Filippo Rossi: Spirituality Without Figuration (or Representation) by Jérôme Cottin, Professor, Department of Protestant Theology, University of Strasbourg

Spirituality Without Figuration (or Representation) Filippo Rossi is one of the few artists in Italy who concentrate on two themes that, to many, seem contradictory: on the one hand, ‘sacred art’ or, more precisely, art in a Christian context; on the other, abstract or, more precisely, ‘non figurative’ art (which is also very concrete, however, since it emphasises forms and materials). Actually these two themes are made to go together and to reinforce each other reciprocally: 20th-century art in western countries has shown that the sacred dimension was assumed principally by non-figurative masters (Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhard in the USA ; Alfred Manessier in France ; Eduardo Chillida in Spain; and most of the contemporary artists open to the sacred dimension in Germany, Switzerland, etc.). In Italy ‘sacred art’ means above all the art of the great periods of Christian art: Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque. It is widely believed that, with the aesthetic modernity of the early 1900s, art, emancipating itself from the figurative and aesthetic canons of earlier centuries, was no longer sacred, becoming rather secular. Such an interpretation however is a glaring error. Right from the beginning of the 20th century, almost all the great masters and inventors of ‘abstract art’ were spiritual artists: Kasimir Malevich, Wassily Kandinsky, Aleweij Jawlensky were deeply influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy and the art of icons; Franz Marc wanted to undertake the study of Catholic theology; Piet Mondrian grew up in a strict Calvinist environment and lived his artistic life like a monk, seeking the absolute and living in the most extreme austerity. To be sure, we are speaking here of a dimension of the sacred that goes beyond the usual Christian references, but would that not be an advantage today, in an international context in which we seek spaces for dialogue and encounter between different religious sensibilities. One could actually sustain the opposite thesis: that contemporary art rediscovered a genuinely sacred dimension when it broke free of the weight of representation in general, and of Christian iconography in particular. Through his art, Filippo Rossi expresses a dimension of the sacred compatible with Christianity but which does not reduce itself to illustrating Christian faith or being its servant (art as the ancilla teologiae). He works, rather, with notions of metaphor, of allusive sign, of ‘footprint’; for him the cross is a privileged motif (as it was for famous 20th-century artists such as the Catalan Antoni Tàpies or the German Joseph Beuys). But Rossi’s crosses have a broader sense than that of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the same way, he works with contradictory materials that are, on the one hand, gold, a precious metal, and on the other, common, ordinary materials: wood, fabric, juta cloth. The contrast between these materials becomes a metaphor by which to speak of the difference between God and human beings—that is of the infinite grandeur of the Divine which enters into dialogue with weak and imperfect man. I think of works like his Lux in Tenebris (2005), in which Rossi reveals the different material characteristics and veining of the wood support as a metaphor for light shining in the shadows; or his Magnificat (2008), where gold leaf expresses the a spiritual insight in a triptych: a full semicircle in the upper part of the panel that symbolises God, in relation to another semicircle comprised of scattered fragments of gold that represent humanity in its numbers and diversity. Non-figurative art helps the eye concentrate on forms and materials, thus allowing the artwork to accomplish its primary function, which is to display and enhance the aesthetic power of matter for the joy of the senses. A theological truth corresponds to this aesthetic development: not showing any human form or form that can be identified with a natural object or one made by man, the art of representation respects the Biblical prohibition to ‘represent’: human beings must not represent God: (Ex 20:1-4; Dt 5, 6-9). Thus abstract art is fundamentally biblical, and helps us draw near the mystery of a God who is beyond any image, representation or figuration. Jérôme Cottin Professor, Department of Protestant Theology, University of Strasbourg