All posts tagged: beauty

The Redemption of Status and Hierarchy

The Met’s Costume Institute Exhibition “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” currently on view at the Met Fifth Avenue and The Cloisters until October 8th, threads through galleries of medieval and Byzantine art, bringing the sartorial art pieces into dialogue with the surrounding masterpieces. The promenade-style exhibit could easily become a gaudy intrusion rather than an exegesis of the beauty already embedded around it. But from the very first runway—a neck-craning collection of evening dresses which march through a hallway of Antiochene mosaics—”Heavenly Bodies” demands a transformation of the viewer’s encounter with the surrounding art. That first dizzying catwalk of gowns both catalyzes new contemplation of the existing art and playfully suggests a core theme of the exhibit—the displayed earthly beauty has, at its heart, a higher telos. In her May article on the Met Gala, Anne Carpenter posed the question: “Do our things die when we preserve them, or does preserving them keep them alive?” For all the Church is lauded for its tradition and its continual admonishment to our short memories to …

Met Gala: Catholicism Broken but Shining

“Yo que sentí el horror de los espejos,” says Jorge Louis Borges. “I’ve been horrified before mirrors.”[1] Such strange things, mirrors. Those mysterious surfaces that reflect the eye’s light back to itself.[2] Poets so like to speak of them. Perhaps out of vanity, and perhaps because in mirrors we see “darkly” (cf. 1 Cor 13:12). One can never quite tell with poets. As for mirrors: mirrors, they are everywhere. Mirrors are experienced “ante el aqua,” writes Borges. “Before water.” Before speculating water that imitates The other blue in its deep sky[3] Or mirrors exist in windows, some of which Rainer Marian Rilke describes as an “Auge.” “An eye, which seems to rest.”[4] An eye that “opens and bangs shut (zusammenschlägt) with a crack of thunder.”[5] It is as if both poets imagine entire worlds behind (beneath? within?) each reflective surface. I include the original languages if only to force the eye to pause, to interpret. To hesitate and search for understanding. After all, knowing is not like looking.[6] I cannot walk along and pick up …

Good Friday: Creation Always Exists in Darkness

The predominant Christological concept governing William Congdon’s 1960 painting “Crucifix no. 2” is that of kenosis. The painting conveys a sense of abject abandonment, leaving no doubt that Christ’s self-sacrificial act of obedience, “to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8), is indeed an ultimate form of self-emptying, and especially so, not in spite of, because of his being the God-Man. Beyond this immediate kenotic impression conveyed by the work, the Christological insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar can flesh out further the significance of this particular representation of Christ. How we understand Christ’s relationship to his mission and the significance of this relationship in Congdon’s image will be our focus. Then we will consider what it means to involve ourselves in the viewing of Christ’s mission–as Congdon’s representation does—especially in light of the fact that Christ is the ultimate form of revelation, the image that in fact structures all revelation. We shall ultimately see that theological reflection and artistic representation inform and draw out the deepest meanings of one another so …

The Cross Must Be Deeply Ugly to Be Beautiful

I first venerated the cross when I was attending a high-school model UN conference that had been accidentally scheduled during Holy Week. The conference was held in New York City near Times Square, and the neighboring church was the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Mary the Virgin—colloquially known as “Smoky Mary’s” for the odor of incense that fills your nostrils when you enter the immaculate gothic nave. Its vaults are painted blue with gold stars and lined with red and gold trim. Its interior is perfect. After the passion was sung, we took off our shoes, like Moses before the burning bush, and proceeded through two stations of veneration, each with a server instructing us to bow and proceed, before finally kneeling to kiss the cross itself. Usually we kiss icons or relics, but why should we kiss an empty cross, and any old cross, at that? In classical literature, metonymy is a figure of speech whereby a part serves to represent the whole. The cross performs a similar function in Christian theology, for it means …

The Extraordinary Is Wed to the Mundane in the Catholic Imagination

“Words move, music moves / Only in time,” writes T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets; “but that which is only living / Can only die.”[1] One of the ideas that these poems stress is what we see in the lines I just quoted: for us, living, expressing, and being always involve time. We need time in order to do any of the things that we do. Yet, for this to be so, it always also means that the current moment is passing away. As G.M. Hopkins says, “I am soft sift / In an hourglass.”[2] Everything that we give slips through our fingers, never permanent, because the condition that makes our creativity possible, time, is also that by which we lose everything. We are poor creatures, unable to possess even the moment we exist in. But of course: Blessed are the poor. If we want to talk about the “Catholic imagination,” it is helpful to remember that we depend on time. We are not only creatures of time, but that in us which experiences eternity always …

Beauty Already Has Saved the World

Editorial Note: This essay was originally delivered as a presentation at “Illuminating the Incarnation: A Musical Meditation on The Saint John’s Bible,” a multi-disciplinary concert sponsored by the McGrath Institute for Church Life, directed by Carmen-Helena Téllez of Sacred Music at Notre Dame, and performed on September 24, 2017 at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at the University of Notre Dame. St. Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians with an exhortation: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. This is what we come here today to do: to place ourselves in the presence of something lovely, something excellent, something beautiful. Yet, this afternoon’s concert is not something that is merely meant to entertain us. This afternoon’s concert, like all great art, is something that is meant to transform us. We’ve come here to experience the beauty of Scripture in all of its truth, purity, …

Formed in Wonder, Love, and Praise

If you were to survey members of a Roman Catholic congregation as they exited the church after Sunday Mass by asking what facet of the celebration made the greatest impact on them that day for good or for ill, odds are high that many of those surveyed (if not most) would name the liturgical music in their response. More than any other element (with perhaps the exception of preaching and the architecture of the church itself), liturgical music has the greatest capacity to shape how we celebrate the Sunday Mass week in and week out, season after season, year after year. Ask those same congregation members if they can remember the readings or a central point from the homily and it’s likely you won’t get an answer; ask them if they can remember one of the hymns and it’s likely you’ll get a serenade. Many parish communities view the music of its liturgies as a hallmark of their identity; many people seeking parish communities often site music as one of the reasons for or against …

Beauty, Music, and “The Weight of Glory”

Driving home yesterday, I happened to hear a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E-Minor, Op. 64 on Michiana’s 24-hour classical music station 90.7 FM (the greatest gift our local airwaves have to offer). If you’ve never encountered this piece before, do your soul a favor: take half an hour, turn off all notifications on your phone, click below, and simply listen. If you don’t have that kind of time right now, just take eight minutes and listen to the second movement. Even though the entire work is written such that the movements are to be performed without the traditional breaks in between, you can still gain a sense for the beauty of the whole by listening to this one part. For me, this second movement contains some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever written. It’s not about the technical components of the music—its rhythm and meter and chromaticism and instrumentation—something much deeper is at work here. There’s something about the way this piece is constructed: in its moments of tension and release, of sweetness and …

Cruciform Beauty: Icon and Pattern of Self-Giving Love

Of the many images that have found artistic expression in Christianity, the Crucifixion of Jesus is perhaps the most powerful. Representations of the Annunciation, the Nativity, or the Madonna and Child have the capacity to inspire awe-filled contemplation of the Incarnation; however, few images in these categories can utterly arrest the gaze of the viewer in the same manner as the image of Jesus on the Cross. The image of the Crucifixion in all its awful glory invites and even demands the viewer to pause for a moment to consider the weight of human sin and the depths of divine love that fastened the God-man to the Cross. It is the paradox of the Cross—the mystery that the Son of God dies so that we might have life and remains glorious as God even in his horrific death as man—that has inspired artists for centuries, and each artist in his or her own way must grapple with how they will portray this pivotal moment in human history: does one emphasize the unimaginable physical sufferings of …

Editorial Musings: Does the Church Need the Arts?

Over the last week or so, Church Life has published a series of reviews on the Best Picture Nominees for the Oscars. You can read our reviewers’ takes on Lion,  La La Land, Arrival, Hidden Figures, Fences, and Manchester by the Sea with the rest to follow over the coming days (thanks to Carolyn Pirtle’s untiring work on these reviews). Our yearly reviews of the Oscars always makes us think about the role of the arts in Catholic life. And in our editorial meetings, we often come to the conclusion that there does seem to be a divorce between the arts and Catholic practice, which is deleterious to the life of the Church. New compositions in liturgical music tend to be more focused upon rallying the community around a specific series of beliefs of the composer (whose own musical training is lacking), often inattentive to artistic excellence. Churches and shopping malls continue to have more commonalities than differences, treated simply as gathering spaces in which beige walls and beige carpet cover over the sacred action of the Eucharist. The arts seem only …