‘Art and the saints are the greatest apologetic for our faith,” Pope Benedict XVI (now pope emeritus) has contended. In How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art, American-born art historian extraordinaire Elizabeth Lev (you haven’t quite seen the art of Rome — where she lives — if you haven’t had her as a guide) focuses on a time of “glorious examples of holiness as well as beautiful sacred art in opposition to the ugliness, confusion, betrayal, and loss rampant” in the same era.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Could it be in any way an exaggeration to say that Catholic art saved the faith?
Elizabeth Lev: It’s a bit hyperbolic, I admit, but it was an era of bold statements! While it is true that other factors weighed in to aid the Church during the crisis brought on by the Protestant Reformation, including new religious orders, the Council of Trent, and major theological treatises, art was crucial to the diffusion of the Catholic response among the public. Art is a powerful form of communication, and to counter the flood of polemical pamphlets produced during the 16th century denigrating saints, sacraments, and the papacy, the images commissioned by the Catholic Church helped to affirm doctrine and revitalize devotion to the saints.
Lopez: Can art save the faith again?
Lev: There is a lot of enmity between Catholics and art in our contemporary era. Two centuries of the refrain “art must be free” has resulted in artwork that lacks a focus on sacred narrative, sacramental mystery, or even traditional virtues. Modern art is often intentionally ugly, seeking Truth in the brutal, violent reality of this world, which is off-putting to most viewers. The art world has even paraded sacrilegious images before the faithful, forcing Catholics to retreat from art as it is confusing and certainly not uplifting. Therefore, perhaps painting and sculpture are not what are needed now, but beauty is. Church buildings that lift the spirit and please the eyes help people to imagine that there is more than the injustices and cruelties of this world. I would say that the medium that has the greatest potential to docere et delectare — teach and delight — is cinema and television. Unfortunately, that medium at the moment seems to be given to vulgar cynicism at best and intentional undermining of Christian beliefs at its worst. Cinema needs a new Caravaggio . . .
Lopez: Why do you opt for calling it the “Catholic Restoration” instead of the more common “Counter-Reformation”?
Lev: Counter-Reformation, the best-known term for the period of the late 16th century after the Council of Trent, was coined by non-Catholic historians several centuries after the fact. It gives the impression that the actions of the Catholic Church were merely reactions to the Protestant accusations, suggesting that Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others were essentially calling the shots, if you will. This is not entirely the case. The Catholic Church was aware of the need for reform and knew of confusion among the faithful regarding the sacraments, the liturgy, and Church teaching in general. The Fifth Lateran Council had been called in 1511 to address some of these issues and, while unsuccessful, demonstrates that the Church had already understood the gravity of the situation before Martin Luther’s 95 theses.
Lopez: What does “art for faith’s sake” mean? Is it really that important?
Lev: There have been moments in the history of art when artists, caught up in their own creative genius, lose sight of the message they are supposed to communicate. This happened after the Renaissance in the period known as Mannerism, when artists were more interested in displaying clever innovation than the Gospel message they were commissioned to portray. Complex symbolism, impossible perspectives, and convoluted compositions didn’t represent the holy stories as they had happened or might have happened or even ideally happened, but however the artist thought might be interesting or novel. These “personalized” interpretations of scripture could not have come at a worse time since the Church was combating the Protestant exhortation to read and interpret the Bible individually instead of through the Magisterial lens. The most devastating accusation that could be leveled at an artist, and indeed almost derailed Michelangelo’s career, was that he “has taken more delight in art, to show of what kind and how great it was, than in the truth of the subject.” This is the definition of “art for art’s sake,” the mantra of the 19th century. The Church insisted that artists, working on religious commissions, work for the greater glory of God, i.e for “faith’s sake,” as opposed to their personal aggrandizement.
Lopez: Where would you suggest we look today in art to be uplifted?
Lev: One idea would be to look through images of a favorite saint and pick one to carry around — as we would a photo of a friend and family. Think about what you really love about the image; the color, the composition, the scene — and be ready to share — much as grandparents can’t resist whipping out pictures of grandchildren. Remember that the beautiful pictures of religious scenes you see in museums were made for the homes of the devout or the altars of churches, not the sterile environment of the gallery. Try to imagine how the work was meant to aid prayer or reveal mystery, and you will understand the art better than most art historians. There are also many artists producing interesting works of sacred subjects – take a look at the contemporary works of Christian art and see which one speaks to you. There are a number of contemporary artists who make beautiful works mixing tradition with the modern.
Lopez: How is a pilgrimage a journey of love? Are they necessary? If so, what does that mean for people who don’t have the money to go to Rome and see the treasures of the Vatican.
Lev: Traveling home for the holidays is often a hassle, expensive and uncomfortable, but people do it for their loved ones. The journey itself is a demonstration of love. Pilgrimage, costly and dangerous, was once a very powerful statement of love for Christ and the saints, and often undertaken more as a penance than pleasure. It is a gift that gives; the pilgrim gives his or her energy, funds, and time, but receives affirmation in the faith, graces, and a greater sense of belonging to a universal Church. While the Church loves pilgrims and has produced many works of art in their honor, those who cannot travel are no less loved. Think of Thérèse of Lisieux, who took only one short trip in her life, yet is the patron saint of missionaries for her fervent prayers for those who do travel, or of St. John Vianney, who never journeyed farther than a 100-mile radius from his home, but has inspired priests from all over the world.
Lopez: I suspect you’ve heard once or twice: The Vatican should sell all its artwork. With all the scandal and all the suffering in the world, doesn’t it make sense?
Lev: How does the Church divesting itself of beauty help remedy scandal and suffering? A few million dollars, to be spent within a few years to alleviate the physical needs of a few, leaving barren spaces and empty altars forever. If the Church didn’t already have thousands of projects to help the sick, poor, persecuted, and homeless, and those struck by disasters, there would be some sense to that argument, but the Catholic commitment to art is dwarfed by the tremendous commitment it has to those in physical need. Poverty is not only material, however, it is also spiritual, and beauty is an antidote to that numbing indifference that affects those who have lost a belief in the divine. In the case of the Vatican collection, the artwork takes visitors from the pagan eras of Greece, Egypt, and Rome through the advent of Christianity up to this difficult modern age. The art illustrates the story of salvation, the redemption of humanity planned throughout time, and as such feeds hungry souls and heals diseased spirits.
Lopez: Is there a single greatest piece of art? That draws you into the nature of God like no other?
Lev: The wonder of art is in its endless manifestations, like nature or human beings themselves. For one person it might be the images of prayer and silence, like Caspar David Friedrich, for another the dazzling mosaics in Ravenna; for some Michelangelo’s narrative tour de force in the Sistine Chapel, others might respond to the stark contrasts of Caravaggio. I believe there is a work of art out there for everyone, whether Matisse or Leonardo, something that can draw one closer to the faith and illustrate our inchoate conception of revelation and redemption.
Lopez: How might we reconsider beauty this Advent and Christmas seasons?
Lev: It is of course not my place declare this, but I always celebrate the feast of the Magi as the feast of art history. It is in the Incarnation that Christian art finds its justification. God became visible, therefore, in the words of St. John Damascene: “It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible in flesh, you may then draw His likeness.” Furthermore, Christ was born during the age of Augustus, who used images proclaim his imperial might and taught the Empire to learn though images. This feast of the Gentile kings coming to see God seems to me an invitation for Christians to express the beauty of their faith through different media to help everyone encounter Christ.