Letter To Artists 8: The Middle Ages

One gets the clear idea of a deep appreciation in Pope John Paul II for both East and West. While the “two lungs” of Christianity became estranged, separate traditions arose in each. Icons became the main means of depicting the divine where the Byzantine Empire continued.

8. The succeeding centuries saw a great development of Christian art. In the East, the art of the icon continued to flourish, obeying theological and aesthetic norms charged with meaning and sustained by the conviction that, in a sense, the icon is a sacrament. By analogy with what occurs in the sacraments, the icon makes present the mystery of the Incarnation in one or other of its aspects. That is why the beauty of the icon can be best appreciated in a church where in the shadows burning lamps stir infinite flickerings of light. As Pavel Florensky has written: “By the flat light of day, gold is crude, heavy, useless, but by the tremulous light of a lamp or candle it springs to life and glitters in sparks beyond counting—now here, now there, evoking the sense of other lights, not of this earth, which fill the space of heaven”.(La prospettiva rovesciata ed altri scritti, Rome 1984, p. 63)

In Western Europe, Pope John Paul II mentions architecture first:

In the West, artists start from the most varied viewpoints, depending also on the underlying convictions of the cultural world of their time. The artistic heritage built up over the centuries includes a vast array of sacred works of great inspiration, which still today leave the observer full of admiration. In the first place, there are the great buildings for worship, in which the functional is always wedded to the creative impulse inspired by a sense of the beautiful and an intuition of the mystery. From here came the various styles well known in the history of art. The strength and simplicity of the Romanesque, expressed in cathedrals and abbeys, slowly evolved into the soaring splendours of the Gothic. These forms portray not only the genius of an artist but the soul of a people. In the play of light and shadow, in forms at times massive, at times delicate, structural considerations certainly come into play, but so too do the tensions peculiar to the experience of God, the mystery both “awesome” and “alluring”.

Outside of architecture, many genres, many traditions …

How is one to summarize with a few brief references to each of the many different art forms, the creative power of the centuries of the Christian Middle Ages? An entire culture, albeit with the inescapable limits of all that is human, had become imbued with the Gospel; and where theology produced the Summa of Saint Thomas, church art moulded matter in a way which led to adoration of the mystery, and a wonderful poet like Dante Alighieri could compose “the sacred poem, to which both heaven and earth have turned their hand”,(Paradiso XXV, 1-2) as he himself described the Divine Comedy.

Pope John Paul II’s Letter To Artists is available in its entirety online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Letter To Artists 8: The Middle Ages

  1. Liam says:

    The period of Western sacred art covered here included art that has largely been destroyed: the painting of churches/chapels/cathedrals. Like the great buildings of Western antiquity, great buildings of the Western Middle Ages were often vividly painted, not only inside but sometimes outside as well. Most of that painting has been lost to the elements or to removal during the anachronistic aesthetic tastes of the Renaissance and neo-Classical eras.

    For example, here is an LED illustration of how the facade of the great cathedral of Amiens might have looked in its prime:

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