Nothing has been more important or more argued over in the history of Christianity than pictures. Iconoclasts went about smashing images in the eighth and ninth centuries. Protestants stripped their churches of imagery as they sought an identity separate from Rome. The Council of Trent spent as much time arguing about art as it did figuring out the seven sacraments. Nothing has been so hard to take for contemporary Christians as the ways in which modern artists have reinterpreted Christian imagery.
When Christians start to think about how to be human in relationship with God they quickly run into the limitations of philosophy and abstract theology. In the end, we are people of the book who know ourselves by knowing our story — by looking at who we have become and how we became.
Art, in other words, opens doors that argument, logic, preaching and speculation cannot.
Sr. Wendy Beckett, the British hermit and consecrated virgin who enjoyed a season of stardom in the 1990s explaining art history on the BBC, has made it her life’s work to teach Christians how to read a painting. Without some knowledge of our heritage of painting, sculpture and architecture we Christians are orphans, cut off from our heritage.
Whatever else Beckett may have to say about art and artists, underneath it all she’s teaching us how to be aware of what we see.
“Looking closely and letting the work reveal itself to us is a paradigm of all looking. How are we to seek God if we do not look?” Beckett asks in the introduction to three new books about Christian art. “Once we have learned the deep joy of looking at art — which can also be an alarming challenge, when we see things in ourselves that we would rather not see — we are emboldened in our looking at the life in which we are embedded.”
These three thin, attractive, softcover books, out in time for Christmas, are Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas, Sister Wendy on the Art of Mary and Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints. Each volume sells for $14.99 from Franciscan Media.
All three books consist of 14 important, well-known works of Christian art accompanied by a short essay.
The essays are very pleasantly deceptive. Beckett begins with remarks about the artist and the historical circumstances of the painting. She will mention who Rublev was or how Sasseta was hired by the Franciscans to paint eight different scenes from St. Francis’ life. But she easily, subtly leads her readers to a different kind of analysis.
Beckett isn’t really all that interested in the biographies of painters, or the various cultural, social and economic influences that contributed to different periods of art history. She cares about the content of paintings. She chooses paintings with something to say about Christ, or Christian life, or faith, hope and charity.
“It is not enough to know our religion intellectually, to be able to write articles or even books about it,” she writes in her discussion of Benvenuto Tisi Garofalo’s 16th century painting of St. Catherine of Alexandria. “What matters is to live it. We are called to a genuine relationship with Our Blessed Lord.”
Writing about a 16th-century icon of “The Mother of God as the Burning Bush,” Beckett can barely contain her thought in the three pages which the format of the book allows her.
“God could do such great things in her because she gave God absolute freedom. This intimacy with God seems to call for an extraordinary language and to require an extraordinary visual image,” she writes.
The volume dedicated to Mary considers only Eastern icons. She challenges Western readers to look at Mary through fresh and different eyes.
When Beckett gets to Christmas she has given up pretending to be an art historian interested in the aesthetic and historical categories of painting. She begins with a painting but only as a pretext for preaching. As a preacher she is gentle, kind, sensible and fuelled by contemplation.
“We may try to prettify Christmas, and concentrate — quite understandably — on the joy that Jesus is to us,” she writes. “But, as He was to tell His followers, He came ‘not to bring peace but a sword.’ His birth was the crucial event of human history. Will we grow up to the measure of Christ, or will we continue in our pettiness, flaunting the label of Christian but not accepting its profound consequences?”
Good books are always a pleasure to read. But some books do more than please us. Some books make us better than we were. I can’t think of a better Christmas present.