Sunday, August 8, 2010

Humanity and the Church

".- The place of Raphael's “Transfiguration” in an art museum and not in a place of worship means the “most beautiful painting in the world” has lost most of its ability to speak, an article in L'Osservatore Romano has claimed. The Vatican newspaper says that the venue rendered the artwork into little more than an object.

Raphael's final work, the "Transfiguration" was painted on a wooden surface over a period of four years up until his death in 1620. Centuries ago it hung in a church. Since then, it has been on display in the Vatican Museums' Pinacoteca, or picture gallery, for the last 200 years."

Sharon recently tweeted this intriguing report. Here, you have a painting whose original purpose for for the liturgy but which the Church has moved to a museum. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot's question, "Has the Church failed mankind, or has mankind failed the Church?" Fr. Giussani reminds us that both share the blame. As a result, I attend Mass in a yellow brick building with abstract unearnest stained glass and the usual paintings and statues: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Divine Mercy (above the confessionals), full relief stations of the cross, Peter & Paul, the Holy Family, the Crucifix. The art is nominal: it's there, it has a place, and yet there's barely room for a human breath, a human question.

A few years back, after a friend asked me about Kansas City's Caravaggio, I visited St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness. A sketch by the nameplate on the wall showed what the paining would have looked like in the context of a chapel. I had some time, so I stayed a while and contemplated St. John and his profound solitude. I wondered what point in John's mission Caravaggio was illustrating: either the moment of beginning to wait for the Messiah in the desert, or that moment after Peter and Andrew left him to follow Jesus. Since I was in front of the painting for a while, a woman asked me what I saw in the painting, and I said it was John's solitude: the weariness, grime, and aloneness after having sent his disciples to follow Jesus instead. So, this woman said to me that it was the story that attracted me. If I go back and somebody asks me this question again, I'll say that it's the same reason I look at a photo of my grandfather: because I miss him and want to be close to him.

So, this split between mankind and the Church persists. But it's not complete. One can still sit in front of Our Lady of Perpetual Help and feel the human question. The parish where I was married has an icon of Jesus's baptism, handpainted stations of the cross, and a painted crucifix from Italy (this replaced a dingy bronze risen Christ). And one can still contemplate a painting or statue in a museum: Caravaggio, Rothko...

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