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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art


  • 1 Building upon Durkheim’s studies, Emile Benveniste’s exhaustive account of the sacred’s linguistic origins reveals a lack of any specific single term adequate to a definition of the sacred within Indo-European languages, but instead a commonly encountered twofold definition, which he refers to as positive and negative. What is most striking, says Benveniste, is that in almost every language studied the sacred resists any single defining term, but instead rests upon two distinct qualities, as though insisting upon an inherently paradoxical duality (1973: 446). From the Latin sacer and sanctus, above all, we find the clearest formulations of the sacred’s internal ambiguities. ‘The Latin word sacer, writes Benveniste, ‘includes the idea of what is most precise and specific about the “sacred”’, that is, a polarity of meaning which the accompanying term sanctus, its more familiar partner, does not in any way display (1973: 452). With sacer we encounter an idea of the sacred as that which both attracts and repels, venerates and horrifies, is blessed and cursed, that speaks of impurity as much as purity, that can destroy as well as elevate life. Sanctus, on the other hand, is inviolable, separated and protected, unscathed by the profane world. Where sacer provides us with a negative and ambiguous concept of the sacred, sanctus signifies a positive and monovalent one. What has been lost in our understanding of the sacred is an awareness of this difference. Gradually, sacred as sanctus has expanded to envelop everything that is in contact with the divine world, and gives its name to holiness (sanctity), to holy places (sanctuary), to the attribution of holiness (sanctification), to holy people (saint) and to sacred law (sanction). In other words, an understanding of sacredness becomes indebted to the clarity and consistency of holiness offered by sanctus, while its ambiguous other has slipped into relative obscurity. Yet its shadowy presence still haunts the edges and contaminates the purity of its more illustrious and ubiquitous partner.
  • 2 Eliade’s later research concurs with this ascription: ‘The ambivalence of the sacred is not only in the psychological order (in that it attracts or repels), but also in the order of values; the sacred is at once “sacred” and “defiled”’ (1958: 14).
  • 3 In 1963 Meyer Schapiro had proposed that the use of modern art in churches acted as ‘a counterinfection’ to established practices and thinking (1999: 188).
  • 4 As related to me in a private conversation with Nicholas Bury, then Dean of Gloucester.
  • 5 As is well known, religious themes have permeated Hirst’s work since at least the early 1990s, albeit in transmogrified form. Rightly or wrongly, several critics have discerned in this marriage of devotion and iconoclasm the lingering influence of Hirst’s Catholic upbringing, in which the tension of contradictions seems to be a motivating factor. They see him as an artist pushing at the boundaries of acceptability by taking on the signs and symbols of his own religious heritage — an apostate unable to abandon not only the creed of his youth but also the whole religious shebang ofWestern culture.
  • 6 From the Greek hieros, meaning sacred or holy — from which we derive the notion of the priestly or hieratic — and phainein, meaning to show.
  • 7 Altizer aligns Eliade with the Protestant dialectical theology of Karl Barth, in which conflicting ideas are juxtaposed in order to encompass the paradoxical nature of doctrinal truth. He argues that Eliade’s is a negative dialectic whereby something, some object or event, cannot be simultaneously sacred and profane; to become sacred the profane must be totally negated (1963: 65, 26). This would seem to be true if indeed the profane, being outside the temple, through sanctification is brought into the sacred precinct, but it doesn’t accord well with Eliade’s ideas. For Eliade, the manifestation of the sacred in material things remains the cardinal problem of any religion. Christian theology has already resolved this problem to a certain extent, he suggests, through the doctrine of the incarnation, the supreme hierophany and material embodiment of the sacred in Christ as ‘the coexistence of contradictory essences’. Elsewhere, Altizer jumps to the erroneous conclusion that in this hierophany, God is ‘totally hidden’ since, dialectically, one of the two terms must always disappear. Either the sacred is ‘wholly camouflaged’ in the profane or the profane is entirely consumed in its transition to the sacred (1979: 267). There is, then, a clear mismatch between Altizer’s interpretation of the dialectic as the disappearance of the profane into the sacred and Eliade’s emphasis on the possibility of a coinherence of contradictories. As loose interpretations of incarnational theology, both may of course be wrong: Eliade for his non-theological reading and Altizer for his radically negative reading. Depending on one’s view of incarnational theology, the sacred may be either hidden or revealed, or both hidden and revealed, as implied in the well-loved carol: ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’. The sacred is clothed, even disguised, in humanity and yet also revealed, the incarnation resting on the presumption that Christ is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), or that in seeing the Son one sees the Father (John 14:9). Thus, we are confronted with different interpretations of the relationship between visible and invisible: Christ as human and divine at the same time, otherwise known as the hypostatic union, or Christ as the human embodiment of the divine circuminsession, sometimes described as the prosopic union of two distinct natures. Altizer’s insistence that the transcendent is totally hidden and the profane is totally negated suits his radical negative dialectics, but is a misleading and oversimplified account of Eliade’s dialectic of ‘manifestation’.
  • 8 Schapiro is far from alone in pointing out this liturgical failing. We find similar remarks in both William S. Rubin’s somewhat pessimistic assessment of the experiment at Assy and John Dillenberger’s more positive summary (Rubin 1961; Apostolos-Cappadona 1984). More recently, Aidan Nichols (2007: 121—122) has argued the same point in his account of Couturier’s legacy. Curiously, considering Couturier’s later attitude, Nichols notes that he had initially insisted that a prerequisite for religious art was the artist’s own religious life. In this he was following the precepts of Jacques Maritain, the influential Catholic theologian who was himself a significant figure in the revival of sacred art, seeking to endorse art’s validity within a sacred milieu in which primacy was always given to the word. Maritain aimed to give legitimacy to the work of the artist, recognising ‘that the first duty of the artist . . . is to be unshakably faithful to his own truth’, yet he also held that ‘as a man is, so are his works’ (1946: 10). This would suggest that Christian art is produced whenever and wherever a Christian artist is at work, but cannot be produced by non-religious artists. It was Couturier’s departure from this precept that would spark the incendiary dispute that became known as la querelle de Vart sacre. But in one thing Couturier remained faithful to Maritain: in his insistence that an artist must work with the materials of their age or, as Nichols puts it, with a ‘commitment to the contemporary’ (2007: 111). Couturier avoided contrasting sacred art with the profane, for obvious reasons, seeing instead its opposite as kitsch, which in the modern church all too often meant the sentimental, anaesthetising bondieuseries of Saint-Sulpice.
  • 9 Despite having been erroneously described as ‘a deeply devout Anglican’ by The Tablet, Reid informed me that he would in fact describe himself, at most, as an agnostic.
  • 10 Private conversation.
  • 11 See for reactions to Coxon’s sculpture. For images of Copnall’s and Coxon’s Christs, see Uv9b1km1KaI/AAAAAAAABdw/w7eYp7Elq5Y/s1600/Museum-21.jpg and http://
  • 12 If Augustine can speak of the beauty of the cross while fully recognising its ugliness, and Anselm see the cross as belonging to and part of the ordered beauty of the universe, beauty is, in this sense, truly in the eye of the beholder. It is, in Balthasar’s words, an analogous beauty, mediating ugliness without reifying it. The representation of the cross in most Christian art is therefore a form of theodicy, a presumption of evil overcome, hence the problem of Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Its graphic emphasis on the ugliness and naturalism of the torture overlooks the cross as a symbol of redemptive beauty. This idea appears in Rouault’s work, for whom ugliness best represented suffering, but a suffering that invites compassion and salvation (Miles 2008: 110). An unlikely source for an answer of sorts to this problem of ‘ugly beauty’ would be to follow the route taken by Roger Fry, who identified two uses for the term ‘beauty’, ‘one to indicate sensual charm and the other to mean the appropriateness and the intenseness of the emotions aroused, though what is depicted may be extremely ugly’ (cited in Dillenberger 1969: 91—92). For Jane Dillenberger, this approach offers far more scope for modern art within the church, so often criticised as an insult to conventional and appropriate standards of beauty.
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