Monday, December 17, 2007

Sacred Art

Some of the greatest masterpieces by Catholic artists sometimes include nudity. Is this appropriate? Christine of Laudem Gloriae explores the issue; here is an excerpt from her beautiful article:
There were four types of nudity recognized in sacred art, each type used to explain various Catholic teachings:
Nuditas naturalis: The natural state of man as he is born into the world. ‘ For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out’ (1 Timothy 6:7). Man’s recognition of this fact should lead him to’...follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness’ (1 Timothy 6: 11).

Nuditas temporalis: The lack of worldly goods and possessions. While this the natural state of man at his birth, it can also be the result of the trials and difficulties of life which cause a man to live in a condition of poverty. This lack of worldly goods can be voluntary, however , and assumed ‘ to the glory of God,’ as in the case of those who have willingly surrendered all temporal things in order to serve God completely.

Nuditas virtualis: This is the use of nudity as the symbol of purity and innocence. It represents those in this world who, though engaged in the activities of life, nevertheless are not overcome by the evil and temptation which surround them. It represents the high and the desirable quality of the virtuous life.

Nuditas criminalis: This use of nudity is the opposite of nuditas virtualis. It is symbolic of lust, vanity, and the absence of all virtues. The difference between these last two types of nudity might be explained as the quest for Eternal Bliss as opposed to the pursuit after Transient bliss.... In portraying truth as a virtue, it is usually represented by the figure of a naked woman.
(From Art Appreciation)

It was only during the onslaught of the Reformation that sacred art was scrutinized, criticized, and condemned by those who thought its nudity was (as were rich vestments, gilded vessels, objects of devotion, and ornate architecture) an expression of Catholic vice. This puritanical zeal led to the stripping of altars, whitewashing of walls, destruction of statues and vestments, pillaging of monasteries, all replaced with plain Protestant temples in which the faithful gathered around the "Table" of the Lord's Supper for purely "spiritual" worship free from Catholic excess. Theirs was a faith that imported Platonic dualism, with its heretical overemphasis on the spiritual and rejection of the corporeal and the created, whether it be food, drink, or the human body. It is this same Platonist, puritanical outlook that led to condemnation of tobacco, alcohol, and dancing for fear that such would lead to intemperance and sensuality. Whereas Belloc could write his Heroic Poem in Praise of Wine, heartily acclaiming the pleasures of that wonderful drink, and seeing in it the matter of the Most Precious Blood; whereas G.K. Chesterton could claim that the "Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar," himself drawn to the Faith because "the pipe, the pint, and the cross could all fit together" within the world view of Catholic sensibility, none of this would make any sense to the Puritan. It is this same puritanical narrowness that was carried towards nudity in art, with its assumption that it could only lead to sensuality and vice.
Some people might find sacred art which has nudity in it to be distracting. The way I see it is that if a work of sacred art does not help someone's devotion, than it is just not the art for that person. Similarly, I have met people who could not stand to read the Canticle of Canticles in the Old Testament because they found the sensual imagery to be distracting. (Well then, read Isaiah.) The Canticle, however, is the most sublime mystical poetry in the world. The great artists, such as Michelangelo, were giving glory to God and His creation when they showed unclothed people; their art had a strong moral lesson and was not intended to be lewd.

Many of our churches have been stripped of the great art which was intended to teach as well as inspire. Yet I will never forget how in one church during Mass, a severe-looking young couple got up and began to cheerfully explain the details of Natural Family Planning. They were so graphic about certain bodily functions that mothers had to cover their children's ears. It was such an intrusion, not only against modesty, but against innocence. I wonder if, when bereft of our great art, we are left with nothing but pornography, with the human person being reduced to a mechanism. Share


Anonymous said...

Here comes no surprise: I could do without nudity in art of any kind. My blushing mechanism cannot differentiate between various kinds of nudity--except when it comes to wee children and extraordinarily old folks. While working as a nursing aide in an assisted living home, one of my never-married, never-mothers wore her undies into the shower, even unto the shower chair. (Just as I would, if the situation were reversed!) I have a tendency to grow on folks, tho', apparently even naked virgins, because.. well, because it must be a gift, I suppose, but she knew right from the get-go that I'd have let her wear a full-length puffy down coat and 3 or 4 full feather boas under it, if need be --if she felt better with it. (I'd just end up doin' laundry all dam-night! Well worth her peace of mind.)

Well, anyway, feel free to drape/paint cloths here and there all over the Sistine Chapel-- it's perfectly alright by me!

Anonymous said...

They were so graphic about certain bodily functions that mothers had to cover their children's ears. It was such an intrusion, not only against modesty, but against innocence.

Yikes!! I hope somebody informed the pastor so it wouldn't happen again! Sounds like the young couple were so used to talking about this stuff in their classes that they forgot that it is not appropriate in mixed company and a general public gathering! I hope they have realized that desensitization can sneak up on one if one is not careful!

Unknown said...

Great timing...I was just thinking about symbolism in Christian art. There was a discussion about symbolism in a holy card at Micki's blog: I'll probably post about this later along with a few interesting books on this topic from Google Books.

It's funny though...I've heard more than once how Catholic churches are cold?! I could never understand that because they are multi-faceted and rich, not cold at all. Catholic churches and the faith have such depth. I'm not sure why some protestant's feel it is cold. Maybe a lack of appreciation for history, art and architecture?

I've heard it said of both the Catholic mass and the church architecture. The mass is less of a social event, so maybe that's the difference.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between nudity in art and pornography.

elena maria vidal said...

JustMe, you are hilarious!

I think people did complain, Georgette. It was several years ago, and the couple are still at large, but it has not happened again. Thank God. People who are themselves parents should have a little more sensitivity about what not to talk about in front of small children.

Thanks for the link, Alexandra, and I will be looking forward to your post.

Yes, alaughland, there certainly is.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in the bloggers' comments on the Stations of the Cross that we have been subjected to in our cathedral, in particular the 10th (note phallic symbol made by the robe) the 13th the woman in the deposotion is Our Lady if these Stations are biblically correct as they should be and the 14th ( the bearer on the right has his chin on Christ's penis) They can be viewed at:

elena maria vidal said...

I think they are hideous.