Sacred Art and Its Most Intimate Essence

A Commentary on Rodolfo Papa’s ‘Discorsi sull’arte sacra’

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By Antonio Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments

ROME, MARCH 29, 2012 ( This is a publication that has been long waited for, as it is one that is greatly needed: it is the work of Rodolfo Papa, who studies sacred art, its essence and identity with great depth. The essence and identity in question is born from the truth of sacred art, and from the truth of art as such, in which truth and beauty are inseparable, and in which faith and art, faith and beauty embrace one another in perfect reciprocity that constitutes an unbreakable union between them; something similar to that which occurs between faith and reason.

Pope Benedict XVI recognised the same reality when, in the splendid interview he gave to journalists on board his flight, in November 2010, during his journey to Spain to visit Santiago de Compostela and, thereafter, for the consecration of the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, by the architect Antonio Gaudí, he stated: «You know that I place great emphasis on the relationship between faith and reason, that faith, and Christian faith, has its identity only in openness to reason and that reason becomes itself if it transcends itself towards faith. But the relationship between faith and art is equally important because truth, the aim or goal of reason, is expressed in beauty and beauty completely fulfilled, is proven to be truth. Therefore, wherever there is beauty must be born, wherever human beings are fulfilled in a correct and good way, they express themselves in beauty. The relationship between truth and beauty is inseparable and therefore we need beauty. In the Church from the outset and also in the great modesty and poverty of the time of persecution, art, painting, the expression of God’s salvation in earthly images, singing and then building as well, are all established for the Church and remain established forever. The Church was consequently a mother to art for centuries and centuries: the great treasure of Western art – music, architecture and painting – was born from faith within the Church. Today there is a certain “dissidence” but this is bad for both art and faith. An art that lost the root of transcendence would not be oriented to God: it would be a halved art, it would lose its living root; and a faith that had art only in the past would no longer be faith in the present. Today it must be expressed anew as truth that is always present. Therefore dialogue or the encounter – I would say both – of art and faith are inscribed in the deepest essence of faith; we must do our utmost to see that today as well faith is expressed in authentic art, like Gaudí’s, in continuity and in innovation, to prevent art from losing its contact with faith» (Benedict XVI, interview to journalists, November 6, 2010).

When this book had been conceived, these words had not yet been spoken. Nevertheless, on the whole, this work of Rodolfo Papa – a man of faith, an artist, as well as an acute and incisive intellectual; passionately keen to learn about truth and beauty – constitutes a deepening, a description and a commentary of the thoughts of Pope Benedict XVI, for whom faith and art, the beauty of sacred art, the fundamental unity between art and liturgy are very important themes in his pontificate.

One can grasp well the amity between the Church and artists throughout the course of history, even in our days. One can understand also the continued statements of recent Popes – from Paul VI to Benedict XVI – who reiterated the need for this relationship, which is none other than a unity and an absolute mutual reciprocity. Furthermore, one can understand well the call of these Popes to express in artistic works the binomial relationship between faith and art, faith and beauty inseparable from the other binomial relation of faith and reason, faith and truth, faith and goodness, all of which has been splendidly expressed by the author of this book. From this view on art in general and in particular on sacred art, one can appreciate the perennial character of art, of its non-ephemeral nature, of its universal value despite the circumstances of history, the choice of the moment, or of consumerist aspirations. One is enabled to recognize the religious dimension, as well as the personal involvement of the artist, and the entirety of his being, within his artistic work, especially when it concerns sacred art, which means, art for the liturgy, which as such can be either music, painting, sculpture or architecture. It is impossible to hide the expression of God’s initiative, of the Divine action which always precedes a work of art in liturgy, as it does within the reality of all created order.

While I write this presentation, I think of the many men of art that are faithful reflections and testimonies to the truth of this relationship between art and faith, which the author of this book magnificently expresses, and of the artists and works of art themselves to whom in the course of the book, he likewise makes reference. I think, for example, of the brilliant universal painter of the Spanish “Golden Age,” El Greco, in the proximity of the celebration of his fourth centenary. Neither the person, nor the consequences of the work of El Greco can be separated from their religious dimensions, from the Christian faith. Everything in them reflects the greatness of a man of spirit with a special “divine touch”, capable of perceiving and molding, in the great features and impression of the colors of his unique painting, the supreme beauty, the infinite abyss of perfection, incomparable and sovereign. All his works, great and unique, reflect the profoundness of his soul, image of his Creator who molded it with the delicate touch of His “divine brush.” In all the work of El Greco the sublime spirit always appears, that spirit that contemplated and penetrated the “Mystery,” led to its density, and expressed it with all the elevation of art that emerges from the depth of a being illuminated by this experience, that transcends the superficial glance incapable of raising itself towards the high summit of the spirit. El Greco immerses himself in the profundity of the Gospel, in the mystery of the Incarnation – of God made man for men and for their handing Him over to the Cross, in the victory over death – that enemy of man; with such great beauty and drama as El Greco knew how to express in his work.

Like this, with the deep roots of a Christian faith, well-formed and capable of giving reason for its truth, El Greco, in all of his pictorial work, shows the fundamental reality of this faith, teaches and speaks of the most profound mysteries to the uncouth and simple, catechizes, elevates, leads to contemplation, to wonder, to veneration, to the prayer of petition and of praise; gives reason to faith, shows the symphony and harmony of her beauty, and its emission and its expression in the most alive and genuine human spirit. There were particular circumstances of the historical time in which he worked, yet his art continues to speak today, as it did yesterday, with a most living actuality, because they are not works of the ephemeral circumstance and moment that quickly pass; but rather express a reality that does not die, and which he does so with the language of the “height of the soul”, as the mystics would say. He speaks with the brushes and colors from “this profound center of the soul” where every man knows and senses himself comprehended, being from any generation, any time in history.

As a man of firm “Christianity” as well as a son of his time, El Greco reflects man, for whom he manifests a living and singular passion.  Who among us cannot see this passion in The Entierro de Duca de Orgaz or in the Expolio</em> or in the Apostolado in the Sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo or in the San Jose in the same Cathedral? The hands, the eyes, the faces, the movements of the bodies of their characters, everything, all
of his work is an expression of how man sees and of man’s drama: the man that suffers and that loves, who lives this drama of existence and his desire for happiness, loved by God, the man who is from God, loved and elevated, the man saved and called to participate in His glory: the truth of man, as He is before God. Well reflected in his art is that “the glory of God is a living man” (S. Irenaeus of Lyon). All his work manifests man, expresses man as he penetrates to the profundity of the human being, but not as the pagan or mere humanist would see; rather, there is a notable difference: that which permits the vision of faith and leads to it with a particular glance, the glance of truth which is inseparable from beauty. Behind the faces or the bodies, the hands or the eyes, the colors and the folds of the cloths or the movement of the bodies, there is the truth that professes his faith concerning man.

This faith, decisively Christian and Christocentric, is, equally, profoundly anthropological, human and is the fundamental key to enter and immerse oneself in the richness and greatness of El Greco, as in the most authentic occidental art. His works, as all others born of the Christian faith, are works that are not stripped- and cannot be stripped- of their aura, of the aura of beauty. Likewise they are not – and we do not want and cannot permit them to become – pure and simple objects of pleasure for their formal, aesthetic quality, pure and simple objects of learning for the connoisseur, pure and simple objects of distracted curiosity of visitors in exhibits and museums. His art is where the saint and the believer encounter each other, beauty is the splendor of grace. Here the beauty turns our attention to “another” we cannot simply dispose of, but that nevertheless attracts us, calming and pacifying us. Here, through the beauty, emanates a force that neither crushes nor makes subservient, but that sustains. Here diffuses a freedom which emanates incessantly from the depths and from the center of our being frees us: freedom surges from truth and beauty. Here, above all, opened to us is the communication of the divine gift and love which communicates itself to us; here hope appears, and here the future of a new humanity and of a humanity with a future paints itself.

In conclusion, I once again offer my congratulations and my appreciation to Rodolfo Papa, for this work which not only introduces us to the identity and the essence of sacred art, but also which constitutes a major help so that the profound unity between liturgy and beauty may never be distorted in any way, but rather, on the contrary, that the connection between the two may be deepened and strengthened. It remains for me now to invite the reader to read this book and to allow their soul and their outlook to be enriched.

[Translation by Madre María de Anima Christi SSVM]
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