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Catholics and Art: Creating Epiphanies of Beauty

10/20/2002 - 2:00 PM PST

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By Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC

The relationship between art and the Christian mission has been a mixed one for close to two millennia. However, if we truly understand both creation and redemption as a grand act of Divine love, we begin to understand God as the great artist. We begin to grasp the profoundly important connection between beauty, in all of its human expressions, and the Christian vocation. We begin to truly understand that to be fully Christian is to be fully human.

What is this relationship between the Christian mission and artistic expression—including the Theatre supposed to be? In a powerful vision set forth in his “Letter to Artists” John Paul II called for “epiphanies of beauty” and encouraged the flourishing of all the arts as a part of the fabric of a renewal of humanity. Catholic artists are called to lead the way!

He addressed this little mentioned letter to “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 gifts to the world (John Paul II).”

The text breaks open the profound words from the Book of the Beginnings, Genesis: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). It does so at a profoundly important time in human history when Christians are called to once again flourish in all the “theatres” of the human experience and so herald a new Christian missionary age.

The relationship between art and the Christian mission in the world has been a mixed one over two millennia of Christian history. This is particularly true in the arena of artistic expression referred to as Theatre.

In the First Christian Millennium, the hostile environment into which the nascent Christian message and mission were sent, the theatre had devolved to a sad low. Why? Because the human race had “devolved” to an all time low, reveling in sexual debauchery and the loss of a sense of human dignity.

There is little doubt that the early Christian leaders discouraged participation in what was then called the theatre. How could this be in a faith that proclaims the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as having touched and transformed the entirety of all human experience? It is because the theatre of that time reflected the debauchery of the culture in its degradation of the dignity of the human person.

The film “The Gladiator” captured some of the spirit of that age. Most dramatic expressions were considered indecent and certainly a threat to a life of virtue for Christians.

Unfortunately, that hostility between the Christian Gospel (the only message capable of truly humanizing sinful men and women as well as debased art) and the theatre continued into the third and fourth centuries when much theatrical presentation mocked the Christian rites and the Christian message.

However, the early Christian community had a wonderful sense for theatre and artistic expression. The fullness of liturgical expression and the very real and human works produced by Christian artists demonstrate this fact.

When we fast forward to the Second Christian millennium we discover that the first half of the Millennium witnessed a mature flowering of a Christian worldview. This resulted in extraordinary developments in art and Christian artistic participation. Both found favorable soil in a cultural climate created by the Renaissance.

In the east, the richness of an iconographic worldview flourished in all realms of artistic expression. In the west the flourishing of the arts in the middle ages corresponded to a flourishing in Western Christian artistic expression.

It did not last long.

In the sad aftermath of the so-called “Enlightenment” and the reactions to its aftereffects in some segments of what has been called the Protestant reformation, this millennium marked another season of suspicion—if not hostility—in some circles. That is because in some Christian circles, the theatre became associated with an anthropology (a view of man) that saw nothing good in him. This was probably most starkly expressed in that corner of “reformation” Protestantism known as Calvinism.

Thus, the theatre, though for different reasons, was again seen as suspect at best and discouraged in many Christian circles. It, like man, was considered to be corrupt.

How sad and how limited a view of both man and the world created for him.

Now we have begunn a Third Christian Millennium and a playwright is seated in the Chair of Peter. In his “Letter to Artists” John Paul sets forth an inspiring and ambitious call for the participation of artists in the renewal of humanity through the flourishing of a new Christian humanism. With a prophetic clarity he speaks of the “artistic vocation” as one who has carried it in his own heart and incarnated it in ...

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