Sunday, August 26, 2007

Is the Abstract Heresy?

Gerald Augustus has a post about a new window at Cologne Cathedral and Carpe Diem about a new Church in Basingstoke.

No, it is not out of focus, this is it.

Now what concerns me is abstract art in keeping with Christianity?

I mean under the Old Covenant, God was always Abstraction, even the name God gives himself in the burning bush, when he speaks to Moses is essentially empty of definition, "I am who I am", is no name at all. The first commandment, the prohibition on graven images, the emptiness of the Holy of Holies all serve to underline the fact that God is other, entirely unknown, beyond our understanding, except if He Himself chooses to reveal Himself. He is Eternal Abstraction!

But with the Incarnation, the Eternal Abstract becomes "flesh and dwells amongst us". The Unknown become knowable, the Unnamed become nameable, his name is Jesus, the Christ.

I have a dreadful feeling that Churches that use the abstract are uncomfortable with the idea of God who becomes Flesh, a God who enters the Virgins womb, God who promises to be with His Church until the end of time, a God who is really and truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. The God of the New Testament, the New Covenant is a concrete reality, for the last two thousand years the Church has being continually battling those who deny God has a face, or that God has become incarnate, we see that in the heresies of the early centuries, later in Arianism, in Iconoclasm, in the second Millennium in Protestantism and now in Modernism. All these heresies deny the reality of the absolute proximity of God, which is the essence of the New Testament. More or less all dogmatic staements of the past eighteen hundred years have been staetements about the reality of the Incarnation.

People find it easy to believe in a God who remains outside of humanity, a God who is "Spirit" or "Godhead" but this is not the God of Christians, He is not unknowable and He is not faceless. The Word may be illustrated by light, clouds, geometry, patterns, colour, the "Word that became flesh" is man like us in all things but sin, he shares our image and likeness.
Pope Benedict has been speaking a lot about "seeking the face of God", because it seekable and seeable.

I contend that the lack of iconography is illustrative of a profound difficulty we have today in the central doctrine of Christianity, the Incarnation.


frfrom up north said...

an interesting point, surely in all christian devotional art,both the artist and the observer are trying to grasp or enter more deeply into the mystery of the Sacred & the Divine; however if the artist is lacking in faith and only trying to mirror in his work his confusion then it is unlikely to serve any good purpose; in that case blotches of coloured glass are what they seem, blotches of coloured glass!

gemoftheocean said...

I would agree with Fr From up North. The new stained glass window, might be okay in a different setting, but not in a church. IT makes me feel as if I haven't put in my contact lenses.

Both the new church design in Basingstoke (which makes it seem like they were TRYING for a "butt ugly" award)and the window miss the mark. At least the window isn't trying to be ugly, it's just Misguided. But thanks for giving me the idea for another excuse to do a Brideshead blog....

Anonymous said...

What's the column thing by the the lectern?

Ttony said...

In many ways the pixillated window is worse than the Crucifix in Basingstoke. The latter is wrong, but at least the "artist" has tried to give us an umage of Christ to which we can relate.

The window in the Cathedral is Wrong. The whole of what's wrong with modern art is there on show: it's not about anything other than what you yourself can find in it. The artist's intention is irrelevant because it can't be discerned.

Actually, that sounds a bit like what's wrong with protestantism ...

Moretben said...

"Was the church mistaken when, in the Catacombs, she became a Church of images? The Second Commandment is unambiguous. Only God can revoke it. and God has revoked it. He created His own likeness. we could even go so far as to call Jesus Christ God's self-portrait, for, if anyone, after Adam, was God's likeness it was Jesus. Ever since the coming of Jesus Christ, the Second Commandment is: "You shall have for yourselves an image of God, and this image is Jesus Christ"[...]Christ is the Truth. We need to behold this Truth, for it transcends all knowledge (to quote a phrase of Gregory of Nyssa), and that is why what the Reformation called the "worship of images" is in fact a central element in the Christian Religion. Christians cannot venerate sacred images enough, for they are reflections...of the Incarnation...
Anyone who believes that the liturgy of the Incarnation and sacred images are intimately and essentially linked to faith in Christ - and actualy come from Him - anyone who finds it easier to imagine the total collapse of religion than its continuance in the absence of liturgy, can be quietly confident about the outcome of the present catastrophe. As the example of Byzantine iconoclasm shows us, a hundred years is a reslatively short time to overcome this kind of sickness..."
Martin Mosebach - Tear the Images Out of Their Hearts

Fr Ray Blake said...

Many thanks for that.

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

I agree with Karen.
When I first saw this stained glass window, I thought :
a) I need much stronger reading glasses.
b) My smart new desktop isn't downloading properly.

Then I realised the horrible truth:
This is a real window in a real church.
Not just any church.
But Cologne Cathedral !

In a sort of fascinated horror, I logged onto their website at www.koelner-dom. and saw more pictures of this stuff, designed by a man called Gerhard Richter.

It seems to me to be computer generated.
TTony has the right word : pixillated.

It speaks to me not of religion, but of science and technology.
It has no place in a Catholic church.

What it's doing in a Gothic cathedral over 750 years old, with stained glass windows dating back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, is beyond my understanding.
It should be removed immediately.

Fr. From Up North expresses it perfectly :
Blotches of coloured glass are what they seem : blotches of coloured glass.

Compared with Christian art and iconography, abstract art has nothing to say.
It is a non representative art form (or it wouldn't be called "abstract").

Does abstract art contradict Christian art ?
I would say : No, not directly.
But it cannot complement Christian art : it can only replace it.
It is a different art form.
It is distinct from Christian art.
It is alien to a Christian milieu.
It can never be part of the "ars sacra".

So why introduce it to a Christian church ?

I was most interested to see Fr.Ray mention iconoclasm.
Abstract art is (amongst other things) iconoclastic, because it annihilates iconography.
I rather think Fr. Ray has answered his own question.

Without Christian art and architecture, which speak of the eternal truths of the Christian religion, what symbolism remains ?

The symbolism of :
All the "isms" anithetical to Christianity.

When you destroy Christian art, you do not destroy the Christian religion.
But you do distort and muffle its message.

Fertile soil, I would say, for the growth and spread of all false religions.

As to the new church in Basingstoke, you really don't want to hear my opinion.
Looking at the pictures of it, I would say it merely confirms everything I have said above.

White Stone Name Seeker said...

I am interested in your view that this ugliness is a kind of denial of the Incarnation.
Ever read Cardinal Schonborn's book "God's Human Face"?
One of the most moving parts is when he talks of the iconoclast wars in the east when those trying to placate the Muslim invaders thought they should get rid of the Icons and those more faithful fought back.

Who are we trying to placate with these butt ugly churches and windows?

What about the Incarnation is so scary..?

Fr Ray Blake said...

White Stone Name Seeker,
The proximity of God is scary, Adam and Eve hide from God after the fall.
Of the top of my head, the proximity of God means
1)we have to behave in a certain way
2)it means he intervenes in our lives
3)it means he is in control

nickbris said...

Coloured glass was originally put in Churches to put some colour into the miserable lives of the people.In this case it certainly attracts interest,we are after all going back to basics.

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

And another thing :

I've just read the extract from Mosebach's book "Tear the Images Out Of Their Hearts", posted by Moretben.

In this context, people may be interested in another book by Martin Mosebach :
"The Heresy of Formlessness" (Ignatius Press , 2006).

It makes interesting reading.

Henry said...

Since God became incarnate, the whole point of presenting this truth is though two and three dimensional representations.

And it is time to put more emphasis on Mary if only for this reason - that God has a human mother.

I have just completed a retreat with the Brigittines at Vadstena, they have a special liturgy with additional Marian devotions. Which may be one reason why they have got themselves back there after a 350 year gap.

Francis said...

Fr. Ray,

I would say that the abstract stained glass window at Cologne cathedral (what did it replace, by the way?) is a very good representation of religious illiteracy.

The average unchurched person would look at conventional stained glass windows in a church and have little or no idea of the personages and events depicted. All they would really see is "coloured glass."

I have a friend whose father (a non-Catholic) was in Bomber Command in World War II and was sent on several sorties to bomb Cologne. He was the bomb-aimer in his plane and apparently there was a competition among some of the crews to be the first to score a direct hit on Cologne cathedral. For some mysterious reason and despite the best efforts of rival bomb-aimers, no-one ever won the contest...

Berolinensis said...

Several things you might find intersting about the new window in the South transept of Cologne Cathedral:

It replaces a simple, trannsparent window put in provisionally after the original window had been distroyed in the war (thorugh air pressure of bombs exploding nearby; thank God that this "competition" to bomb the Cathedral itself was as unsuccessful as it was unlawful under article 27 of the Hague Regulations resprecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land).
The window is, as has been noted, by Gerhard Richter, one of the most famous (or at least most expensive) contemporary artists. He is an atheist, but has done this window free of remuneration.
The Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Meisner, was very much against the Richter window. He wanted a window depicting 20th century Saints and Martyrs. The decision, however, was up to the Cathedral Chapter, and they, allegedly after not having found a convincing pictorial solution in years, accepted Richter's proposal. The Cardinal, who is reported to be furious over the whole affair, refused to take part in last Saturday's unveiling ceremony (again, allegedly; officially he had other duties).
And, for what it's worth, the former art historian of the Cathedral workshop (Dombauhütte, I did not find a good translation, it's like the fabbrica di San Pietro) Rolf Lauer said that pictorial windows were introduced to the Cathedral as a novelty in 1322, causing scandal with the clergy who preferred, "for theological reasons", the former nonpictorial windows. The Richter design could therefore - said Lauer - be interpreted as a return to the beginnings of the Cathedral. Hm, smacks of archaeologism to me...

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

Thank you to Berolinensis for a most fascinating account of "that window".
I didn't know the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne was against it.
On this issue, he is right.

And the members of the Cathedral Chapter are badly wrong.

This window might be acceptable in a non religious building.

But not in a church. And NEVER in that church.

(It is also a rather blatant case of architectural bad manners.)

I understand a lot of clergy were
were opposed to stained glass when first it made its appearance in Gothic churches and cathedrals,
for the very practical reason that it shut out too much daylight.

Berolinensis said...

update from Cologne: Card. Meisner has now told a local paper: "The window isn't suitable for the Cathedral. It's more fit for a mosque or a house of prayer. If we are getting a new window, it should clearly reflect our faith. And not just any (faith)."

Fr Ray Blake said...

Thank you for keeping us posted on this.