miscellanea

Abstraction and the Sacred Prof. Mons. Timothy Verdon Director, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence

Abstraction and the Sacred Filippo Rossi’s choice to make Christian art in an abstract idiom is courageous. Practically from the beginning, Church tradition has given pride of place to figurative images, and this for the obvious reason that Christ himself, God’s incarnate Word, spoke of his Father through his own physical and psychological life and in parables that narrate events in the lives of women and men. As a consequence, the narrative visual language par excellence, figurative art with elements of naturalism and psychological analysis, has seemed to Christians to be virtually obligatory, even if that has not excluded appropriate modernisations or the simultaneous use of other languages. Above all the catechetical function of Christian images has been thought to require a clarity and specificity that only figurative art could guarantee. In reality, though, the Church does not use art only to narrate and teach. In the context of its liturgy, for example, works of visual art are meant to be signs introducing believers to an area of mystery independent of occasional narrative elements in the rites themselves. The use of images in the liturgical context in fact serves to manifest the particular relationship that, due to Christ’s Incarnation, binds sign and reality in the sacramental economy: a relationship evident not only in narrative representations but in all the works that human beings associate with the worship, from sacred vessels and vestments to the most monumental architectural constructions. The use of things in the liturgy itself reveals and actualises the vocation of the less than human world, which in fact is called with man and through man to give glory to God. By a mysterious and, at the same time, simple process this ‘revelation’ becomes, in turn, part of the lived experience of faith, especially in the context of Eucharistic celebration and adoration; finding God present in matter, believers are led to grasp the new dignity of every material thing, now become (or at least becoming) a kind of ‘monstrance’, just as all human seeing is now called to become adoring contemplation. This is the sense in which Rossi’s experiments in abstraction, inspired by the Scriptures and of considerable material impact, perfectly suit the framework of the sacred. A good example is his prize-winning Family of God, Family of Man, which suggests the absoluteness and intellectual clarity that signs make possible, showing the Saviour born as ‘light’ in the gilded wood of a Tau-shaped cross: gilded wood fitted into rough wood that alludes to Saint Joseph, the representative of the history of Israel into which God’s Son fitted himself, and fitted also into a white panel touched with gold that evokes Mary. In fact the Christ who is born at Christmas and who dies and rises at Easter is himself God’s definitive sign to humankind, as Isaiah suggested when he said: “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Is52,10). But can a work so far from the tradition of the Church really be considered sacred art? I would say yes, for “the Church has never had its own artistic style, but, according to the inclination and historical circumstances of different peoples, and the requirements of different rites, has accepted the artistic forms of every era” (xx). The two thousand years of Christian tradition in fact provide excellent examples of abstract as well as of figurative art—not only in the early Christian period but also at the heart of Renaissance figurativism (one thinks of the mystic faux marbre of Fra Angelico). It would be wrong to suppose that contemporary visual languages such as abstraction and informality, like atonalism in music, are unsuited to sacred art, putting art-for-its-own-sake in the place of humble faith in the Word made flesh. It would be wrong because Christianity is not Manichean and prefers ‘both-and’ to ‘either-or’, convinced that every authentic aesthetic experience can be part of God’s providential plan. Christ’s cry on the cross, certainly ‘atonal’, is unquestionably part of our historia salutis, as is the ‘informal’ confusion of the lilies of the field, more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory. A masterpiece, in this respect, is Filippo Rossi’s Magnificat , painted in 2008 and now in an ecumenical monastery in the United States: three large panel evoking Mary’s thanksgiving to the Creator—a gratitude that Rossi interprets in musical terms, showing the prayer of this young woman chosen to bring Christ to the world as it rises – strongly, sweetly, melodically - to God. It is a song for two voices: in the lower part of the panels, the joyfully overflowing thoughts of a woman ‘full of grace’ flash with various types of gold, rising toward the Source of their splendour, God the ‘Sol justitiae’, ‘Sun of justice’: harmonic notes that irradiate from three pentagrams in the separate panels of the triptych. These in turn are differentiated to suggest musical movement: in the central panel, , the pentagram is interrupted, whereas in the lateral panels the pentagrams unite the creature to her Creator without interruption. In fact, for an instant Mary hesitated and, troubled, asked the angel. “How can this be, since I know not man?” (Lk 1,34). But God from all eternity loves this creature chosen to be the tabernacle of his only Son. The three panels together comprise a symphony which expands through the whole work, presenting as pure music the woman who said. “My soul magnifies the Lord”—a woman in the sun who sings, as - in her womb – Christ arises, the light of men. Thus not only figurative art but also this kind of ‘abstract figuration’ can accompany the interior journey of Christians. Christ himself, even in the concreteness of the body he took from Mary, did not hedsitate to describe himself in terms that are fafr from every figurative possibility—as “the way, “the truth”, “the life”, “the resurrection” and “the light” of men. So too art that refers to Christ, the Father’s incarnate Word, can perfectly well clothe the Saviour’s most abstract words with form and colour, above all to lead believers to that kind of prayer in which one goes beyond sensory knowledge, and particularly to accompany liturgical prayer, where the sign-character of the rites invites believers not to be content with the exterior aspect of things. Abstraction and the Sacred Prof. Mons. Timothy Verdon Director, Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence