Visible Images of the Invisible God

Monsignor Timothy Verdon Speaks on Faith and Figurative Art in Dialogue

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By Salvatore Cernuzio

ROME, FEB. 16, 2012 ( Last Dec. 22 saw the beginning of a project to promote a dialogue between art and faith. Titled «A Door to the Infinite: Man and the Absolute in Art,» it is organized by the Office of Social Communications of the Vicariate of Rome, in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The latest event in this dialogue will be held in the basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto, one of the twin churches of the Piazza del Popolo. It is titled «In Dialogue: Faith and Figurative Art,» and will be held this Saturday.

Art historian Monsignor Timothy Verdon, director of the Office of Sacred Art and Cultural Goods of the archdiocese of Florence, will be there and he spoke to ZENIT about the event.

ZENIT: Monsignor Verdon, Saturday’s meeting will be an occasion to celebrate the memory of Blessed Angelico, the Dominican painter that John Paul II pointed out as an example for all artists. In what way is he a model?

Monsignor Verdon: For artists working in the area of religion, Angelico is a more timely model than ever. In a 16th century biography, reporting on some «testimonies,» Vasari says that this artist never approached the task of painting without first having prayed. Often, in fact, when he painted a scene of the Passion of Christ, he was so moved that his cheeks were bathed in tears.

Hence, Angelico was an artist who identified himself profoundly with the subject he was painting. Therefore, we can consider him an example for all those who approach sacred art.

ZENIT: Can Blessed Angelico be considered a model also for non-believing artists?

Monsignor Verdon: Yes, Blessed Angelico is a model for non-believers, because as an artist he always sought to go deeper in his investigation of form, aesthetics and content for a more profound understanding of the human subject. In his Letter to Artists, John Paul II himself emphasized the fact that while contemporary art seems very far from the principles of faith, if it is genuine and depicts a study of man with regard to life’s important questions; it has a spiritual value and can serve the Church.

ZENIT: What is it that still renders Blessed Angelico’s art innovative?

Monsignor Verdon: Angelico was an artist who, although working within a traditional clientele had the courage and inventiveness to apply the most fascinating stylistic innovations of his time to sacred subjects. He created an innovative style, in which he accomplished a synthesis, not just external, of the traditional and the modern, which opens new horizons to the imagination.

ZENIT: Hence he was an artist who in his work synthesized the dialogue between «Faith and Figurative Art,» as the title of the Saturday event states. How profitable has the relationship between art and faith been in history?

Monsignor Verdon: This dialogue was fundamentally not only for Christian art: in the ancient civilizations, in fact, art was born and developed in a cultic or religious context. In Christianity art assumes the task of rendering visible the image of the invisible God. Hence, it acquires a more profound dimension, proposing itself in direct analogy with Him who from an expressive Word became an incarnate and visible Word. The relationship between art and faith is not one of the most important relationships, but the fundamental relationship.

ZENIT: Has contemporary art lost this type of approach or can art still be considered a vehicle to bring man closer to God?

Monsignor Verdon: Art will always be a means to discover the grandeur of God to human beings, because of the fact that artistic talent comes from Him.

Even non-believing artists recognize in some way that they are not creators of their talent, but that they have received it as a gift of His. Today all this is more difficult because the artist, as all of us do, lives in a secularized society, nourished only sporadically and inadequately by religion, and without the help of the Church to understand the meaning of his vocation.

ZENIT: What are the problems that contemporary artists face?

Monsignor Verdon: I think that one of the main problems is precisely that of the artistic language with which to express things that each one perceives within. For many the temptation is, in fact, to devote themselves to sacred art by falling back on the language of the past. On the other hand, contemporary languages are difficult to apply because they are born in contexts that are far from the Church, often with ends that are antithetical to those of sacred art.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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