Rising. When the whole cycle of Christ's life is to be covered. there is inevitably a great Crucifixion scene, with the Resurrection treated on the side.