The Artist As Theologian

The genius of Christian humanism

A baby, not an angel. Raphael, Madonna with the Blue Diadem, ca 1510 (courtesy Musée du Louvre)

Augustine and Origen and Thomas were extraordinary Christian scholars, but I’m convinced that Renaissance artists possessed a more truthful understanding of the faith. I would locate the pinnacle of Christian philosophy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, when the most important theologians were painters, sculptors, and authors, not academicians.

What did humanists see that the scholars overlooked? First, Renaissance art exhibits confidence that God and humankind are united, that we are the same stuff. We are understood as God’s agents, his stewards. We make him complete: we are his eyes, and his ears, and his hands. We confront evil, alleviate suffering, enact justice, and protect the weak and vulnerable on his behalf. Or not; it’s our call.

In the humanist imagination, the sacrifice of Christ redeems us all, and in so doing proposes that we are necessary to God, which makes reconciliation as crucial to him as it is to us. His reason, goodness, justice, and beauty dwell within us and he will preserve those precious virtues at any cost to himself, including death by torture. Velázquez’s Cristo Crucificado is, to my eye, the single finest expression of that stunningly beautiful idea:

God and man as one, united in pain and self-giving love — in divine virtue and natural beauty. Velasquez, Cristo Crucificado, ca 1632 (courtesy Museo del Prado)

The greatest Christian art celebrates Christ’s dual nature — his transcendent divinity and his frail humanity — with realism and relish, enriched with lurid sacred hearts; crowns of thorns glistening and sticky with blood; and bruised, delicate waif bodies. From the Renaissance, Mediterranean painters and sculptors emphasized the Crucifixion because it illustrates how far God is willing to go for us, his beloved. Christ’s public humiliation and gruesome death represent the irrefutable proof, and final enactment, of God’s infinite love of mankind: a sublime moment in which he sacrifices himself for us, knowing that we rejected him. We broke his heart in the Garden of Eden, yet there’s nothing he won’t endure to redeem us.

A person willing to die for their god is nothing new, but a supernatural being willing to suffer a criminal’s slow death and serve as a scapegoat for the creatures he adores is unlike anything else that has been contemplated. It is pure genius. This act of ultimate self-giving tells us not only that the Christian God is more loving than earlier gods, it tells us that we humans are greater than we’re imagined to be in any other religious tradition because we are worthy of divine self-sacrifice.

Demigods need not apply
A fully-human Christ once dominated the Western and Eastern orthodox Christian traditions. As the author of Hebrews wrote, “He had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” [1].

Without that human element, there’s no paradox and mystery; there’s no astounding beauty. Christianity ceases to be a profound religion and becomes merely a populist system for explaining nature, doing feebly what science does well. The belief in God as a person enduring an agonizing death motivated by his absolute devotion to us — humanism, in a word — is what earns Christianity its place among the world’s great religions.

The tradition emerged with the Greeks and Romans, who leaned humanistic. They assumed, for example, that we look like the gods; but they would never have imagined a god bound and flogged and spat upon and finally murdered by humans. It was the Christians alone who went there.

To locate the summit of Catholic humanism, let’s consider Michelangelo’s David, a Renaissance monument in which the sophisticated like to detect Classical stodginess:

You and I are the only possible heroes. Michelangelo, David, ca 1504 (courtesy Galleria dell’Accademia)

The sculpture is anything but stodgy. Yes, it quotes the Apollo Belvedere, but it’s not an imitation or even an homage. It’s a synthesis of Greek heroism and Christian optimism that signals the arrival of an advanced Catholic civilization willing to embrace its humanist convictions without apology. This David insists that our true nature is heroic — indeed, that a human being is the only possible hero, a belief that the Greeks had long celebrated in their art and literature. The idea that we alone can be heroic was old news in the Classical world, a fact clear to anyone who has wondered why Homer’s gods are so tiresome and disappointing in contrast to his humans. Anything that a Classical god does can be undone: there are no permanent consequences, which means that there are no risks, and therefore no heroism. Only a mortal is able to wager everything and lose it forever.

Hence Michelangelo’s athletic, fiercely-determined hero, pictured during the instant between committing to action and acting. He’s ready to kill Goliath without divine backup:

Say your prayers. Michelangelo, David, ca 1504 (courtesy Galleria dell’Accademia)

Yes, he looks scared. Any real human being would be. But he’s committed and we can feel it. He doesn’t become a hero through some miracle on the battlefield; he has always been a hero. The miracle happened long ago when Nature created our kind.

All this David needs is confidence in himself as Heaven’s beloved. Naked and mortal, armed with only a sling, he relies entirely on his humanity, which he trusts absolutely as a divine gift of formidable power. His faith in God and his faith in himself are one. How could the Almighty not fall in love with such a magnificent, audacious creature? It’s no wonder he would die for us.

The Michelangelo David insists that our divine virtues explain the sacrifice of Christ: God simply had to redeem us, so marvelous are we. And so, in carving this sculpture, Michelangelo enacted the very gesture that it illustrates: sheer daring. He pressed Catholic humanism forward to the edge of heresy, inviting us to wonder if the Judeo-Christian God might not envy mankind, as Homer’s bored, bitchy gods clearly did.

When small worlds collide
In Renaissance art, we see a full understanding that beauty, like reason, is a Heavenly gift. Raphael’s Madonna with the Blue Diadem above showed us an infant Jesus so beautiful that one longs to take him in their arms. Here, just after the creation, we find that Adam is every bit as impressive as his father:

A chip off the old block. Michelangelo, Creation of Adam, ca 1510 (courtesy Museo Vaticano)

The heat and light of Catholic high culture have always been concentrated in the Mediterranean, a region of brilliant sunlight and bread and wine where art and theology once commingled freely. The Reformation came from the West and the North, regions of darkness and porridge and beer where middlebrow theologians urged an unsophisticated populace to venerate the Bible and commune directly with God. There we find an emphasis on individualism and idiosyncrasy, a rejection of Nicene orthodoxy and central administration, and hostility toward urban sophistication.

The Reformation was about many things, but a ferocious resentment of Mediterranean art and scholarship — seen as decadence and vanity — ranks high. The Church, many believed, was offending God and obscuring our true predicament under layers of ceremony, artistic excess, intellectual gibberish, and frivolous optimism.

To Europeans outside the old Empire, the Church’s emphasis on natural virtue and splendid works seemed impious. Man is not great, the reformers insisted; we’ve literally been cursed by the Almighty who said, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” [2]. We are weak, unclean sinners who long ago rejected God and have paid the price every day since. There’s no cause for self-congratulation and none for optimism. We’re made of dirt, not divine essence. Getting right with God will take more than priestly absolution and a few decades of the Rosary. It’s a lifelong struggle of pain and self denial that’s almost certain to fail in any case.

The Reformation was also a contest over the authentic nature of God. It was an attack on the immanent deity imagined today by most Jews and liberal Christians — Protestant and Catholic alike: the God of Genesis 1; the God whom Thomas Aquinas believed was “absolutely simple,” existing “within the universe, and that innermostly” [3]. The God whom Francis of Assisi found dwelling radiantly in the most wretched and despised among us. The God whose spirit floated above the waters and willed into being all of the wonderful things we see and declared each of them good. A natural deity. We might wonder, was he needy? Did he bring forth the Heavens and the Earth, and mankind, to complete himself by creating ones to love and to love him in return? Does God depend on us? If he is otherwise alone, he wouldn’t know mercy, or love, or regret, or longing. Without us, he would be incomplete — he would be imperfect.

There’s another God in the Christian imagination: the supernatural Managing Director of the Cosmos, the irritable magician imagined today by many fundamentalists: the God of Genesis 2 and Genesis 3, and of John Calvin and Cornelius Jansen. The God who interrogates Adam and taunts him (Who told you that you were naked?), then curses him and his descendants simply for being human. This God stands apart from Nature. He finds us mortals puny and low.

Sailing from Byzantium
The farther a society stood from Byzantium and Rome geographically, the more it would deviate from Christian humanism and the less its early culture will impress us today. I speak of a Continent drenched in superstition and fear — plagued by magicians, marauders, and capricious local gods; confounded by pseudoscience and theraputic leeching— her peoples trapped in the pre-literate world of picture books and cartoons from which our Renaissance forebears struggled to liberate them.

Forgive my elitist candor, but there was no northern or western Plotinus, Euclid, Archimedes, Hypatia, Ptolemy, Abulcasis, Dante, Petrarch, Thomas, Cervantes, Galileo, Montaigne, Rabelais, Michelangelo, Raphael, or Bernini, at least until the Reformation matured. There was dear Erasmus, of course, but he would be conquered by Luther and the mobs he inspired. Those crowds sacked their own local churches as ruthlessly as Viking invaders might have done centuries earlier. They desecrated carvings and statues and smashed stained-glass windows and ripped out pipe organs, expressing their hatred of all things refined, hence confusing.

The Church reacted poorly. The counter-Reformation was driven by defensive hostility that resulted, for several decades between the 1530s and the 1590s, in a new authoritarianism that would save the Church but silence some of the most original and productive Catholic thinkers. The burning of Giordano Bruno and the trial of Galileo effectively awarded the European chair in science to Protestants, and from that point, responsibility for the basic elements of Western achievement would gradually change hands while the voices of Catholic humanism slowly went quiet. But let’s remember that for seven eighths of Europe’s Christian history, Western literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and science evolved steadily toward the universal and the rational, and away from the local and the superstitious, the nearer we stood beside the humanizing energy of the Mediterranean. No wonder Yeats wrote of his 1928 poem Sailing to Byzantium with these words:

When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jewelled crosiers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for a spiritual life by a journey to that city [4].

Toward Byzantium: toward wisdom synthesized from the great ancient civilizations — Greco-Roman, Jewish, Christian, Egyptian, Islamic. Toward the hub joining each realm to the other. Toward the Mediterranean, toward sunlight and bread and wine — and, importantly, away from gloomy, superstitious Purgatories like Britain and Ireland.

The geniuses of the Renaissance whisper to us even today. They invite us to see how beautiful and good we can be, and how adored by Heaven, so that we might recognize how beautiful and good everyone else can be, and how adored by Heaven — and maybe, just maybe, stop damaging each other over petty differences and ignoble desires. We can do better. We are of God, after all.

[1] Hebrews 2:17, RSV, my emphasis
[2] Genesis 3:19, RSV
[3] Thomas: Compendium Theologiæ; tr. Cyril Vollert, S.J.; London, 1947
[4] William Butler (W. B.) Yeats: “Articles, Reviews and Radio Broadcasts;” The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats Vol 10; New York, 2010

Hired pen since 1998. Email wiredgourmet at gmail dot com. Visit me at YouTube for coffee and a snack:

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