Mary and the Cathedral: a ★★★★★ book review

As a Protestant, I don’t spend too much time thinking about Mary. When I do, it is often in the Advent, Christmas season, reading of Mary’s Annunciation, her Magnificat, the Holy Family at the manger, and the things she treasured in her heart. Certainly, I  knew she was special (there is something about Mary), but Marian devotion, despite its prevalence in the historic and global church, has always been conceptually opaque to me.

Visions of MaryThis was Rev. Jill Geoffrion’s experience too when as a lifelong Protestant, she endeavored to locate and photograph each of the Chartres Cathedral’s 175 images of Mary (Preface, xix). As a professional photographer, a Chartres guide, workshop and retreat leader, and author of seven books on the Labyrinth (inspired by her work with the Chartres Labyrinth), she is well acquainted with the sacred space that is Chartres. Catholic colleagues at the Cathedral answered her questions about the theology of Mary in Catholic church history.

Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral  showcases the fruit of Geoffrion’s discovery. Her photographs of Mary at Chartres include images of Mary in stainglass, on guilded silk, sculpted relief and sculpture.

Geoffrion’s photos are cataloged and organized in five chapters. In Chapter 1, Geoffrion shares images that reflect a biblical theology of Mary, images which depict her role as Mother of Jesus (e.g. at his nativity and her influence on him at the wedding of Cana). Chapter 2 depicts images of Mary that reflect her role as Theotokos—the Mother of God. Chapter 3 explores Mary as the Mother of the Church, depicting scenes of Mary at Christ’s passion, the empty tomb, and her intercession for the church. Chapter 4 explores how Mary is the Mother of us all, showcasing images of Marian devotion. Finally, Chapter 5 explores the ongoing significance of Mary in the Twenty-Fist Century (depicting some of the newest Marian pieces).

Each of Geoffrion’s beautiful photographs is accompanied by a page-long-explanation of the work depicted, and what it reveals about Mary’s historic and theological significance in the Catholic tradition.  Visions of Mary is published by Mount Tabor Books, an imprint of Paraclete Press focusing on ecumenical scholarship on the arts and literature, liturgical worship and spirituality.

Geoffrion’s photographs, as well as the art of Chartres itself, are quite stunning. I came away from this photo tour with a greater appreciation for the depth of devotion and reflection on Mary captured in its art. Geoffrion’s Protestant background allows her to approach Marian art and devotion with a gentle hand, describing it without being heavy-handed on application. This is perfect for an ecumenical book on Mary. And it is beautiful. I give this five stars and recommend it if you have been to or plan to travel to Chartres Cathedral. It will certainly enhance your appreciation for all you will discover there! – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

The Arts & the Christian Imagination: a book review

Clyde Kilby(1902-1986)was renowned for popularizing the works of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings among American evangelicals (and founding Wheaton’s Marion F Wade Center). However, he was also Wheaton’s professor of English and wrote prolifically and thoughtfully about the Arts and aesthetics.  Kilby attempted to allay evangelical suspicion of imagination and aesthetics and provide a positive vision for Christians in the Arts.Arts-and-the-Christian-Imagination

The Arts and the Christian Imagination: Essays on Art, Literature, and Aesthetics(Mount Tabor Books, 2016) edited by William Dyrness and Keith Call bring together many of these essays, some previously published, and some published here for the first time. In many ways,  conversation evangelicals were having about arts in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties has moved some. There is less, general suspicion of the imagination. Today, Evangelical voices like W. David O. Taylor, Jeremy Begbie, Luci Shaw, Makoto Fujimura, Dyrness, and others, have all carried these conversations in new directions; nevertheless, Kilby provided an apology for imagination and helped set the trajectory for evangelical engagement in the arts.

The essays in this volume are divided into four sections, each with an editor’s introduction by Dyrness. Part 1—Christianity, The Arts, and Aesthetics—lays out in detail Kilby’s aesthetics. Dyrness and Call include Ninety-five pages from Kilby’s 450 page manuscript on Christianity and the arts, a previously published thirty-page booklet and a Christianity Today article, Kilby wrote that interacted with Selden Rodman’s The Eye of Man. In these pages, Kilby argues that the choice is never between aesthetics and no aesthetics, but between a good aesthetic and a bad aesthetic. Thus, he urges his fellow evangelicals toward the making of good art. He speaks glowingly about the role of imagination and lays out a Christianized-Platonic aesthetic of forms.

Part 2, The Vocation of the Artist, discusses Evangelicals in the Arts. Kilby argues in “Christianity and Culture” that Christian artists need to clarify and take a stance on their belief in culture (e.g. is Christianity coterminous with culture, or against culture, or somewhere in between). In the chapter entitled, “In Defense of Beauty,” he argues against P.T. Forsyth that the Hebrew Scripture was devoid of an aesthetic.  In “Vision, Belief, and Individuality” Kilby sets the ‘art experience’ along side the scientific ‘analytical experience,’ seeing value in both. In “Evangelicals and Human Freedom,” Kilby takes issue with the notion that the imagination is to be spurned wholesale (though he acknowledges it may get us into trouble. He closes this essay with 8 suggestions for evangelical writers and publishers:

  1. A Serious acceptance of poetry, the novel, biography, autobiography and the personal essay.
  2. More use of the parable, the parabolic, and allegory.
  3. A return to the use of symbol.
  4. Publishers demonstrating more care in accepting, editing, proofreading, illustrating and laying-out manuscripts.
  5. More willingness for publishers to ‘lift the evangelical taste.’
  6. The establishment of an evangelical writers’ colony.
  7. Week-long conferences with evangelical publishers, editors, writers, and critics that would face Christian publishing problems honestly.
  8. Engagement with classics like Aristotle’s Poetics or Plat’s Crito and Apology to find better models of ideas and style
  9.  And that as Evangelicals, we learn to poke some fun at ourselves (197-198).

Part 3, Faith and the Role of the Imagination’ has five essays which probe the value of the imagination in the Christian life (the first of which is in the form of an imagined dialogue on the nature of belief). In Part 4, Poetry, Literature and Imagination, Kilby offers his defense of Poetry and fiction (as an English professor at an Evangelical institution).

There is no question that Evangelical engagement with the Arts is more positive than the Evangelical world that Kilby addressed. However, this book has value beyond its critique of a bygone era. Kilby showed how the arts bring glory to God. His words spoke into a suspicious evangelical context and imparted a sense of wonder. Anyone who cares about the state of Christianity and the arts will find Kilby’s words instructive. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection, I received a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

Ecumenical Aesthetics: a ★★★★★book review

Over the last few years, there has been a flowering of Christians of all stripes engaged in the visual arts. This has been a vehicle for shared communion between Christians of different ecclesial traditions—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. The Ecumenism of Beauty reflects the deepening and mutual dialogue across denominational lines. Each tradition brings their own peculiar emphasis and theological understanding to the arts.

ecumenism-of-beautyI’ll note my brief criticism from the outset: this book is missing a page with contributor bios. Maybe I am an odd duck, but when I pick up a multi-author volume, I always turn to the contributor page first. Often this only has where they were educated and their current position, but it helps me place their perspective, tradition and what each brings to a topic. Luckily a few of these names were familiar to me and a few paragraphs into each chapter, I knew, in general, what discipline and tradition each author were writing from. There was Timothy Verdon, the book’s editor and eminent historian of Christian, religious art, JérômeCottin and William Dyrness, both active in the theology of arts and culture, Vasileios Marinis, an expert in Byzantine iconography, artists Susan Kanaga and Filippo Rossi and Martin Shannon, an ordained Episcopal pastor and devotional author.

Verdon’s introduction sets the stage. He describes the difference between the classical Catholic and Protestant aesthetic, as depicted two 16th century paintings. Pieter Neefs the Elder painted Antwerp Cathedral full of ornate iconography, priests and parishioners and sacramental flourish.  Pieter Jansz’s painting of the interior of St. Odulphuskerk reveals an austere sanctuary where the pulpit alone looks grand. Verdon comments on how the interior of these two churches reflect the beliefs and practices of both Catholics and Protestants—Catholic belief in salvation through ecclesial signs and the solo Scriptura of Lutheranism (ix).

Protestant and especially Calvinists (enthusiastic iconoclasts that they were) are faulted for their lack of religious aesthetic. See, for example, Andrew Greeley’s Catholic Imagination (which in memory argued that everything beautiful created by Christians came from Catholics, whereas Protestants were just good at analyzing stuff). However the first two chapters of this volume expose how much this is a gross oversimplifiation. Cottin points out that Calvin had no problem with images, only images used as props for devotion (@) and he points to accomplished Western artists influenced by Calvinist culture (i.e Jacob van Ruysdael, Vermeer, Pieter de Hoock, Vincent Van Gogh) (9). Dyrness’s points out that Calvin’s concern about idolatry caused him to put a moratorium on religious imagery, but he asks “Why after 500 years, when Protestants are learning again from medieval practices—praying the labyrinth, practicing lectio divina, and embracing Igantian spiritual practices and retreats—are their worship spaces, and their corporate prayer, so often devoid of visual beauty?” (19) He argues that the time is ripe for an aesthetical recovery.

Kanaga, one of the artist contributors describes her life as part of the Community of Jesus, and her commission (along with sculpter Regis Damange) to design elements of the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, MA and discuss her art and practice. Kanaga sees abstract sacred art as the perfect vehicle to communicate the indefinite and the ineffible (31-32). Marinis’s chapter opens up the spirituality of Byzantine iconography with insights from Fotis Kontoglou 1895-1965) Rossi describes how visual art is an act of contemplation, especially for the artist in the creative process. Shannon’s chapter describes the physical space of the Church of the Transfiguration and the way beauty draws the eccumenical, Benedictine community into worship. Verdon’s closing chapter reflects on the interplay between Art and liturgy.

As this book focuses on the relationship between beauty and ecclesiology as I read I kept thinking of what historical theologians call the Medieval transcendentals: the true, the beautiful and the good. In an earlier time, these were all held in tension, as each reflecting something important about God. Evangelicals of the protestant tradition, my tribe, were suspicious of beauty as ephemeral and idolatrous, but we emphasized truth and goodness (and two out of three ain’t bad).  However, we are in the midst of a recovery of Protestant theological aesthetics and religious art. This book extends the dialogue between Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, while honoring the differences and contributions of each tradition.

Appropriately this book is also beautiful, with full-color images on glossy pages. I think Rossi and Kanaga’s chapters were my favorite contributions, not only because they showcased their beautiful artwork, but because they reflected on their spiritual experience as artists. I give this five stars and recommend it to anyone concerned about art and the church—★★★★★

The Prayer of Art: a book review

Art and Prayer. Both are human attempts at transcendence. So art has adorned houses of worship throughout human history. In Western history, the visual arts reflected the faith and practices of Christianity (and Judaism). My own theology teachers spoke of the Medieval Synthesis–the confluence of the Arts and sciences, philosophy and theology throughout much of Western History. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a great deal of fragmentation. Art today is not always representational. Sometimes it aims at deconstructing the world, worldviews, and belief itself. But historically art and prayer were joined. Art sometimes depicting prayer, calling us to prayer, or making visible the interior dimensions of our prayer. 

Monsignor Timothy Verdon is the director of the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy. He directs the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, the Cathedral Foundation Museum, and the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence. As a senior cleric in the Roman Catholic Church and a respected art historian, Verdon is well acquainted with both prayer and art. In Art & Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God, Verdon describes how the arts make visible the nature of prayer. With reference to church fathers, theologians and artists he explores the theme of prayer in Western art. The pieces that Verdon discusses are displayed in full color on beautiful glossy pages.

Most of the art  that Verdon profiles is from the Medieval era (from the 6th to the 15th Century). There are a couple of pieces that are older (third century) and  one piece is from the modern era (Filippo Rossi’s Magnificat). But this is not a chronological exploration, it is a thematic one. Verdon explores how art helps us enter prayer in everyday life (chapter one),  our spaces of prayer (chapter two, which also explores sacred architecture), liturgical prayer (chapter three), prayer of pleading (chapter four), lectio divina (chapter five), contemplative prayer (chapter six) and prayer at the hour of our death (chapter seven)

Verdon weaves theology and art, using various paintings, frescoes, reliefs and altar pieces to illustrate the Catholic tradition’s wisdom on the nature of prayer. Neither art nor prayer are understood through ferocious consumption, but through thoughtful contemplation. This book requires a slow, meditative reading. I found myself flipping back and reading several sections again, I recommend this book for Artists and pray-ers alike. There is lots to digest here–I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.