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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, poets, musicians and theater and cinema authors. "From the Nativity to Golgotha, from the Transfiguration to the Resurrection, from the miracles to the teachings of Christ, and on to the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles or foreseen by the Apocalypse in an eschatological key, on countless occasions the biblical word has become image, music, and poetry, evoking the mystery of 'the Word made flesh' in the language of art" (No. 5).

The artistic representation of the biblical word constitutes a vast chapter of faith and beauty in the history of culture, of which believers have benefited.

"In the history of human culture," No. 5 of the letter continues, "all of this is a rich chapter of faith and beauty. Believers above all have gained from it in their experience of prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of catechesis. But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world."

St. Gregory the Great, in a letter of the year 599 to the bishop of Marseilles, said, "Painting is employed in churches so that those who cannot read or write may at least read on the walls what they cannot decipher on the page." Perhaps the seventh art might be able to discover to the "religious illiterate" of our time that Christ whom they have not known in the Gospels.

What John Paul II says of all artistic intuition acquires new and unsuspected dimensions when art represents the mysteries of the life of Christ.

"Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery," he writes in No. 6 of the Letter to Artists. "The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. ...

"If the intimate reality of things is always 'beyond' the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the depths of his unfathomable mystery! The knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Yet this knowledge too can be enriched by artistic intuition."

Art is a privileged form of expression and communication of the richest and most profound mysteries. No. 6 continues: "Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is, therefore, a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every 'epiphany' of the inner beauty of things."

Although the mystery of God is unfathomable and the limitation of artistic means is very great, the mysteries of faith can be represented. In the "iconoclastic struggle" of the eighth century, sacred images "which were already widely used in Christian devotion, became the object of violent contention. The Council held at Nicaea in 787, which decreed the legitimacy of images and their veneration, was a historic event not just for the faith but for culture itself. The decisive argument to which the Bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: if the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities -- his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible -- then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents" (No. 7).

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, faith, culture and art were closely united and flowered together. In the modern age, together with Christian humanism, which has continued to produce significant works of culture and art, "another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes" (No. 10). Perhaps to this lesser interest of the producers corresponds the thirst of consumers and the extraordinary success of such works as Gibson's or the series of religious films produced by Italian television.

For her part, the Church continues to nurture great appreciation for art as such, as "art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption" (No. 10). So much the more if the object represented is redemption itself.

The Church needs art to transmit the message that Christ has entrusted to her. "Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God," John Paul II writes in No. 12 of the Letter to Artists. "It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery. The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force."

Given this communicative "efficacy" of art, Cardinal Castrillón's expression is not exaggerated: "With pleasure I would exchange some of the homilies I have given on the passion of Christ for some of the scenes of this film."

Mel Gibson's "Passion" seems a response to the "special call" John Paul II made in his letter to Christian artists. In No. 14 he writes: "I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man. Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but 'fully reveals man to man' ('Gaudium et Spes,' 23). In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to St. Paul, 'awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God' (Romans 8:19). The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny."

This was the artistic intuition and the intention of the director and producers of "The Passion." Viewers will decide if they have succeeded. Those who saw it before its premiere say that it is a genuine work of art and that it gave rise in them to a profound experience of faith. The work is out. The aesthetic and spiritual experience will also depend on the artistic and religious sensitivity of each one.

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