How art can raise the soul to God

Penitent Magdalene by Caravaggio

Some books remind you of aspects of the Faith that you have always known but have forgotten. Others teach you things that are a revelation. Elizabeth Lev’s recent work, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith (Sophia Institute Press), is in the latter category. An art historian of the Counter-Reformation period (Lev prefers to refer to it as the Catholic Restoration – a subtle but significant difference), her book beautifully demonstrates how artists responded to the patronage of the Church by producing extraordinary visual images of Catholic doctrines dismissed by the Reformers.

With many colour illustrations of the works of artists such as Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Annibale Carracci, Barocci, Bernini and others, the author argues persuasively how ordinary Italians during the Baroque period came to understand their Faith and to recognise how much had been lost in the Reformation. In particular, the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession were given eloquent treatment. Lev writes that “Art, meant to stimulate emotion through colour, line and space, spoke to the faithful on a deeper level than mere abstract argument.”

Many of the faithful of the period would have been illiterate so theological and dogmatic writings produced by the Council of Trent, 1545-1563 would have been of no use to them in any case. Just as screen images today can be viscerally potent, so the great paintings of the era, such as Barocci’s The Institution of the Eucharist (1603), Christ and the Good Thief by Titian (circa 1546) and Guido Reni’s St Mary Magdalene would have assailed the senses and visual memories of the pious and receptive viewer with indelible imagery.

A penitent sinner like St Mary Magdalene was a gift to the artistic imagination: she was very beautiful, she had reputedly been a great sinner and she had become a magnificently devout penitent. Catholic art, careful in its depiction of naked flesh in Gospel themes so that it served the divine rather than merely human pleasure, found her an alluring subject. I am not entirely convinced, as Lev asserts, that everyone who looked on this great saint, with her rich red gowns (in contrast to the blue of the Virgin Mary) and her long luxuriant hair (good women always pinned their hair up) would have always concentrated on the penitential aspect of her depictions in art.

Yet generally Lev’s thesis is very persuasive: spectators are moved to meditate on the truths of their Faith when they see a great religious painting. Although Lev shows us the Noli Me Tangere (1581) of Lavinia Fontana, a mother of 11 children and “a Catholic model of feminine genius”, the real hero of this book is, to my mind, Caravaggio, the bad boy genius of the period.

The book reproduces some wonderful paintings by him (not always approved by his patrons) which, in contrast to his contemporaries who painted the same subject, are unerringly dramatic, profound and intuitively “right” i.e. they satisfy the viewer’s own “idea” of the Gospel scene. Lev includes Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene (naturally), circa 1595, his Crucifixion of St Peter and his The Calling of St Matthew (circa 1599).

She rightly gives the traditional interpretation of St Matthew as the older man with the beard, seemingly pointing towards himself in a manner both baffled yet hopeful, rather than the modern view that Christ is calling the young man at the end of the table, whose head is bowed to his trade.

And of course, there is Our Lady: lovely in her womanhood, maternal, virginal and utterly central to human salvation, especially in paintings of the Annunciation and the Nativity. Lev comments that “Mary offered artists opportunities to expand their creative capabilities. Accompanying the Church in her developing teaching on Mary, art offered proportionally fascinating images of the Queen of Heaven.”

Her book reminds us not only of how artistic beauty reflects the beauty of God but of how much Catholic teaching was tragically jettisoned at the Reformation – to the great loss of Protestants and Catholics alike. Christ’s prayer at the Last Supper, “That they all may be one…” gains in meaning when one surveys the powerful images displayed in this book.