16 May 2017


Part 8 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

The treasures of Christian art and architecture are today endangered: by indifference and neglect, by misguided renovation, by war and revolution. They may be preserved for a time for the sake of national identity or lofty but indifferentist notions of cultural worth. But the Lindisfarne Gospels and Chartres Cathedral are things of this world, and will not last forever: Rust and moth consume, thieves break in and steal. More tragic than to lose such treasures is to lose the ability to make them; more tragic yet is to lose the desire to make them. That desire can only be provided by religious faith. It is religious faith that animates the traditions, that makes them live rather than linger.

It is the natural province of the Catholic Church to safeguard art and culture, even art and culture made by the foes of Ecclesia. The Catholic Church can welcome the genius of every nation and attune it to harmony. The need to do this should be felt in the present day, even more than at the time of Cassiodorus. Destructive forces are ascendant in all nations; all culture is at risk.

That includes, perhaps most especially, the historic art and architecture of Islamdom. Many Christians ignore differences within Islamdom and regard all of its culture as that of a common enemy. But many great works of Ottoman art were influenced by Sufi mysticism. The Safavids, under whom the stunning mosques of Isfahan were built and decorated, and under whom miniature painting flourished, were Shia. The Mughals built grand funerary monuments. Aspects of these cultures and their art are condemned as heretical and idolatrous by growing fundamentalist movements within Islamdom, and marked for destruction as readily as churches. In Saudi Arabia, for example, historic buildings and cemeteries are being razed and replaced with bare and empty constructions that express a different theological outlook.

Now it is not my place to say whether this is, from an Islamic perspective, correct or not. As a Christian, I see extraordinary beauty in the historic art and architecture of Islamdom that should be preserved. Medieval Christian artists saw the same; they admired and borrowed its forms eagerly. In the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, they even employed its makers as collaborators. The Palatine Chapel at Palermo, whose ceiling is decorated with muqarnas, may be the most impressive result of their broadminded and generous consideration. I hope that Christian artists can yet again appreciate this art, and make a home for its best aspects within the Christian tradition, within International Gothic.

Ceiling of the Palatine Chapel at Palermo

This is one of my own ambitions. I am studying Islamic geometric design, miniature painting and calligraphy. My recent drawings include orthogonal letter patterns inspired by the decoration of Persian mosques and haloes filled with pseudo-Arabic script (the actual words that they form in my drawings are prayers and nomina sacra in Latin).


Jesus Christ instructed his Apostles: Teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. This Great Commission can be illustrated by figuratively baptizing the art of all nations. Doing this requires Christian artists to let go of historic and current enmities. Yes, for centuries Moors and Turks waged wars of conquest against Christendom. Japanese Buddhists long persecuted the Church with horrific brutality. The Romans fed the saints to lions; the culture preserved by Cassiodorus was the culture of Diocletian. Christian artists should not ignore any of that.

But they nonetheless should see truth, beauty and goodness in the cultural treasury of all nations, and fashion sacred art from it to honor Jesus Christ. This is the visual expression both of Christianity’s universal prerogative and its peculiar commandment: Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.


Works quoted or referenced:

Ceiling of the Palatine Chapel at Palermo: The Public Medievalist