Today I attended the funeral of a woman I had not seen for decades. She was a childhood friend of my mother’s, loyal to my mother at a time when few were, and the mother of girls about the age of my brother and I. She was um, undiplomatic; the sort of blunt common in those who drink too much. Her daughters were a little wild and I envied them sometimes. The older confided to me recently that she envied us our stable life and calm mother. That irony is an old story. Nothing to see here, move along, folks.
The family was Irish Catholic, but I doubt that mother or daughters have been practicing for many years. Ex-catholics all have their own stories, but in my generation the stories fell into a few standard categories. Rebellion against the Catholic preoccupation with sexual rules often figured prominently in the narratives of my RC friends, but I always figured that was what all churches did. I didn’t think the Catholics were any more obsessed than my own people. In retrospect, it is more likely that it was we adolescents who were obsessed with sexual rules. The adults looked obsessed because they were just responding to us. By looking for constant loopholes we also demonstrated that we were perhaps not, shall we say, the best arbiters of church doctrine. It must have been irritating for adults to listen to twerps like me. That’s another old story, which others have told better than I.
As a Protestant, I was always struck by how astonishingly ugly more than half the art was in Roman Catholic churches. Garishly painted statues, enormous murals of saints in pain, ornate altars that lit up like a carnival ride – what was with that? The expressions on the face of Jesus, and the stilted postures the put Him in – how did that give one the idea of a warm and welcoming God? Wouldn’t it be more likely that children would grow up petrified? The stained glass windows – now those I liked, even when they were impossibly ornate or had symbols I didn’t understand. We had stained glass in our church as well, and staring at them was sometimes the best way to get through a Sunday morning. A lamb carrying a flag, crowns, pelicans, ships – I loved that stuff. I had no clue what it was about until I was older, but it was great. Compared to listening, that is.
Those kids that grow up in those churches with an empty stage, beige carpets, and a single lily in front of a plexiglass lectern, what do they look at for 60 minutes? No wonder the emerging church generation wants more visual art in the sanctuary. The tormented saints gazing heavenward might create repulsion, but the bare sanctuary creates glazed looks. Boring is probably worse than unnerving.
I think I suspected that Catholics were leaving the church because of bad art more than they suspected. Not only because the art was ugly – we can all find charm in ugly things if they have sentimental value – but the way they were ugly. That Sacred Heart of Jesus picture is downright creepy. Those stylized Byzantine saints with black-lined haloes – those come straight out of the worst parts of my unconscious, Jack. Most of the people you see in church art, especially Catholic art, are saying If you ever have a problem, don’t come to us. We lived so long ago it was a different universe. Whatever you’re feeling, we never felt that.
When I first visited Romania, the immense distance of their religious art from my thinking was even more apparent. Eastern Orthodox art is even more likely to have angels spearing trampled dragons, and demons pushing people into the flames. Large wooden crucifixes are stuck in by the side of the road all over Romania, or even out in the sheep-fields. I don’t know whether these are memorials, permanent thank-you cards for significant events or what, but there they are, often with Jesus’s wounds in colorful detail. Hieronymous Bosch, notorious in western art for his fevered, tormented subjects, has got nothing on these guys. My worst nightmares never looked like this.
Yet I like dragons in stories and pictures, and the difference between the Balrog dragging Gandalf into the abyss and this church art with the demons I find so repulsive is…what, exactly? The psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim wrote that the gruesome and frightening nature of fairy tales is not only allowable but necessary for children. Our worlds are already populated by fearful things that hover on the edge of perception or just over the horizon. Better to get them out in the open and demonstrate what can be done about them: pray, show courage, be kind to strangers, give your fear a name. Those who have a fondness for Jung, heroic fantasy, or folk tales, BTW, will find Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment delightful and thought-provoking.
Perhaps that’s the point of this Roman Catholic art that I found so off-putting. I looked at a mural during the funeral today and thought that’s my fear come to light. Guys frightened, puzzled, hanging around Jesus hoping for some sort of relief or protection. I looked further and saw the whole collective unconscious on display: a man holding a baby, plants and animals, stone, wood, darkness and light. Not an erudite discussion on the nature of God and the nature of the universe, with fancy philosophical phrases in foreign languages, but God as bits of food and wine. Eating bread and wine has been done about, oh, one quintillion times since the beginning of man, and about one quadrillion of those have been in honor of God. This is about as close to the center of humankind’s existence as a god can get.
I thought of Mary, the woman whose funeral it was. (I had forgotten that Catholics are big on making sure your confirmation name makes it into your wedding and funeral, and chuckled inside at the daughters, Deborah and Nancy, who were going to give their relatives a jarring moment when their own funerals come: their confirmation name, which they have long since abandoned, will rise to prominence again, and they will be spoken about with a name they hardly knew. The priest kept referring to their mother as Mary Ann – I wonder when was the last time she was called that? Fifty, sixty years ago? I love it. Proof of how little control we have over our legacy.) Sorry, back to Mary. She would hardly have objected to the bad art. This was the first person we knew to get one of those silver Christmas trees with the rotating color wheel. She had miniature poodles with rhinestone collars. Whatever pulled her away from Holy Mother Church, it wasn’t the art. The older daughter is a designer of gardens – the art might bother her. On the other hand, plants, dirt, stone – that’s all very primal stuff, and she’s been reading Jung, so maybe the art looks different to her now. (I’ll be sending this to her. I’ll ask.)
I’m going to have a go at embracing some of the religious symbolism I’ve tried to shove in the background all my life. I’m not a very mystical person, so it likely won’t change things much. But this art, and symbolism, and enactment has fed people for generations, and most of them were better Christians than I. Maybe I’ve had this backwards.