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 EmotionsFirst, 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 StupidityWhen 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 ProblemSo, 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 ArtBut 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.