So much of today’s gender wars and identity politics, I feel, emanate from a poor grasp of the Christian understanding of both human and divine love. It is more common, through the popularization of the Theology of the Body, to focus on nuptial love as a type for God's love, and rightly so. But we should be careful not to neglect what the types of paternal and maternal love tell us about God's love too.
The story of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe is remarkable in many ways. An important part of that story, that of the image that was given to Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin is itself enigmatic. What follows is personal speculation - I am describing what strikes me as so mysterious when I look at this image.
As a revealed image it is a rare Western example of a small category of sacred art called in Greek acheiropoieta - not made by human hands. In this example, we have some details clearly derived from Aztec culture and some from traditional Christian culture including some features not normally associated with the Spanish Christian culture of the day. Something else that is striking about this image is how these aspects are combined so as to create something that has great power to convince of the truth of what it conveys. This apparition caused millions to convert and a large part of that was due to the persuasive influence of the visual vocabulary employed by the 'artist' of this image. It spoke simultaneously to both the Aztecs and the occupying Spaniards. It continues to draw devotion today from Christians from all over the world.
The subject of this sacred image came up recently in a lively podcast in which I was in conversation with Christopher West (of the Cor Project and the Theology of the Body Institute). We were discussing the broader subject of the place of contemporary popular culture in a Christian culture and whether or not it has a place for Christians as a tool for evangelization. In the course of this we touched on subjects ranging from 1970s rock music (British, Irish and American) to Gregorian chant. You can listen to the podcast here, or watch it on YouTube, here).
In the course of this exploration, we spoke of how the liturgy is the wellspring of Christian culture and it is the culture of faith, connected to the liturgy, that is the strongest contributor to the universally human aspects of culture. In addition, this can be integrated discerningly with the contemporary culture so that it reflects a particular time and the place also. If this integration is done well the effect of the combination is to connect powerfully the universal truths to contemporary society; if on the other hand it is handled clumsily, it will have the opposite effect and will send people away from salvation.
As an example of such an integration that is successful, Christopher referred to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and spoke beautifully of some of those elements of the content that are particular to the culture (and of which I had not been fully aware before). So referring to this detail:
Our Lady's hairstyle, with the central parting, was in 16th-century Aztec culture the sign of a maiden, a virgin. The ribbon and bow around her waist signified that she was pregnant. So this is a young woman who is portrayed simultaneously a virgin and pregnant. And then the quatrefoil roses articulated in sepia lines on the pale brown-ochre shawl signify royalty. This is the visual vocabulary of Aztec culture.
But this image spoke to the Aztecs of more than their own culture because it has elements that come from traditional Christian culture too. These are universal in that they speak to all Christians (one might make an argument in some cases for non-Christians too). It is these that speak to 16th-century Spaniards and to many Christians from all over the world since.
We can see, for example, the blue shawl, a common color for Mary's outer robe. It is said to denote royalty and Marian chapels often have their walls painted in this color too. The exact shade of blue is unusual in that it is not lapis lazuli blue (French ultramarine), which a contemporary painter of the High Renaissance period might have used, but rather a turquoise blue often described as cerulean. I have no explanation for this difference. Also, I am curious to know more about the pigment that provides this color than Wikipedia can tell me -cerulean blue pigment is only known since the late 18th century when it was chemically created and it is not a naturally occurring mineral. It might be that there is no great mystery here and that it is an effect created by a simple combination of other, naturally occurring green and blue pigments available at the time.
The eight-pointed stars represent her connection with the 'eighth-day' of Creation, her Son, Jesus Christ who rose on the eighth day of the week. Traditionally in Eastern icons, there will be just three stars, symbolizing the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos - God-bearer - before, during and after her pregnancy. There are many more than three stars here. Perhaps it was deemed unnecessary by the Divine Artist to stay with three stars because the indication of virginity is indicated in a different way, as already mentioned. We not only stars but the moon, and this reveals a consistency with scripture in that it shows Our Lady as the woman of the Apocalypse, with the upturned crescent moon.
Another feature which interests me greatly is the nimbus of light around her. The account of the woman in the Book of the Apocalypse describes her as being 'clothed in the sun'. The golden nimbus around her whole person might correspond to this. However, this is more complicated, there is something else going on here I believe that relates to the symbolism of the mandorla.
A mandorla is an iconographic symbol in the shape of a circle or an almond-shaped oval signifying heaven, Divine Glory, or Light. Mandorla is Italian for "almond". It is an indication of the divine light of sanctity but the mandorla of this type is generally reserved for Christ, at least in traditional iconography. I suggest that its presence here is to indicate the presence of Christ within her womb. It is not there so much for the God-bearer, but for God! This is the Christian way of indicating the Our Lady is with child, the divine child which complements the visual symbolism of Aztec culture. Remember that if this image had not spoken to the Spanish occupiers too, none would have taken Juan Diego seriously.
Also, take a close look at the gold envelope that surrounds her. This is not, as one might first suspect, a series of bright gold darts emanating from Our Lady. Rather it is a series of dark darts emanating from her on a gold background, the outer limits of which describe the mandorla shape, which is a smooth almond. In other words, this mandorla is getting darker the closer it is to her. Why should this be?
She really is, to use a familiar phrase, a riddle wrapped up in an enigma!
The answer is that this is how it is painted in traditional iconography. As I wrote in a recent article on the subject: 'The mandorla surrounding Christ usually shows concentric bands of shading which get darker toward the center, rather than lighter. It is painted in this way so as to communicate to us, pictorially, the fact that we must pass through stages of increasing mystery in order to encounter the person of Jesus Christ. This encounter, which takes place in the Mass with the Eucharist at its heart, is one that transforms me supernaturally so that I can begin to grasp the glory of Christ more directly.'
You can see an iconographic mandorla here in the Dormition painted by Theophan the Greek in 1392:
In the following icon, the sense of a mandorla getting darker as it moves towards the center is portrayed in a different way:
As we can see above, the hidden 'heart of darkness' is suggested visually by darts of darkness that come from a point obscured by the figure of Christ. This is similar, but not identical to the device used by the artist in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Notice also, incidentally, that while the apostles are able to perceive the glorified Christ they still do so dimly. They are partially and temporarily deified, but not fully and so are partially blinded by the Light and are knocked off their feet. To indicate this we see the rays that strike them as shafts of darkness, and the apostles themselves have no halos (in contrast with the prophets who flank Our Lord are already in heaven). They do not receive these until Pentecost.
It is interesting to note that virtually every copy of the Our Lady of Guadalupe icon gets this detail wrong and inverts the direction of the lines. For example, here is one painted around 1700:
Going back to the original, while the cherub does partially evoke in some ways those of Raphael in the art of High Renaissance Italy, it is not quite so sentimental as his, I would say, and the angel's wings are not of the fluffy white variety, but layered green blue, white and red, which again is common in traditional iconography and gothic art.
All of the constituent parts (including aspects not described here), both those particular to time and place and those that are universal combined to create a powerful force for persuasion. This being so, if we imagine for the moment that the artist is not divine, then we have indeed a remarkable mortal artist, one who is simultaneously aware of scripture, Christian artistic tradition going beyond 16th-century Spain, and Aztec culture. I suggest that someone of this profile would have been hard to find in Mexico in 1530!
To complicate matters further, there are the facts that have come to light as a consequence of scientific research of the image. These are things that could not have been known at the time. For example, there is an image reflected in the eye of Our Lady is of a room of people that corresponds to what was known about the people present when Juan Diego presented the image to his bishop.
It is not obvious to anyone looking at it with the naked eye that there is even a reflection. Furthermore, I'm not sure how the hypothesis could make the transition into a theorem, which is what is necessary to constitute genuine scientific proof. Let suppose, for argument's sake, that the hypothesis is correct, then I suggest that this is a fact that was built into the image in order to convince skeptical 20th-century scientists and atheist materialists, but not 16th century Spaniards or Aztecs. You can make your own mind up on this one, here. For what it's worth, I am sceptical about this one. - I don't know how many computer algorithms it took to get the interpretation they were looking for.
In addition, we should consider the style of the image. Although it would never be mistaken for a Greek or Russian icon, it is nevertheless pretty much in accordance with the iconographic prototype. This would make sense theologically, for the iconographic style is the style of eschatological man. Our Lady is in glory in heaven and so it would be the most appropriate style for her to appear.
In accordance with the iconographic tradition, there is no strong cast shadow, the image is defined by line predominantly rather than tone. This is all the more remarkable. This is the period of the High Renaissance in Italy, which bears very little comparison to this stylistically. Spain did not take to this new style instantly and art of the period might have been more akin to northern Flemish art from the Spanish Netherlands and so stylistically closer to what we see here, nevertheless, I do not know of any other artist of the periods whose style is like this. It almost seems to be a new and unique style of iconography.
Again, if this was not a revealed image, then our artist aside from all else already mentioned is also a theologian of insight. He understood that the best artistic tradition to represent her should be iconographic, and then had sufficient familiarity with it to apply the principles of that tradition so as to create legitimate modifications of style that would make it more accessible to the local population, both Spanish and Aztec. In the case of the representation of the mandorla, this artist was seemingly more familiar with the iconographic prototype than many, at least, of his contemporaries (judging from the flawed copies made of it by other artists) and this grasp of the underlying principles was so well understood that he was able to represent the nimbus getting darker in a unique way, without straying beyond the bounds of what constitutes the tradition.
If on the other hand, this is an authentic icon 'not made by human hands' and painted, so to speak, by the hand of God, then the remarkable degree of conformity to tradition, tells how authentic and true that tradition is. The iconographic tradition was developed by faithful Christians in the first centuries of the Church in order to communicate by visual means the truths of the eschaton. We must conclude that they were divinely inspired in their thinking to be so in conformity with this and all other acheiropoieta.
Whether we accept tradition and take it to be of the hand of God (and I do), or we believe it is the work of an artist of remarkable insight and inspiration, we have a wonderfully conceived and executed picture that participates in holy beauty.
Contrary to what many people think, and in accordance with Christian tradition, John Paul II was conservative in his approach to the portrayal of the nude in art. He told us that it is only appropriate to portray man naked when shining the with the uncreated light of Christ. In short if we can't show man clothed in glory, show him clothed...in clothes!
I am delighted to announce that Pontifex University and the Theology of the Body Institute, are formerly partnered to created a unique Masters degree. The Theology of the Body Institute, which is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, promotes the life-giving message of Theology of the Body through graduate-level courses, on-site speaker programs, and clergy enrichment training. Their week-long courses take place around the country and through the year, for a full schedule follow the link here. Their teachers are internationally known leaders in their fields such as Christopher West and Bill Donaghy.
"Style and content are both critical if we are to portray the human form with dignity. It's not just what we paint, but how we paint it." "The Master of Sacred Arts program of www.Pontifex.University discusses in great depth how this consideration of the way in which we paint the human figure has influenced profoundly all the great Christian styles of art."
Here is the latest video presentation, by Bill Donaghy of the Theology of the Body Institute in Philadelphia, recorded just after the Easter Triduum last year. He discusses Christ in the Realm of the Dead, painted between 1891-94 painted by the Danish artist Joakim Skovgaard (1856-1933).
I did not know anything about this artist until I saw Bill's talk. Although not so obviously drawing on the Greek ideal, his style does remind me, in many ways, of William Blake. The dramatic touch in composition, the coloration look similar. And just like Blake he does not conform to the academic styles that dominated in the period that he painted.
While Christian artists are not bound to follow traditional styles (although I would argue they would need good reasons to depart from them) they must consider a style that has the right balance of naturalism and idealization. This is especially important when portraying the human form nude. Style and content are both critical if we are to portray the human form with dignity! It's not just what we paint, but how we paint it.This artist has created a work of great power without being prurient. He chooses poses that avoid revealing private parts - this is especially appropriate if portraying fallen man, for they are meant to be private in him more than in any other anthropological state. That is why we wear clothes - or we ought to - in most situations!
The drama of this moment which indicates, as Bill tells us in his commentary, 'where Adam fails Christ succeeds'.
The Master of Sacred Arts program of www.Pontifex.University discusses in great depth how this consideration of the way in which we paint the human figure has influenced profoundly all the great Christian styles of art.
Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at www.pontifex.university
A video commentary by Bill Donaghy of the Theology of the Body Institute, Here is the second in the series of 12 short videos on art by Bill Donaghy of the Theology of the Body Institute in Philadelphia. This week and next he discusses two paintings by William Blake the poet and artist. In this case, he discusses illustrations to Milton's Paradise Lost. First is Satan Watching the Caresses of Adam and Eve.
At first glance, the art of Blake may seem a world apart from the grand fresco of Adam and God in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. However, both draw on the ancient Greek ideal of the human form for inspiration. This can be seen if you compare the paintings in each case with any Venus or Hermes (as below)
This is appropriate to the subject matter and consistent with the ideas of John Paul II because he stated that in his view the Greek ideal might be the starting point for the art of the Theology of the Body.
Here is the video: https://youtu.be/SER00LywujY It was recorded in April last year and so the course that Bill refers to is past, but I would encourage people to look for courses in the coming year. His approach to art and beauty is fully in harmony with that of Pontifex University and my own Way of Beauty book.
Readers might be interested to know of newly published book, the Beauty of God's House, which is a Festschrift for Stratford Caldecott. It is a collection of essays edited by Prof Francesca Murphy and features contributions from the Davids Schindler, Marc Ouellet, John Milbank, Aidan Nichols, Adrian Walker, Jean Borella, David Fagerburg, Nick Healy Jr, Michael Cameron, Phil Zaleski, Carol Zaleski, Derek Cross, Mary Taylor, Reza Shah-Kazemi, and myself with an afterword by his wife Leonie Caldecott. The book covers the whole range of Caldecott's interests, from poetics to politics. Anyone interested in the field of theology and the arts will find much to intrigue them. If there is a common thread that runs through them all it is, as the title suggests, Stratford's interests is in the beauty of the cosmos and how it reflects the beauty of God.
I contributed an essay on the place of the nude in Christian art in the light of JP II's Theology of the Body (and other writings including his address at the opening of the newly restored frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and his Letter to Artists). The common lore has him as a Catholic apologist for the Sixties who stripped the loin cloths and fig leaves from the Sistine Chapel. In fact he spoke very strongly against naturalistic representations of the nude and I argue that in fact he was as about as conservative in his approach to the pictorial representation of nudity as Pius IV (who had some fig leaves painted on the Sistine Chapel some years after it was first painted).
I don't explain in the essay, but the reason I wrote this arises directly from conversation with Strat and Leonie Caldecott some years ago. I was working with both at the time to organise a summer drawing school in Oxford teaching the academic method and we were looking for a model for a life drawing class that was to be included. We couldn't find one and in the end someone we all knew well volunteered, but she would not disrobe. None of us wanted her too either because we knew her and that alone made it seem inappropriate. So what we did in the end was ask her to model, elegantly dressed, for what we called a full-figure portraiture class. Realising that if I was going to establish an art school for Catholics I was going to have to address this issue head-on I decide to do some research.
At that time I had unquestioningly accepted the received wisdom that came from Catholics and non-Catholics alike that it was part of the tradition and necessary for any good training of an artist. Therefore, I was looking to find justifications for the nude and for figure drawing as a practice that I could use against what I perceived to be over puritanical Catholics. I immediately headed for JPII believing he would be my great ally here, as well as various other authors. Strat suggested to me that I read an article that had been printed in Communio some years earlier. It was a reprint of a piece written by a contemporary and friend of Jacques Maritain called Erik Petersen and was entitled A Theology of Dress. Here was the complementary theology to the Theology of the Body and I found that the two were founded on complete harmony of thought. As I studied these writings and the Catholic tradition of figure painting, to my surprise I came to the opposite conclusion. I felt that the place of the nude in the Catholic tradition had been greatly exaggerated latterly and also that nude figure drawing is not necessary for the training of artists. The article explains my thinking in detail.
I intend to post a review of the book when I have read the contributions of the other authors.
It is available from the publisher, Cascade Books, here.