So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Stations of the Cross | Nova et vetera?

Much of current Catholic art, or what purports to be Catholic art, is still searching for a flight path forward out of the so-called modern era into a new era free of the stillborn motivations of a century of destruction and deconstruction. In ages past, artists, architects, musicians and even politicians looked in the direction of the ancient Greeks and Romans for guidance. The process of looking backward to the high art—the architecture, technology, poetry and sculpture—of civilizations past in order to move forward is a treasure hunt that anyone with an ounce of curiosity and imagination can appreciate. There is something of the wonder of a child in the artist who exercises his or her urge to explore the "old" and diverge from taking the dead-end avenues of more than a century of sterile preoccupations with reinventing clever ways to confuse or shock or alienate people who are already alienated from themselves and from a society and culture recovering from an identity crisis.

Christians, with a mind to the transcendentals and to God Who is both wholly Other and Word Incarnate, have created the most splendid and elevating works of art and architecture, poetry and music that man has known. True Catholic Christian art is universal; it speaks across and into cultures. It ennobles man and draws his attention and spirit to God. It praises God and in so doing elevates the senses and the imagination and purifies the intellect making it ready for the source of truth and beauty. The Gospel illuminates that which is best in each culture, purifying a culture of its darkness and bringing together people under a universal light, the Light of Christ. No art is truly Catholic unless it is faithful to Revelation and communicates the Truth that is found fully in Christ. Universality is being proposed as a quality of artist Joseph Capelle's work.
5. The function of all art lies in fact in breaking through the narrow and tortuous enclosure of the finite, in which man is immersed while living here below, and in providing a window to the infinite for his hungry soul.His Holiness Pope Pius XII to a group of Italian artists received in audience on April 8, 1952
Mr. Capelle asserts that his paintings
are intentionally two dimensional. I like to think of them as modern day icons. The surface area is very important to me, so I use flat colors, textured areas, hard edge and line.—LPJ website.
An icon is a window, a clear window that is transparent to the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ or a saint in heaven. That window permits a two way view, so-to-speak. We might come to know the state of our souls better if we are so disposed to an icon's "fraternal correction". Eternity speaks through such a window if we allow it and, if our hearts and minds are graced by God, we see through that window into eternity. Icons are written, much like books. Books, prior to the invention of the printing press, were expensive to produce by hand. Icons, statues, mosaics and later stained glass windows were the "books" housed in libraries of the living Faith—churches.
When you enter a church you enter the domain of the Incarnation where heaven meets earth, where you are treated to a feast for the senses and the soul—or you should be. Church buildings are witnesses to the reality of Christ in every respect—the Incarnation, the Life, Death and Resurrection of Christ and Second Coming of Christ (in the Holy Eucharist and at the Last Judgement). Church buildings are sacramentals, testaments to the Faith writ large.
An icon is a "text" or "book", a painting that employs signs and symbols that can lead the mind and heart to God. The signs and symbols would be/are commonly understood, much as a common language is spoken among a people. There may be dialects of a language in play. Icons may belong to distinct dialects, too: Greek, Russian, Coptic, Roman and so forth. Yet, the various schools or iconographic dialects share many symbols in common that allow viewer-readers from different liturgical perspectives (Roman, Byzantine, Coptic, etc.) to enter into the mystery signified or conveyed by the icon.

Icons are written by iconographers who fast and pray so that their efforts are transformed by grace into a form that can be taken up by those who meditate upon the inspired image for wisdom's sake.
9. In this manner, the great masters of Christian arts became interpreters, not only of the beauty but also of the goodness of God, the Revealer and Redeemer. Marvelous exchange of services between Christianity and art! From their Faith they drew sublime inspirations. They drew hearts to the Faith when for continuous centuries they communicated and spread the truths contained in the Holy Scriptures, truths inaccessible, at least directly, to the humble people. 
10. In truth, artistic masterpieces were known as the "Bible of the people," to mention such noted examples as the windows of Chartres, the door of Ghiberti (by happy expression known as the Door of Paradise), the Roman and Ravenna mosaics and the facade of the Cathedral of Orvieto. These and other masterpieces not only translate into easy reading and universal language the Christian truths, they also communicate the intimate sense and emotion of these truths with an effectiveness, lyricism and ardor that, perhaps, is not contained in even the most fervent preaching.—Pius XII, ibid.

10. Jesus is Stripped of His Garments
by Joseph Capelle
OLWV Tel Aviv
Image: LPJ

Capelle's work is risky in that it employs a visual language that might be for many people a wall more than a window. His work is more synthetic than innovative, though successful synthesis can be its own form of innovation. Capelle's work embodies a timely need for purification of extravaganzas (or opposite puritanic reductions) that leave most people cold or bewildered. Contemporary art has been so highly self indulgent for many decades that it leaves little room for anyone but the original producer to engage or understand it.

Good art, which is to say 'art', invites study. We live in a time when religious visual languages are mixing once again with vigour and intelligence, much like in centuries past when artists stepped out boldly from previous compositional languages to depict subjects in perspective, transforming the canvas into a three-dimensional realm akin to sculpture. If we move further along the spectrum of developments in visual art, we can turn to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, for example, who played with light and darkness to give his works astonishing depth, movement and tension. As Gilles Lambert said in his work Caravaggio 1571-1610 (2000 Taschen), Caravaggio "put the shadows (oscuro) in chiaroscuro". His figures emerge from his canvases in a way that scarcely allows the viewer a moment to escape being seized by the realities depicted. Then again, why would you want to escape being caught by Caravaggio's work? Though chiaroscuro technique had been well employed by Caravaggio's predecessors, Caravaggio's technique gave to religious art a contour or horizon upon which the religious seeker could gaze with intensely conflicting reactions. For example, awe and horror. If one looks at the Crucifixion of Peter we practically have an inversion of light and dark, which seems fitting given that Peter's death involved his literal inversion. Shadow is tucked into every crevice of the figures' clothing, but when it comes to the exposed flesh of Saint Peter, for example, the light radiating from his torso seems to anticipate his entry into new life. If we hope to enter that new life in eternity we, too, must have our world inverted by the Gospel. An artist who is brave enough to walk away from his car parked on that congested highway of go-nowhere artistic languages, or steps out of that dry creek bed of self indulgent deconstructionist and abstractionist misery is an artist who can actually render something of the eternal in the temporal medium.

Caravaggio was never full appreciated as an artist in his own time. His paintings were subject to searing criticism, often accused of mere theatricalism. If art imitates life, Caravaggio's work does that. He, himself, was a man of extremes, constantly fighting the shadows. He was, in a word, tormented. He was frequently quarrelsome and a notorious brawler. On many occasions he was forced to take flight to avoid further prosecution. His police rap sheet filled several pages.

Crucifixion of St. Peter | Caravaggio | Wikipedia image

In considering Capelle's work, we must apply our senses and imaginations in ways that allow us to overcome a summary dismissal of his work. Without considering his comments that place his work into an historical context, we run the risk of being charged with laziness. If Capelle's work is more opaque than transparent to the mystery of the Via Dolorosa, it may be due to a lack of literacy or unwillingness to use the imagination on the part of viewers who, for example, have had their imaginations stunted for the past eighty years or so by banal art, architecture and music. That argument, mind you, has been used far too many times by modern artists to dismiss legitimate criticism of their work, criticism that may reveal a sham produced by a paint flinging chimpanzee.
12. ... The artist is of himself a privileged person among men, but the Christian artist is, in a certain sense, a chosen one, because it is proper to those chosen to contemplate, to enjoy and to express God's perfections.—Pius XII, ibid.
Capelle rightly employs two-dimensional realism, borrowed from antiquity, to permit the viewer the opportunity to find a third dimension as we approach that 'Other' dimension of the themes presented. He says as much in the quotes cited above and below. The "missing" dimension, i.e., perspective, is missing only to provide an opportunity to focus on another aspect of the "text". Good art (music, etc.) serves the text, the Gospel. That is, divine revelation. True art is faithful to divine revelation as much as orthodox theology is entirely faithful to revelation. True art, then, is orthodox. Classical (i.e., Baroque, etc.) works composed using chiaroscuro technique run the risk of trapping us in the beautiful or striking surface forms as much as works which use compositional languages that, for example, employ vivid colour. Truly beautiful religious art, however, is a both/and prospect. We can see (read) both the beautiful or striking forms depicted and enter into the realities to which the forms point us.

In iconography, the dimension of perspective is left off to dispose us more to the subject matter than the forms. The "flatter" relief tends to filter or bypass the tendency to rush past the images. Two dimensions can slow us down so that we see the paintings more like stained glass windows that are seen best when light shines through them. By citing his compliance with two-dimensional perspective, Capelle might be inviting us or attempting to dispose us to the dimension of the Spirit and divine revelation, the same "light" that makes stained glass windows work. I say 'might' because there is a possibility that the more individualized or privatized or synthetic or simply new an artistic language may or might be, the more likely a work of art may be imprisoned behind a wall and enjoyed (celebrated or employed for prayer) by a only handful of souls privy to the language, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Capelle does provide extra gravity or a tether to the realities represented by using "hard edge and line" that marks form so that those less comfortable with two dimensional representations may find an anchor in the clear distinctions he has created between objects.

The degree to which art is walled off from viewers is the degree to which universality suffers. We need clarity of form to provide boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy, for example. Capelle attempts to bridge the divide between abstract form, which permits a flexibility of interpretation (careful—heresy approaches!), and realism (that grounds the senses and therefore the mind) by borrowing from distinct and surprisingly complementary artistic languages. Surprising, because He has achieved a synthesis even while some of the images "clash", much as the Incarnation clashes with the Crucifixion.

It is difficult, for mortals this side of heaven at least, to resolve in our minds that love and suffering are knit together. We can wrestle with the love of God versus the justice of God until our efforts are twisted together in an impossible knot. For God, it only takes one tug on a string to untie the quandary we may have created or ourselves. It has been said that God cannot be apprehended with the mind, though He can be loved and known with the heart. Does that mean we abandon reason for emotionalism? No—the heart, first of all, is much more than the centre of mere emotionalism and, secondly, the mind, illumined by grace, can approach God with astonishing depth and clarity. The fruit of a mind labouring toward God can lead many, many others into a deeper communion with Christ because orthodox theology, for example, is 'blazing with the glory of the truth' of God that attracts creatures to their Creator. St. Thomas Aquinas was one such "soul artist" who wrote theological symphonies and banquets upon which generations have feasted.

In imitation of our Lord and Master, Christians use parables. Parables are not always readily understood, even by the enlightened and especially by the uninitiated. Even among Christ's immediate disciples there were those who required additional instruction from the Lord in order to appreciate the saving Truth and sacrificial mission that He was offering them. So then, what of Capelle's works? Are they parables for the initiated, or are they merely trendy posters that pretend at being icons? It is probably safe to say that some will be offended by them, some will be moved and some will be indifferent. Regardless of one's taste in art, the works are strong, well composed and deserving of serious consideration. Take note of the eyes, the direction or movement of the figures and the use of colour, the layering of images, for starters. Capelle frequently allows gestures that are typically background accents to pass through to the foreground, such as in the Resurrection image in the Israel/OLWV series. Christ's halo projects through His face.

What follows is a mere snippet from two series of the Stations of the Cross by Joseph Capelle from South Africa. In both series, a fifteenth station (the Resurrection) has been added to the traditional fourteen stations. Click on the links provided to view more of the two series.

The first example is the first station from a series of paintings for the Way of the Cross (2011) in the Jesuit parish of Holy Trinity Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg in South Africa, commissioned by Fr. Russell Pollitt, SJ. CLICK HERE for more details.

1. Jesus is Condemned to Death
by Joseph Capelle
HTC South Africa
Image: Vicariate of St. James

Here is the meditation for the First Station presented at the Vicariato San Giacomo per il cattolici di lingua ebraica in Israel (Vicariate of St. James for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel):
1. Jesus is condemned to death

There is a complete contrast between the way Pilate and Jesus are shown in this Station. Pilate is flamboyantly and richly dressed, wearing an elaborate headdress and a colorful African type collar. He is the epitome of power and confidence. Jesus, on the other hand, is completely submissive and clothed in a garment that symbolizes his imprisonment. The scene is set against a prison wall.

The face of Pilate is divided into two, the yellow symbolizing life and the blue death. The yellow side of his face incorporates a bird in flight. If his judgment is to be life, it would mean that Jesus would be set free but human kind would have no redemption. The dark blue side of Pilate's face incorporates a black cross and three nails in his headdress, indicating the instruments to be used to kill Jesus, if he is to be condemned. The blue sky behind this side of his face symbolizes our redemption.

At the bottom left hand side, Pilate washes the guilt from his hands. The two faces at the top right hand show one person shouting condemnation and the other blinded by prejudice and fear. My thoughts: How often do we condemn or judge because of prejudice and fear?
The paintings have replaced the former Stations at Holy Trinity, which crumbled when the maintenance team attempted to restore them. 'The old Stations of the Cross were very Euro-centric,' (Might the current depictions be accused of a certain Euro-centric surrealist meets cubist aesthetic? Picasso meets Dali with a little Míro for extra flavour?) says parish priest, Fr. Russell Pollitt SJ(.) 'The new ones were installed once the Church was renovated. They not only reflect the context of Holy Trinity, but also capture something of the complexities of the modern world.'
The second example, by the same artist, is from the Stations of the Cross (2014) that hang in the Our Lady Woman of Valor Pastoral Center in south Tel Aviv, a thriving centre for migrants.

1. Jesus is Condemned to Death
by Joseph Capelle
OLWV Tel Aviv
Image: LPJ

Here is the description of the OLWV First Station:
Jesus listens as Pilate condemns him to death. The cross is already part of his being and fits into the building behind him.

Pilate looks down on Jesus. He is shown as being uncertain of the guilt of Jesus and washes his hands to distance himself from the condemnation. He is dressed in a flamboyant outfit while Jesus is humbly attired.

The face in the middle represents the crowd condemning Jesus.
A description concerning the OLWV series from the website of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem expresses Capelle's own thoughts on his work:
These paintings are intentionally two dimensional. I like to think of them as modern day icons. The surface area is very important to me, so I use flat colors, textured areas, hard edge and line.

Faces are the main form of expression and are very often painted in unnatural colors, depending on the mood that I wish to create in the station. The colors I use are my own expression of emotion.

My hope is that viewers will develop their own interpretations on each station and will thus be able to deepen their meditation.

Some of the images will shock but I am hoping that this will lead to a deeper understanding of the redemptive suffering of Jesus.

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