Sunday, October 19, 2014

Saint Luke

Today, my parish of Saint Luke in the Fields celebrated its patronal feast day.  Saint Luke's Day was officially yesterday October 18, but we celebrated today.

According to tradition and to centuries of old wives' tales, Saint Luke was a man of many talents.  The author of the Gospel that bears his name, and of the Book of Acts, was a physician and an artist.  Rogier Van Der Weyden shows him in all of those roles in the painting above from 1440.  Luke comes out of his study to see the Virgin and Child appear to him.  He makes a silverpoint drawing of them from life, just like a portrait painter of the 15th century.  He wears the robes of a scholar of the day, robes also worn by medical doctors in 15th century Flanders.

There are many paintings in Europe which claim Saint Luke as their author; Our Lady of Cambrai, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Czestochowa among others.  None of them are older than the 10th century.

It is fitting that Saint Luke is always credited with painting the Virgin and Child.  Art is an incarnational enterprise.  The artist makes real and concrete ideas, thoughts, imaginings, and observations, and puts them before our eyes.  Leonardo da Vinci, parodying Dante, once claimed that art is the grandchild of God, that the artist through imagination, knowledge, and skill of hand, can summon whole worlds into being just like God the Creator.  However, only God creates out of nothing.  The artist must have something to create out of; clay, bronze, stone, steel, paint, mosaic, computer bytes, or his/her own thoughts.

Art is a conjuring trick, using all kinds of smoke and mirrors to put angels and monsters before our eyes.  Until recently, criticism since the 18th century always found fault with art for its powers of deception.  But as Picasso pointed out, art may be a lie, but it is a lie that tells truth.  The argument since the beginning was always over how much lying is necessary to point to the truths of human experience.  Generations of people argued over whether or not art should imitate nature or create its own world, and over what each of those concepts really mean.  "Show me an angel and I will paint it," said Gustave Courbet.  To which Edvard Munch replied. "The camera cannot compete with the brush and canvas as long as it can't be used in heaven and hell."

Art and religion always walked through the centuries together in an uneasy partnership.  Muhammad did not trust art.  He said that the artist who paints or sculpts a human figure will be commanded by God on the Last Day to make it speak.  The artist will inevitably fail and fall to perdition.  Muhammad saw art as a mockery of God the Creator and a vainglorious presumption by arrogant humankind.  Many Christians from the Iconoclasts to the Puritans came to the same conclusion for largely the same reasons.  And yet, as the art historian Kenneth Clark pointed out decades ago, it was no vainglorious idolator who wrote "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of Grace and Truth."  Christianity never came to any agreement over the role of art in its worship, and yet Christians created some of the richest and most varied art of any religion ever.  Muhammad consigned the artist to hell, and yet Islam is full of magnificent art adorning its places of prayer.

Human beings have been making art for around 40,000 years, maybe even 60,000 years if some scientists are to be believed; long before people planted crops, or made anything that we would recognize as "society," long before cities were built or written history began.  Art may well be older than anything anyone now would recognize as religion.  Who knows?  Art might even be older than language.  Something so useless to the business of survival yet taking up so much of our time and energy from the very beginnings of us must be central to what we are as human beings.  We had the beauty of holiness long before we started worshipping the Lord.

As long as we've had art, so we will continue to have it until we are no longer human; until we become disembodied angels or we completely merge with our own technology into a kind of cyber-immortality.  All those sweeping pronouncements by academics and critics that painting is dead, or sculpture is dead, or whatever are ridiculous on their face and have stopped no one from painting or sculpting or photographing or experimenting with new means of expression and creation.  When Duchamp's prophecy comes true and someone really does use a Rembrandt for an ironing board, then painting and sculpture will no long have any meaning to us, we will stop looking at it, and we probably won't be human anymore.

Art is no more perfect or divine than we are.  Our attempts to visualize the mortal and immortal will never be perfect.  Mother Theresa of Calcutta said that if we want to see the true image of Christ, then we should look to our left and to our right at the people around us.  And yet, how poor we should all be if we stopped trying.

Painting David, from the David Wojnarowicz series, 2011

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