I struck up a conversation about the role of art in the Catholic imagination with a medievalist friend last week. As we were having this conversation we stood next to a public religious artwork on the campus of Notre Dame, First Down Moses, just a day after I wrote the second installment of my Catholic imagination series, “The Dramatic Double Vision of the Catholic Imagination.”
Most tourists who visit the Notre Dame campus take pictures of Touchdown Jesus don’t know that there is a statue of Moses pointing—one hand pointing toward the heavens, the other toward the 10 Commandments—standing on the other side of Hesburgh library. This statue is colloquially known as “First Down Moses” and is a popular meeting point for staff and students, a place of communion of sorts.
That day we were looking at the feet of Moses crushing the Golden Calf as we were approached by a Jewish colleague. She expressed her concern about the horns on top of the statue’s head. My medievalist friend explained that the horns were a result of scribal error, rather than any explicit antisemitism on the part of Christians. A Catholic appreciation of the role of Moses in the history of salvation was even there to see right at his feet in the form of a vase of flowers along with a note written in all caps: “HIS FEAST DAY IS SEPTEMBER 4TH.” I read this scribal preference as a sign of righteous anger at the forgetting of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
These two episodes, referring to several levels of ecclesial and symbolic literacy, dovetailed into a third—the one that brought me outside in the first place. If, as I argued in my second post on the Catholic imagination, Giotto signals the emergence of a properly Catholic imagination in the midst of Byzantine hegemony, then where did he come from? As with anything Medieval, it was complicated. My friend said it was difficult to pin down where Giotto’s naturalist break from Byzantium came from. The medieval system of arts patronage most likely fostered a constellation of many smaller innovations that eventually made a Giotto possible.
Medieval ecclesial patrons invested large sums of money into forming ecclesial persons by communicating the faith through artistic works: frescoes, stained glass, statuary, architecture, etc. This investment, in turn, fostered a level of visual literacy that would have more than made up for the lack of reading skills among medieval peasants and townfolk. Furthermore, the sermon and liturgical music augmented the visual depictions of salvation history with aural supplements toward understanding the mysteries of faith. Overall, the theological comprehension formed by these two sources is a form of knowledge that could, no doubt, produce the same (if not richer) type of reasoning that we find in our literate culture.
The slow deterioration of this visual culture of formation—one that implies analogies between God, man, and the world—is directly related to Reformation polemics. The emergence of the printing press resulted in a concentration upon the written word that deeply shaped the theological imagination of times to come. The resulting tendency toward iconoclasm played an important role in shaping liturgical art.
There is a small contingent of writers who are taking up this topic of a post-Reformation Protestant imagination. They posit a dialectical relationship between God, man, and the world—where the Fall breaks down the analogies between the Creator and Creation. For example, William Dryness writes the following from within a Reformed perspective:
If one accepts this [dialectical] view of things, Calvin’s scruples would have been more realistic than Luther’s tolerance. For Calvin understood that in a sinful world patterns and practices often coalesce into particular images, and if health is to be restored, these images must not only be denounced but they must also be destroyed. For the reformers knew that much more was at stake than cultural products alone.
The Reformers recognized that the production of specific images by Catholicism channels desire and practice in ways that might impinge upon the absolute transcendence of God. In this way, coupled with well-documented abuses that accompanied the patronage of art, it is possible to imagine how ecclesial art could be seen as a potentially dangerous idol that should be destroyed. The Catholic imagination forms not only private persons, but the public world they inhabit. In fact, it is impossible to theologically separate the public and the private in a properly formed Catholic theology.
Tim O’Malley rightly argues in “The Catholic Imagination is Ecclesial” against the free-floating, in effect privatized, tendencies of Catholic Studies, and its sub-discipline of the Catholic imagination.
He says, “Church life, in the end, is the heart of the Catholic imagination.” Building on this he calls for the following points of ecclesial discipline if the Catholic imagination is not to become an empty slogan of the imagination as mere fancy:
The great monuments of the Catholic imagination were not created by literary artists who separated themselves off into a Donatist sect where they alone spurned the kitsch of parish life, where they alone were the “saved.” No, such monuments came into existence through the instruments of theologians, artists, and spiritual writers who allowed their imaginations to be sanctified through the mundane drama of ecclesial life. After all, Palestrina didn’t just write liturgical music as an artist. He attended confession and got spiritual direction from St. Philip Neri.
This passage indirectly identifies the important problem of patronage and spiritual formation. It speaks to the current state of ecclesial art that I feel embarrassed to ask this question: If artists—writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, etc.—are going to become further integrated into ecclesial life, then where will the ecclesial patronage come from?
This problem is especially vexing for someone like myself who was formed by what might be called the “Von Balthasar Generation.” I, like many of my contemporaries, accept the controvertability of truth, goodness, and beauty. So much so, that it deeply wounds me that there is not enough beauty in most churches to make iconoclasts go on rampages. On top of this, we are losing the literacy to read the art, such as First Down Moses, that we do have. I suspect many of the undergraduates on Notre Dame’s campus are unaware of the meaning of the horns adorning his head nor the possibility of a Mosaic feast day.
In light of this, pardon the pun, I hope that von Balthasar was being overly pessimistic when he said this about beauty’s revenge:
Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man . . . Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.
Church life must once again become the heart of the Catholic imagination, but the onus of avoiding beauty’s revenge is not entirely upon the artists. The onus is equally upon the institutional and lay Church to revive serious patronage if the Catholic imagination and Catholic Studies are going to be truly Catholic.
So yes, it is not enough to keep these discussions in the academe, but it is going to take a serious investment and sacrifices to bring the great monuments back into the temple. It would be an investment in a fundamental culture of formation.
- Part 1 of the Catholic Imagination Series: The Confused Catholic Imagination
- Part 2 of the Catholic Imagination Series: The Dramatic Double Vision of the Catholic Imagination
- Tim O’Malley’s response to Part 2: The Catholic Imagination is Ecclesial (Or It’s Not Really Catholic)
Featured Image: Touchdown Moses with Geddes Hall (seat of Church Life Journal) in the background, taken by the author, released into the Public Domain.
 Steve Metzger, author of a book about one of Aquinas’s contemporaries: Gerard of Abbeville, Secular Master, on Knowledge, Wisdom and Contemplation (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
 Artur Rosman, “The Dramatic Double Vision of the Catholic Imagination,” Church Life Journal.
 William Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: The Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004) 2.
 Timothy O’Malley, “The Catholic Imagination is Ecclesial (Or It’s Not Really Catholic),” Church Life Journal, accessed 23 September 2017.
 For example, the deep irony involved in an image of iconoclasm (crushing the Golden Calf) being visually stunning.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord: Seeing The Form (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982), 18.