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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Art and the Church: Madonna and the child

If it were a country, the Catholic Church, with an estimated 1.2 billion followers, would be the most populous in the world. Nations have had their fair share of trouble in keeping large swathes of people under a common identity. Yet, the Church has stood the test of time. How has the Church been able to attract and sustain such a large following over such a long period of time? To attempt to answer this question, it is as important to understand the means through which the Church has managed to unpack its intricate ideas for its following of largely ordinary people — i.e., evangelization.

As I understand it, evangelization has two chief aims: accuracy and accessibility. Firstly, evangelization aims to paint the most accurate representation of the ideas of religion as presented in the guiding canonical works, such as the Bible. The Church and its agents have a responsibility — and motivation — to remain faithful to the founding documents of the Christian faith. That is, their work of bringing the flock in must be in concert with the teachings of the Church itself. Secondly, evangelization is also aimed at making the intricate ideas of the religion readily accessible to its followers — to translate the seemingly distant, elusive and mystical ideas of God and religion into readily accessible and humanly comprehensible terms. In sum, to take the Church to the people. A plethora of means have been employed to achieve these two ends, including music, the performing arts, translation of texts into different languages, instruction and art.  Of all these, I contend that art best accomplishes the two aims of accuracy and accessibility.

The use of art for evangelical purposes can be traced back to the earliest civilizations. During the Egyptian civilization, which lasted over 30 centuries, from 3100 B.C. up until its conquest by Alexander in 332 B.C., the Egyptian pharaohs oversaw the erection of giant pyramids as demonstration of Egypt’s divine powers, among other purposes. With the advent of Christianity in the ages that followed, art continued to play an important role in the work of the Catholic Church. The earliest apostles, together with lay men and women, oversaw the construction of cathedral. One example is the gothic Milan cathedral in Italy, which is as spectacular a work of art as it is a human endeavor. Church buildings around the world have made it tradition to use iconographic stained glass for their windows, which bear various messages adapted from the Bible and other canonical texts of the Christian faith. This iconographic representation of various features of the Catholic faith can be found on the stained-glass windows of the Basilica of the Sacred heart as well as on the walls of the library.

The painting of “The Madonna and the Child,” on display in the Snite Museum here on campus, best encapsulates the role of art in evangelization. This is a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the child Jesus. The painting is set in heaven with angels prostrating before Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mother Mary, presented to be of a preeminent stature, carries baby Jesus on her lap, with a fixed gaze on her child. She is adorned in a dark blue veil and cloak with her chest and womb areas painted in gold. Baby Jesus is holding a finch in one hand, which carries a thorny branch in its mouth. He has his other hand stretched out. Above them are two angels who are prostrating before Mother Mary and Christ. The frame of the painting takes on a gothic shape and is imbued in gold paint.

The painting is a depiction of Mother Mary’s gracious acceptance of God’s call to be the protector and earthly nurturer (together with her husband Joseph) of the Son of God. Her acceptance of this responsibility was not only in service to the heavenly kingdom but a blessing to the world, earning us salvation. She not only accepted this responsibility with grace, but also executed it with diligence as depicted by her attentive, focused gaze on Jesus. Therefore, through this painting, the Church reminds her people that God has called each of us to the service of His kingdom, and of humanity. In this way, the Church is able to tell as well as show its followers what its teachings are about.

Using art, the Church is able to paint a human imagination of Christ’s love for us all. “Madonna and the Child” invites us to reflect on the nature of Christ’s love for us all. Christ, being God Himself as part of the Holy Spirit, is pure. The image of baby Jesus seen in “Madonna and the Child” invokes the purity of a child’s love — selfless, innocent and bearing no prejudice. This has the effect of helping the viewer, believer or not, to imagine the nature of Christ’s love as being like that of a child. Christ is also presented stretching out His hand which is a symbol of the blessings He bestows upon the world. We are therefore able to know and see Christ’s love as represented in a piece of art better than a song or a sermon might have helped us understand.

Art has the power to convert mystical matters into humanly comprehensible terms. The Church and its agents have used art work to make the gospel more accessible to its flock. In the same way, “Madonna and the Child” invites us to reflect on and appreciate the sacredness of God, and the Holy Family. The artist paints a picture of heaven where angels prostrating before Mother Mary and Christ. The entire painting is imbued in gold which portrays the heavenly scene as exquisite. This portrayal of Christ and Mother Mary endears the Holy family to the viewer and enhances the viewers’ perception of the Holy Family as sacred and therefore deserving of all praise. Such illustrative power can inspire Christians and motivate their faith even more effectively.

Some argue that art can sometimes oversimplify Biblical teachings and hence fail to capture their salience. Others argue that artists impose their own imagination and interpretation on the Church’s teachings. For example, the creator of the character of Jesus in the movie The Passion of Christ created a representation that has become a reality for many people but has no proof of certainty whatsoever. Because artists are not experienced theologians (with a few known exceptions) or divine in any known way, their imagination cannot be very reliable. The implication of this is that while art might achieve the goal of accessibility, it can only go so far in accuracy because artists are subjective, and their works are heavily influenced by their thinking.

These ideas raise important questions to help us better understand the use of art in the evangelical work of the Church. How much free rein does the Church give to artists who paint images that represent a reality of the likeness of the teachings of the Church? If there’s no control on what artists can represent through their work, how do we trust their own imaginations to be the closest to the Church’s true teachings? By answering these questions, we can better understand the effectiveness of art in representing religious ideas. Yet, while art may not be the perfect way of achieving the two means of accuracy and accessibility, a strong case can be made for it as our best attempt for now.


Trevor Lwere is a senior from Kampala, Uganda, studying Economics and Global Affairs with a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). He is a dee-jay in his free time and can be reached at tlwere@nd.eduor @LwereTrevor on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.