Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Tag Archives: Art

Encourage & Teach: The Fruitful Madonna

christ-child-madonna-of-pomegranate-sandro-botticelliImages are compact carriers of meaning. They have the ability to communicate volumes of information with a glance and, at times, provide hours of fruitful meditation with just a little informed reflection. Signs and symbols are a tool to bridge the learning gap which, during various parts of history, was important –the prince and pauper are suddenly both able to learn regardless of education.

Artists over the centuries have used many symbols and images to communicate and teach us about our faith. Many of these great masters have used natural symbols, illustrations from Sacred Scripture, and, at times, they have redeemed and Christianized ancient mythological symbols.(Read more…)

Scripture: Good Fortune in the Cards

Did you know, W. Gurney Benham comments, that two of the twelve face cards within a deck of cards are taken directly from Scripture? Among the court cards in a deck we find King David and Rachel who were the inspiration for two of the cards. Here is a list of “Who’s Who” in our face cards found in his book entitled, The History and Secrets of the Pack:

  1. The king of spades is David. (On French cards, he holds a harp, alluding to the psalms. In English cards, he carries the sword of Goliath whom he slew.)
  2. The queen of diamonds is Rachel, wife of Jacob whose twelve sons founded the twelve tribes of Israel.
  3. The king of hearts is Charlemagne.
  4. The king of diamonds is Julius Caesar.
  5. The king of clubs is Alexander the Great.
  6. The queen of hearts is Judith of Bavaria, a daughter of Charlemagne.
  7. The queen of spades is Palias, Greek goddess of war and wisdom (the Latin Miverna).
  8. The queen of clubs is Marie d’Anjou (at least according to tradition), wife of dauphin Charles VII.
  9. The jack of hearts is La Hire, a 15th-century French warrior.
  10. The jack of spades is Hogier, one of Charlemagne’s paladins (one of the twelve peers or knight companions of legend attending Charlemagne).
  11. The jack of diamonds is Hector, or Roland, or possibly half-brother to Lancelot of the Round Table.
  12. The jack of clubs is Lancelot, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table.

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in Architecture

Thanks to the New Liturgical Movement blog, Dominican Brother Lawrence Lew has written a fantastic blog on truth and beauty in architecture:

by Br Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Aedes ChristiI recently came across an article by the art critic and philosopher Graham Carey in the Michaelmas 1949 issue of The Catholic Art Quarterly. At the time he was Chairman of the Catholic Art Association, and was on the Advisory Board of this journal. In the article Carey presents detailed plans for what appears to be an ideal “small country church which would be at once traditional and contemporary”, and he draws on a rich tradition of symbolic geometry and Christian iconography and Scriptural references. The result is fascinating, and I confess it drew me because he had, to my surprise, described the plan of an ideal church which I myself had envisaged over a decade ago, while doodling during a lecture!

However, it was Carey’s theological conclusion drawing on the transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty, rather than his architectural plans, which I wish to share with our readership today. Carey said:

What is truth in architecture? Truth is a relationship of congruence between a thought and a thing. Absolute or ontological truth is the likeness between what things are and God’s idea of them, and ordinary relative truth is the likeness between what things are and what we think them to be. Architectural truth has two similar divisions. The principles of architecture ought to be closely related to God’s universal principles. In other words, the architectural theology should be sound. And secondly, the material expression of the principles should be adequate. The building should be what it seems to be. Such is truth in architecture; its spirit the true theology, and its body expressing that theology truly…

What is goodness in architecture? Goodness is the relation of things to their final causes. Here again we get two meanings to one word. Goodness means that the final cause of a thing is what God wants it to be. A good man’s purpose is the same as God’s purpose for him. But goodness also means a congruence between what he himself wants and what he succeeds in achieving. A good building is one which has a good purpose, one congruent with the needs of man as God created him, and it is also one that fulfills its purpose whatever that purpose may be. A church may be good in the former sense, and an atomic bomb in its latter. A really good building is good in both senses; it has a noble use, and its structure serves that noble use nobly.

And what of beauty? Beauty is the radiance of perfection in a thing, a perfection which the mind may understand directly through the service of the senses. If a thing is what it should be, true and good, it will appear as it should, beautiful, to anyone who has a mind capable of receiving beauty… The beauty of architecture is a direct result of the truth and goodness of architecture. This is the meaning of Lethaby’s often misunderstood dictum that, given truth and goodness, beauty will look after herself.

An “In the Flesh” Invitation

The first decoration that our family likes to display when preparing for the Advent and Christmas seasons is our creche. I am quite attached to our Fontanini Nativity set as it was a wedding gift from the parish that I was serving in the early 90’s. Since then, we have built up the collection and thus, we now have a small village to surround the central point of interest – the manager. The creche is in fact, one of the most recognizable symbols during the Advent and Christmas seasons. Sadly, many in our culture are opposed to this public display of religious devotion. I firmly believe though, they are scared because they have never considered the implications but intuitively know they exist.

St. Francis is credited with the first Nativity scene in 1250 at Greccio, Italy. He had worked all day and put together a living manager in a small cave. His goal was to refocus the town’s folk from the secularism and materialism that was creeping into this solemn celebration (sound familiar). As they gathered, some noticed that St. Francis was wrapped in ecstasy and suddenly, he was holding the Christ child. Within one hundred years, Nativity scenes were expected décor as part of the Advent and Christmas celebrations. I am sure many of you will be attending your local Christmas pageant sometime over the next week – if not this evening. But, for the Franciscans, the creche is much, much more than a seasonal decoration. Did you know that it is a common Franciscan tradition to keep a basic Nativity scene up all year round. Why? Because the Incarnation is central to  our Christian faith.

It is true that our greatest liturgical solemnity is the resurrection but really what does it celebrate? It not only celebrates that Jesus rose from the dead but He rose from the dead with His body. Thus, the Incarnation is vitally important to us because,

For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. (CCC456)

What does this mean?

Yes, it means that Jesus “became like us in all ways but sin.” (Heb. 4:15). It means that he walked, talked, cried, laughed, and experienced the vast panoply of human emotions. Most importantly, it means that He came to redeem us, in our entirety – soul, mind and body. He sanctified our nature and with it all the operations proper to the human person (mind, body and spirit). He made holy the human experience. We should also remember that by taking on our flesh, He also sanctified all material creation. Once again, by His actions, He blesses creation and proclaims that it is good.

Many Catholics these days think that the body is a temporary state, of which, one day they will be free. Not so! Every Sunday in our profession of the Creed,

God’s creative, saving, and sanctifying action – culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting. (CCC 988)

Resurrection means we get our bodies back. We are not angels nor should we wish to be so (You will not get your wings when someone rings a bell). We forget that without our bodies we lack that which is essential to experience the world, each other and the Blessed Trinity itself. Angelic beings do not learn, all their knowledge was given to them at the moment of their creation. We on the other hand are designed to take in information through our bodily senses. Death does not mean an end to taking in information. It does mean that our bodies at the resurrection are glorified. Meaning, our senses and bodies are perfected.

We live in a world that is unhappy with(in) our own skin. As Catholics, we do believe in enhancing how God made us. This means that we assist in the natural qualities of the original design. But, we go beyond enhancing the natural qualities by changing them altogether, as if God made a mistake. I would rather be a blond! Why can’t I have curly hair? My feet are too big. I need to reduce my nose! My ears stick out too much. My teeth aren’t naturally white enough…And the complaints go on.

The Incarnation is a reminder that the body is good even with its imperfections and frailties. Jesus came to redeem us bodily by uniting us to Himself – body and soul:

He who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that it was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man (GS 22, quotes in RH 8.2).

God don’t make junk. He also doesn’t make mistakes. You are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14). Before you were knit in your mother’s womb, He knew you and called you by name (Jer. 1:5). We are precious in the eyes of the Lord (Ps. 116:15).

Many would say that God condescended Himself to save us by taking on our nature. Metaphysically that is true. But, it is no less true that He raised our nature and dignity to unspeakable heights because He loves wholly and completely. When we look into a mirror we should revel in the work of an artist. I mean really, which one of us would dare add to the landscape of Michaelagelo’s Sistine Chapel or a daffodil to Monet’s Water Lillies? Please! That would be absurd.

The Nativity is more than a Christmas decoration or a mystery that gives way to the glory of the resurrection. It is central to understanding our dignity and ourselves. We need to get comfortable in our bodies – it will be with us for eternity. I think that the creche could be a good remedy for all the psychological ills related to our bodies. It is also a reminder to all mankind that the material universe was not an after-thought but the glorious garden in which we will encounter the Living God.

My wife has always kept a Nativity up all year round. She sees it as a beautiful reminder that the God of heaven and earth loved humanity so much that He wanted to walk with us. As she passes by it every day in her curio cabinet, it reminds her that she is fearfully and wonderfully made. Our daughters also keep their own sets up in their rooms. I use it to remind them that God don’t make junk and if they don’t like what they see in the mirror they should first look in the manager. It offers a better reflection.

I pray that this Christmas the manager will be a source of meditation on our own humanity. I, of course, like saying that it is a study in the Theology of the Body. And, when the season comes to a close, maybe you will keep a small creche displayed. Maybe, you display it just as a reminder that the Incarnation was not Plan B but an “in the flesh” invitation to glory in His creation.

Feast of St. Nicholas

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas! In many countries this morning, children will be racing to check their shoes and stockings to see what this jolly saint left them. Here in the Silva household, the kids know that mom and dad leave them a treat in their stockings. We have traditionally given them fruit, coloring book and a video to share. We decided this year though that we were going to start a Hallmark ornament collection for each of them. Oh, we also go out on his feast day and chop down our Christmas tree (that is probably what we are doing while you are reading this).

We take seriously devotion to St. Nicholas in our house. He, with St. Benedict, are the dual patrons of our household. I have been researching St. Nicholas since 1995. It started because a good friend and his wife had all these questions about St. Nicholas. Since that time, I have passionately been researching anything and everything about him to get to the truth of who he was and how it connects with our Catholic tradition. In an effort to saving you some time, I suggest using the information provided by The St. Nicholas Center. While I do not agree with all of their opinions and commentary, the foundation has collected an amazing amount of information, activities and customs.

As we draw closer to Christmas, we will investigate more about the Santa Claus, American customs and their place in our Catholic tradition. I thought though we could start just by listing what he is the patron of: Apothecaries (pharmacists), Armed forces police, Bakers, Bankers, Bargemen, Barrel makers, Boatmen, Boot blacks & shoe shiners, Bottlers, Boys, Brides, Brewers, Businessmen, Butchers, Button makers, Candle makers, Captives, Chandlers (suppliers of ships), Children, Choristers, Citizens, Clergy, Clerks, Cloth trade & merchants, Coopers (barrel makers), Corn measurers & merchants, Court recorders, registrars, clerks, Dock workers, longshoremen, Drapers, Embalmers, Ferrymen, Firefighters, Fishermen, Florists, Grain dealers & merchants, Grocers, Grooms, Haberdashers, , Infants, Infertile, Judges, Lace makers & sellers, Lawsuits lost unjustly, Lawyers, Lemko people, Ukraine, Linen merchants, Longshoremen, Lovers, Maidens, Mariners, Merchants, Military intelligence, Millers, Murderers, Navigators, Newlyweds, Notaries, Oil merchants, Orphans, Packers, Parish clerks, Paupers, Pawnbrokers, Peddlers, Perfumeries, perfumers, Pharmacists, Pirates, Poets, Poor people, Preachers, Prisoners, Prostitutes, Pupils, Ribbon weavers, Robbers & thieves, Schoolchildren, Sailors & mariners, Scholars & students, Seed merchants, Shearmen, Shipwreck victims, Shipwrights and gaugers, Ships carpenters, Shoemakers, Shopkeepers, Skippers, Soldiers, Spice-dealers, Spinsters, Tanners, Teachers, Thieves, Timber merchants, Travelers, Unjustly condemned, Unmarried men, Unmarried women, Virgins, Watermen, Weavers, Wine porters, merchants & vendors, Women – desirous of marrying, and Wood turners…to name a few.

Hope you have a fantastic feast day!

Sacred Art

Today was a busy day at work. So, I thought that you would enjoy a beautiful Russian icon of Christ. Thanks goes out to the New Liturgical Movement blog. Enjoy!

Gothic Yesterday, Romanesque Today…Learning to Read

Here is more on reading and understanding architecture.

Parlez-vous Gothic Cathedral?

The typical history book and professor would tell us that the hoi polloi of the European medieval period were a bunch of illiterates who consequently, had no access to reading. Of course, during the Reformation, many capitalized on this sentiment and claimed that the Church had deprived the People of God of the privilege of reading (due to language and availability) and meditating on the loftiest and most profound theology. Naturally, since I am bringing it up, they would be exaggerating or at least limited in their viewpoint.

We think that words are the only way to read but the Church has never been so narrow-minded. Recognizing the lack of education among her children, she developed a different forms of reading. One of those forms is through architecture. Instead of relying sole on words in books, she wrote and taught through architecture.

Don’t know how to read architecture? Sounds like a little modern illiteracy to me. No worries, it took me a while until I found the “write” resources to teach me to read.  I am still reading at the Dr. Seuss level but it is still fries my brain with so much information I cannot handle more. Here is a short tutorial on reading Gothic Cathedral facades. Enjoy and read these books more!!

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Franciscan University since 1978 has offered a household system to its students. It literally transformed the University. Households are small communities based off the Cursillo Fourth Day group method but lived in a more intense way. They all have a particular devotion and spirituality associated with them. The household I joined was called Hearts of Fire. It had a special devotion to St. Margaret Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Our household lived out this spirituality through nightly recitation of the Holy Rosary, Praise and Worship on Wednesdays, community Mass on Fridays and the Lord’s Day Celebration on Saturday at dusk. This community deeply influenced and supported my spiritual life for my four year tenure and the friends I made have been more like family for the past 21 years.

As you might imagine, the Church’s celebration of St. Margaret Mary’s memorial is very close to our hearts. Reflecting upon this devotion, I believe that it is one that has fallen out of style but needed more than ever. The basis of the devotion is the reception of our Lord’s love for us and offering our hearts to him. At first glance, the practice of this devotion seems easy but the implications are vast.

We live in a society that does not know how to love – it knows how to use or be used. See, most young people I run into today or work with are starving for love. They are willing to do anything, and I mean anything, for a taste of love. Combine that with a disposable fast-food attitude and you get impatient souls who drop people and activities because they no longer amuses them. People and relationships are commodities and if there is no appreciable return on investment, well, move on.

This devotion, however, is an answer to our need as a society and persons. Jesus offers His heart and love to us freely. Even the image, shows Him handing His heart to us with a countenance that seems to say, “Please, Please! Let me share my love and life with you.” He desires to give His mercy which too is free for the taking if only we receive that same heart from Him. Why do so few of us take Him up on the invitation? I believe it is fear.

We fear what we do not know and would rather settle for the imitation that we do. We do not want to change and instinctively, we know that a relationship with Christ requires change on our part. Not because He needs us to change but we begin to realize we are less than we ought to be. We fear that we will lose our identity when really we will discover who we are. We think that  a boy/girlfriend or spouse will fill the longing in our heart. To be honest, married couples are some of the loneliest people I know. My wife and I have worked with a number of them over the past 15 years and have been saddened by the deep desire for love each of the spouses yearns for, which neither can give. Only the Lord can fill that deep place in our heart. We can fill it with anything and everything but eventually, the deprivation will catch up with us.

I would encourage you today to accept our Lord’s invitation and receive the gift of the Sacred Heart He offers you. How? Go to adoration, look at Him, ask for His heart and commit yourself to listening to His voice. That just requires a commitment to reading Scripture and a spirit of stillness during prayer. Oh, and the willingness to listen to what you fear the most. What is the scariest sentence to hear from Jesus? “I love you and you are mine.”

Short History of St. Margaret Mary

A self-effacing nun in the Visitation Convent at Paray-le-Monial, France, was inspired by the Lord Jesus to establish the devotion of the Holy Hour. Her name was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, and from the age of seven, when she received her first Holy Communion, she had always manifested an intense love of the Most Blessed Sacrament. Our Lord appeared to her often, usually as the Crucified Christ. Her simplicity caused her to feel that these apparitions were also granted to others who had recourse to Jesus in the sacrament of His love. Once the Master appeared to the young girl as she was returning from a dance and reproached her for not espousing Him.

When twenty-four years of age, Margaret entered the cloister, choosing the most menial tasks. Gifted with intelligence and common sense, she made great progress in holiness. Our Lord entrusted to her the mission of establishing the reign of the Sacred Heart among the children of men. Criticism did not hamper her zeal, and her charity toward her opponents won them over to the cause of the Master.

In the first revelation of the Sacred Heart to the nun, Our Lord made known His burning desire to be loved by all men, and His design of manifesting to them His Sacred Heart with its treasures of mercy. Margaret Mary communicated Our Lord’s wish that the faithful receive Holy Communion on the first Friday of each month and observe the Feast of the Sacred Heart on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi.

After nineteen years in the convent, St. Margaret Mary died October 17, 1690. Many pilgrims to her tomb have sought and obtained favors. Through her apostolate of devotion to the Sacred Heart many sinners have repented and found grace with God.

12 Promises for Those Devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

1. I will give them all the graces necessary for their state of life.

2. I will give peace in their families.

3. I will console them in all their troubles.

4. They shall find in My Heart an assured refuge during life and especially at the hour of death.

5. I will pour abundant blessings on all their undertakings.

6. Sinners shall find in My Heart the source and infinite ocean of mercy.

7. Tepid souls shall become fervent.

8. Fervent souls shall speedily rise to great perfection.

9. I will bless the homes in which the image of My Sacred Heart shall be exposed and honored.

10. I will give to priests the power to touch the most hardened hearts.

11. Those who propagate this devotion shall have their name written in My Heart, and it shall never be effaced.

12. I promise thee in the excess of the mercy of My Heart, that its all-powerful Love will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the First Friday of Nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under My displeasure, nor without receiving the Sacraments; My Heart shall be their assured refuge at that last hour.

Pelicanus Periculosus?

Great article on Christian symbology from New Liturgical Movement. And, the symbol is one of my favorites – the Pelican.

Pelicanus Periculosus?

by David Clayton

Is there a danger that trying to reestablish traditional Christian symbols in art would sow confusion rather that clarity? Lots of talks and articles about traditional Christian art I see discuss the symbolism of the iconographic content; for example, the meaning of the acacia bush (the immortality of the soul) or the peacock (again, immortality). This is useful if we have a printed (or perhaps for a few of you an original) Old Master in church or a prayer corner as it will enhance our prayer life when contemplating the image. But is this something that we ought to be aiming to reinstate the same symbolism in what we produce today? Should we seek to educate artists to include this symbolic language in their art?

If symbols are meant to communicate and clarify, they should be readily understood by those who see them. This might have been the case when they were introduced – very likely they reflected aspects of the culture at the time – and afterwards when the tradition was still living and so knowledge of this was handed on. But for most it isn’t true now. How many would recognize the characteristics of an acacia bush, never mind what it symbolizes? If you ask someone today who has not been educated in traditional Christian symbolism in art what the peacock means, my guess is that they are more likely to suggest pride, referring to the expression, ‘as proud as peacock’. So the use of the peacock would not clarify, in fact it would do worse than mystify, it might actually mislead. (The reason for the use of the peacock as a symbol of immortality, as I understand it, is the ancient belief that its flesh was incorruptible). So to reestablish this sign language would be a huge task. We would not only have to educate the artists, but also educate everyone for whom the art was intended to read the symbolism. If this is the case, why bother at all, it doesn’t seem to helping very much, and in the end it will always exclude those who are not part of the cognoscenti . This is exactly the opposite of what is desired: for the greater number, it would not draw them into contemplation of the Truth, but push them out.

I think that the answer is that some symbols are worth persevering with, and some should be abandoned. First, it is part of our nature to ‘read’ invisible truths through what is visible. This does not only apply to painting. The whole of Creation is made by God as an outward ‘sign’ that points to something beyond itself to Him, the Creator. Blessed John Henry Newman put it in his sermon Nature and Supernature as follows: “The visible world is the instrument, yet the veil, of the world invisible – the veil, yet still partially the symbol and index; so that all that exists or happens visibly, conceals and yet suggests, and above all subserves, a system of persons, facts, and events beyond itself.” It is important to both to make use of this faculty that exists in us for just this purpose; and to develop it, increasing our instincts for reading the book of nature and in turn, our faith.

However, coming back to the context of art again, some discernment should be used, I suggest. I would not be in favour of creating an arbitrarily self-consistent symbolism. The symbol must be rooted in truth. The symbolism in the iconographic tradition is very good at following this principle. This is best illustrated by considering the example of the halo. This is very well known as the symbol of sanctity in sacred art. There are very good reasons for this. The golden disc is a stylized representation of a glow of uncreated, divine light, shining out of the person. Even if this were not already a widely known symbol, it would be worth educating people about the meaning of it, because in doing so something more is revealed. When however, the representation of a halo develops into a disc floating above the head of the saint, as in Cosme Tura’s St Jerome, or even a hoop, as in Annibale Caracci’s Dead Christ Mourned, (both shown) then it seems to me that the symbol has become detached from its root. Neither could be seen as a representation of uncreated light. These latter two forms, therefore, should be discouraged.

Similarly, those symbols that are rooted in the gospels or in the actual lives of the saints should be encouraged and the effort should be made, I think, to preserve or, if necessary, reestablish them. The tongs and coal of the prophet Isaias relate to the biblical accounts of his life. The inclusion of these, will generate a healthy curiosity in those who don’t know it, and so might direct them to investigate scripture. The picture shown below, incidentally, is one that I did as a demonstration piece for our recent summer school at Thomas More College in New Hampshire.

In contrast consider the peacock and the pelican. The peacock, as already mentioned, does not, we now know, have incorruptible flesh. The pelican is a symbol of the Eucharist based upon the erroneous belief in former times that pelicans feed their young with their own flesh. The immediate reaction is that these should not be used (I am not aware of any biblical reference to these two creatures that would justify it). However, I am torn by the fact that both of these are beautiful and striking images, even if based in myth.

Also, it might be argued, and this is particularly true for the pelican, that to use it is not resurrecting an obscure medieval symbol. It is an ancient symbol certainly – and St Thomas Aquinas’s hymn to the Eucharist, Adore te devote called Christ the ‘pelican of mercy’. But it lasted well beyond that. It was very widely understood even 50 years ago. Awareness of it is still common nowadays amongst those who are interested in liturgy and sacred art. Perhaps an argument could be made that even when the reason for the use of symbol is based in myth, if that is known and understood, and when that symbol recognition is still widespread enough to be considered part of the tradition, it should be retained. We should also remember that modern science is not infallible, and we moderns could be those who are mistaken about the pelican! My Googling research (admittedly even less reliable than modern science) revealed that the coat of arms of Cardinal George Pell has the image of the pelican. If this is so, I imagine he would have something to say about the issue also!

I would love to know the thoughts of readers on these points.