In the Beauty of Holiness
By David Lyle Jeffrey
Review Author: Brian Welter
Baylor University Humanities and Literature Professor David Lyle Jeffrey brings together visual art and theology in this engrossing illustrated history of biblical imagery in Western Christian art. The daunting task of covering two millennia of Christian creativity prompts Jeffrey to present each era via analysis of one or more representative individuals or themes. He begins with the Hebrew Scriptures and then explores the aesthetics of thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, followed by artists down the centuries, including contemporary philosophers of art.
Beauty played an essential role in ancient Hebrew worship, as seen in the temple and liturgical vestments. Christian art grew from this and from pagan Greco-Roman culture. Jeffrey regards St. Augustine’s aesthetics as “fundamentally more Hebraic than Hellenic.” He also observes that the Greek New Testament, compared to the Old Testament, has relatively little to offer on aesthetics. As the centuries passed, Christian aesthetics were enriched by the Church’s ever-expanding wealth of theology, science, and philosophy.
Art of the 15th and early 16th century clearly expressed papal authority, and, of course, the Renaissance produced much that was beautiful and spiritual. Jeffrey’s description of Michelangelo’s Pietà typifies his clear appraisal of art: “Not even the Greeks had shown more mastery in the verisimilitude of flowing garments, and neither they nor the Romans had created a face of such beauty and tenderness as the visage of this Mary.” He continues, “The dead body of her Son is cradled in Mary’s lap in such a way as to bring about a juxtaposition in the viewer’s imagination with images of Mary cradling the infant Jesus at the beginning of his life.”
Jeffrey admirably depicts the Reformation’s impact on Western Christian art. While aiming to trace unity through the centuries, he doesn’t shy away from describing the increasing estrangement between Protestant and Catholic artists. He spends a chapter contrasting Catholic and Protestant images of Bathsheba.
Post-Reformation art grew increasingly alienated from Christianity as artists abandoned religion. This estrangement was challenged in the early 19th century by the Nazarenes, Protestant-raised artists with “a shared conviction that it was time for northern art to reach back to the pre-Reformation past.” These men grew their hair long, adopted medieval clothing, and went to Rome to live in an old Franciscan monastery. Rejecting an increasingly secularized culture, the Nazarenes crossed the Tiber and adopted a Renaissance artistic style. Their art reflected the “search for a deeper, more personal experience of the earlier Christian tradition from which they felt the art academies had cut them off.”
Here Jeffrey’s selection of representative paintings is effective especially in portraying the changing outlook of the West toward Christianity. The Nazarenes in many ways paralleled the pre-Raphaelites. Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini! (1850), shown full-page, gives readers a good idea of the style, themes, and aims of these painters.
German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich is an interesting subject. Whether consciously or not, Friedrich depicts the fading of Christian belief and vigor in Western Europe. In his Monk by the Sea (1810) the sea and clouds bear down on a tiny, solitary monk. In his Abbey in an Oak Forest (1810) ghostly monks pass in procession through the doorway of a small ruin of what had once been a grand worship edifice. Jeffrey points to the barren oaks surrounding and overtaking the ruins, and how these trees had been worshiped by pre-Christian peoples. Such oaks grew to be “a motif, often with pagan burial sites, in Friedrich’s painting.” These are most memorable paintings, given their portrayal of Christianity’s diminished role and replacement with a religious view of nature that shares nothing with the medieval perspective on nature.
Many modern artists, often raised Catholic, abandoned the faith and sought spirituality in art. Jeffrey writes, “The growth of surrealism coincided with a revival of the occult in France, and with renewed interest in primitive art and its magical or shamanistic aura.” Some work by Max Ernst mocks Christianity with “a deliberate intention to make the central tenets of Christian belief seem grotesque.” Jeffrey includes Ernst’s shocking Virgin Mary Spanking the Infant Jesus before Three Witnesses (1926), as well as some of Salvador Dali’s distressing creations. Many readers will find the inclusion of these artists and their works a major drawback of the book.
Yet the author would not do readers a favor in sidestepping this blasphemy. The interplay of religious outlook, philosophy, and cultural context is clear. In the Beauty of Holiness helps contemporary Christians more clearly understand the agendas of certain artists and art movements, and how anti-Christian sentiment informs art. Christian readers can feel confident that their religion inspired so much beauty, while its fading has enabled a much less appealing aesthetic and practice of art to take over.
©2018 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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It appears that Fr. Ron Rolheiser, who has a syndicated newspaper column, has quite a track record of ticking off his readers.