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Sunday, May 11, 2014

Envisioning Mary

Alright, here is a conundrum. The traditionalists sphere is going nuts over this image of the Virgin Mary.

It has been called blasphemous, irreverent, sacrilegious. I've defended the work. My defense brought this response:
Steve, you're always arguing against the way in which most Catholics are arguing. I think you like to do it for the sake of trying to tell others they are wrong. No disrespect to you, but what if someone displayed "art" that depicted one of your loved ones with breasts exposed and their skull showing through their head? Would you feel offended? This statue is offensive. The crucifixion is different as it shows Our Lord's saving act.
The answer to this is longer than fits in a combox, so I'm putting the answer here to make clear what's going through my head.

Trusting Emotions

First, a little background. My visceral emotional reactions to things are all over the board. For years, I was fine with communion in the hand. Now I'm not. As of right now, I have a gut reaction that is opposed to lots of things -  communion in the hand, organ music, female altar servers are but three examples. I've never liked the organ (apart from Camille St. Saen's Symphony #3), and I've learned not to like the other two examples I've given. Heck, when I was an atheist, I used to have a strong visceral distaste for all things Catholic. Now I don't.

So, one of the things I've learned from the Church is that I can't trust my gut reactions. One of the reasons I returned to Catholic Faith is that I discovered the Church is better at logic than I am. Some of the things I used to think were prudent I've since discovered aren't. And vice versa.

Nowadays, I don't trust me very much on things the Church has ruled on. The Church is more prudent than I am, She is wiser than I am. *I* may not be able to think of a prudent reason for communion in the hand, but the Church disagrees, so I need to shut up about not liking it. My opinion is dirt, Her's is gold. Same with female altar servers. Same with organ music. If the Church explicitly permits it or endorses it and I don't like it, then I have to suck it up and get over myself.

In short, I have discovered that some of my emotional reactions can be backed up with rational objections, drawn from Church documents, but sometimes my emotional reactions are literally just stupid emotions, completely uninformed and totally wrong.

And even if I think I can back up my prudence with Church documents, it doesn't mean I really can. If the Church explicitly permits something I think Church documents forbid, then I can be sure of only one thing: I did not interpret those Church documents correctly. I need to go back and re-think my position. Until I can figure out how to explain the Church's position correctly, I need to keep my mouth shut. This isn't about what *I* think is right. This is about what the Church says is acceptable.

Ok. That's my history and how I try to think about things. I don't always succeed, but the above explanation lays out the goal as clearly as I can lay it out.

Spiritual Stupidity

When I first saw this work, my gut was very clear: I recoiled. I found it ugly, off-putting. I didn't want to look at it. I wanted to call it heretical, blasphemous, sacrilegious, evil and wrong. But, as I said, I've learned to question my emotional reactions to things. So, what, exactly, did I find wrong about this sculpture? How could I logically explain to someone else the basis for my revulsion?

Now, the fact that I even have to ask this question shows how stupid I am. Aquinas gives the example of two men, each encountering a murder. The first, an unlettered farmer, recoils from it in his very being. He immediately senses the offense against God and turns away from the sight. The college professor, however, can explain, step-by-step, the logical chain which leads him to intellectually reject the vision of violence presented to him. Which is the superior spiritual being: the farmer or the professor?

According to Aquinas, the answer is obvious. The farmer is spiritually superior because he immediately recognizes the distortion of good, he recoils from the evil, he turns from it. The college professor suffers from spiritual ignorance. He can climb out of his ignorance only by using the step-by-step logic of his intellect before he can fully recognize the evil and finally recoil from it.

The Church teaches that murder is evil. The farmer - being already spiritually united to the heights of the Church's moral teaching - instinctively and immediately recognizes the truth that the Church teaches. The college professor must use the ladder of logic to climb from his pit of ignorance into the necessary understanding of that same truth.

Notice this very clear distinction, however. The farmer isn't correct because he feels or emotes, rather, he is correct because his emotional reaction agrees with the Church's logic. After all, we cannot forget that Aquinas also teaches that intellect must rule over will, reason must rule over emotion. God is pure rationality, not pure emotion. We don't "feel the Force", we answer God's call to "come now and reason together."

The farmer is correct because, even though he lacks his own logic, his emotion is in complete agreement with the Mind of the Church. He already feels what the Church has always known. Because of his spiritual union with Christ, the Church's Mind informed his emotional reaction even though he doesn't necessarily know know to articulate the mind of the Church in an explicit intellectual way.

Meanwhile, the professor initially has neither the mind of the Church nor an emotional reaction informed by the mind of the Church. He is lacking both. He has to painfully climb to the heights of the intellect so that his emotions can finally respond properly to the situation.

Intellect has to rule emotion. If I find something emotionally repulsive, I must be able to find something in the Church's teaching which warrants my emotional response. If I can't find it, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong. I might still be right to have that response, but I cannot be absolutely certain my emotional response is correct until I can justify it using the eternal rules of logic and the Church's reasons. The reasons provide the substance, the rules of logic show me how to build the reasons into an unassailable structure.

Identifying the Problem

So, as I said, I initially recoiled from this work and immediately began to search for reasons, given by the Church in her doctrines and dogma, by which I could logically condemn it. And that's where the trouble began.

I couldn't find any reasons.

I can't take issue with the nudity, because the Church has never had trouble with nudity in artwork per se. The Sistine Chapel is the easy example, but there are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of art works that involve nudity which the Church has commissioned and to this day proudly displays.

Similarly, I cannot take issue with the anatomical rendition of the human body, because the Church, again, has no problem with anatomical renditions of the human body. Indeed, during the Middle Ages, She not only commissioned anatomical drawings and sketches of the human body, Rome even set aside executed bodies each year for anatomical research.

And if the two aspects of art are fine by themselves, then what, precisely can be wrong with combining them? I couldn't think of anything. Again, these kind of split views are common in anatomical books, a genre of literature the Church helped invent.

Sigh. Ok, but the subject is MARY! Certainly I could come up with something on that ground! But what? I couldn't think what it would be.

The exposed breast(s) of the Virgin Lactans is quite a common theme in medieval artwork, meant to invoke and parallel the Eucharistic relationship between God and man. Heck, Bernard of Clairveaux, Doctor of the Church, had a famous vision in which Mary squirts her breast milk into his mouth and eye, and this work was rather popular in medieval and Renaissance art precisely because of its Eucharistic connection (one example of the genre is below):

And the more I studied this particular piece of artwork, trying to find something I could criticize, the more I realized this work could be interpreted in an entirely orthodox way. Mary was a human being, this is what a human body looks like underneath. It is a radically clear statement about the dogma of Mary's full humanity, no divinity.

The Crucifixion was not aesthetically pleasing. Christ had his skin flayed from His back. Mary is said to share in the Crucifixion, so this both portrays the Incarnation and foreshadows Mary's participation in the Crucifixion. In that sense, it's brilliant and beautiful. And the more I contemplated my emotional revulsion, the more I realized how brilliant this piece really was.

When we see a crucifixion in the 21st century, we are drawn to the crucified corpus in a way no first-century viewer could be. In the first century, the cross was revolting, disgusting, emotionally laden with negative connections. Just a reference to crucifixion was stomach-wrenching, it was enough to make the viewer vomit even to recall the scenes of the Crucifixion. Christ on the cross was a folly to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews because its negative emotional message was so powerfully embedded into the culture.

After 20 centuries without any crucifixion before us except Christ's, we no longer understand, appreciate or even feel the kind of repulsion the Crucifixion originally had.  We can kind of imagine the revolting feeling on an intellectual level, but we can't feel it anymore.

Interpreting the Art

But looking at this image of Mary? Oh, the revulsion is right there. It slaps us across the face, we can barely stand to look at her. And then I remember her participation in Christ's cross, the fact that she nearly died at the foot of the Cross as she shared the suffering of her Son. And I see the Incarnation, I see her Son right through her flesh. The veil to the Temple is torn wide open. And I see the Crucifixion, in the very fact that her skin is flayed away and the Temple curtain is torn open so that I can see the presence of God within. I see her skull, the very image of the death we are baptized into and through which we all must pass.

Indeed, the presence of the skull in light of baptismal imagery is arguably a visual demonstration of the Immaculate Conception, the fact that Mary received at her conception all the graces of baptism. Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, Death, Tomb, baptism, new life: all in a single image, and the image is Mary - the mirror of Christ.

And suddenly the Cross pummels me in a way it never has, but in a way that any first-century Christian, devoted to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, would have been intimately familiar with.

And now, what can I do?

If this image is sacrilegious, now I need a reason that overshadows the doctrines about Mary and Christ that my mind has discovered within the image. And I can think of such a reason to reject it even less now than I could before, because the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of the Cross both so strongly beat across my rationality and my emotions.

So, here is the question for you who feel the same or probably even more emotional revulsion than I felt and still feel upon looking at this image. Can you give me a clear doctrine/dogma, stated in a Church document or in Her historical treatment of artwork, that can help me rationalize opposition to the image? Because I honestly can't come up with one.

I should answer the last question from the responder above, namely:
...what if someone displayed "art" that depicted one of your loved ones with breasts exposed and their skull showing through their head? Would you feel offended?
You have to realize that I was trained as a medical lab tech. I've seen a lot of breasts exposed, and bones poking through flesh. It doesn't offend me, because that's just life (or death) sometimes. If someone showed me or one of my family members this way, I would not feel at all offended. That's what we are, isn't it? Flesh and blood? At the Resurrection, we even get our bodies, our flesh, bone and blood, back to use in heaven.

What is there about the fact that me and mine are "fearfully and wonderfully made" that I am supposed to find offensive? But it took several years of medical training and practice before I gained this perspective. If you haven't had that experience, yeah, I could see where you would be offended. Perhaps medical training ruined me. I don't know. But this seems like a useful meditation for Mother's Day, 2014, so here it is.


Michael said...

Thanks for this, Steve.

I actually quite liked the statue when I first saw it, because of the how it alludes to Mary's humanity. Once you look past the initial ugliness of the cross-section, it's enthralling.

I think it's was also interesting what Hirst had said on the stance of the statue.
From his website: 'The figure’s stance recalls Edgar Degas’s ‘Little Dancer of Fourteen Years’ (c.1881). Hirst explains the significance of the reference to Degas: “It is kind of naughty; she shouldn't really be pregnant. I wanted a feeling of that. Anyone who is pregnant looks old enough, that's the problem.” '

It seems to me that the artist has considered who Mary was (and is) more than people give him credit for.

Steven Cornett said...

If nobody else wants to say what's wrong with it, I will. Let me start from the first issue, which is that it's ugly! It violates the wholeness in that it is inconsistent with the respect shown by Jew and Christian to the human body; indeed, it is most like the Plastinated corpses paraded around museums throughout our country.

Another violation of Holy things is that it violates modesty and purity. Attention is drawn to the mere human body while ignoring the person, who is clothed with modesty whose womb hides he who the universe cannot contain.

That is why, in iconography, Our Lady is shown with a mantle blue, representing her humanity, while the inside of her mantle is depicted as red, the color of Divinity. The covering is not just pretty piety to be revealed as the "next novelty," but a visual sermon on the all-holiness of the Mother of God.

Even if other saints, particularly the Martyrs, are sometimes depicted without some clothes due to the circumstances of their entry into eternal life, this cannot be done with the Blessed Virgin Mary because of who she is, and who was hidden within her. In the journey through the dessert, the Holy of Holies was covered with ram skins and covered from the eyes of the camp by multiple layers of covering; how much more appropriate is it for the Mother of God who is the new tabernacle?

In conclusion, allow me to refer to a recent homily on the subject of purity, modesty, and scandal.

A video on this

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Michael, the connection to the Degas' painting is WONDERFUL! You are absolutely correct about this artist - he knows more Catholic doctrine than a lot of Catholics.

Have you seen his "Away from the Flock"? It's very good. I don't like everything he has done, but this sculpture of Mary is simply superb.

Steven Cornett... you clearly didn't read anything I wrote. Pity.

Michael said...
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Michael said...

On the point of what Steve had mentioned on the repulsiveness of the crucifixion, I remember seeing a crucifix from Cambodia with Jesus only having one leg. The Cambodians could associate with that image because of how many legless people there were due to all the unexploded mines. I doubt you would say that that is offensive, but it is unorthodox to say the least.
The point is, there is a certain ugliness in humanity due to the fall, and correct me if I'm wrong, while Mary was Immaculately Conceived, I'm sure she humbled herself into the filth of every day life, partaking out of love in the difficulties of life, in being a service to others. Compassion: to suffer with. Her beauty, while I'm sure was visible to the eye, was only increased by her humility.

What I see is young, pregnant girl looking up to heaven. I don't see any nudity that takes away her dignity; I see truth and humility.
Sure, icons can show the same thing without going to this extreme, but this is not an icon. This sculpture is meant to cause the viewer to look deeper than what is shown. The fact that it shows her anatomy makes that obvious.

Yes Steve, I agree; Damien Hirst is definitely controversial, but some of his pieces just keep drawing you in. If you only see his works, like the one you mentioned, as what they are on face value, you really miss the point.

But you and I might be called snobs for liking such low class art.

Was it you that posted about that crucifix that everyone complained was too ugly? You must put a link up to that post.

Michael said...

This was the crucifix I was talking about:

"The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children."

"One long-standing member of the church, who asked not to be named, said: "The crucifix is the oldest and most famous symbol of the Christian church. Pulling it down and putting up something that would look more at home on the side of a flashy modern shopping centre is not the way to get more bums on seats."

Steve Dalton said...

I'm sorry, but I find this statue to be repulsive. It doesn't inspire devotion or awe in me, just nausea. As far as I'm concerned, the 'inspiration for this masterpiece (?) came from the Visible Man model kits that used to be popular some years back.

Jordanes551 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordanes551 said...

Steven Cornett is entirely correct. This statue, especially if it is meant to depict in any way Our Lady, is offensive and blasphemous (there is nothing "naughty" about her), and your cogitations do not succeed in rescuing it as an acceptable or commendable depiction of the Mother of God or of human nature. Catholics have never, ever depicted Our Lady unclothed, nor would it ever occur to a Catholic to show her not only unclothed but skinned or dissected. That fact alone must be given very great weight, because it shows the Catholic sensibility toward these matters. (The tradition of the Virgo Lactans is irrelevant to this question, since it does not depict her nude and unadorned, but rather shows her feeding Our Lord from her body, showing the intimate connection between Jesus and His Mother from whom He took flesh.)

Our Lady participated in her Son's immolation -- but hers was a spiritual participation, a psychological and an emotional suffering. She was not whipped and her skin was not flayed, so the comparison to the Passion and Crucifixion of Our Lord is entirely inapt. Nor is it acceptable to present her as mortal in the same manner as fallen humanity, for she was never stained by original sin, nor did her flesh see corruption. Our Lady is all beautiful, God's masterpiece, and if He never allowed her body to marred and her modesty to be violated, then we can't possibly have the right to present her in that way.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Jordanes, how does showing the pregnancy of Our Lady do anything other than show the intimate connection between Jesus and His Mother from whom He took flesh?

You can see Him right inside her womb, inside the Holy of Holies. seems to fulfill your principle to the T.

Find me a document that tells me "it is not acceptable to present her as mortal" and I'll agree with you. In fact, find me a document that supports ANY of the points you just made, and I'll agree with you.

Steve Dalton: So? what if the inspiration did come from the Visible Man kits?

Michael, I had forgotten about Pope Francis' controversial crozier.

Michael said...

To clarify, the "naughtiness" is from a worldly perspective, just as the Degas statue was "naughty" from what the viewer might interpret.
It would have been 'naughty' that there was a 14 year old girl who fell pregnant out of wedlock, and her future husband had a right to have her stoned. But for the holiness of Mary's parents, and of St Joseph, what could have happened?
What do her parents say to the nosey neighbours who want to know 'out of curiosity', "Why is your daughter getting rounder?"
And in today's standards, what opinions are formed when we see a young girl of 14, pregnant with no husband yet? Or even when we hear of forced child marriage?
The statue is speaking to today's society. And art is always subjective.
In fact I originally felt more uncomfortable with the painting of St Bernard than I did of this statue. It may say something of my holiness, it may not. But I was less than prepared to see a saint receiving milk directly into his face from our Beloved Blessed Mother, than I was of seeing a statue of Mary carrying Jesus in her womb in such an obvious way.
That God was born into this world through a human being, like any other person, always blows my mind.
Such is the power of the mystery of the incarnation.

jvc said...

This post brought to you by Christopher West and the Theology of the Body Institute. Bravo.

jvc said...

What a great parody post, Steve. One for the ages!

My favorite part of aping the West debates is asking people who disagree with your thesis to show supporting documents when you fail to show any yourself.

This really is an excellent post!

Manny said...

Steve, I was the only other person on Kathy Schiffer's blog that was arguing along your line. I decided to post my own blog on this and linked this post to it. Here if you want to read it:

Bottom line for me, I agree it's not sacrilege, but it's not a great work of art either.

Salvelinus fontinalis said...

Why does the author have such a visceral hate for "traditional" Catholics?

I always thought your either a Catholic or a heretic?

After seeing S Kellmeyer commenting over at various blogs, the obsession with the labeling of traditional (I suppose the opposite of modernist) appears to border on calumnous

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Traditionalists bash the Pope and bash the Church. I take offense at both.

Salvelinus fontinalis said...

While I agree some aren't the best with tone, all Catholics have a duty, in charity to correct the pope when he, or the curia do things against the church.
The progressive left have been doing it since the sixties, although their desire is to make the church like a Unitarian Universalist sect.
I have respect for traditional Catholic folks, since they love the church prior to the sixties. .. when the church was respected by American people (could bishop sheen make it in today's feminized church?)

Steve Kellmeyer said...

Your first duty is to LISTEN to the Pope and entertain the possibility that YOU are part of the problem he is trying to address.

Catholics can be very knowledgeable about the Faith, but if they lack charity, they don't UNDERSTAND the Faith.

This is where many Catholics, including myself, are at. Traditionalists number very prominently in my group as well. We KNOW the Faith, but we don't UNDERSTAND the Faith.

So, we quote chapter and verse explaining why the Pope is wrong, without once realizing that the Pope is CORRECT because he has a virtue we don't have. That is, he UNDERSTANDS the Faith, while we can only proof-text it.

I have lost most of my respect for traditionalists because I see that they are unable to lead me in the virtue I lack: charity. They lack it themselves.

Meanwhile, I see the Pope DOES possess this virtue, so I am willing to listen to him. He shows me, through his actions, that I don't really understand the Faith.

Pope Francis is a divine gift to the Church.