Church sticks with the familiar in its art

  • April 26, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - Artist Elizabeth Adams has been making art for churches for 30 years. Her latest commission, titled Unbind Them, is on view at St. Philip the Apostle Anglican Church in Toronto. Despite her years spent studying in Italy, and her love of Romanesque architecture on display in the front hall of her home and studio, almost none of Adams’ work has seen the inside of a Catholic church.
It’s not for lack of trying. Adams would welcome a commission to produce one of her fabric-based works for a Catholic parish. Much of her work — chasubles, altar cloths, hangings, banners — comes right out of Catholic liturgical tradition. But it seems Catholics are happy to pick something comforting and familiar rather than engage a contemporary artist.

That’s not the way the church magisterium would have it, points out Saint Paul University professor of systematic theology and liturgy Susan Roll.

“The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man’s genius,” says Sacrosanctum Concilium, also known as the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

As a part of the Vatican II promise of aggiornomento, church fathers in 1963 were at pains to instruct the church that it is not opposed to contemporary expression.

In Europe, Roll has visited parishes where contemporary artists have been asked to produce church furnishings. A German parish had stations of the cross in a contemporary setting with Jesus falling for the third time beside a spiky-haired drug addict.

“This stuff is right off the street. It’s right off people’s lives. And it’s Christ reaching out to this guy,” said Roll.

The immigrant church of North America, by comparison, has frozen itself into the conservative 19th- and early 20th-century sensibility of the first waves of Irish, Scottish, German and Italian settlers.

“The people who came here were immigrants. The majority were not well educated... For many, and to some extent this continues today, their Catholic faith was an ethnic identity marker as well as a religious affiliation,” said Roll. “That would mean that thinking outside the box as far as artistic expression would not be something that would occur to them.”

Adams’ Unbind Them, consisting of an altar cloth, pulpit fall, scapular and a sculptural hanging, is on display in St. Philip the Apostle (201 Caribou Rd. near Bathurst and Lawrence Avenues) until May 20. In the Hebrew words silkscreened onto the cloth, a pattern of tables overturned, and the rough edges of the cloth, Adams work is a meditation on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the tomb and the social justice commitment of the parish.

St. Philip’s is obviously not a rich parish. The warren of hallways that connect the offices and the day care could use much more than just another coat of paint. The poorly lit sanctuary brings to mind heating bills. Despite what might be considered more pressing needs to maintain their building, the tiny parish has commissioned six artists including Adams to present faith in art over the entire course of 2007.

In the course of working on Unbind Them Adams has been reading the work of biblical scholar Walter Bruggerman and considering the effect Jesus had on people around Him.

“Jesus’ whole ministry had to do with that turning things upside down — shaking people up,” said Adams.

To portray this Adams has incorporated a pattern of tables turned upside down into the cloth. She has also printed the Hebrew words Hessed (steadfast love), Raham (compassion) and Emeth (faithfulness) onto the altar cloth. The faintly printed words on silk are intended to draw the viewer to the altar, simply because they cannot be read from any great distance.

Trained as a sculptor and art therapist, Adams is perplexed by the absence of Catholic churches from the contemporary art world, but at 56 she says she’s beyond worrying about it. What’s important is the capacity of the art itself to communicate a spiritual truth, whether it’s found in a parish or gallery.

“There’s a very strong spiritual bridge that can be crossed from the arts to the divine,” Adams said.

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