There is a comic novel by AN Wilson called Kindly Light in which Norman Shotover, a priest from the fictional Catholic Institute of Alfonso (CIA), wants to leave his order, but fears it is so powerful and controlling that it won’t release him. So he devises schemes he hopes will result in disgrace and expulsion. They all backfire, bringing him instead fame and celebrity. In desperation he contemplates appearing on a Sunday night religious broadcast and dropping his trousers, but reflects ruefully that someone would be bound to construe this as a deeply meaningful statement about human alienation, sexual politics or the crisis of faith. One day, having forgotten to prepare anything for a keynote preaching engagement, he plagiarises one of Father Faber’s sermons on the Precious Blood. The old-fashioned theology results in his summary expulsion.
Increasingly Catholic life is starting to imitate art, and the continuing defence of the frankly indefensible leaves me with something of Shotover’s frustration that anything is now “meaningful”, unless you dare to assert that the cultural values of the pre-Vatican II Church retain religious significance.
Let us muse on the fact that the Vatican decided it was a good idea to lend vestments and precious items in some cases worn by saints to an exhibition entitled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. “Heavenly Bodies?” Given that this wasn’t an astronomy exhibition, did no one think to question what lay concealed in plain sight in that blatant innuendo? And then there’s the oxymoronic “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. The object of fashion is by definition the beautification and enhanced desirability of the wearer of its products. I would love to ask those who decided to lend these exhibits what in the name of all that is holy they thought they were doing. But if your definition of holiness doesn’t already include the idea that some things are set apart for the specific worship of the Almighty by the spiritual end for which they were created and by their function and proximity to the sacramental mysteries, I am not sure where one might begin a dialogue.
The fashion designer’s art stems from an entirely different aesthetic to that of sacred art. The beauty of fashion is not intended to point beyond itself. Fashion seeks no other meaning than the appearance of the appearance, so to speak. Its world of images “does not surpass the bounds of sense”, as Joseph Ratzinger would express it. We used to speak of faith baptising culture. A few mocking imitations of sacred vestments and clerical attire are not evidence that secular culture wishes to dialogue with the sacred or has engaged with the Catholic imagination. Satanists, after all, admire Catholic culture to the point of imitating it. It’s what you need if you want to subvert goodness as much as possible. When Satanists ape Catholic ritual, objects and vestments, should we see this as an endorsement of Catholic imagination?
A Catholic imagination in sacred art is not directed towards the creation of beautiful objects to glorify the wearer. The jewelled pectoral crosses of former ages, for example, were not “bling” for the bishop. They were jewelled because the cross is the most precious and beautiful sign of God’s love in the created universe. Any image must do justice to the spiritual reality of what it points to, its metaphysical rather than decorative value.
Sacred art always points to something beyond itself, because the beauty of the created world points beyond itself – to the Creator Spiritus poured out on creation and to the Incarnation of Him who is the firstborn of all creation. Sacred art, says Ratzinger, “Stands art beneath the imperative stated in the second epistle to the Corinthians: gazing at the Lord we are ‘Changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.’ ”
Catholic art is a form of contemplating the divine. It is the antithesis of fashion. The Catholic imagination is not just another imaginative world created by designers, like a fashion brand; it is the direction of the creative endeavour towards the greater glory of God. If there is no longer any sacred meaning in the Vatican-lent exhibits worth protecting beyond that of appearance, then there is no meaning in the faith that inspired them.