Part 2 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
The Apostle Paul commands all Christians to stand fast, and hold to the traditions they have learned. But where is a religious artist to stand when he has learned, in one sense, nothing at all? There is not now any tradition of sacred art that is handed down with a simple and ingenuous faith. There is not now any common mind and spirit among the faithful that might move them to build together, over centuries, a great cathedral. It is difficult enough to gather two or three who agree.
In a medieval monastic scriptorium or lay painters’ guild, no artist needed to question what he was taught, or to defend it. In our time, tradition is not a thing that is handed down so much as a thing that must be excavated. And once an artist begins to dig, he finds, in a different sense, altogether too much.
The part of the Catholic Church’s artistic heritage that has survived the centuries, the rust and moth that consume, the ravages of iconoclasts and revolutionaries, has been studied, documented, photographed and, in the form of digital images, made accessible as never before. Art museums, rare book libraries and cathedral treasuries the world over now display their collections online.
This can be a help to education and research; I rarely begin a drawing without examining scans of manuscript miniatures displayed in the Digital Scriptorium and photographs of panel paintings displayed in the Wikimedia Commons. My drawing of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary borrows elements from paintings by Hans Holbein the Elder, Jan Polack, Hieronymus Bosch, Gerard David, Martin Schongauer, Rogier van der Weyden and Nikolaus Obilman; two decades ago, I would have found maybe half of these paintings reproduced in the art books available to me. Two centuries ago, I would have needed to cross an ocean to see a single one of them.
But in this superabundance of information, another problem emerges: the holy images are not lost, but reduced to triviality. Just about anyone in the world can download a high-quality digital photograph of the Chi-Rho page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, or the Incarnation Window at Chartres, or the Ghent Altarpiece. He can print it to hang on his wall; or he can print it on a t-shirt, a coffee mug or the case of his smart phone. He can ‘like’ it on Facebook or ‘tweet’ it or ‘pin’ it without even taking a good close look at it. He can crop it and type the name of his ‘blog’ over it to make a cute title banner.
The image thus becomes his means of constructing and projecting a persona, his means of saying: I am this sort of individual, this sort of Catholic, because I like this sort of art. What does selecting Fra Angelico say about him? Or Caravaggio? Or William Bouguereau? Does putting one painting by each in his screensaver prove his broadness of mind? Does adding one by Georges Rouault prove his boldness?
At that point, religious art ceases to be about God and His angels and His saints. It is not even about the artist who made it; it is about the person who chooses to like it. It is like a relic of the Holy Cross placed on a table to the right of a king’s throne: not destroyed, not forgotten, but not exalted either. It is set beside, rather than above, him.