“God Is Love”: in Benedict XVI and in Art

Contemplative Nun Comments on New Encyclical

ROME, JAN. 27, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est,” suggests numerous poetic images.

To reflect on its poetic aspects in greater depth, ZENIT interviewed art critic Sister Maria Gloria Riva, a contemplative religious of the Perpetual Adorers of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Sister Riva has just published the book in Italian entitled “Nell’arte lo stupore di una Presenza” (The Wonder of a Presence in Art), published by St. Paul’s, and the DVD “Il Codice dell’Amore” (The Code of Love), published by MIMEP, in which she refutes some of the inventions of “The Da Vinci Code.”

Q: What does the encyclical letter “Deus Caritas Est” suggest?

Sister Riva: That light and love are one thing. In his first encyclical the Pope traces, from Aristotle to Dante, the itinerary of love, from “eros” to that divine “caritas” that Christ revealed in full, an attractive subject which has always conquered man, including our time which, though it has abused it, as the Pope observes, feels the fascination of love and needs to rediscover this primordial sentiment in its entirety; it needs to purify it.

Q: Among the innumerable artistic representations of love, which one would you choose to explain this encyclical?

Sister Riva: In art, the mystery of the “love that moves the sun” and of the eternal light that finds its perfect manifestation in the human face of Christ, has been masterfully represented by Blessed Angelico, who, precisely following Dante’s lesson, painted the blessed in “The Last Judgment” as elegant and dancing figures …

The beauty of their movement contrasts with the heaviness of the condemned who, on the opposite side of the scene, flee from the claws of the infernal spirits.

It contrasts even more with the immobility of those who, having administered badly the gift of “eros,” embrace in the infernal circles.

It is not an ignorant classification of the world between the good and the evil, but a profound meditation on the logical consequences of what is chosen in life. Whoever lives in the love that gives itself, dances in life; whoever lives in love for himself, condemns himself to loneliness.

The graceful harmony of the figures of the Angelic painter expresses in what manner love for the form and corporeal nature has always reigned in the Church. And yet the beauty of these bodies is disfigured when it is chosen as absolute.

Without faith, the Pope notes, we fall into chaos; neutral rationality alone is not able to protect us. We need a faith that is nourished on a vision-comprehension capable of transforming our life. Is not this precisely the reason why God assumed a human face?

Q: An artist who has tried to paint man’s confusion in face of “eros” and love is Flemish Hieronymus Bosch.

Sister Riva: I recall Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which so scandalized the men of the 17th century. At the center of the triptych is man who abandons himself without discernment to his pleasure.

The source of adultery governs over the chaos of the couples that avidly swallow fruits like strawberries and blackberries — symbol of sexual union.

Flemish Bosch painted in the 16th century, but his manner of narrating is more contemporary than ever.

This unbridled enjoyment has no exit, it drags man to the kingdom without color or light of the loss of himself, of the loss of meaning, described by the artist in the triptych’s last panel.

Thus the “eros,” unless it becomes “agape” — notes the Holy Father — comes to an end and makes man unhappy. Christ is not against “eros,” but in “agape” he leads it to fullness.

Bosch expresses it well in the triptych’s first panel, in which he represents the original couple exactly as they issued from the mind of the Creator. Following a frequent iconography in miniatures, Bosch painted Adam seated and awake while he waits for Eve as gift. God the Father, whose face is that of Christ, leads her to him, complaisant. God has sanctified the love of man and woman, making of it the root of creation’s perpetuity.

There is peace here, there is unity of the two: unique not because they are alone but because they are unrepeatable.

Love makes the many unique and unrepeatable. Michelangelo also thought this when he planned the enormous fresco of the Sistine Chapel.

The beauty of bodies, the harmony of forms, the history of the luminous “caritas” over the shadows of “eros,” is described as the epic of a people that, finding their root in the Creator, attains its full realization in Christ.

Christ reveals to man his ultimate end: that of Love, a “love that has impelled God to assume a human face, more than that, to assume flesh and blood, the whole human being.”

This people lives today in the Church and precisely there, in the Sistine Chapel, celebrates its renewal and its miraculous “being” in history as permanent reflection of the beauty of God.

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation