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A Few Thoughts on the Literacy Problem
by Mary Podles
“The trouble with modern education,” says an old Jesuit in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, “is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.” Waugh’s Rex, who was going through the motions of conversion for reasons of his own, was so ignorant that, in a supremely comic moment, he is deceived by the mischievous ten-year-old Cordelia into believing in the sacred monkeys in the Vatican and the pope who made his horse a cardinal. “‘I don’t say there mayn’t be a good reason for all this,’ he tells the priest, ‘but you ought to tell me about it and not let me find out for myself.’” Things have slipped even since Waugh’s time: the current edition of Brideshead now bears on its cover the inscription, “Companion to the PBS television series.” I suspect one might be hard put to find a college student, Catholic or not, who could tell you with precision what a cardinal or the Vatican is.
An example: a student at Barnard was assigned a museum paper for a basic art history course. She dutifully chose a painting at the Met and made a scrupulous analysis of its formal elements, line, color, spatial configuration and so forth. When she came to the final section of the assignment, “Tell how the artist relates stylistic elements to the narrative or iconographic intent of the painting,” she checked the label and duly found her picture to be a Nativity. Had she been a little more ignorant, she might have dipped into the dictionary and found that one Nativity in history stood out from all the rest; as it was, she knew the word meant “birth” and proceeded as follows: “Everyone is happy when a new baby is born. The grandparents come from far away; everyone brings a present . . .” This was my revelation of the darkness at the heart of American education, the same sinking feeling E. A. Hirsch, author of Cultural Literacy, had when he realized that University of Virginia students (Virginia!) did not recognize allusions to Appomattox.
Her teacher at the time was a graduate student, as was I, and together we shook our heads in perplexity. How, we wondered, could we teach art in its historical context to students with no grasp of history? How could we show them how a painting was meant to be read in its own time, how it was meant by its maker to be seen, if its content was a total unknown to its beholder? Some of us choose to beg the question entirely, and treat art as a self-evolving phenomenon that can be dealt with in purely stylistic terms, standing or falling on its own formal aesthetic merits. But to teach art in a vacuum is to rob it of half its value or more, for religious art, especially in the age of Christendom, was meant to be read not only as beautiful object, but also as an integral part of a greater whole, the liturgy itself.
To propound such a theory nowadays, however, guarantees one a curious reaction, from puzzled stares to downright derision. In colleges and universities, any mention of religion as a serious matter is likely to be met with active hostility. I recall one Columbia professor explaining how a Titian painting in which the donors are presented by their patronal name-saints to the child Christ via the Virgin, functions in the same way as intercessory prayer. He was met with a burst of mocking laughter. Startled, he chid the class mildly for its ignorance and boorishness. “Oo,” whispered my seatmate derisively, “I think we’ve just been spanked.”
What is one to do in the face of such obdurance? One attack might be to teach iconography as a thinly veiled briefing in the basic concepts of Christianity. “If you haven’t ever read a Gospel,” proclaimed the Renaissance lecturer of my undergraduate days, “for heaven’s sake read one now, or you won’t have any idea what’s going on.” Only then can one hope to explain how a work of Christian art would have been read in its own time, and how it functioned in real life, whether as a means of instruction, a part of public liturgy, or an aid to private prayer. I have had some success with this approach, but maybe only because it seems to impart secret and esoteric knowledge to the student, cool facts which very few other people know. In any case it is certainly a good opportunity for a subtle apostolate.
The job was a little easier in a museum setting, or maybe only a little less discouraging because I didn’t meet as much resistance. Still, ignorance was rife. One fellow curator, a woman with a doctorate, was working on a project centering on the concept of the divine child. She asked me to explain to her why the infant Jesus looked like a miniature adult in Byzantine art, but like a baby in Flemish painting. I gave her a thumbnail sketch of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, and explained that the Church at different times and situations had placed different emphasis on his humanity and his divinity. His divinity. That brought her up short. Was he thought to be divine? Yes, I said, he was thought to be God. That was the whole point. New concept, she said; she thought, he was supposed to be the son of God? She had never heard any of this, and frankly she was a little surprised. Was I a Catholic? Did I believe all this? Again I was reminded of the word of Brideshead’s Charles Ryder: “No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophy system and intransigeant historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.” This can be dispiriting. The best one might hope for is that one might pique one’s audience’s interest, to plant a seed that, under the right weather conditions later on, might sprout and actually come to something. Perhaps that is always the way of an apostolate.
At the moment, the art business is booming. In entertainment terms, a blockbuster exhibition is the next best thing to a ticket to Cats. People are dying to Know About Art. Museum cafes have become fashionable watering spots. A recent exhibition of paintings by Titian—Titian, without even a Ninja Turtle named after him—drew such crowds as to entail a 45-minute wait to get in. “If there are this many people in America who want to see Titian on a weekday,” remarked one friend, a musician, “why do we have such collective bad taste?” The answer is, perhaps, we want to know, but we’re awfully ignorant. The time is ripe to reintegrate art and religion, art and life.
One place to do so might be the churches, where those interested in religion might be more receptive to the concept of its expression through artistic means. Here, I discover, is the flip side of the problem: learning has become so compartmentalized that those who have given serious study to religion, who make it their business, are often totally ignorant about art and its historical integration into liturgy and prayer. An example here: in a local church, an Edwardian Tudor beauty, a new pastor rearranged the furniture of the sanctuary into a big semicircle in an effort to integrate it into a seamless whole with the nave and aisles. He was pleased with his efforts, and put a note in the bulletin asking for people’s reactions to it. An art historian trained in ecclesiastical architecture was lurking in the congregation and responded with an explanation of the historical development of the sanctuary space, its liturgical import and meaning, and the ways in which the axial arrangement of the cruciform church’s interior space functioned to reinforce and enhance the symbolic significance of the sanctuary (the church stands for the Mystical Body, the Church, with Christ at its head, etc.) In short, the new arrangement was not necessarily a good idea in the abstract, and it was doomed to fail anyway. The pastor’s reply was, “I appreciate your sensitivity, but it’s just a matter of taste.” The obdurate are not confined to academic circles either.
Here then are the prongs of the dilemma (at least there are only two). Those who know, profess to know, or want to know anything about art have little or no knowledge of or interest in religion, while those who pursue the interests of religion know, profess to know, and apparently want to know nothing about art. So how does one go about the difficult matter of reintegrating art and life into a coherent concept of culture?
One can always begin with oneself. All through school, I was regarded as a sort of local native guide to things Catholic. My fellow students looked on my Catholicism fondly (I like to think) as an innocuous hobby horse, the kind of quick eccentrics and art historians are prone to, and a useful tool for deciphering arcane iconographies. I could be relied upon, for instance, to explain how what went on in an altarpiece might related to what went on at the altar, how the work of art in its architectural context might be meant to enhance or inform worshipful prayer. Yet you would be amazed to learn how late in life I learned to integrate visual imagery into my own prayer life, learned to pray before such icons as one was meant to do. I could (and did) explain the process to you in elaborate detail; I simply never did it myself. The realization that I could—and should—came like a thump between the shoulderblades.
Then too, it should be possible to introduce some compelling form of physical imagery into community worship in a tactful way, so that a body of tactile and sensory experiences may reinforce those of the spirit. Doubtless that was the motivation behind the guitars and the felt banners of the reformed Mass, but alas, these provoke in me the reaction felt by Annie Dillard in “An Expedition to the Pole”: “ . . .I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars. Why am I here? Who gave these nice Catholics guitars? Why are they not mumbling in Latin and performing superstitious rituals? What is the Pope thinking of?” I suppose it might be possible to argue, explain and debate the merits of the new church music ad nauseam, and, while I recognize that there are those who enjoy a good dust-up, I am not one of them. A better alternative might be to demonstrate the connectedness of the old traditions and the new liturgy in a small way. For a time my husband and I served on the Family Life Mass Committee, and succeeded in introducing some of the folk customs of Europe into the trappings of the monthly children’s Mass. Instead of reducing our intellectual target area to the lowest common denominator—the six-year old—we tried to put the feast back into the feast days, to integrate music and pageantry and even special foods into our celebrations as a reminder of the sweetness inherent in the divine taking-on of human nature.
For example, at Epiphany, we tried out a version of the Officium Stellae, the medieval Office of the Star. At the end of Mass, as the choir sang the familiar We Three Kings, children dressed as the Magi processed to the main altar, where they were met by the pastor. He carried a star-shaped monstrance containing the Host, and led them to a side altar where the creche, a half-life sized Neapolitan one, was set up. He then led us in a solemn Benediction. The Real Presence and the effigy of the newborn Savior came together with the star into a single image, simple enough for children, formal enough not to embarrass teenagers, solemn enough to impress adults, and nostalgic for those old enough to remember the candles, incense, and silent reverence of Benediction. Afterwards we all adjourned to the undercroft for special Epiphany cookies.
We found the response a little startling. The congregation was by and large deeply moved, more deeply than we ever thought likely in such a group so restrained they scarcely join in congregational singing. People wept publicly. After a May procession, for which we had shamelessly chosen the prettiest golden-haired children of the parish, one woman flung her arms around the pastor, told him it was the most beautiful birthday present she had ever been given, and burst into tears. Parents told us their children actively looked forward to Mass for the first time in their lives. Men came. The tactful introduction of folk customs had made clear the connection of the physical and the spiritual, so that the Mass touched hearts as it ought to do. Something had been made real to them—something that was missing before.
Such a strong emotional response is probably due to a combination of many factors. I suggest that one of them might be that the physical imagery we used had brought home the physical reality, the very materiality of the motherhood of Mary and of the Incarnation. The folk traditions we resurrected had become traditional because they were effective images that conveyed deep truths.
There is present-day strain of gnosticism loose in the world that declares the physical to be irrelevant, immaterial, of no importance. It doesn’t really matter what you do in the body, argue the gnostics, so long as you are a good person spiritually. I suspect this attitude lies behind the current lack of respect for the procreative aspect of sex, and the concomitant acceptance of homosexual relations on an equal footing with heterosexual ones. The notion is pervasive, even among Christians. Christian thought in both East and West has been deeply influenced by its roots in the Greek Fathers, who did not share the Hebrew sense of the significance of the material order of things, and thence of the body. But the material order of creation must be important, or there would surely have been no Incarnation.
This is why I find the loss of Christian art, both folk and high art, to be so tragic. For art is the bridge between the worlds, between mind and body, spirit and flesh. The artist has a finger in the great pie of creation; he gives physical, graspable form to spiritual truth. Hence “imagination” and “inspiration”: art is the imaging of spiritual realities, not abstractions but realities, in concrete form. An appreciation of art is then not mere aestheticism: as Christians, we see beauty in the world as the stamp of God’s hand, his signature on the canvas of creation, a foretaste of the uncreated light that shone on Mt. Tabor. The dying of religious art in the twentieth century is a fading of our view of the light. Yet all is not lost, for ironically the twentieth century has given us really the first theologian of aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar. His Herrlichkeit (The Glory of the Lord) is the first exhaustive attempt to propound a theology of the Beautiful as a transcendent aspect of God (much having been said about the Good and the True).
In addition to dipping into von Balthasar, we in the West might do well to look to the East, to Eastern rite and Orthodox thinking on the place of art in life and liturgy. In the East, the visual arts have always been more integral to the liturgy than in the West. Theology expressed through icons, for example, carries equal weight with theology expressed through expository writings. In Eastern thought, an artist does not paint an icon, he “writes” it; that is, it is an explanation of manifestation of, or more precisely a window onto the uncreated light of the divine world. An icon painter does not sign his work “by So-and-so” but rather “by the hand of So-and-so”: the artist is the instrument, the reality is of the realm beyond. Pope John Paul II, in speaking of Christianity in schism, refers to the traditions of East and West as the two lungs of the Church. Now, with the reopening of the East to the West, there may be new occasion to recognize again the power of the image, the Icon, both in communal liturgies and private prayer.
Perhaps I should explain how to read visual imagery and make it a part of one’s prayer life. Practically everyone is familiar with the icon known as the Mother of Perpetual Help; we all know it when we see it, but do we really look at it? Have we ever stopped to think about what is going on here? In the picture, two angels have appeared in the upper-left and right-hand corners carrying the instruments of the Passion. They hold them as the priest holds the monstrance in the humeral veil, protected even from their angelic hands, too holy to touch, and show them to the Christ child as a foreshadowing of his sufferings to come. Frightened, he has run to his mother for protection and clasps her hand with both of his. He has run so precipitately that his sandal has come unlaced and dangles from his foot. He is very small; his mother holds him, and looks sorrowfully out at us. It is our sins that bring this sorrow to her child. There is much here for private contemplation: Christ’s vulnerability in the Incarnation, the sufferings of the Passion, Mary’s role as protectress, our own culpability; the list could go on and on.
Sometimes it is hard to begin, to find any explication of the frequently disguised symbolism contained in religious painting, since we have ceased to speak the language of Christian iconography. Irwin Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting can be an invaluable guide, for it is a wonderfully learned compendium of the hidden language of symbolism artists used throughout the Renaissance and beyond. He deals with images meant both for private meditation and public liturgy. For specifically liturgical symbolism, try Barbara Lane’s The Altar and the Altarpiece. Ouspensky and Lossky’s The Meaning of Icons is the basic work on Eastern art and is still a good place to start.
If we are to rechristianize our culture, or at least teach it to read again, prayer is not enough (though it too is still a good place to start). With my own children, I have begun to try to recapture the idea of the Christian year, in which religion and ordinary life are not compartmentalized. Just as we celebrate birthdays, so too we celebrate baptismal anniversaries and patronal feasts, name-saints’ days—any excuse for a party. Special feast days have special foods; we look forward to them, and make the feast day last all day. Evelyn Vitz’s A Continual Feast has become an indispensable cookbook. It makes traditional Christian practices seem natural and appealing, and avoids the preachy tone so many of these books lapse into—a sure turnoff for kids, to say nothing of me. Read them Rumer Godden’s The Kitchen Madonna. Ask your grandmother for suggestions, maybe. Start small and adapt to your own style. Invite friends.
The hope is that as we conform our ordinary physical lives to a Christian model, make it attractive, and cultivate an appreciation of art on a domestic and congregational level, artists will once again arise to express our communal aspirations. And eventually, who knows, non-Christians encountering Christian worship for the first time may again experience what Vladimir of Kiev’s ambassadors did in the tenth century: “We went to the Bulgars, but found no joy in their worship; we went to the Germans and found no beauty in theirs. Then we went to Constantinople and we cannot tell you what we saw there; all we can say is that truly we found ourselves in the presence of God. We can never forget that beauty.”
Mary Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland.
Mary Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children. They live in Naples, Florida.