Anyone who knows me knows that one of the things I love about Catholic churches is the art. Face it, I am a statuary junkie. Having visual reminders of the faith all around me is a great help when my restless mind wanders during Mass. Reading the lives of the saints, I am given to understand I am not the first Christian with this problem.....
Even so, I find I have, in the modern parlance, “issues” with some of the art. Despite the fact that my daughter spent a good deal of her senior year in high school in a vain attempt to educate my artistic palate, I confess that even though I understand the principles that govern the creation and appreciation of art, sometimes i really don’t “get" them. Philistine that I am, the more real the representation, the more it speaks to me. Chalk that up to the fact that I spend a good deal of my time in the mire of science, where real is the coin of the realm.
But besides that, the more real a representation is, the more it has in common with me. And the more that artists take liberties with their representations of the saints in particular, the more plaster they become and the less lively. Now I am not particularly stupid: I understand that elongated figures and ethereal faces are meant to remind me of the heavenly state of the individuals involved. It reminds me that we retain our bodies after resurrection, but in glorified form.
Fantastic, looking forward to it. But right now, I need to understand the grittier aspects of the lives of the saints more than I do their eternal reward.
This was driven home when I received a holy card of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta. The face of Mother Theresa in life was instantly recognizable, full of light and life and, not to put too fine a point on it, rather coarse and wrinkled. And it was beautiful because she was beautiful. Being at a stage when the settling in of life-lines on my face has become a commonplace occurrence, I need a way to be as joyful in them as she was. So why, do you suppose, the artist smoothed and thinned her face to a point of almost unrecognizable aesthetic improvement?
I know, I know: to represent her exalted state. But I really want to know her as she was on earth, wrinkled, aged, battered feet and all. I need to be reminded that to get to that heroic virtue, I'm going to have to deal with a lot of smelly bandages, and it's going to show in my life and on my face. I want it to show joy, as it showed in her.
Which brings me to the Chapel of Mary in the Cathedral of St Paul’s in Worcester. It’s one of my regular stops on my increasingly frequent business trips, and thanks be to God, there’s an early mass I can attend and still make early business meetings on time. And when it comes to Mary, they know how to do art right.
To one side is a larger than life Pieta, not pushed away on a pedestal and locked behind a fence but right there, off to the side, as Mary stood at the side of the Cross, and among the people as she always is. It’s not a particularly unusual sculpture, but its placement is both subtle and compelling. There, as we kneel at the foot of the Cross in mass, the Blessed Mother holds the broken body of her Son for us to see and remember. It’s powerful.
But the Cross is only half the story. Jesus’s life is about life, not death. And to the right of the altar is the most beautiful painting of the Blessed Mother I have ever seen. (That opinion and $3.95 will buy you a coffee at Starbucks.) It’s a long painting, and its very form draws the eye upward. Mary seems suspended in the canvas, holding the child Jesus in her arms, dark hair spilling around her face, and that face is tilted upward, still visible, but clearly joyful. The Infant looks out with unusually direct eyes (and disconcertingly light hair. Again--I get it, but....)
It’s the Blessed Mother’s hands that transfix me, though. She holds on to the arm of her Son in a way that is stunningly familiar to mothers, especially new ones. She appears to hold Him tightly, but in joy and abandonment. She is far and away the larger figure in the painting, but as it always is with Mary, if you really look at her, your gaze is inevitably drawn to Jesus. And the eyes of that tiny child are wise and old and reach right into the depths of the heart.
Through Mary to Jesus. As a Protestant, I never quite understood that. A lot of study got me to the point that I could assent to it with my intellect and will, but art and prayer brought the reality home. In the Mary Chapel at the Cathedral of St. Paul a few short steps will take you from the Incarnation to the Crucifixion and right back to life resurrected again, and Mary leads the way.