“Italy: The Gift of Art”
March 3, 2019
One of my favorite professors in college was Dr. Gerald Fitzgerald, who introduced himself to his freshman classes, “I’m a poet who teaches to support my habit.” He had the thickest South Boston accent I’ve ever heard, which I won’t try to reproduce, but after he introduced himself, he asked us, “Why is there poetry?” to which, of course, everyone responded with blank stares and a feeling that we might have signed up for a required course with a lunatic. After a few seconds of silence, he said, “Okay, then. How many days are there in April?”
Now, I know you’re doing what we did. You’re saying to yourself, “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.” Poetry is one of the ways we remember. Dr. Fitzgerald went on from there to say that poetry is also one of the ways we teach and learn, not only about set facts but also about what it is to be a human being alive within the natural world and living among other human beings and with questions about what other world may lie beyond this one.
Psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, even theology are all mind-centered and rational ways of doing the same thing, but the arts are not just helpful, but even necessary for real discussion and learning among people who are thinkers, but more than thinkers. We respond to ideas and thought, but we even talk about mathematical theories as “beautiful” or “elegant”, and those things move us and speak to us on a deeper level than we often express.
In practical terms, some people learn through the sciences and some through the arts. Some people learn visually and some learn by hearing; some learn by reading and some learn by moving.
There have been times when Christianity has almost lost that awareness. We grew out of Judaism, with its strong opposition to idolatry.
“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” [Exodus 20:4-5a]
Familiar? I hope so. At the same time, the tabernacle that Moses was commanded to construct and the Temple that later took its place were decorated with carvings of animals and embroidered hangings, so it isn’t all art that is banished. At the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared in conversation with Jesus, Peter’s impulse as a witness of that moment of pure glory was to offer to build three dwellings or tents or tabernacles (all possible translations of one word) to commemorate what had happened. [Luke 9:33] Jesus turned it down, but the impulse to build a monument, to create, in response to this indescribable sight, was Peter’s very human thought.
We face the need to see art for what it is, not worshiping it or making it an idol, but as a tool for communicating the awareness of a creative and redemptive God who does not disdain nor undervalue the material world or the people who live in it.
Yet, humans being humans, we do tend to worship our own creations. At one point in Church history, there were a group of people who looked at the way images of Jesus and of God’s holy people were being treated and said, “Wait a minute. This is going too far.” A lot of people who had formerly been pagan still had superstitious ideas about statues and pictures and didn’t always distinguish clearly between the person pictured and the picture itself. In Constantinople, there riots between “iconoclasts”, who favored banning images and sometimes took matters into their own hands, and “iconodules”, who insisted that they venerated images without worshiping them. The battles went back and forth for over a century from 726-842. Eventually, they settled on a compromise that you can still see in Orthodox icons, where they agreed not to produce three-dimensional statues, to avoid strictly realistic portrayals in favor of stylized figures, and to put them on gold backgrounds to symbolize that these icons are glimpses into heaven, not objects of power here on earth divorced from God’s Holy Spirit.
The Italians perched across the water from Greece looked at this stuff and said, “Wait a minute.” They didn’t have the same lofty, philosophical approach to art. For them, as for much of Western Europe then and for the next few centuries, it was a way of teaching people who could not read and letting them get at least a small hint about the contents of the Bible. They didn’t sign onto the program that Eastern Christianity adopted at that point.
Now, that isn’t to say that Western Christianity hasn’t had its own excesses of devotion to statues from time to time, and its own arguments about what to do when images threaten to become idols. On the whole, though, the tradition established by Italian painters of the Middle Ages and those who followed them over the centuries kept the visual arts alive as a means of teaching people about Jesus in a way that says he’s not just as a face staring down from above, but he is the living embodiment of God in human form.
People like Giotto and Filippo Lippi and Cimabue (don’t worry – there won’t be a test) began to experiment with drawing and painting scenes from the life of Christ in realistic ways, setting them in Italian towns and with people wearing the clothing of their own day. By painting Bible scenes that way, they were saying, “Don’t try to box Jesus in.” They set an example of how to use artwork and everything else, for that matter, to set the gospel free in the world. They pointed to the Transfiguration of Jesus, when the glory of God that lived within him burst out in a miraculous way because it is so wonderful that it just cannot be contained.
“And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” [Luke 9:2]
Jesus, for them, and for us, cannot be just an image even though we have an image of him in our minds sometimes or a set idea about him, when instead we are faced with a living Savior and the voice of God himself saying,
“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” [Luke 9:35]
Listen to him, because he has good news. The kingdom of God is at hand, and he brings it to all of us, here and now.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” [John 1:14]