How Sacred Art Fits into the Devotional Life
The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art and Architecture
by Roger Homan
2006 Ashgate, 213 pages
The author of this book, Roger Homan, is professor of religious studies at the University of Brighton in England. For Anglophiles the slim volume will prove to be an absolute treat, for Professor Homan casts new light on English figures and subject matter seldom treated in general surveys of Christian art and architecture. This is done, however, at the expense of omitting major figures and monuments from the modern movement on the Continent and in America, thus rendering the book either extremely chauvinistic or the right book with the wrong title.
At the very beginning of his work, Professor Homan laments the loss of the beautiful language found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and he abhors its replacement by the Alternative Service Book of 1980. The former carried with it the encoded phrasing and tradition of generations of believers, while its modern replacement de-flowered the original, producing a functional but dull offspring.
Ignoring the supportive work on natural symbols that Mary Douglas advanced in this area, Professor Homan also fails to mention and compare the struggle found in contemporary Roman Catholicism, where advocates for a more beautiful translation of the Mass align with those who would return to Latin itself in an effort to recapture the sublime beauty of a ritual supported by cultic language. Professor Homan’s concerns and arguments may be frustratingly parochial, but they are far from uninteresting. He is a skillful writer who incorporates fascinating detail into his argumentation. And the issues he raises are not small ones, but rather problems that have plagued Christian art for centuries. For instance, Eric Gill had long been considered England’s foremost engraver of the twentieth century and a designer and sculptor of the highest rank. Yet when Fiona MacCarthy investigated his diaries for her 1989 biography of the artist, she found accounts of pedophilia, incest, and bestiality sprinkled throughout. This caused some to reappraise his work and even demand that Gill’s Stations of the Cross be taken down from Westminster Cathedral in London. Knowing how an artist’s private life can influence the way we look at his public art, the question arises: How moral must an artist be in order for his work to be embraced by the Christian community? Professor Homan’s strongest chapter, “Morality and Christian Art,” admits that too few artists can measure up to the fabled Dominican painter Fra Angelico, who allegedly fell on his knees while painting and was overcome with tears as he formulated scenes of the Crucifixion. When the viewer is given information that Michelangelo had a boyfriend, that the model for Caravaggio’s Madonna was a prostitute, and that the Carmelite Fra Filippo Lippi impregnated the nun posing for him, does it make one look at the excellence of their art in a different way? Professor Homan deftly handles this issue and draws the reader’s attention to ultimate questions like: “Does a work of sacred art lead a viewer to prayer?” If prayer is the ultimate purpose for Christian art, then its ability to connect the human to God can be equally accomplished through high art and low. This becomes a provocation for old-school art historians, connoisseurs, and cultural elitists who cherish the idea that museums have become the new temples to Beauty, even as historic churches survive only on the tourist trade. The author dares to state that kitsch holds a powerful place in devotion and to ignore this fact is to cut out a large portion of Christian art. He relies on many contemporary Protestant theorists in his argumentation (Margaret Miles, Frank Burch Brown, David Morgan) and rightly so, for Catholics have fallen comparatively behind in their appreciation and understanding of sacred art since Vatican II, not by the Council’s intent but by the irrational surge of Catholic iconoclasm that erupted afterward.
Perhaps Professor Homan’s book would have a more ecumenical appeal had he included some modern Catholic theorists in the mix. He mentions the Protestant Tillich and yet ignores the Catholic thinkers who grappled with the ideas that preceded the aesthetic malaise in which we now find ourselves: Maurice Denis, Père Couturier, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Hans Urs von Balthasar are all missing. While Professor Homan’s discussion of Pugin is nothing short of delectable, he leaves out major artists who have left their mark on modern sacred art like Le Corbusier, Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Georges Rouault, and the abstract expressionists. Their work has now morphed down to the bargain basement catalogues of contemporary ecclesial architecture and parish church decoration. An analysis of that begs scholarly attention. This is not the book to address that subject, but for Anglophiles and Protestants wishing to continue the discourse on how sacred art fits into the devotional life of all Christians, Professor Homan’s book is well worth purchasing.
Rev. Michael Morris, O.P., is professor of Art History at Berkeley and author of a monthly column on sacred art in Magnificat.