Here is an excellent series of recorded commentaries on works of art by Fr Michael Morris of the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. Fr Morris, who is on the full-time faculty of the school, heads their Religion and the Arts program and writes the sacred art meditations for the monthly Magnificat magazine. He has been posting one a week during lent and they call be viewed here. I encourage readers to visit this site watch these videos. At the end of this article is his meditation on the Ecce Homo by the Flemish artist Quentin Massys. The original painting is in the Prado in Madrid.
This does raise the question of what is purpose of such meditations? How do we make use of all the great information they contain? Do they help our participation in the liturgy? If so, how? If we cannot answer these questions satisfactorily then perhaps what we have here is just a bit of pious relaxation, one step up from vegging out in front of a documentary on the television - Catholic PBS!
The first point for each of us to ask ourselves, I suggest, is this: am I doing this as an exercise in understanding the work of art, or treating the work of art as a means for enhancing my knowledge and understanding of the Word. If it is the former then, and I speak for myself here, I am indulging in intellectual pride or a cultural affectation. I might as well be be taking a benign secular art history course which, while acknowledging the Catholic intentions of the artist, is detached from them.
Even if my goal is the latter - enhancing knowledge and understanding of the Word - then unless it is conformity to the ultimate end, it becomes another form of intellectual pride in which I am seeking theological knowledge and understanding, rather than artistic.
The answer has to be that, like all other human activity, it can be ordered to the purpose of deepening my participation the Sacred Liturgy, But how? Here is my approach:
I suggest that it is analogous to the study of scripture, which when done well internalizes what is learnt so that our worship of God is more worthy. This last point raises yet another additional question. If meditation of art is analogous to study of scripture, why bother with the study of art at all? Why not just study scripture directly?
The answer is given to us in the Catechism. In the first item that comes under the heading Truth, Beauty and Sacred Art, we read: 'Truth is beautiful in itself. Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect. But truth can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God.' (CCC 2500)
This suggests then that the words of the art meditation are just a first step. They lead us into a receptivity of those aspects of the work of art that is not said in the mediation, and which are 'beyond words'. This is a passive, contemplative mode of study. It is, when understood in this way, a sort of visual lectio divina. This is not a new idea, Claire of Assisi, for example, is often credited with the development of a technique of meditating art in this way. I suggest that in fact, unless art is studied in conjunction with this contemplative mode, then one might as well just be reading the theology truths contained from a written script. For we are not gaining beyond the words by looking at the picture.
And then we must go further still. Just as Benedictine spirituality as outlined in the Rule does not end with lectio divina but rather with the Opus Dei, the work of God - worshiping him in the Sacred Liturgy - so our meditation and contemplation of art must be directed towards this higher goal.
There are two ways in which this can be so, I suggest. The first, is an intellectual process that transforms us - those aspects of the Word that have been internalized by both meditation and contemplation are brought to the altar and affect our response in the Eucharist.
The second is that the meditation and contemplation of the art has developed our faculties of meditation and contemplation to a higher place. So when our worship is done in conjunction with appropriate holy images we use those faculties within the context of worship and are more engaged with that imagery in a way that raises our hearts and minds to God in our worship. Those truths that are beyond words are with us in the liturgy too.
This last point presupposes, of course, that there is some decent liturgical art where the liturgy is taking place!
As students we are more likely to make this connection right up the hierarchy of ends and put it into practice if we are made aware by our teachers and develop the habit of using art work in our prayer and especially in the liturgy. Without this there is a real danger that such meditations will be just the empty intellectual exercises that give academia a bad name.
The Church tells us that when it offers a Catholic education, 'A school is a privileged place in which, through a living encounter with a cultural inheritance, integral formation occurs.' ( The Catholic School, 26; pub. The Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, 1977) This encounter with our cultural inheritance is not a 'living' encounter that provides 'integral formation' unless it is in conformity with its highest purpose - the worship of God in the Sacred Liturgy. It is the job of those us who teach to transmit this to our students how to use the information we give well, in conformity with our ultimate end, otherwise we let them down...and waste many wonderful resources such as those provided by Fr Morris.
Don't forget the Way of Beauty online courses www.Pontifex.University (go to the Catalog) for college credit, for continuing ed. units, or for audit. A formation through an encounter with a cultural heritage - for artists, architects, priests and seminarians, and all interested in contributing to the 'new epiphany of beauty'.