30 March 2017

TOUCHING GOD

Part 4 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.



St. Veronica of the Veil, painting by the Master of the St. Ursula Legend

Few ever have understood the power of touching God so well as that woman afflicted for twelve years by an issue of blood, who but touched the hem of His garment and was made whole. This woman, traditionally called St. Veronica, is an important figure in the history of sacred art. Early ecclesiastical historians attest that she erected a statue in her home city of Paneas commemorating the miraculous cure. Eusebius of Cesarea recounted:
There stood on a lofty stone at the gates of her house a bronze figure of a woman, bending on her knee and stretching forth her hands like a suppliant, while opposite to this there was another of the same material, an upright figure of a man, clothed in comely fashion in a double cloak and stretching out his hand to the woman.... This statue, they said, bore the likeness of the Lord Jesus. And it was in existence even to our day, so that we saw it with our own eyes when we stayed in the city.
The statue was mutilated during the reign of Julian the Apostate; the whereabouts of its remains are unknown.

Veronica means true image. The name is shared with another woman who touched God. This St. Veronica pressed a cloth to the face of Christ as he walked to Calvary; a true image was left upon it. I am amused to know that, even though monumental sculpture fell out of practice in the Catholic Church until the early Gothic era, and even though printmaking did not flourish as a sacred art until the late Middle Ages, both forms of art were present at the very beginning of Christianity.

As was painting; numerous works are attributed to the Evangelist Luke, including ones still venerated in Rome, Smolensk and Czestochowa. Now skepticism about some of these attributions is justified; analysis of materials does not always indicate a first-century origin. However, it certainly is plausible that holy images venerated today are copies of a Lucan original, or copies of copies. The conviction of the faithful in patristic and medieval times was that Christian art is as old as the Church. This conviction does not depend on any specific painting’s authenticity.

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I sometimes say that I am a Spirit of Nicea II Catholic. That is a joke, its point being that I keep that ecumenical council at the forefront of my mind, living as I do in a time similar to the iconoclastic crises. I do not seek to interpret its doctrine regarding art and tradition beyond what its words actually say; indeed, what they actually say is bold enough. Its dogmatic decree, among other things, commanded:
Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church has received (the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy relics of a martyr), or evilly and sharply to devise anything subversive of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church ... if they be bishops or clerics, we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be cut off from communion.
I do not think that anyone can honestly interpret those words that refer to the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy relics of a martyr in an abstract sense. They refer to cults of devotion, to traditions that exist in fact. These may not be inerrant or infallible, but they nonetheless have a permanent content that endures through the centuries. They cannot be insulted, discarded or remade entirely without ruinous effect.

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Works quoted:

Eusebius, The Ecclesiatical History, translated by J.E.L. Oulton, (Harvard University Press, 1932).

Second Council of Nicea, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume XIV, translated by Henry Percival, (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing, 1900).

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