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CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN ART
from issue no. 01 - 2008

That spark of beauty that gives glory to God


An interview with Massimo Lippi, poet and sculptor: The artist does not presume to create beauty by himself , but seeks it in creation so as to give it back to the Lord


Firma


<I>Christ en croix</I>, Georges Rouault

Christ en croix, Georges Rouault

“Close to Siena station there is a very modern bridge over the road. For a few minutes, in the morning, if one looks at the protective netting against the light, one sees that the sun adorns it with a geometric charm in the shape of little stars. Those stars are very similar to Romanesque, Gothic and Late Gothic decorations. On that bridge there is already the phantasmal projection of an art work. This gift of God that is light strikes an anonymous industrial product. Precisely at this time of paroxistic bombardment with images those stars are a very great clue for an artist, Christian or not.”
So begins our conversation with Massimo Lippi, a Sienese poet and sculptor. Lippi has published two collections of lyrics with the publisher Vanni Scheiwiller (Non Popolo mio [Not my people] – 1991 – and Passi il mondo e venga la grazia [May the world pass and grace come] – 1999) after his debut, in 1982, in the Einaudi “Nuovi Poeti Italiani” collection edited by Franco Fortini. Teacher of Art History and Sculpture at the Academies of Fine Arts of Carrara and Macerata and visiting professor at various American universities, he has exhibited his works throughout Europe. Siena houses many of his bronzes, including the portals of the Basilica of San Domenico and a crucifix in the Cathedral. We asked him some questions on modern and contemporary Christian art, on the relationship between the Church and artists in this onset of the millennium, on beauty.

In looking at that city bridge you refer to ancient art. For some time there has been a debate in contemporary Christian art between “traditionalist” and “modernist” trends…
MASSIMO LIPPI: When Christian art is real art it’s never either modernist or traditionalist. It is true art and that’s it.
A gap exists, however, for example between those nostalgic for the nineteenth-century imagerie of the so-called Saint-Sulpice style and those who instead claim that the Church needs to continue the dialogue with contemporary art...
LIPPI: Yes, and it’s a good thing that the dialogue be kept alive. But it’s also a good thing not to categorize too much between “past” and “modern”. Michelangelo is “ancient” chronologically, but modern and contemporary art begins with his Rondanini Pietà.
Meaning?
LIPPI: Michelangelo felt the end of the era. He had a force greater than could submit to the canons established by the academies. He reinvents everything and bewilders those who by then had become accustomed to the innovations of Brunelleschi. In the Rondanini Pietà the rules for making art are surpassed by an instinctive power that was the ultimate confrontation, direct and definitive between a spirit and God. He was ninety and his noise was hardly heard in Rome: a fit of coughing and a blow of the mallet, with the gesture of the carvers of Settignano from whom he had sucked his art. I seem to hear that hammering, the panting of the form that seeks God and that has been formed by God Himself in man – “the glory of God is the living man” – and I seem to see him, Michelangelo, striving to tell Him: I, who am Your glory, want to give glory back to You, just as I am, a sinful man, and not through the aesthetics of the neo-Platonist lords of Florence. Michelangelo does not build a theorem but makes a prayer, a liturgical gesture. He once said that everything he had done was worth nothing in comparison to an act of pure faith by a little peasant girl or by a simple working woman of Rome: for a gesture of simple faith he would have given away all the Sistine Chapel. He would have liked to slip into a public procession, follow behind any whichever image of Our Lady. Doubtless less beautiful than he would have known how to make.
And what has that to do with modern art?
LIPPI: That Pietà is its incunabulum. Those smooth, clean legs struck by the light, while the upper part is still a sketch roughly carved with the bolster and chisel... It is not a true and proper Pietà , but it is already a presentation of the imminent dawn of the world, the Resurrection. Michelangelo proceeds by abbreviations, syncopes, removals, by ablatio, elimination of all that is too much to get to the essential. It is also disproportion and paradox – Mary so young, “daughter of your Son”... There is no sacralization of the form. This work does not represent the end of Christian art, but the end of the presumption of those who, inverting the perspective, had convinced themselves of being able to create beauty by themselves. The artist, Michelangelo seems to say, can with the help of God seek it in creation and give it back to Him and His Church. That attitude is extremely modern.
<I>Rondanini Pietà</I>, Michelangelo, 
Castello Sforzesco, Milan

Rondanini Pietà, Michelangelo, Castello Sforzesco, Milan

Let us go back to contemporary Christian art. There is a remarkable spread of the traditional icons of the Russian or Greek Church...
LIPPI: It’s a way of artificially perpetuating a tradition that is sublime in Rublev and was most effective in a certain time and a certain space... But today it is in danger of being, in my opinion, messy devotionalism. I prefer the expressionism of Francis Bacon to this vacuum-dried stuff. And that shouldn’t scandalize anybody. Everyone is a child of his own time. And it is good that there is this freedom of choice in the Church, this relativism: even looking at and praying before a not beautiful image people can become saints.
There is also a tendency to use widely the most modern visual mass media, such as cinema...
LIPPI: There is a sick desire to give a surplus religiosity to simple devotion... Therefore they hype films like The Passion by Mel Gibson: a macabre showing of pain as an end in itself. A barbarism. Mantegna paints the dead Christ in perspective and that two-dimensional representative technique on canvas, when I observe it, does torment me, yes, but it leaves me free. It is an illusion, however, that opens the heart to reality. Instead after having seen a film of the kind I feel unable to live up to the height of the Christ represented there. It’s a theatre that takes over all my senses and confuses me to the point that I have an aporia, as Socrates would say, whereby I can’t understand which is the reality that counts for me and which is the phantasmal reality invented by the director. Certain films threaten to brainwash in this sense: they can use religion, rather than eros, as trigger for pathos in a violent and unnatural way. On the opposite side, then, very boring television dramatizations are often produced.
Another alarming trend, arising out of the “iconosphere” criticism of the civilization of the image in which contemporary mankind is immersed, rejects any depiction of the Christian life.
LIPPI: We’ve already been there, the Church has for a long time faced the problems of iconoclasm and the aniconic cultic tendency. We are children of the God who incarnated Himself in a man, manifested Himself in the face and person of Jesus Christ, who walks the earth. He works, weeps, suffers and rejoices with us. Therefore He must be depicted.
In 1964 Paul VI, in passionate and heartfelt terms, asked artists for forgiveness for the way the Church had treated them, and told them: “We need you”. In 1973, just thirty-five years ago, the Collection of Modern Religious Art was inaugurated in the Vatican. What has happened since then?
LIPPI: Paul VI had the great insight but then there’s been nobody capable of making it concrete.
In what sense?
LIPPI: There’s been a lack of people going out on reconnaissance to seek the artists, even those most in the vanguard, less well-known, who could have made beautiful things for the Church. Instead reliance has been made, and is made, on competitions. But this is absurd. You must spy out how an artist lives, you must know him, must know how he lives. The popes of the Renaissance did so! The bureaucrats of the faith today don’t do it.
And what has been done instead?
LIPPI: The Church has “updated”, making the lethal mistake of entrusting itself, without discernment, to the market. In the attempt to gain something, it has lost a great deal. The choice was made to commission works from artists in vogue, those most acclaimed in the marketplace. Above all not choosing the best, but those who have to make their own brand circulate, who make much of their own style, their own creative solipsism.
Why is that happening
LIPPI: The unity between hierarchy and people has broken. Once upon a time the priests and the painters, the sculptors, the architects, truly were with the people, and knew them. Today orthodoxy of thought and the blessed anarchy of the artists no longer mesh, and the spark of beauty, when it does kindle, is not seen. Everything broadcast on television, the only source of commissioning, gets swallowed whole. Today the only criterion is that if the artist who decorates or designs a church is famous, then the church that he decorates or designs will also be recognizable in the world. So it happens that in Rome a figure with an international reputation sculpts an Annunciation in Santa Maria degli Angeli with the angel and the Madonna life-size but without arms. Or in San Giovanni Rotondo, a paschal Lamb with no ears, tail and with broken legs is on show... International stars who work with symbols not knowing what they are signs of. A cross scratched by nails on a prison wall is immensely more sacred and beautiful. Or the Stations of the Cross designed by children who know nothing of art and technique.
<I>Saint Catherine and Child Jesus</I>, Massimo Lippi

Saint Catherine and Child Jesus, Massimo Lippi

Are there concrete examples you can point to?
LIPPI: I’m thinking, to cite someone, of Giacomo Manzù, or of Georges Rouault or Arturo Martini. But even they were found by eyes that knew how to look. It’s a question of faith, of holiness of those who must recognize the artists. Not of competitions.
Where should one look?
LIPPI: Everywhere, in the parishes, the towns, the neighborhoods, the cities, the dioceses. For example there are craftsmen who go ahead with the decorous and beautiful tradition that is the crib. But also many artists who work with the “abbreviation” that is proper to modernity, from Michelangelo onwards, with a beauty that is made of sparks, as children do, of allusions, symbols, colours that explode in sharp and tormented shapes, seemingly chaotic, without perspective, disproportioned. Artists, also figurative ones – but of a vivid figuration, that is not pedestrian and silly imitation – who do not make bland devotionalist imagerie, have not renounced living in the world and also use the codes of the world, including expressionism, but know what Christianity is, know and love its symbols, the history of its images. Who have in their eyes the raceme, the bunch of grapes, the little bird decorations of the Romanesque: all that beauty, often implicit, of the ancient and ever new symbols of Christian art.


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