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CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN ART
from issue no. 04 - 2008

An art that stirs veneration


“The great difference is this: an art work can rouse wonder and admiration, but the art that enters the liturgical space must stir veneration. The veneration that the simple faithful expresses with the sign of the cross, with the genuflexion, with prayer.” An interview with Father Marko Ivan Rupnik, Director of the Atelier of Spiritual Art of the Aletti Center in Rome


Interview with Marko Ivan Rupnik by Paolo Mattei


Father Marko Ivan Rupnik wears red coveralls, the uniform of the artist at work. We meet him to discuss the themes of Christian art, in the Atelier of Spiritual Art at the “Ezio Aletti” Center for study and research of which he has been director since 1995.
A Slovenian Jesuit from Zadlog, born in 1954, a priest since 1985, Rupnik has been consultant to the Pontifical Council of Culture since 1999 and currently he teaches at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and the Gregorian University. In the Atelier – in the shadow of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major – the mosaics take shape with which this artist-theologian, a student of Father Tomás Spidlík, has decorated churches all over the world. The ones in the Redemptoris Mater chapel, in the second loggia of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, made in 1999, are famous. At the end of 2007 he finished the five Mysteries of Light for the facade of the Lourdes Shrine.
Rupnik immediately tells us that he is happy at the election of Father Adolfo Nicolás as Prepositor General of the Society of Jesus: “I still haven’t met him in person, but I very much liked his words after the nomination”.

Father Marko Ivan Rupnik in the Atelier 
of Spiritual Art of the Aletti Center in Rome

Father Marko Ivan Rupnik in the Atelier of Spiritual Art of the Aletti Center in Rome

A debate has opened recently on the new Lesson Book illustrated by thirty contemporary artists. Its detractors have spoken of exasperated “iconic poverty”, of a negative prevalence of abstraction over figuration...
MARKO IVAN RUPNIK: When it’s a matter of art that enters within the sphere of the liturgy the problem is not that of deciding between figuration or abstraction – even if those are not the best definitions – that are in any case two fundamental and unavoidable idioms in art. I think rather that the artist who finds himself working with the liturgy must keep in mind essentially the liturgical language that moves on the “personal” and on the “communal” and that therefore goes beyond the subjective and the objective. In the liturgical space the problematic issue is subjectivism, the solipsism of the artist’s language, because then in truth a figurative work can turn out more subjective than an abstract work.
What do you mean by “subjectivism” in art?
RUPNIK: In an objectivist, conceptual and scientific culture, art becomes the sphere of the protest against everything that comes excluded and suppressed in the human person. Above all the world of feeling and freedom. The artist therefore wishes to express himself as unique, unmistakable. Therefore he chooses an intense, intrusive expression, with a subjective language. On the contrary, the liturgical language has purified itself over the centuries from what was too psychological, emotive and too sentimental, to reach a symbolic, metaphorical sparseness, that on the one hand knows how to draw on the objectivity of the Revelation of Christ and on the other is capable of being recognizable in every historical moment by the Christian people.
How can this quarrel between the individualistic demands of the artist and an art, such as the liturgical, that has a “public” function be resolved?
RUPNIK: The concept of subjectivism, as I have suggested, is gone beyond in Christian spirituality by the term “personal”. In a theological sense the idea of “personal” includes two aspects at the same time: one communal and one individual, as opposed to subjectivism, a term that arises out of the continuous antagonism between “individual” and “collective”: these two latter categories do not belong to the genuine Christian tradition. The ideas of “personal” and “communal” are not in conflict but in mutual relationship against the Trinitarian and ecclesial background. Thus the “personal-communal” also includes the objective. It seems to me that a distinction of various levels in the ambit of liturgical art was tried with the Lectionary, although it’s also true that the Lectionary has always been an object of veneration.
So you judge these signs of an openness of the Church to contemporary artists positively...
RUPNIK: With the invitation to collaborate on the Lectionary the Italian Church has in any case made an extraordinary and important attempte to rebuild a bridge with contemporary artists. The divorce between art and the Church is a painful fact that was already publicly criticized by Paul VI. I hope a constant relationship is set up with the artists involved.
In what way?
RUPNIK: The Church has available priests, theologians, religious and lay people, people capable of making the relationship develop. The problem arises when people in the Church are won over by the rage for fashion, when the altar, the presbytery, the lectern, the chasuble, the chalice are treated as gallery objects of art.
How can the problem be solved?
RUPNIK: We urgently need to recover a language that is in danger of getting lost. The words devoted to art by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in his book Introduction to the spirit of the liturgy are truly masterly on this, a most important signpost. According to me we urgently need to draw up a new “charter” for liturgical art.
Meaning to say?
RUPNIK: Repropose serious and committed study of early Christian art, Romanesque, early Byzantine, early Gothic art... We must offer the contemporary artist the possibility of achieving the same vision as the iconographer and the sculptor of those periods, and at the same time of speaking in the language of today. Of achieving, that is, the synthesis of these two truths. That, however, is possible only in the ambit of the spiritual and ecclesial life.
Isn’t there the danger that it will just be an exercise in nostalgia?
RUPNIK: Not at all! Quite the opposite. The Church is incompatible with nostalgia, because it is eschatologically oriented. Nostalgia is a pathology and a resistance to creativity because it is symptom of death. We must continue to go ahead “creating” out of the sapiential memory of the Church. Tradition is not a dead letter, but a living organism.
<I>The table of Bethany</I>, refectory of the Aletti Center, Rome

The table of Bethany, refectory of the Aletti Center, Rome

So what is the form of the figure that best expresses what is celebrated in the liturgy?
RUPNIK: Christian art in the liturgical space has always been an “art of presence”. A language made essential therefore, without distracting details, where everything – even the artist and the people to whom the work is destined – is taken up into the mystery that is communicated. The great difference is this: an art work can rouse wonder and admiration, but the art that enters the liturgical space must stir veneration. The veneration that the ordinary believer expresses with the sign of the cross, with genuflexion, with prayer: because there is the presence of God. It’s not enough for someone to say: wonderful! It needs an inner life, that makes it possible for one to be aware of the Mystery present. Speaking about art John Paul II said that: “It is knowledge translated into lines, images and sounds, symbols that the conception can recognize as projections onto the arcane of life, beyond the limits that the conception cannot reach: openings, therefore, on the depths, the other, the inexpressible of existence, ways that keep mankind free towards the mystery and translate the anxiety that has no other words to express itself. Art is thus religious, because it leads mankind to awareness of the disquiet that lies at the base of its being and that neither science, with the objective formality of laws, nor technology, with the programming that saves from the risk of mistake, will ever manage to satisfy”. In describing the prerogatives of artists Pope Montini used the German term Einfühlung, and explained its meaning as follows: “The sensibility, that is the ability to perceive, through feeling, that which through thought one would not manage to understand and express”.
Rarely it happens that one experiences such feelings on entering certain churches built over last decades...
RUPNIK: Many churches built in recent years express a great spiritual poverty and a widespread incapacity for discernment. When dialogue with contemporary culture means the obligation to commission the design of churches from the most famous architects it’s obvious that the dialogue has become ideological. When one builds a church one shows who one is. Throughout our history the church-building referred to the Church and to the mysteries celebrated by it. If nowadays almost nobody can express the clear characteristics of such identity, it probably means that for the moment we are wandering aimlessly. But we must be very careful not to fall in the trap of ideological dialectics and so give vent to a nostalgia that rejects contemporary artistic idioms. We must not adopt an opposing stance to contemporaneity. We must be on the look-out for what is new in culture – in which, after all we, too, are immersed – without that turning into mechanical submission to fashion. It is humble fidelity to the Tradition that enables this openness to the world.
Meaning?
RUPNIK: I think that what is at stake is life. The life that we Christians have, we receive it in baptism. We are generated in a birth that is baptism, from a mother who is the Church. The Church is the image of the Trinitarian communion in which we, by means of the sacramental words, the water, the sacramental event of baptism, are engrafted. Thus the life we receive is a communion with God, with others and with the creation. This means that the life we receive – its constitution, its “style” – is communion and dialogue. Life thus accomplishes itself in communion towards God – prayer – towards others – charity – and towards the earth – transfiguration of the world. A three-dimensional communion organically indivisible. The church being built must let one glimpse such life. And since the life received is of Christ and is lived in Christ, Who in the Easter mystery reached the peak of Revelation, so the presence of Christians in the world cannot be accomplished outside this life.
Why instead are we at this point?
RUPNIK: Because communion and dialogue have also been misinterpreted and ideologized. It is easier to work with an abstract dialectic than with an intelligence saturated in life. What should appear in art are not theoretical positions, but the life of the Church: it’s the fundamental point. The building of churches, the interior decoration and works of art, mirror the theology and the pastoral that they teach us and the spiritual life proposed. Everything is connected. And the churches built express this life suffocated under frameworks and constructions that do not belong to them and that therefore cannot communicate it.
With that situation in mind, can you outline for us, on the basis of your experience at the Aletti Center, the ideal profile of an artist operating in the liturgical sphere? How should he behave, to what should he pay heed?
RUPNIK: Naturally there is no fixed rule. Undoubtedly there is always an attraction at work in the life of every artist. There is a beauty that attracts. The theologian Pavel Florenskij used to say: “Truth revealed is the Love and Love achieved is Beauty”. That’s it, the artist is attracted by Beauty, which is Love achieved, that is Easter. He can have by grace the humility to let the Mystery fertilize him. Those who work with this Mystery can’t do other than welcome it, give it space in their lives and let it go to work.
Other important features?
RUPNIK: First of all humility, but not understood in the psychological sense, that is as an attitude to adopt, as if it were the fruit of one’s own intelligence or diligence. Humility is the gift of the Holy Spirit, that bloweth where it listeth and may grip non-Christian artists also. It is a matter precisely of theological humility. The more mature the artist is in the knowledge of receiving this gift the more he will be dispossessed of his work and its production will not be the sphere of his self-affirmation, but of his humble service. Only in that way can the work be handed over to the many and the many will recognize themselves in it. With art it’s like with love: one demands humility and action. The more humble one is the more one is veined with love. The more one involves oneself personally the more one is universal.
And then?
RUPNIK: One needs to be very familiar with the Word of God – because, as Nicene II says, art is a translation of the Word of God – and with the memory of the Church: the Fathers, the saints, Christian art. One also needs to be inward with the debate of the century in which one lives, that is to be familiar with the contemporary artistic idiom, and to be inserted in the life of the Church. One must have a spiritual life, live the same difficulties as our contemporaries so as to be able to share with them the steps in the redemption bestowed to us. For us at the Aletti Center, working in chorus is fundamental. Working together, constantly engaging in mutual charity and fruitful dialogue. Out of the Church one creates for the Church.
The new mosaics on the facade 
of the Basilica of the Rosary, Lourdes, created by Father Rupnik  for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary 
of the apparitions

The new mosaics on the facade of the Basilica of the Rosary, Lourdes, created by Father Rupnik for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the apparitions

Who are your favorite artists, your “fixed stars” in the firmament of art?
RUPNIK: Rather than of individuals I would speak of periods: pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, Gothic, early Byzantine are the fundamental periods and styles for me. As for contemporary art, I was once deeply into Van Gogh; then into Matisse, his sparse but living line. I was attracted by Nicolas de Stael’s use of color. I love the more material currents as for example arte povera, because in a period slipping ever further into the virtual and the imaginary I think love of truth, of the creation, is important. We have known the Incarnation of God. Beauty is the body of the Truth and the Good.
How do you set about working on a commission?
RUPNIK: I start off from an exchange of views with the people commissioning the work, the parish priest, the bishop or the Christian community for whom I must make it. An exchange of views that can at times go on for some months, sometimes it’s lasted more that a year.
One final word, Father, on the last great work you finished, the mosaics on the facade of the shrine at Lourdes...
RUPNIK: It was a grace of God, because we at the Aletti Center are a tiny group. Every work is for us a total commitment, it doesn’t matter where it has to be done. Immediately after Lourdes, for example, we went off to Ravoledo, near Bormio, a little village on a hilltop where less that two hundred people live...


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