Seeking Meaning in Religious Art, in Rome

Seeking Meaning in Religious Art, in Rome

I just returned from ten days in Rome, a trip divided in two. During the first half, I attended and presented at the bi-annual conference of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality (SSCS), a scholarly organization I joined in 2016, when I had begun researching and teaching connections between spirituality and literature. I was moved by the organization’s purpose to convene all those “interested in reflecting critically on the life of the Spirit.”[1] What is more, I was touched by the conviction shared by scholars in the field that the study of spirituality is, or should be, self-implicating—that those who study it profess a personal investment in the subject—and that the ultimate aim of such study is not only knowledge, but personal transformation. As I imagined when I joined the SSCS, scholars who study spirituality desire more than to be good scholars, they also seek to be better people, with God’s help. Experience has proved this true, and it makes attending SSCS meetings a joy.

During the second half of my stay I was a tourist. Rome has an extraordinary (and extraordinarily diverse) history, as everyone knows, and I tried to take in as much of it as I could. While I loved the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum, I found myself especially drawn to the troves of religious art in such institutions as the Vatican Museum and the Borghese Gallery, as well as in the gorgeous churches, dense with beauty, scattered across the city. Part of the reason why I found this art so compelling is probably obvious: I’m a religious person who enjoys religious things, which is why I joined the scholarly society whose conference had me in Rome in the first place. But there was also another reason. I had just learned the devastating news that Yolanda Thompson, wife of Greg Thompson, our dear colleague and one of the Humanities Center fellows, had passed away suddenly. I did not know Yolanda, but I love and admire Greg. He is an outstanding scholar and teacher, a warm and generous man, and a delight in the meetings of our Humanities Center fellows. I have come to depend on Greg’s keen insights, have taken joy in his wit (even when I am its object), and have been inspired by his convictions. He personifies so much of what I love about BYU. And the thought of his loss stunned and overwhelmed me, uncovering a familiar pit in my stomach.

I say “familiar” not because I have lost a spouse, but because death has been its own kind of companion for much of my life. My brother died when I was seven years old. We were close in age and best friends. His death impacted every aspect of my being, and in complex ways. Most were unconscious and operated at the level of mood, coloring my perception of the world. Some effects of his loss were, surprisingly, beneficent: it deepened my convictions of a life beyond this one in ways that shaped my disposition as much as my beliefs; if life’s impermanence branded itself on my young psyche, so did its depth, mystery, and ultimate meaning. I grew to maturity, then, “in the valley of the shadow of death.” As a result, I reflect often, almost compulsively, on what it would mean to lose those closest to me. (When I run to the grocery store a half-block down our street, I sometimes tell my wife that if I never see her again, she should know I loved her. I say it in a deadpan voice so that it will appear to be a joke. And it is, clearly. But the joke exists to make light of a very real anxiety that never quite leaves me.)

And still, despite all this, I cannot imagine what Greg and his family are experiencing. This thought leaves me wanting, grasping. And so, to borrow the language of the scholars with whom I had been spending time at my conference, I felt “self-implicated” in my encounter with Christian art as I explored Rome. That is, my interests in it were motivated by my faith (and grief and anxiety and hope) as much as my love of art per se. I wanted to see Christian art as a Christian, and I wanted to be a Christian consumed less by the everyday happiness of good deeds than by thoughts of ultimate things: life, death, resurrection. I approached the city’s art as a kind of supplicant, seeking answers to ineffable questions—seeking a deeper, unspoken quality of understanding. Better still, I was looking for something like encrypted religious experience: I sought expressions of others’ beliefs, formalized in art, that might deepen my own.

As it happened, I was reading the 1948 spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain by the priest, Trappist monk, and theologian Thomas Merton, and he described his encounter with art in Rome in a similar way. A self-confessed pagan as a young man, he was nonetheless left cold by Roman antiquities. But he felt different in the city’s churches, where he was struck by “an art full of spiritual vitality and earnestness and power—[by] an art that was tremendously serious and alive and eloquent and urgent in all it had to say.” This was not art for art’s sake, an aesthetic principle Merton disdained. Instead, the religiously themed works radiated a kind of “solemnity … made all the more astounding by [their] simplicity … and by [their] subservience to higher ends, architectural, liturgical and spiritual ends.”[2] Given the tenor of my thoughts last week, I sought similar ends. And so, when I would enter the basilicas and the other grand churches (so grand! and so many of them!), I determined not only to gaze at the frescoed ceilings or admire the sculptures, but also to meditate or pray. When I encountered ancient Russian icons in museums, I not only noted their flatness of perspective, but also the visual cues designed to direct one’s thoughts heavenward.

The Entombment of Christ
Artist: Caravaggio
Date made: 1603–4
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Let me mention just a few pieces that caused me particular reflection. One was the famous 1603–04 Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio. As one would expect, the figures are gorgeous in body and expression, and the diagonal composition of the piece is profound, taking us from the agony felt by Mary of Cleopas to Christ’s lifeless countenance: a descent from life to death. What most caught my attention were the face and posture of Nicodemus, hoisting Christ’s legs in the foreground. The face reportedly belongs to Michelangelo, but that is not what drew me. Rather, it’s the expression he wears of distracted grief, broken by the burden of transferring the weight of Christ’s body. Sadness is a luxury momentarily withheld from Nicodemus, meaning that behind his suffering is more suffering, one kind compounding another. Intensified anguish: this is a theme in so much of the art I witnessed. Collectively, it forms a testament to the purposes of the faith it reflects—partly to alleviate suffering and partly to promise hope for griefs too great for any art, or almost any faith, to bear.

Another seventeenth-century painting that captured me for its facial expressions is Guercino’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Notably, the look on Christ’s face is almost ethereal; arm extended in a gesture of universal openness, he appears to be gazing right over the top of his

Full title: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas
Artist: Guercino
Date made: 1621
Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/
Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk
Copyright (C) The National Gallery, London

disciple toward something like abstract humankind. This forms a sharp contrast with the intensity of Thomas as he puts his finger into the very material wound in Christ’s side. This is Thomas prior to his realization that Christ is truly alive, and one almost gets the sense here—accentuated by the censuring gesture of the disciple (Peter?) at Jesus’s back—that Thomas will not have the vision he desires as long as he persists in gazing only in this way, only in a kind of coarse literalism. Between Christ and Thomas, between heaven and earth: this, the painting suggests, must become the vision of the disciple. To cultivate such a spiritual discipline is to learn to see more than any person otherwise can, and more than any painting can show.

Source: Matthew Wickman

A similar implication is what moved me about a fragment of a fresco collected in the Vatican Museum. I do not know when the fresco was originally crafted; I do not even know whether the figure the fragment depicts is Christ. It may very well be, though it may also be a saint. (An eye more trained than mine would know.) In any case, what strikes me is the angle of our gaze—upward, to a figure standing above us and gazing somewhere well past us. From this angle, and perhaps only from this angle, it is possible to take in the halo radiating from the figure, as though one must look to God to see all that is really present. What is more, there is something comforting about our proximity to this figure, even though his look is directed elsewhere. He does not repel us even though we cannot see what (or presumably how) he does. He thus mediates our efforts to acquire a different, and higher, perspective. The fragment becomes not so much a tutorial in how to see as a foreshadowing of what awaits us once we learn. It also reassures us that we will not be repudiated by God (or by persons graced by the divine) as we try to do so—that we will not be spurned for our still-fallen humanity.

Madonna and Child
Artist: Marino Mazzacurati
Date made: 1956
Source: Matthew Wickman

A different artwork seemed to rejoice in that very humanity, or in the sheer fact of all createdness. The 1956 expressionist sculpture Madonna and Child by Marino Mazzacurati depicts Mary and the infant Jesus in a semi-abstract form. There are, of course, thousands of such depictions in the Christian tradition. But what struck me about this piece was the density of the wood from which the figures emerge. We’ve all heard the story of the person who asked a sculptor how he brought such glorious figures out of the marble from whence they were hewn. The implication behind that question is that the sculpture represented an act of liberation: it released something that had seemed trapped. To me, the opposite seems to be the case with this nativity piece. The figures here appear not to emerge from the wood as much as belong to the wood, even to be the meaning of the wood: the wood does not fall from the figures, unshackling them, as much as the figures accentuate the wood in its solidity, its density, its status as ens creatum. What is devotional here does not erupt out of the materiality of its medium, does not transcend it, as much as inhere in it, belong to it. This is an art that seems to glory in the thought of God in all things, not above all things.

And that brings me to the last piece I will mention, one familiar to most Church members. And that is the Christus statue in the visitors’ center of the Rome Temple, the first place we stopped when we entered the temple grounds. I gazed at it briefly and then kept moving. Truth be told, I had not been sure I wanted to make the expensive, Uber-ride pilgrimage to the temple. This is nothing against temples: I feel blessed to live less than a mile from one, and I had attended a temple session only a couple weeks earlier. But our time in Rome was limited and the city was filled with treasures one can only experience there, in the city, on site. Then again, the temple president and matron are members of our stake, many stake members and friends had ventured to the Rome Temple, the Church had recently brought so much attention to that particular edifice, and so on. If one is a member of the Church, it is a temple “to be experienced.” So, we went.

Christus
Artist: Thorvaldsen
Date made: 1838
Source: Matthew Wickman

Gratefully so, it turns out. A couple thoughts impressed themselves on me while we were there. The first is that the Rome Temple is a profoundly humble structure, certainly when one compares it with just about any of the ancient churches in Rome. It is smaller in scale, sparser in decoration, comparatively empty of art, and less saturated with history—with the hope and hurt of centuries. It sits far outside the city walls, not beside ancient ruins or grand basilicas, but adjacent to a shopping mall. It’s lovely, but it feels a little suburban; it might be anywhere.

In another sense, however (and this was my second thought), that seems poetically apt. The Rome Temple isn’t trying to compete with the spectacles of the city, and it couldn’t if it tried. Rather, it is, simply, itself. Put somewhat differently, it simply is and is, simply; in Merton’s words it is “astounding” in its simplicity. It does not exist to point one to God, like the great vaulted ceilings of the glorious Roman Catholic churches. It professes instead to be a place where the Lord himself dwells: the house of the Lord. In it there are no sacraments that profess to render God momentarily but actually present in sacred ritual. Instead, the temple is where one makes covenants that bind one eternally to God and to family members. Concepts of eternity and covenant and priesthood suffuse the religious culture and history that so mesmerized me in Rome. But still, there is an audacity to the simplicity of temples, any temple: they might be anywhere (speaking of which: Orem, Taylorsville), but they are nevertheless globally unique. They do not promise as much as realize, or make real. In them, eternity happens.

That impression came to me, poignantly, as I turned to leave the celestial room. It was a fusion of thought and feeling unlike any other I experienced during my time in Rome, a spiritual burst that attested, as such things always do, to the simple reality of God’s existence. More than his existence, his presence. During a ten-day window when I experienced so many holy things—so many mind-opening, thought-turning, inspired and inspiring things—nothing felt quite as holy as that moment, that place, that presence. It was exquisite, electric: the balm for any wounded soul.

I am occasionally startled into mindfulness of that reality, as I am of the wounds that can make that reality feel a little less apparent. For that reason, I am grateful for the glorious art I witnessed in Rome: it helped capture the hope for relief from such wounds, hope I sought in reflecting on the unthinkable loss experienced by a dear colleague. And I am especially grateful for the substantive relief the Lord provides, ultimately and simply.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center


[1] https://sscs.press.jhu.edu/about/index.html. Accessed October 5, 2019.

[2] Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998), 119-20.

6 Comments

  1. Thanks, Matt, for this warm, eloquent essay. It encouraged me to rethink and reimagine my own experience visiting Rome and its religious artwork in light of your experiences and observations. The passing of Greg’s wife, Yolanda, encouraged me also to remember the passing of my wife Lu Ann almost twenty years ago now, especially a conversation you and I had in my office during your campus visit as a job candidate while Lu Ann was still battling her terminal cancer. I remember earnestly urging you to appreciate the eternal efficacy of your temple sealing, which must have seemed a little strange to you, given the context of your visit. But ending your essay with a discussion of the Rome Temple lines up beautifully with our conversation two decades ago–that the temple is about presence, eternal presence, for all of us who’ve made temple covenants through the Savior’s priesthood. So blessings on you for your essay and especially on Greg and his family in their time of deep grief.

    • I remember that conversation back in the summer of 1999; it left a deep impression on me, as did your fortitude in the face of an unimaginable trial. Thank you for your kind words here — to me and especially to Greg.

  2. Thank you, Matt, for this gift to Greg–and us.

    • I appreciate this, David — characteristically thoughtful.

  3. Thanks, Matt, for this beautiful gift to all of us–and especially to Greg. My wife and I are anticipating a visit to Rome late next spring (after Spain), and this will be a precious guide to our experiences there. In the meantime, it is balm for the griefs of separation we all face and endure. Your words and insights matter in so many ways. Art and literature and music provide so many comforts. I am deeply indebted to Tennyson for his In Memoriam and to Mozart for his Requiem–and to the Spirit that inspired them both.

    Thanks again, Matt.

    • Thank you, Keith. It sounds like you’re going to have a wonderful spring.

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