Elizabeth Lev has an interesting painting behind her. The video-call quality makes it hard to determine exactly what it depicts, but it looks like something between abstraction and a coastal landscape at sunset, featuring squares and rectangles in oranges and reds. It’s not necessarily what I’d have predicted would be on her wall.
Lev is an art historian specialising in the Baroque and High Renaissance periods, with a focus on Christian sacred art. A US expat in Italy, she teaches at the Roman campus of Duquesne Catholic University, and is a consultant at the Vatican Museums. Her most recent book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, concludes with a plea for Catholics to display more sacred art in their homes. I resolve to ask her about her not-obviously-sacred painting, but soon forget the intention: there are a lot of other things to talk about.
Lev is a woman with a mission. In her book, an examination of the role that sacred art played in the Counter-Reformation, she firmly endorses Pope Benedict XVI’s claim that “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” Lev wants to help renew interest in Catholic sacred art, and in doing so help to create the conditions for a revival of great Catholic art in the modern age.
Her enthusiasm for these aims is palpable: she speaks very quickly, ideas tumbling out one after another, framed by big, expressive gestures. It’s contagious. I find myself smiling and laughing a lot during our conversation, swept along by Lev’s obvious delight in her subject. What’s at the root of the enthusiasm?
“Because I know from experience the power that art has. Because when it’s good, it can change you. And when it’s really good, it can challenge you to completely change your life.”
It was art, Lev tells me, that led her back to Catholicism. Raised in the Church by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother (the former US ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann Glendon), and educated by the Jesuits in Boston, she left the Church as a young adult. “I wanted nothing to do with what seemed to me to be a pointless and somewhat restrictive superstition.”
As her faith waned, her interest in art increased. It started with a fascination with epic historical figures and Greek myths. One book, Bulfinch’s Mythology, was illustrated with famous works of art which depicted the exploits of Achilles, Odysseus and company. That was enough to spark an interest, but the real breakthrough came when a high-school teacher gave her EH Gombrich’s The Story of Art.
“It’s a funny thing to say today when the notion of identity is so challenged, but I took that book home and I knew who I was. And it’s never really changed. There is a joy I have in images – I walk into a museum, or I open up a book or I start looking at a picture, someone hands me a picture I’ve never seen before, and I just realise again that this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Lev studied history of art at the University of Chicago and the University of Bologna, and became fascinated by the Renaissance. “To earn a living for my kids, when I was writing my thesis, I started doing tours. And I have a horror of being asked a question that I can’t answer. So I would be doing a tour, but in the back of my head I’d ask myself questions like, ‘What if this person asks me this and I won’t be able to answer it?’ I would go home and study and try to find the answer. And I found the answers were often very unsatisfying when I stayed in mainstream secular art history.”
The art depicted religious subjects, Lev tells me, but the important questions – about composition, colour, which figures were depicted and how – were always answered with reference to then-current fashions in the art world, or to classical Greek or Roman art. It’s not that these explanations were wrong, she says, but they were piecemeal. There seemed to be something missing.
Lev ended up moving to Rome and developing a fascination for the Sistine Chapel. That “laid the groundwork for a relationship with Michelangelo that … well, I learned Italian so I could read his poetry. I mean, to not have someone else tell me what he was saying. I read his letters, I just tried to understand him as much as possible.”
But as she understood him better, it became increasingly obvious that many of his artistic choices were best explained by Catholic teaching, theology, and scripture. The Sistine Mary may have been modelled on the Greek goddess Aphrodite, but that fact combined with her prominent placement next to Christ was meant to illustrate her prominence in the divine plan, as well as that between Christ and the Church.
Lev started to see the centrality of the sacred as a unifying explanation for much of Renaissance art. Artists weren’t merely accepting commissions to paint biblical scenes: whether they were believers or not, many of the giants of the Renaissance were deeply informed by the story and doctrines of Catholicism.
Understanding the Faith helped Lev understand her heroes. From there, she was led back towards belief – in large part by Michelangelo. “Doing that constant work picking apart the Sistine Chapel, it occurred to me that Michelangelo believed this.” I’m struck that Lev talks about the artist as though he were a close friend or mentor. She laughs. “The joke used to be that most of my friends have been dead for about 500 years.”
She grows more solemn. “It really is like a relationship. It’s exactly what the popes say. It’s about accompaniment, encounter, knowing somebody who bears witness. Michelangelo, once you’re willing to see it, bears witness to his belief in Jesus as our Saviour in every work he makes. And a certain point if your best friend believes it so thoroughly, and you don’t really have anything you believe in … what on earth are you holding on to besides your pride?”
For Lev, it was going from an explanation that made sense of the art she was studying to an explanation that made sense of everything. “It was almost like Copernicus said, ‘Well, what if it was actually the sun that was still?’ The question that came to me was, ‘Well, what if all this was true?’”A gleam comes into her eyes. “And it all has a plausible answer, and that’s even more beautiful than the art.”
Reading How Catholic Art Saved the Faith, it’s clear that Lev believes the effect that art had on her is widely replicable: that the creation of good Catholic art can be and has been an effective part of the work of evangelisation. Lev holds that during the Counter-Reformation Catholic art played a key role in popularising and advocating for almost every contested point of Catholic doctrine: the necessity of the seven sacraments, the intercession of the saints, the role of Mary, purgatory. A vivid example of this is Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, which was initially placed directly above the altar in a chapel of Rome’s Chiesa Nuova. The negative space at the bottom of the picture meant to suggest, Lev tells me, “that you are looking at the body of Christ being dumped on the altar for your benefit. It’s not some piece of bread.”
I’m curious about how Lev thinks the Church should go about engaging with the world of art in the modern age. In a space and time where Catholicism has less cachet, how do we make art that actually leads people to God?
Lev’s answer surprises me. Catholics, she says, shouldn’t be afraid to make more explicitly and deliberately Catholic art. “There’s this whole 19th-century concept of ‘art should be free’, the separation from the artist from any kind of artistic standard or any kind of theme. The Church today when it tries to re-engage with art still has this 19th-century mantra drummed into its head.” Some of the art commissioned by the hierarchy, Lev thinks, is as a result not recognisably Catholic. “It’s, you know, ‘you should make me something that makes you think of Genesis’. There’s a work in the Vatican Museums, which is a blank canvas, and it’s supposed to be inspired by Genesis. This is 100 feet from Michelangelo’s image of Genesis.”
In order to get people excited about the story Catholicism tells about the world, Lev thinks, the art has to portray or engage with that story. Lay people need to be more willing to commission and support good art that does just that.
But if you make requirements too strict, I ask, won’t that drive away people who are likely to make good art? Isn’t the problem with much of Christian art today that it’s too didactic: Christian movies that are little more than sermons with a plot slapped onto them?
Lev has a similarly low opinion of a lot of Christian film-making, but doesn’t think that overtly Christian content is the problem. She thinks that a healthy “tension between the sacred and the profane” actually makes art better. Sacred subject matter alone gives you twee holy cards, but without any structure or external standards for art; ‘pure creativity’ gets just as dull. “My favourite example, of course, is the Duchamp Fountain, the urinal … the man saw the whole situation right there!”
We have to make and sponsor art, Lev says, from a position “where we’re in love with our own story”. The key to creating more excellent Catholic art is not giving artists, film-makers, and storytellers maximal freedom, but creating structures that will reward them for excellence.
“Hollywood expects you to follow a certain line when you produce a work of art. Hollywood has a whole bunch of interesting, very defined rules about what you’re allowed and not allowed to do and yet somehow they attract the biggest and the best. Why? Because at the end of the day, you can become famous. You can become known, you can become more. At the end of the day an artist wants to communicate. So the great artists need a forum in which it looks like they’re going to be communicating to the many.”
So is it a matter of creating institutions that provide an alternate path to prestige?
“If there was an award for Catholic Artist of the Year, and you had the Herald and the National Catholic Register and all the Catholic publications holding that person up … that’s already a start.
“We have to be willing to try things, to take risks – not the blank canvas. But we have to take risks on people who will miss sometimes. Caravaggio, how many works did he have rejected? But if artists are formed and they are thinking about these stories and they’re thinking about these questions of the faith … If we believe what we say we believe, if we believe in the transformative power of the Word of God, we have every reason to believe that where we fail or where the artists fail, the Holy Spirit might help shore it up.”
As our conversation draws to a close I remember to ask about the abstract painting on the wall. Is there some clue in there to the future of Christian art? Some yet undiscovered talent? Lev throws her hands up. “I’m not responsible for that at all. I’m on vacation and that was on the wall!”
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