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Contemplating Corpus Christi with Raphael

Contemplating Corpus Christi with Raphael

Dr Joey Belleza
Raphael's Disputation of the Holy Sacrament in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City. Photo by Ricardo André Frantz, CC-BY-4.0

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi – and moreover the 760th anniversary of its institution, celebrated today in many countries and in the UK this Sunday – is, as ever, an occasion to take up with joy that interior pilgrimage from human reason to divine faith, in the contemplation of the Eucharistic Lord.

The centrality of this tremendous and beautiful mystery to our Catholic Faith, as the Second Vatican Council was at pains to underscore, is no less true now than it was when Pope Urban IV instituted the solemnity in 1264.

Indeed, today’s world is in particular need of concrete and visible reminders of the sacred. The expression we give to our Eucharistic faith in our liturgies, in our processions, in our artistic endeavours is a witness to Christ himself.

The solemnity of Corpus Christi is an opportunity to express our inexhaustible desire to do everything we can to honour the Incarnate Word in, as Saint Thomas wrote, corda, voces, et opera: [in] our hearts, voices and deeds.

Set against this background, Raphael Sanzio’s Stanza della Signatura in the Vatican, with its two frescoes of The School of Athens and The Disputation on the Sacrament, offers a rich context for philosophical and theological reflection.

In the School, a host of ancient philosophers surround the central figures of Plato and Aristotle, who walk along the central path. Plato’s upward index finger contrasts with Aristotle’s outstretched and downward facing hand, the former gesturing to the truth of eternal Forms, the latter appealing to the reality of the sensible world.

Raphael places them centrally and side-by-side, neither overtaking the other, both sharing a joint if incomplete priority in the philosophic pantheon. The central vanishing point of the fresco – where their gazes meet – is not simply the midpoint between the two, but looks toward an ever-present “beyond” lying ahead.

This central confrontation between Platonic idealism and Aristotelian realism, however, leads not to an unresolved tension, but to an implicit yet powerful conclusion, for directly across the stanza, on the corresponding point in the Disputation – opposite the point between the faces of Plato and Aristotle – Raphael places the Blessed Sacrament.

Raphael's School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City. Photo by Ricardo André Frantz, CC-BY-4.0

The host containing the presence of the Incarnate Word is found within the dialectical exchange between the two great philosophers, such that Christ himself – specifically the Eucharistic Christ – is the vanishing point on which philosophical knowledge must converge.

On the one hand, the philosophical enterprise shown in the School and epitomised in the joint pilgrimage of Plato and Aristotle, has its own beauty and purpose. The other philosophers surrounding them, likewise striving toward the truth, are not mere ambassadors of error but important signposts on the way to the fulness of wisdom.

Even Thomas Aquinas, one of whose best-known contributions is a series of “proofs” for God’s existence, understood that philosophy indeed grasps something of the highest truth – the existence of a God above all being – through its own methods, without the explicit aid of grace. But, he admits, of this God we can know very little. Whether he saves us or acts in history or takes flesh is beyond the purview of mere reason.

For this reason, Raphael depicts the School indoors – some say in a building resembling the unfinished “new” Basilica of Saint Peter – as if to emphasise that philosophy has a ceiling, or that its highest aspiration can only be that of a church under construction. And the God of this church remains as impersonal and un-concrete as the space between Plato and Aristotle.

And yet, significantly, their gaze is also half-turned to the opposite wall where the Blessed Sacrament stands on an altar, surrounded not by pagan philosophers but by bishops and Doctors of the Church.

Above the monstrance, the risen Christ is seated in glory and is flanked by the great figures of Scripture. The hand gestures of the several Saints and Doctors mirror both the upward gesture of Plato (this time pointing to Christ in heaven) as well as the downward palm of Aristotle (here pointing to Christ in the sacramental species).

In a sense, the dialectic between idealism and realism is not abandoned in the theological vision of the Disputation; rather the operations of philosophy are taken up and elevated into the realm of faith and theology, such that what appears to be a confrontation in philosophy is brought to a synthesis in theology.

And this unity of the two disciplines – of natural reason and supernatural faith – is joined together in the little host which contains the Incarnate Word himself. The School and Disputation, taken together, convey how the Eucharistic liturgy is “the summit to which all the Church’s work is directed” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). It is a summit which has no ceiling but reaches upward toward the enthroned Christ in heaven.

The Eucharist is also the “font from which all the Church’s power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). The outpouring of this power, celebrated in a truly Eucharistic way of life, generates a vibrant Christian culture, expressed in art, architecture, and music that can stir hearts to devotion and love of the Creator, and which can assist others in making the interior pilgrimage from reason alone to reason-with-faith.

As Raphael shows us, the treasury of sacred art is one concrete example of the ways in which people offer back to God the gifts of his own creation, just as the Eucharist itself is offered, as the Roman Canon says, “from the gifts which [God] has given us”. Raphael’s own work, imbued with a deep sacramental sensibility, is but one example of the splendour of sacred art rooted in devotion to the Eucharist.

This splendour is also seen in the many little processions happening in parishes and communities all over the world to mark the Solemnity of Corpus Christi.

People make carpets out of sand and flowers to mark Corpus Christi in the town of La Orotava on the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife, 27 June 2019. (Photo credit DESIREE MARTIN/AFP via Getty Images.)

The colourful floral displays covering the streets in Spain, Italy and Portugal; the wealth of sacred music composed for this feast; the Eucharistic verses of Aquinas himself, monuments of medieval Latin poetry; and of course, the processions which mark this great Solemnity – all these are manifestations of that same interior pilgrimage toward an ever-increasing faith in the Lord who, as the Collect of the feast says, “left us under this Sacrament a memorial of the passion”.

Of course, one need not be a Renaissance master to express one’s faith in the Eucharistic Christ; one only need to heed Saint Thomas’s admonition in Lauda Sion, the sequence prescribed for the Mass to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi: quantum potes, tamtum aude – “dare to do as much as you can”.

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Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Friday 7th July 2023

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

Icon Writing: My journey from Syria to Byzantium

Schaher Rhomaei

Schaher Rhomaei shares how he began to explore the extraordinary art of ‘icon writing’ -and how icons can be a ‘visual Gospel’ to inspire a deeper and more profound faith.

My first memory of icons takes me back to my tender years at St John the Baptist Church; a small Byzantine Greek Melkite church in Ma’arouneh, which means ‘small cave’ in Aramaic. This mountainous suburb of Damascus is a place of natural biblical and spiritual beauty. It was Elijah’s last abode before ascending into Heaven.

From this place and time, I began a journey of reflected prayer through the beauty of icons: an encounter with the Divine. One icon that stands out for me in particular was a wooden panel depicting Our Lady tenderly holding her Son on her lap. Somehow, the aura of mystery surrounding this icon created a sacred space for contemplating the striking image of the humble Mother and the Saviour child, which remained with me throughout my childhood.

The word ‘Icon’ comes from the Ancient Greek (εἰκών/eikṓn) meaning ‘image or resemblance.’ The term was, in fact, coined by Plato, in relation to his theory of knowledge. According to the philosopher, real knowledge is to be found in the intelligible world of Ideas, which is reflected to some degree, as per a shadow, in the physical world. Likewise, in Christian art, the word “icon” has become synonymous with the depiction of divine subjects and the sacred figures of those in the heavenly world. Icons thus not only communicate a profound and sacred significance, but also create a powerful sense of prayerfulness.

Possible depiction of Jesus Tile from Dura-Europos excavations (Yale University Art Gallery)

Icons Hold Deep Spiritual Meaning

In the Eastern Church generally and the Syrian Church particularly, icons are an essential pillar of the Christian faith, holding deep spiritual meaning. They serve as windows through which one can approach the Creator, not only by praying and prostrating before Him. but also by seeking help or forgiveness. Indeed, the Eastern Church understands icons as a visual gospel, proclaiming in colours and images all that is uttered in words and written in syllables (cf. Council of Constantinople)

According to historians, Christian art originated and developed in Syria before this ancient, original, and spiritual artform was exported to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and then to the wider world. The journey from Syria to Egypt to
Byzantium gave birth to different styles of icons: ‘Syrian’ in Syria, ‘Coptic’ in Egypt and in Byzantium ‘the Byzantine art.’ The latter describes the process of creating icons as one of ‘writing’ rather than ‘painting’ – an iconographer is a ‘writer’ not a ‘painter’ – and we ‘read’ an icon rather than view or ‘see’ it. 

At Dura-Europos near the Euphrates River in the Syrian Desert lie two living ‘witnesses’ to early iconography. First, there is the baptismal room of a private house that became the first home church, with murals painted in 232-56 AD, decades before Emperor Constantine recognised Christianity. Then there is a synagogue dating from the third century, with brightly painted walls depicting famous scenes from the Old Testament. Although the artistry of Dura-Europos might seem simple in nature and battered due to age, fighting, destruction and the like, yet it is astounding in its beauty and depth. 

The location of Dura-Europos in modern-day Syria

Those depictions emerged from the early Christian imagination, from a faith alive with wonder. They give us a precious insight into the emotions and desires of those isolated faithful on their early journey. It was their way of reaching out to express their faith
with confidence. Their belief and trust in Christ were represented quite differently compared to that of, for example, the Christian art of the Renaissance, where great emphasis was placed on an aesthetic and grandiose depiction

Another possible depcition of Jesus from Dura-Europos

A Contemplative Experience

My journey into icon writing began during what seemed to be an eternal lockdown. This period of transition and discernment drew me deeper into exploring this extraordinary art. Initially, as part of a reflection on art and spirituality to celebrate Eastertide, I wrote my first icon, ‘Christ is the Light.’ Following that and whilst celebrating Pentecost, another icon followed: ‘Mary in the Cenacle.’ Both were written in a style that resembled that of the early Christians: simple and expressive. The aim was to understand the mystery of Christ and His Mother’s being as they reach out in love, keeping the light aflame in our hearts. I envisaged them as radiant, humble, and modestly dressed with an expression of intensity and invitation. Out of this contemplative experience, two images conceived and set in darkness emerged, of such humanity and yet of such majesty.

In the following year, I completed more icons using oil, but it was not until this year that I embarked on a new journey: that of exploring the Byzantine style using pigments and egg tempera. Drawn by the spirituality of Master Vladislav Andrejev at the Prosopon School of Iconology in the US, I took part in an icon writing course at the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst, facilitated by his Andrejev’s son, Nikita, who is a master in his own right. The theme of the workshop was ‘Our Lady of Tenderness.’ I found the whole experience a complex piece of utmost beauty and delicacy.

To save time, the wooden panels were already prepared. The first stage was applying the gold leaf onto the halos, then the initial underpaint tone, which covers the faces and other parts of the body, and the application of a dark yellow/green pigment called Sankir, thus creating the shadow areas. Here, shadows are not of a physical source as such, but rather ethereal. Similarly, the light areas in an icon indicate the divine nature and not a reflection of the sun. Stage by stage, the image builds as other layers are applied, always lighter than the one before. Patience and thoroughness are required throughout the whole process; from laying the gold leaf, getting the right measurements of pigment and egg tempera, to the right brush strokes. Each step is crucial and has its own logic, as well as consequences if not done in a methodical way. I must admit that, unlike my previous work, this experience was not merely painting, but building.

Taking A Leap Of Faith

We were fifteen people attending this course, some writing their first, second, or even seventh icon. It was my first workshop and although quite apprehensive about the process and outcome, I took a leap of faith and dived into exploring this wonderful art form, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and inspire me as I went along. It was touching to see how some of the other experienced writers, aside from the tutor, mentored the beginners in their struggles. They gently offered advice and even helped to salvage areas that at times seemed almost like a battlefield.

My piece was no exception. I faced a mess right at the start because I applied too much clay, which is used as an adhesive for gold leaf. It was too wet and this meant that the leaf would not stick to the halos and kept peeling. My thanks go to David, a fellow participant who kindly rectified the catastrophe at once. His meticulous application of gold leaf and the right pressure did wonders and was like a sign of light and hope that helped me to go on.

In contemplating this recent experience, three profound insights surfaced for me. The first relates to how the harmony and symmetry of composition must be visible everywhere in the icon, from the poise of the figures to the flow of drapery. These carefully-drawn and harmonious straight lines come to life as flowing lines of Divine energy. Secondly, the role of luminosity in an icon is suggestive of the Holy Spirit within the subject, constantly renewing and creating life. And lastly, the words of my little cousin still echo in my head today, as she sat next to me in that very same church of St John the Baptist, and whispered with a slight giggle and pure innocence: “This is you and your mother….” Indeed, Mary’s presence in icons conveys a unique sense of motherhood. She is a source of inspiration, hope, comfort, and support to those in need of her help. 

https://www.schaher.com/

Mary in the Cenacle

 

For the Christian Heritage Centre’s iconography course, visit https://christianheritagecentre.com/events/iconography-course/

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Iconography, imago Dei and identity

6th July 2023

Iconography, imago Dei and identity

How the ancient art of iconography symbolises man’s relationship with God 

By Gabriel Stirling

It has just gone 9 am, and fifteen iconographers have gathered in the atrium of Theodore House. For the next week, they will study the ancient art of iconography under the guidance of Deacon Nikita Andrejev of the Prosopon School of Iconography. For the next week, they will gather each morning to pray that God might glorify the work of their hands. Through the strokes of the brush, they hope that the light of God might touch the blank canvas.

The first thing I learned was not to call it icon painting. You do not paint an icon; you write them. More than just mere pigments spotted on a canvas, the icon is the Gospel drawn out. 

Right from the outset, the religious symbolism of the icon dominates the methods and techniques used. The students began with a blank board made of gesso, representing, according to Nikita, “the moment before the creation of the world where there was just the divine.” But as God formed the heavens and the earth by His hands, so too our iconographers transformed these blank boards into a holy image of Divine realities.

All the materials used in icon writing are natural. The paint is based on diluted egg yolk mixed with natural pigments. As the colours took shape, the students slowly added lines to their icons. We had moved beyond the first part of creation, where light, colour, and matter existed. Figures start to emerge from the dust of the board, a firmament creating definitive shapes.

One of the icons written by a participant of the course
Deacon Nikita mixes the first colour to add to the image proper

Icon writing is not easy, and mistakes happen along the way. Likewise, being a Christian is a challenge, and we all fall into temptation at times. But as much as we wish, neither the icon writer nor the sinner can rewrite the past. However, the future is still up for grabs, and just as repentance sees us turn from our past wrongs to God, a slip of the icon writer’s brush can be turned into something greater. “This is a process of transfiguration,” says Nikita. 

The reason why iconography is so captivating might be that it speaks so deeply about human existence. It takes us right from the beginning, the formless void of the gesso board, right through the beauty of creation. But it shows us something about ourselves, too. We are not blank automatons, but men and women created in the image of God. Thus, humans are in a sense the proto-icon, created out of dust in the likeness of God. 

By Monday morning, the last day, the icons were almost complete—the shining crown of the Virgin Mother and Christ, their loving eyes gazing at us. Not unlike man, these icons are in the image of God. The icon writing might be over, but the writing of our souls remains an ongoing task. As Nikita put it: “We are born with the image of God intact as an embryo, but this likeness is yet to be achieved.”

Oh, blessed Virgin, pray that we might share in the likeness of your Son!

The Ancient Byzantine Iconography Course returns in 2024 from 3rd to 10th June: click here for more information

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A Theology of the Family

22nd December 2022

A Theology of the Family: The Strange Case of the Bare Feet

Stefan Kaminski
Perugino - Adoration of he Magi
Perugino's Adoration of the Magi, in Citta' delle Pieve, Italy

Perugino’s Adoration of the Magi in Citta’ delle Pieve, Italy (as opposed to the one in Perugia) contains a curious detail which is easily overlooked at first glance. In the dim light of the small Oratory that houses this painting, the vibrant colours of the principal figures in the foreground pop out and create an almost 3D effect. The observer’s gaze is drawn across the breadth of the painting by the various garments of the ten or so persons that flank the child Jesus in the centre. One is conscious of the depth and activity that stretches away behind this first row of figures, but the colours readily draw the eye back to the primary scene. It is not easy for the eye to then drop down to the protagonists’ feet, which are very much where you expect them to be. By virtue of their sensibly-coloured footwear, they do not demand any particular attention: that is, until one notices that the feet of some of these important people are bare.

The feet that have most obviously exposed themselves to the elements are those of Mary and Joseph. Perhaps a nod to their humble state, in view of the bare-footed shepherds that hover in the background, and in contrast to the calced extremities of their noble visitors? The homogeneity of the garments across this front row of figures would suggest not. Closer examination reveals that one more of these principal figures is also bare-footed: the bearded gentlemen at the far right. Why should he not have worn some sandals on this visit?

If, by some astute observation (or perhaps at the prompt of a helpful guide), one compares this man with the discalced Holy Family, and then particularly with the figure of Joseph, one starts to notice some strange similarities: a perfect parallel in bodily posture, from the angle of the head down to the distribution of weight and position of the feet; an identical facial profile and features; a reflection of each other’s expression. The only distinguishing feature, other than the colour of the garments, is that the man’s beard is much fuller and longer, and is distinctly double-stranded.

The only clue that can be claimed with certainty is that this particular beard is clearly used by Perugino in other of his paintings on the figure of God the Father. If we are to suppose, then, that Perugino did indeed intend this figure as the Heavenly Father, one can also note the gold girdle around his waist – typically depicting sovereignty or royalty – and the celestial blue of his undergarment – a classical indicator of a spiritual being.

This striking relation between the figures of Joseph and God the Father immediately calls to mind St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:14-15). The painting appears to express precisely this: Jesus’ foster-faster, Joseph, is shadowed by the real Father, who manifests His presence discreetly in the background and at the same time somehow lends authority to the figure of Joseph. Joseph’s persona thus takes on a fuller sense when one realises that his fatherhood, though temporal, is exercised in the name of the Father.

Joseph, who plays such a strong, yet silent role before and through the infancy of Jesus, quietly disappears from the Gospels as the Christ emerges into the maturity of His humanity and the fullness of His divine mission. Yet his presence is a reminder that God the Son was not born into some extraordinary situation, even if His Incarnation was an extraordinary event. The Divine Saviour was inserted into the ordinary and regular pattern of the nuclear family – father and mother – surrounded by their extended family and relations.

Given the non-biological nature of Joseph’s fatherhood, one might ask whether there is any deeper meaning to his role than simply that of fostering the child and providing stability and support to the mother. Perugino, if we have interpreted his painting correctly, seems to very much think there is. And indeed, more authoritative support comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Their long genealogies trace Jesus’ ancestry through each generation from Adam through to Joseph, passing through the lineage of Abraham and his Israelite descendants, encompassing kings and prostitutes alike.

Fans of Tolkien will be all-too-familiar with those long pages in The Lord of the Rings that are preoccupied with tracing the lineage of Frodo Baggins, Aragorn or one of the Dwarves. Indeed, ancestry is an absolutely critical part of all Tolkien’s writings that tell the story of his fantasy world, beginning with its creation, as told in the Silmarillion, through several epochs until the ‘redemption’ of Middle-Earth with the defeat of Sauron and the destruction of the Ring of Power.

In his mythical vision of reality, Tolkien merely reflects what is divinely and humanly true; namely, that the human person is not an isolated ego, a self-defined construct, or a morally-autonomous being. The human person has an origin and a destiny, is given their existence and context, and is called to act for the concrete good of his neighbours.

Thus, at a legal and social level, Joseph’s importance is in providing Jesus with a crucial part of His human ‘identity’, through which He is inserted into a chain of parents and progeny. This is deliberately traced right back to its very origins, pointing us back to the Father, after whom every family is named. It similarly evokes future progeny, the generation of which is the primary purpose of the family. In the case of Christ, that progeny is potentially every person throughout human history, who through faith in Him, are all called as adopted children of the same Father.

The Church’s vision of the human family is thus grounded in the nuclear family for a good reason: the family is the context and means intended by God for the flourishing of humanity. God Himself assumed humanity in this context, and whilst He ‘only’ adopted an earthly father, the figure of Joseph speaks powerfully of the more important and fundamental reality that is true of every family. This is the same truth that St Paul is at pains to point out in his letter to the Ephesians, and has been recognised since the early Church Fathers: Fatherhood, properly speaking, is a reality that only belongs to God. God is Father of all because He is creator of all. In the same way that the very existence of every being depends on the supreme Existence, the fatherhood (as expressed in the complementary, generative power of both sexes) of the human person only and ever has any meaning as a reflection of and cooperation with the Divine Fatherhood.

Inserted into the specific strand of Joseph’s ancestry, the Holy Family raises the stakes for all human families. No longer is the family simply the font of earthly life, but it is now joined to the Divine project of Redemption. The human family not only remains a co-operator in the mystery of creation (to paraphrase St John Paul II), participating with God in the creation of human persons: it is now an embodiment of the mystical marriage between Christ and His Church, and its primary task is now to generate children for the Kingdom of God. As Perugino depicts so beautifully, human fatherhood is a task that is given by God, and answerable for to Him alone.

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The ancient practice of Iconography

6th May 2022

The ancient practice of Iconography

Rev. Nikita Andrejev talks about this original tradition of Christian sacred art, which has been integral to the spiritual life of Christians since apostolic times.

Is Icongraphy primarily a religious practice in former times? When did it become available to lay people & even those not allied to a Christian tradition?

We know very little concerning the identities of the ancient iconographers. Some of them were monks with a high level of spiritual life, like St Andrei Rublev who painted the famous Trinity, and St. Alipiy of the Kiev Caves. But whatever their background, at least on some level the painting would require entering into a relationship with the saints depicted, with the dogmas and tenets of the faith. Icons on display in churches were by definition designed for lay people’s appreciation.

This is all the more the case in our own times, where icons can be enjoyed as works of art but have an appeal that goes beyond superficial beauty and technical skill. There is a general hunger for spirituality in the West and the rediscovery and appreciation of the Eastern Church’s Orthodox iconography is very much part of this. An icon is at base a spiritual portrait, suggesting the mystery of the divine – yet whatever one’s beliefs, what could be more universal than a simple yet attentive depiction of a human face?

Rublev's famous icon of the Trinity, symbolised by the three angels who visit Abraham at Mamre

How did you come to learn the skill of iconography?

I learned the skill of icon painting from my father. As a child, I watched him both painting and teaching in his studio. Icons were at the centre of his life; not just professionally and spiritually, but socially, too – both my parents enjoyed entertaining his students to meals and to an annual ‘open house’.

I loved the sense of peace, of safety, in his studio, but I also enjoyed learning the practical skills of how to draw, to paint, and this gradually developed into assisting him with aspects of creating the icons he worked on. As a teenager I would accompany him to summer workshops, acting as his translator, but by then I had already realised that my future was as an artist, creating icons and teaching iconography.

Are you an Iconographer who teaches or an Iconography teacher who paints icons? What is the relationship between your Iconography practice and your role as an iconography teacher?

The two spheres of painting and teaching certainly feed into each other. I teach based on the experience of my own painting, but many times it’s when in a workshop that I’m better able to test out or implement a ‘plan’ for a given stage of the painting, say a certain colour combination. Perhaps because in a class, where many students are painting one and the same subject, you have the chance to see one and the same plan, the same paint combinations, unfold in ten or twenty very different ways! You can see the limits of what is possible, the potentials as well as the difficulties.

Perhaps more importantly, though, when taking a workshop you have to be very focussed, very time-conscious. You are responsible for other people, and this is always a challenge, but also an opportunity to grow, by observing and learning from others. So from one perspective, workshops are very good for the teacher! Whatever the balance between my role as painter and teacher, I don’t see myself as a fount of knowledge – as iconographers we are all at various stages of learning…

Deacon Nikita Andrejev is an iconographer and instructor based in Estonia, belonging to the Prosopon School of Iconology.

He will be teaching the CHC’s course on Ancient Byzantine Iconography in June 2022.

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The Life to Come

A Journey of Salvation: The Drama Displayed
#6 The Life to Come

***The talks are made available freely with the request for a donation to support our costs.***

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A reflection on the Last Things – death, judgement, heaven and hell – which are most vividly spoken of in the Book of Revelation, but also given concrete shape by the Gospels. Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel provides an artistic aid to this talk.

About the speaker:

Sr Emanuela Edwards is a member of the Missionaries of Divine Revelation, an apostolic community orientated towards the New Evangelisation. She has worked extensively with the Vatican Museums delivering tours and talks on Art and Faith. For more information about the Missionaries of Divine revelation, please click here.

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The Greatest Gift

A Journey of Salvation: The Drama Displayed
#4 The Greatest Gift

***The talks are made available freely with the request for a donation to support our costs.***

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God’s approach to us as Son and Redeemer, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the pivotal point of human history. Several artistic pieces are examined to aid in a reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation and of our Redemption.

About the speaker:

Dr Caroline Farey has taught catechesis, theology and philosophy for many years throughout the English-speaking world. She has held several important positions, having also been appointed by the Vatican as one of the lay experts at the Synod on the New Evangelisation. She has a passion for Sacred Art, which she has long made use of in her teaching. For more information about Dr Farey’s current work, please click here.

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The Naked Truth

A Journey of Salvation: The Drama Displayed
#2 The Naked Truth

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The talk focuses on humanity’s first disobedience in Genesis 3, and the resulting experience of loss and shame, supported by an examination of Masaccio’s “The Expulsion”.

About the speaker:

Dr David Torevell is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Leeds Trinity University, before which he taught Religion and Philosophy at Liverpool Hope University. Prior to that he spent eighteen years teaching in Catholic secondary schools. For more information about Dr Torevell, please click here.

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In the Beginning

A Journey of Salvation: The Drama Displayed
#1 In the Beginning

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A reflection on Genesis 1 and 2, on the nature of God and of creation, and on man’s place within creation. Supported by an examination of Michelangelo’s series of frescoes on creation.

Question & Answer session following the talk

About the speaker:

Stefan Kaminski is the Director of The Christian Heritage Centre. He gained a licentiate from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome, specialising in theological anthropology. Prior to that, he studied for degrees in Philosophy and in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome. He has worked in a wide variety of parishes and in schools, as a catechist and teacher.

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We appreciate true beauty when we contemplate the divine glory of God

Friday 2nd March 2018

The CHC @ The Catholic Universe

We appreciate true beauty when we contemplate the divine glory of God

Ilyas Khan, KSG

If there is a purpose in Art, it is that it serves to simplify not to complicate. This is one of the lessons of the greatest theologians of modern times, Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Pope Benedict, amongst others, considers Balthasar to be the very greatest of Catholic intellects since Thomas Aquinas.

Described by De Lubac as “perhaps the most cultured man of his time”, Balthasar’s life spanned the course of the 20th century and his work, by any measure, is immense in volume and in influence.

The centre piece of his theology is an exhilarating trilogy that was written over the course of 30 years, covers 15 volumes and extends to over 10,000 pages.

The first part of this trilogy, Glory of the Lord, is a study of Balthasar’s renewal of foundational values as seen by an approach to aesthetics framed through the prism of the classic transcendental values – Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

My own path to Hans Urs Von Balthasar emerged through the age-old debate of “reason vs revelation”. I was 18 when I first came across his writings at Netherhall House, and too ill formed in my philosophical grounding to take more than a superficial ‘dividend’ from those readings.

As my career has progressed – I spend most of my time in science, particularly mathematics and quantum computing – what once were sharp edges have become softened – but in wholly unexpected ways.

Hans urs Von Balthasar

Balthasar brooks no compromise, and this certainty has helped me to see that there was, is and ever shall be Christ at the core of everything that we try, in our own way, to rationalise. From the very largest to the infinitesimal, God is the only constant.

Balthasar provides a beautiful counterpoint to the 19th century philosophy of “L’art pour l’art”– itself an inevitable outcome of what he describes as the anthropocentric tendency of Western thinking since the time of the renaissance – where objectivity and form drift away from each other.

Vast industries have been built on the back of this shallow tradition where artists, galleries and curatorial staff all jostle in an echo chamber where they tell each other how wonderful they all are.

Balthasar draws a line in the sand, as it were, and brings us back to the patristic approach of the Church fathers, with an elegant pre-Thomist reminder of what the modern world has all but forgotten – that beauty (and art) can only be appreciated when it leads us to an appreciation of the splendour of God. “Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself – a world which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness.

“No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man.

“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.”
Balthasar’s “line in the sand” goes deeper than reminding us of the indivisibility noted above. In the early stages of the first book of his trilogy, Balthasar focuses on Beauty and draws our attention to the fact that the aesthetics of beauty cannot possibly be understood unless we also understand that the role of beauty is to draw us to a deeper purpose; that there is no “form” of earthly beauty that can be truly beautiful unless it withstands this deeper scrutiny.

Madonna of The Edelweiss,c.1500 Photo: by permission of the Governors of Stonyhurst College

“The awareness of inherent glory gave inspiration to works of incomparable earthly beauty in the great tradition of the Church. But these works become suitable for today’s liturgy only if, in and beyond their beauty, those who take part are not merely moved to aesthetic sentiments but are able to encounter that glory of God to which the Creator wanted to lead such works.

“Those who hear only the beautiful and are moved only by that can have a quasi-religious experience – like the many who listen to Saint Matthew’s Passion on Good Friday – but they are deceived regarding the true meaning of what they are hearing.”

Balthasar’s position on the sacred within aesthetics is not to try and differentiate between liturgical or church art and ‘normal’ art. He avoids simplistic differences between, for instance, the beauty of a great painting, a Mozart concerto, or a poem.

Here, his views run contrary to the intuition of the modern world and are in stark contrast with the vested interest that has grown up and surrounds the so-called “Art world” in its broadest context.

As G K Chesterton said: “Every Artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental, that the form is the foundation. Every sculptor knows that the form of the statue is not the outside of the statue, but rather the inside of the statue, even in the sense of the inside of the sculptor. Every poet knows that the sonnet-form of the poem is not only the form, but the poem.”

This quote by Chesterton is a refreshing reminder of the depth that Balthasar refers to. All of us draw on the role of icons, beautiful liturgy and gorgeous vestments, but Balthasar states something much more fundamental.

His message is that beauty always has meaning and this meaning is credible only when the link with divine splendour is first and foremost. In fact it is the study and contemplation of questions such as this that I hope will be part of the activity that is made possible when Theodore House (part of The Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst) is completed.

There is also an inherent warning in this uncompromising message. Beauty that enchants without leading us to an appreciation of God’s divine splendour is misleading and modern society, through the collective efforts of people who run and raise money for museums, the patronage of the rich and influential and curatorial zeal which places a premium on “L’art pour l’art”, takes us further away from our relationship with the only splendour that really matters – that of God. “When one experiences startling beauty (in nature or in art), what confronts us is overpowering, like a miracle, and only as a miracle can it be understood. It can never be tied down by the person having the experience. The appearance of its inner unfathomable necessity is both binding and freeing, for it is seen clearly to be the appearance of freedom itself.”

Only in this way, Balthasar says, can we unite the (necessary) subjectivity of our individual circumstances with an all encompassing objectivity that God provides. Art, after all, is merely human or earthly and even at its best can only hint at the splendour of the beauty that is God. After all “in the liturgy, everything is relative to and oriented towards God’s glory”

He goes on to say: “But whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed …. then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of ‘knowledge’ and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics …. a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique.”

The story of Christianity is ultimately the story of God’s love for mankind. Our Christian heritage reminds us of the power of that love, and in celebrating the beauty of that heritage we should not forget that beauty, for beauty’s sake, is merely a fragment of the whole.

When we start to chase beauty, and become drawn in the outward aesthetic, we participate in one of the failures of modern life.

This article provides a glimpse of Balthasar’s teaching. He wrote in equally direct, compelling and simple ways on many other subjects. Prayer, the structure of the Church, the sacred covenant that Christ Our Lord has made with mankind. He wrote about music, about literature, about history and is a towering influence in the modern Catholic Church.

I hope that for those who have yet to discover the beauty of his work, this article serves as a prompt for further reading.

Artistic beauty plays an important role for the mission of the Christian Heritage Centre, such as in our iconography course

“Quia per incarnati Verbi mysterium nova mentis nostrae oculis lux tuae claritatis infulsit: ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur.”

 “Because through the mystery of the incarnate word the new light of your brightness has shone onto the eyes of our mind; that knowing God visibly, we might be snatched up by this into the love of invisible things.”

Ilyas Khan, KSG, is a Patron of the Christian Heritage Centre at Stonyhurst