Reclaiming Sacred Art

Interview With Creators of «Catholic Canvas»

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ROME, APRIL 23, 2009 ( A new Rome-produced series airing this spring on EWTN is doing its part to reassert the original evangelizing purpose of the greatest Catholic works of art.

«Catholic Canvas,» which was filmed entirely in the Vatican Museums, recounts the history of man’s salvation through the Church’s rich and varied collection of art. The creators of the project call it a unique event in the history of art documentaries.

ZENIT interviewed the three people most involved with the project.

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Mary Shovlain is the producer, director and creator of the program.

Q: What inspired you to develop this project? Out of all the many books, films and TV specials produced about art in the Vatican what makes this unique?

Shovlain: I have covered the Vatican for over a decade, I have advanced degrees in theology and for the past seven years I have been making television shows about the faith. I got tired of the ever-increasing programs on Vatican art, especially the Sistine Chapel, offering erroneous, secularized interpretations of the images of sacred events in Salvation History. Many of these shows often twisted or ignored the Christian message to promote individual agendas or even used the art as a loudspeaker to broadcast criticisms about the Catholic Church or the Popes, etc.

We wanted to reclaim the original intent and function of these world-famous works. Using their creative genius, Michelangelo, Raphael and others were evangelizing through art, trying to «incarnate» eternal mysteries.

Today, more than ever, we need beauty, and although some of the works we filmed are over 1,000 years old, they still proclaim objective truths clearly and powerfully to a frantic world lost in relativism.

Q: No filming like this has ever been done in history of the Vatican Museums, how did you manage this?

Shovlain: EWTN and I had been in talks for some time about creating a show on Sacred Art. We knew we had to begin with the most prestigious collection in the world so we sat down with the Vatican Museums and presented our idea. Given EWTN’s reputation for orthodoxy and the series’ heavily catechetical nature, I think the Vatican saw a great opportunity for evangelization.

It took a very long time to put this project together, but part of the reward was the wonderful spirit of collaboration between our team and the direction of the Vatican Museums. We didn’t realize it until they pointed it out to us that no other crew has ever been granted four days of filming inside the Sistine Chapel! That both humbled us and drove home the great responsibility to get this right.

Q: From a lone producer pursuing a dream, you soon put a team together. Who were your closest allies in getting this off the ground?

Shovlain: This was a co-production with EWTN so they deserve most of the credit for believing in it and funding it. Also, the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums played a vital role in getting this accomplished. Their role in preserving and restoring these works for generations to come is part of what ensures the future greatness of these museums. We need more modern-day Medici’s!

My crew, of course! We have filmed in the Holy Land, Ireland and Italy, and they are always the unsung heroes, but the lighting and photography is a tribute to their high level of professionalism and experience. You know, TV and film is a modern day art form as well — when your eye looks through the lens, well, there’s something almost mystical about it … real creation is going on.

Q: What kind of challenges did you face in this unprecedented endeavor?

Shovlain: Logistically, this is the most complicated project I have ever worked on. We spent months going to the museums, and each time we had to get permits and coordinate the schedules of the Vatican Museums, Elizabeth Lev, Father Mark Haydu, and my crew.

Artistically, the greatest challenge in filming was trying to get the best quality images without any damage to the works of art. We had scaffolding built in some places — as high as 32 feet in the Sistine Chapel! I cannot say enough about the level of professionalism and expertise of the Vatican Museums’ staff who accompanied us each time we were in the museums. Every detail was taken into consideration; we even limited the lights, using them only when necessary.

Q: What hopes do you have for this series?

Shovlain: Our hope is that anyone who watches these programs will have a renewed appreciated for the «sacred» in sacred art. Sacred Art has never gone out of style and there is a reason for that, it appeals to people of all ages, races and creeds. In a world with so much noise and distraction they are a silent and profound witness of God’s love story with humanity and how he has shown that time and time again in salvation history. Everyone loves a good love story!

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Elizabeth Lev, a professor of art history at Duquesne University and longtime ZENIT collaborator, was invited by Shovlain to host the program.

Q: How did it feel to be asked to collaborate in such a unique project?

Lev: The last thing I thought as I first began studying Renaissance art at the University of Chicago was that I would one day be discussing Michelangelo’s work on camera in the Sistine Chapel!

Certainly, I worried a lot about living up to this responsibility; these works are charged with layers of meaning, and to succinctly explain the Church doctrine and salvation history behind a work of art is a lot more challenging that just presenting an agenda and then making the art fit.

At the same time I was grateful to be able to represent another current of art history, a discipline that reclaims the sacred content of religious art. Great work has been done by Monsignor Timothy Verdon, Jesuit Father John O’Malley, and Jesuit Father Heinrich Pfieffer in connecting the masterpieces of the Church to sacred doctrine and the mystery of the liturgy. I am thrilled to have a chance to tell our side, the Christian side, of the story.

Q: Out of three and half miles of Museums, how did you select the works?

Lev: Once we had decided on our principal events in salvation history, it was hard to decide which works to film! We tried to mix lesser-known artists with the best names of the Renaissance to show the endless richness of man’s creativity when representing our Redemption. We also selected pieces from most ancient to the most modern collections to demonstrate the breadth of artistic history in the Church.

Q: What makes this program so special?

Lev: This is a great project because it is so proactive. Instead of complaining about Michelangelo being exploited as a poster child for whichever lobby claims him, we looked at the faith-filled and prayerful nature of his work. Amazingly enough, once you combine the elements of formal analysis and historical context with faith and scripture, you discover truth really is more beautiful than any secular fiction.

We live in a world that is centered on the visual, whether that be in the form of movies or advertising or simply glossy magazines. The Church is sitting on a treasure of art, symbols and images. I hope that viewers watching the invisible rendered visible in the art of the Vatican Museums learn to see that the lens of faith doesn’t dim a work of art but enhances it.

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Legionary of Christ Father Mark Haydu is the director of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, and presents the living legacy of the collection as part of each episode.

Q: What role did the patronage of the Church play in the creation of these masterpieces contained in the Vatican Museums?

Father Haydu: The role of the Church’s patronage was essential. It was Julius II’s idea to open the octagonal courtyard so that visitors could appreciate the beauty of the ancient statues. From that event in 1508, the Vatic
an Museum was founded.

Places where faith has flourished have also seen the sciences, arts and music prosper as well. No doubt the inspiration and creation of each masterpiece is due to the artist who creates it, e.g. Michelangelo or Raphael. Yet the humus, the ambiance where their artistic and spiritual genius percolated was a culture fostered by the Church and her patrons, a culture where beauty and excellence were appreciated and promoted. When Julius II brought Michelangelo to Rome, it was to let his artistic expression flourish by focusing on the greatest mysteries of the faith.

Q: Is the role of the patron still valuable today? How has it transformed in our modern era?

Father Haydu: The role of patrons is essential and perhaps the decline of patronage is one of the reasons we have seen beauty and artistic creation somewhat impoverished in our times. The role of the patron is not only to support artists who dream about doing beautiful art, but also in motivating, feeding and encouraging them to express the truth with beauty.

Those who have the economic means to support artists and the arts should do so. To be a patron of the arts is to nurture artistic talent and form that budding genius with transcendent truths that flower into deeply spiritual creations. In our modern times it seems patronage has lost this.

Much of the role of art patronage seems to be in suggesting artists seek the most shocking or counter cultural without concern for uplifting, educating and directing the viewer to what is most sublime, most worthy of our contemplation. «Shock» art gets financing and pays dividends because it makes headlines.

A true patron however, should be concerned with forming and projecting an artist towards high ideals and believing that they can reach and express them.

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