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'The Passion' as Christian Artwork

4/5/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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A Look at the Movie in Light of 1999 Letter to Artists

ROME, APRIL 5, 2004 (Zenit) - In this essay Father Jesús Villagrasa, professor of metaphysics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, looks at the film "The Passion of the Christ" in the light of John Paul II's Letter to Artists.

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"The Passion" as Christian Artwork
By Father Jesús Villagrasa

History, faith and art seem inseparable in this film. An expert in sacred Scripture, in Eastern culture, in spiritual theology, or in cinematographic art can make a detailed analysis of the work and, perhaps, find deficiencies or have reservations. An analysis of this kind is not difficult.

What is meritorious, however, is to achieve an artistic synthesis, the creation of a work of art. "The Passion of the Christ" is an extraordinarily beautiful work, if we understand by the word beauty the "tangible manifestation of the idea," as Hegel called it.

Mel Gibson's artistic quality is indisputable as is also his adherence to the Christian faith and his desire to be faithful to evangelical history. The result of these ingredients is a work of Christian art.

"This film is a triumph of art and faith," Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos told the newspaper La Stampa last Sept. 18. "It will be a tool to explain the person and message of Christ. I am sure it will help all those who see it -- both Christians as well as non-Christians -- to be better. It will bring people closer to God and to one another."

In the light of this work and of this artist, some ideas expressed by John Paul II in his Letter to Artists seem to be made concrete and evocative. The 1999 letter is addressed "To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new 'epiphanies' of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world."

The artist imitates, in his own way, the Creator. Only God is "creator" in the strict sense, as only he gives being itself and draws something out of nothing.

The artist, on the contrary, uses something that is already in existence to give it form and meaning (see Letter to Artists, No. 1). The artist cannot dispense with his own experience, as in giving form to a work "artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are" (No. 2).

The beauty that the artist expresses is not foreign to the good. "In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty" (No. 3). Gibson's "The Passion" does not fall into aestheticism. Its beauty is the tangible manifestation of the highest good, which is love to the point of giving one's life.

One can understand that "The Passion" is not only the fruit of Gibson's faith but also an interior call of the artist who only through the representation of this mystery reaches his vocational fullness. "The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of 'artistic talent'" (No. 3).

It is a talent the artist knows he cannot waste. "Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation -- as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on -- feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole" (No. 3).

These truths are valid for all artists, but in a particular way for the Christian artist who expresses in his work the mystery of Christ, the incarnate Word. The law of the Old Testament prohibits the representation of the invisible and inexpressible God with the help of a "sculpted or metal smelted image" (Deuteronomy 27:25), because God transcends all material representation.

However, in the mystery of the incarnation, the Son of God in person has made himself visible. God became man in Jesus Christ.

"This prime epiphany of 'God who is Mystery' is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation," reads No. 5 of the Letter to Artists. "In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim. Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of 'immense vocabulary' (Paul Claudel) and 'iconographic atlas' (Marc Chagall), from which both Christian culture and art have drawn."

The Old and New Testament have inspired the imagination of painters, ...

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