We explore “Art and the mystery of the Word made flesh” in section 5 of this letter. Let’s take half today and the rest tomorrow.
5. The Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the invisible and ineffable God by means of “graven or molten image” (Dt 27:15), because God transcends every material representation: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes visible in person: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son born of woman” (Gal 4:4). God became man in Jesus Christ, who thus becomes “the central point of reference for an understanding of the enigma of human existence, the created world and God himself”.(Fides et Ratio (14 September 1998), 80)
The Christian tradition is rooted in Judaism, which declines to “illustrate” God simply because God cannot be captured in any image. Does the incarnation change this equation for Christians? In history, this has been a troublesome point for some believers who seek to keep faith with those who have gone before us, and avoid any flirtation with idolatry. Is there a middle ground between iconoclasm and idolatry? For most Christians, the answer to this has been in the affirmative.
This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming (human), the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.
Artists have a role to play to ensure that human imagination is widened and inspired. But yet we do not wish to make the true and the good a trap for others.
What do you think? Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.