03 April 2017


Part 7 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.

A similar lesson is taught in this image of the Resurrection. Before the thirteenth century, the Resurrection rarely appeared in sacred art. The older practice was to depict the holy women visiting the tomb, for this is the story of the Gospel in the Mass of Easter Sunday. This composition might be denounced as a novelty did it not illustrate an ancient exegetical tradition. A curious detail reveals its allegory. Emile Mâle explains:
In contrast to the Gospel narrative which tells how, after the Resurrection, the stone was rolled away by an angel on the morning after the sabbath, Christ is almost invariably shown rising from a tomb from which the stone has already been removed. The old masters, ordinarily so scrupulous and so faithful to the letter, had a reason for thus uniting two distinct events. There is not the least doubt that they wished to recall the deep significance which was attached by the fathers to the removal of the stone. The stone before the tomb was in fact a symbol. It is, says the Glossa Ordinaria, the table of stone on which was written the Ancient Law - it is the Ancient Law itself. As in the Old Testament the spirit was hidden beneath the letter, so Christ was hidden beneath the stone.

When sacred art is considered symbolically, in light of the church fathers, in light of the law of worship, its permanent content appears. At least through the Middle Ages, religious artists followed the true and legitimate rule of progress articulated by St. Vincent: mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Its changes were changes of clothing, not changes of anatomy.

Those who indeed set out to alter the anatomy, to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, to forbid all of a sudden and to consider harmful what earlier generations held as sacred, were proud enough to leave a written record of their intentions. That is convenient for me, because I thus know exactly whose influence to stanch and reverse.

I allude here to the more extreme humanists, whose determination to recreate the culture of Classical antiquity led them to despise and replace the greatest art of the Middle Ages; also to the censors of the late sixteenth century who took the brief and unspecific words of the Council of Trent regarding art as instructions to subject the whole tradition to their critical judgment. The most influential of these, Jean Molanus, was blind to the symbolic order in medieval art; he condemned and forbade every traditional composition that he did not understand, which amounts to nearly all of them. In modern times, many artists have made violence to tradition the very premise of their art.

My task, as a religious artist working in the present day, is to heal those injuries done, to restore the impaired and enfeebled body to strength. It is a difficult and seemingly impossible task, but I know that the touch of God, the touch of His cross, the touch even of the hem of His garment, can make a body whole in an instant.


Works quoted:

Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).