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Art Works as Classics

While the bloggers are worried about the recent motu proprio (a tempest in a teapot in my estimation) I have been thinking about art. Every time I get to New York I try to visit the Frick to stand before Bellini's "The Ecstasy of Saint Francis" - the greatest painting in the whole city for my money. In London, I head straight for Caravaggio's "The Supper at Emmaus" at the National Gallery. In Rome, I love to go to Trastevere to pray with the Sant Egidio Community before the stunning apsidal mosaic. Last Year I got a chance to return to Colmar where, in the museum, is the Isenheim Altarpiece. Nonetheless, the one painting that strikes me as the greatest religious painting ever done is the Rublev "Old Testament Trinity" which I have never seen since I have never been to Russia. I did once see early variations of it in a show of Russian religious art at the Royal Academy in London. For a long time I thought of some modern art as bering epiphanic but a recent long look at a Rothko made me think that my enthusiasm has waned. Perhaps I was, when younger, too impressed with the thought of Paul Tillich on art but now think not much of him. Too Protestant. That is another story.Here is a thought: anyone want to share what most moves him or her before a "classic" work of art? Inquiring minds want to know.

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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What moves me most is Byrd's 3-part Mass.No, seriously, to me it's a matter of shape, the interplay of shapes and directionalities that suggest motion.Klee, for example, tends to poise shapes in an uneasy, linear kind of stasis.Giotto places oblong shapes in a way that forms community among them.Leonardo points them. Swift motion, there, in Leonardo.Color means little to me. Shape, balances among shapes, and motion.

I don't think I have a good answer to your question, but it is a great question that has set me to thinking. I'm actually working on an essay that is tentatively entitled, "Visual Bioethics" on the way images can and do function rhetorically in debates in bioethics. The question of how/why images move us is not exactly what you asked, but it is helpfully related.

Here's more on Bellini's "The Ecstasy of St. Francis"$28039

Fantastic question. A necessary caution is that we do not confuse art with elitism. Which it generally is associated with. Daresay there are more upturned noses than genuine lovers of art. So many moving things in life how do we count the ways?No question La boheme, mozart, Dante, Shakespeare and so many others are riveting. But I doubt if they surpass the look on a loved one's face when happy. Or seeing children when brought to a new place or presented with a new enjoyable experience. So my question is why do simple people who appreciate art less seem to enjoy life the most?Of course "de gustibus....but that painting does not do it for me about Francis. Yet Francis is "the" artist when it comes to approaching Jesus.At any rate Larry, important post. We definitely need more art than politics.

I almost stayed out of this....but I guess waving the elitism banner in front of me is like a red flag to Joe McCarthy.Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past I kept a postcard showing a bit of the Isenheim altarpiece mentioned above on my desk at work, sort of a way of being religious with the escape into esthetics if it got embarrassing. No one took me up on the esthetics, but I had two short and one long conversations (the long one led to a whole series of very revealing talks) with people who asked "So you love Jesus" (or something of the sort.) The guy I spent most time discussing it with was a plumber from Cuba, and the other two guys were mechanics.I wonder, by the way, if there is some emotional (if that's the right word) connection between the view of Jesus in the Isenheim altarpiece and the view of Jesus in much Hispanic American art (maybe I mean Spanish-American art)?

Karl Barth kept the crucifixion panel of the Isenheim altarpiece in his study noting that he identified with the figure of John the Baptist who is depicted pointing to Christ with the caption "He must increase, I must decrease" - not a bad motto for a theologian.Please! Let us not drag the tired cliche about "elitism" into this discussion.

Qui bene distinguit, bene cognoscit. Engagement is not there only for the times and subjects we choose to engage.

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