Tuning in to the Spirit; Clearly Catholic

Contributions to Culture From the Faithful and Devoted

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 28, 2009 (Zenit.org).- How do you awaken a weary, frightened following to the urgings of the Holy Spirit? Some 1,967 year ago, God used the sound of rushing wind and tongues of flame. This Pentecost Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI will try Haydn and Bernini.

May 31 will mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn, the Austrian composer known for his role in forming the modern symphony, as well as his extraordinary body of sacred music. To celebrate this great Catholic composer, Pope Benedict’s Pentecost liturgy will use a Haydn orchestral Mass setting sung by the Cologne Cathedral Choir.

Joseph Haydn, born in Rohrau, Austria, spent the first 30 years of his career working for the noble Esterhàzy family, where he produced a multitude of compositions from chamber music to symphonies, perfecting his style all the while.

Haydn’s close contacts with the other brilliant musicians of the time enriched his own considerable gifts. Friends with Mozart and a former teacher of Beethoven, Joseph Haydn was also commissioned to take over writing the oratorio of “Creation” from Handel. The result is one of the most celebrated and beloved pieces of music today.

Haydn was born into a Catholic family and remained profoundly devout his whole life. When stumped in writing he always turned to the rosary, and he opened each composition with “in nomine Domini” (in the name of the Lord) and ended with “Laus Deo” (praise be to God).

During the 77 years of his life, Haydn produced 14 Masses, one Stabat Mater, two Te Deums, and 34 other sacred pieces — a treasure trove for the Church. Undoubtedly Pope Benedict, a pianist himself, also appreciates Haydn for his development of the piano sonata.

The majesty of Haydn’s music will be complemented on Sunday by Bernini’s Baroque decoration in the apse of St. Peter. Although working a century and a half earlier, Bernini too, attempted to capture the splendor of the Holy Spirit in the Altar of the Chair. The oval window, radiant with golden light, frames the Holy Spirit — represented as a dove — as gilded cherubim and seraphim seem to pour forth from this opening in the heavens.

The fortunate faithful attending the papal Mass will gaze at Bernini’s spectacular vision while engulfed by the glorious music of Haydn. A treat for the eyes, ears and soul.

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Choosing to see

You may have heard of the so-called Duck Test, coined by Indiana poet J. Whitcomb Riley. It goes like this: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. This bit of common sense wisdom however, seems to be lost on most modern day interpreters of Michelangelo. According to the most recent “scholarship,” Michelangelo’s Catholic words, works and piety were actually just camouflage for a secret Protestant, Kabbalist and/or homosexual agenda. Go figure.

Of course none of these conspiracy theories are ever sustained by actual documentation regarding Michelangelo’s personal or devotional practices, but are drawn out from overactive imaginations. A proliferation of books and articles simply look at his painting, pick a theory and make any facts fit, discarding the rest. This has become par for the course in art history, but what got me going was the abstract of an academic dissertation of all things, propounding these same old Dan Brown-type theories.

The target of this “scholarly” treatise is Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel from 1534 to 1541, and discerned by the author as a crypto-Protestant work. To back up this notion, the researcher draws on bits and pieces of material from gender studies and gnosticism, but let’s look at three elements that indicate that this fresco is precisely what it appears to be: a superlative example of Catholic painting.

1) The artist and his space.
Those who attempt to see Michelangelo as an adherent to some underground religion of dissent, overlook his spiritual practices. While Michelangelo can only tenuously be tied to any kind of Protestant sect, he is known to have been a third order Franciscan.

He also participated in the visit to the seven churches to receive the indulgence during the years he was painting the Last Judgment. But Michelangelo’s devotion to the Catholic Church is perhaps best witnessed by his agreement to complete the Basilica of St. Peter for, in his own words, “the glory of God, the honor of St. Peter and the salvation of his own soul.”

The Sistine Chapel itself was the space where Pope Paul III, busily assembling the Council of Trent, prayed with his court, the most theologically brilliant men in Europe. These theologians and philosophers formed the front lines of response to Luther, and were very savvy about art to boot. Painting a subversive crypto-Protestant  treatise in the Chapel would have been like asking for an appointment with the Inquisition.

2) Mary, saints and intercession.
Michelangelo’s painting contains 391 figures, about a third of them acting as intercessors. The enormous figures of the saints, particularly martyrs, surround Christ in the heavens. Michelangelo’s emphasis on identifying the martyrs recalls that the Roman Church claims the martyrs as part of her tradition. In this period the ancient sites of the martyrs’ deaths and burials would be restored and redecorated.

Michelangelo also paints unidentified men and women helping the newly resurrected souls upward. The idea of people in heaven assisting others is a quintessentially Catholic notion.

But Mary is the pivotal image in the work. Michelangelo’s Jesus seems terrifyingly distant, with his hand raised and his head turned away. But Mary, nestled at Christ’s side, turns toward the resurrected souls. Mary is painted next to Christ’s scar from the lance. That wound, spilling blood and water, brought forth the Church. Mary, like Eve stepping from the rib of Adam, represents the Church born of Christ’s sacrifice. In turn, Mary (the Church, bride of Christ) is the conduit to Jesus and his salvation. As if to underscore the importance of Marian devotion, Michelangelo painted a few feet down from Mary, a husband and wife being dragged to heaven by their rosary.

3) Heroic virtue and cooperation.
Michelangelo broke with an age-old tradition of painting saints in heaven with long pastel dresses and big golden halos by representing his martyrs with enormous nude bodies. Drawn from the classical Greek tradition, the use of nudity denotes a hero, one who is gifted with tremendous courage and nobility, celebrated for his great exploits and favored by the gods. For Michelangelo, steeped in ancient culture, what better fulfillment of the Greek hero than the Christian saint?

The powerful bodies painted by Michelangelo render the idea of grand deeds and sacrifices made for Christ by these saints now gifted with glorious forms after the bodily resurrection. The men and women, who cooperate in God’s grace and live a life of “heroic virtue,” are those worthy of these glorious bodies in the afterlife. The size, grandeur and nudity of these figures can only represent an active participation in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice.

Painted in a Catholic space, by a Catholic artist for a Catholic audience, the “Last Judgment” is very much a Catholic painting.

What makes these spurious interpretations most wearisome is that while Michelangelo was painting this work, Protestant iconoclast riots were breaking out in Northern Europe. In the 1520s, artwork had been destroyed in Basel, Wittenberg, Zurich and Strasburg. This iconoclast fervor would have had no use for Michelangelo’s art, but today some Protestants would like to claim Michelangelo nonetheless.

Furthermore, the First Commandment’s prohibition on images had prevented a rich tradition of Jewish figurative art from blossoming up through the Renaissance. Why would Mic
helangelo gravitate to a kabbalistic religion that denied his very raison d’etre?

Let’s face it: Catholics, with their 2,000-year fascination with the Word made Flesh, refined through their spirited defense of images necessitated by the Reformation, have made great art part of their spiritual tradition. But even more remarkable than its aesthetic appeal, is its universality. Everyone can find a reflection of him or herself in the art of the Catholic Church. So at the end of the day, or should I say end of days, these false interpretations are merely water off a duck’s back.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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