Art can communicate truths about God that we cannot put into words

Raphael’s Transfiguration

If you were to write a book entitled “How Catholicism Changed the World”, there would have to be a long section on the visual. Catholicism enables us to look at things and see more (some would say perhaps see more than there is there).

Canon Giles Fraser has written about religious art in his Guardian column, and he has lots of interesting things to say, among them this:

For when Moses rails against the construction of the Golden Calf, he wasn’t giving a go at his people worshipping something golden. It wasn’t an early warning against the evils of Mammon. The problem was that it made the divine into some sort of object or thing. But as his experience collecting the Ten Commandments up on the mountaintop demonstrated, the closer one gets to the divine, the less clear things are. The higher up the mountain one gets, the more the cloud comes down and the less one is able to see.

I see his point, and I agree with it, but in the end I am strongly on the side of the iconodules and against the iconoclasts, unlike the Canon. For the truth of the matter is, it seems to me, that great Catholic art does precisely the opposite of what the Canon fears. It makes clear to the viewer (or, better, participant) that God is always greater than the sum of our thoughts about Him. God is not made into a thing, rather, great art cracks open the things we create and lets in a shaft of divine light. In other words, art never brings God down to earth, rather it lifts the heart, mind and soul up to where God is, or at least lifts us up to a point beyond which we sense God might be.

Christianity is in its origins an ecstatic cult (some, I know, would dispute this, but the argument is too long to sustain here). Catholic art tends towards the ecstatic, and tries to elicit an ecstatic response. Here are just a few great bits of Catholic art, that communicate something about the transcendent nature of God, without words.

1. St Teresa in Ecstasy, by Bernini.

2. The ceiling of Sant’ Ignazio in Rome, by Andrea Pozzo.

3. The interior of Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.

4. Raphael’s Transfiguration.

5. The Wilton Diptych.

I could of course go on, and many readers will have their own lists. But the central truth remains. Art, if it is any good, is not really about making concepts into objects. Rather it is about showing us that God cannot be contained in Nature, but bursts its bonds, and bursts any bonds that we might like to impose on him. At the same time, though, I dispute any tendency to see God as absolutely transcendent, which is what may be behind the Canon’s desire to keep faith and art at arm’s length. We can find out about God here and now, thorugh nature and in the natural world, and such knowledge is both useful and true. Look again at Saint Teresa in Ecstasy: it mediates an important truth – though how one would put that into words, I am not sure. But that is one of the reason we have sculpture, to capture, for a fleeting moment held forever, the truths that escape words.