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Wednesday, 20 April 2011
Benedict, Teilhard and 'The question of images'
Following on from my blog about not being able to go to Ian’s event in Cheltenham, I set myself the task this Holy Week to reflect more on the icon as a form of sacred art. To that end I have been reading a number of books, one of which is Benedict’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. I have been meaning to read this for some time, and I thought it was appropriate given what has emerged thus far. When I opened it up the first thing I read was, remarkably, his thoughts on Teilhard. He says this in chapter two in relation to liturgy and the cosmos.
And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same – divinization, a world of freedom ad love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building , a stationary container in which history by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history…against the background of the modern evolutionary world view, Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions. From the very simple beginnings the path leads to ever greater and more complex unities, in which multiplicity is not abolished but merged into a growing synthesis, leading to the ‘Noosphere’, in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism. Invoking the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, Teilhard looks on Christ as the energy that strives towards the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its ‘fullness’. From here Teilhard went to give a new meaning to Christian worship: the transubstantiated Host is the anticipation of the transformation and divinization of matter in the Christological ‘fullness’. In his view, the Eucharist provides the movement of the cosmos with its direction: it anticipates its goal and at the same time urges it on. (pp 28-9)
I think that when reflecting on an icon of the Sacred Heart as 'Christ Omega', in Teilhard’s sense, we should not stray too far from this precise summary of Teilhard’s ideas by His Holiness. With this in mind I went on to read what Benedict has to say about ‘The Question of Images’. As with the rest of the book I found this chapter fascinating and profound. As this blog has progressed over the months I have realized that the ‘question of images’ is not a marginal question at all. Images are absolutely central to the formation of a religious and spiritual life. Benedict argues that the ‘true theology of icons’ has ‘bequeathed us a message that has profound relevance to us today in the iconographic crisis of the West.’ (p120) So, perhaps that is what this blog is charting : puzzling about an aspect of an ‘iconographic crisis’? That sounds right to me. Benedict goes on to say some important words on the role of icons:
In the icon it is not the facial features that count …. No, what matters is the new kind of seeing. The icon is supposed to originate from an opening up of the inner senses, from a facilitation of sight that gets beyond the surface of the empirical and perceives Christ, as the later theology of icons puts it, in the light of Tabor. It thus leads the man who contemplates it to the point where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses. As Evdokimov says so beautifully, the icon requires a "fast from the eyes". Icon painters, he says, must learn how to fast with their eyes and prepare themselves by a long path of prayerful asceticism. This is what marks the transition from art to sacred art. The icon comes from prayer and leads to prayer. It delivers a man from that closure of the senses that perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos. At the most fundamental level, what we are dealing with here is nothing other than the transcendence of faith. The whole problem of knowledge in the modern world is present. If an interior opening-up does not occur in man that enables him to see more than what can be measured and weighed, to perceive the reflection of divine glory in creation, then God remains excluded from our field of vision. The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits, portraits comprehensible at the level of the senses, and thus enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father. Thus in the icon we find the same spiritual orientations that we discovered when emphasizing the eastward direction of the liturgy. The icon is intended to draw us onto an inner path, the eastward path, toward the Christ who is to return. pp 121-2
Sacred art must therefore have a major place in the liturgy. And yet, this ‘new kind of seeing’ is not being fostered by ‘kitsch and unworthy art’. We are it seems in something of an artistic ‘void’. And to that I say, absolutely. Hence this exploration of one of the most Catholic of all images , the Sacred Heart. If we are to renew and refresh our devotion to the Sacred Heart, then we have to confront the ‘iconographic crisis’ which is identified by Benedict. I really believe that is what this icon project is about: promoting a new way of seeing the meaning of the Sacred Heart.
Where do we go from here? Today we are experiencing not just a crisis of sacred art, but a crisis of art in general of unprecedented proportions. The crisis of art for its part is a symptom of the crisis of man's very existence. The immense growth in man's mastery of the material world has left him blind to the questions of life's meaning that transcend the material world. We might almost call it a blindness of the spirit. The questions of how we ought to live, how we can overcome death, whether existence has a purpose and what it is -- to all these questions there is no longer a common answer. Positivism, formulated in the name of scientific seriousness, narrows the horizon to what is verifiable, to what can be proved by experiment; it renders the world opaque. True, it still contains mathematics, but the logos that is the presupposition of the mathematics and its applicability is no longer evident. Thus our world of images no longer surpasses the bounds of sense and appearance, and the flood of images that surrounds us really means the end of the image.
If something cannot be photographed, it cannot be seen. In this situation, the art of the icon, sacred art, depending as it does on a wider kind of seeing, becomes impossible. What is more, art itself, which in impressionism and expressionism explored the extreme possibilities of the sense of sight, becomes literally object-less. Art turns into experimenting with self-created worlds, empty "creativity", which no longer perceives the Creator Spiritus, the Creator Spirit. It attempts to take his place, and yet, in so doing, it manages to produce only what is arbitrary and vacuous, bringing home to man the absurdity of his role as creator. pp 130-1
He then sets out ‘the fundamental principles of an art ordered to divine worship’. These principles have, I believe, an immense importance for this project:
1. The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to Him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. … Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.
2. Sacred art finds its subjects in the images of salvation history, beginning with creation and continuing all the way from the first day to the eighth day, the day of the resurrection and Second Coming, in which the line of human history will come full circle.….
3. The images of the history of God in relation to man do not merely illustrate the succession of past events but display the inner unity of God's action. In this way they have a reference to the sacraments, above all, to Baptism and the Eucharist, and, in pointing to the sacraments, they are contained within them.
Images thus point to a presence; they are essentially connected with what happens in the Liturgy. Now history becomes sacrament in Christ, who is the source of the Sacraments. Therefore, the icon of Christ is the center of sacred iconography. The center of the icon of Christ is the Paschal Mystery: Christ is presented as the Crucified, the risen Lord, the One who will come again and who here and now, though hidden, reigns over all.
Every image of Christ must contain these three essential aspects of the mystery of Christ and, in this sense, must be an image of Easter. At the same time, it goes without saying that different emphases are possible. The image may give more prominence to the Cross, the Passion, and in the Passion to the anguish of our own life today, or again it may bring the Resurrection or the Second Coming to the fore. But whatever happens, one aspect can never be completely isolated from another, and in the different emphases the Paschal Mystery as a whole must be plainly evident. An image of the Crucifixion no longer transparent to Easter would be just as deficient as an Easter image forgetful of the wounds and the suffering of the present moment. And, centered as it is on the Paschal Mystery, the image of Christ is always an icon of the Eucharist, that is it points to the sacramental presence of the Easter Mystery.
4. The image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs. Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible. The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision. It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the risen Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord. The image is at the service of the Liturgy. The prayer and contemplation in which the images are formed must, therefore, be a praying and seeing undertaken in communion with the seeing faith of the Church. The ecclesial dimension is essential to sacred art and thus has an essential connection with the history of the faith, with Scripture and Tradition.
5. The Church in the West does not need to disown the specific path she has followed since about the thirteenth century. But she must achieve a real reception of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, which affirmed the fundamental importance and theological status of the image in the Church. The Western Church does not need to subject herself to all the individual norms concerning images that were developed at the councils and synods of the East…Nevertheless, she should regard the fundamental lines of this theology of the image in the Church as normative for her. There must, of course, be no rigid norms. Freshly received intuitions and the ever-new experiences of piety must find a place in the Church. But still there is a difference between sacred art (which is related to the liturgy and belongs to the ecclesial sphere) and religious art in general. There cannot be completely free expression in sacred art. Forms of art that deny the logos of things and imprison man within what appears to the senses are incompatible with the Church's understanding of the image. No sacred art can come from an isolated subjectivity. No, it presupposes that there is a subject who has been inwardly formed by the Church and opened up to the "we". Only thus does art make the Church's common faith visible and speak again to the believing heart. The freedom of art, which is also necessary in the more narrowly circumscribed realm of sacred art, is not a matter of do-as-you-please. It unfolds according to the measure indicated by the first four points in these concluding reflections, which are an attempt to sum up what is constant in the iconographic tradition of faith. Without faith there is no art commensurate with the liturgy. ….
But what does all this mean practically? Art cannot be "produced", as one contracts out and produces technical equipment. It is always a gift. Inspiration is not something one can choose for oneself. It has to be received, otherwise it is not there. One cannot bring about a renewal of art in faith by money or through commissions. Before all things it requires the gift of a new kind of seeing. And so it would be worth our while to regain a faith that sees. Wherever that exists, art finds its proper expressions. pp 131- 135
It is fitting that I have read these words in Holy Week. Benedict’s book has served to clarify much of what has happened thus far. It provides a good deal of food for thought. This week we must keep in mind what Benedict says: 'Every image of Christ .. must be an image of Easter.' The Sacred Heart is an icon of Lent. But above all, as Teilhard believed, Christ Omega is an icon of Easter.
Posted by DWP at 17:07