Friday, April 1, 2011

"The greatest art is that which glorifies God."

This is what my grandmother used to tell my brother and me, every summer when she'd take us to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  My favorite areas were always the Greek and Egyptian.  For some reason I was most interested in sculpture, which I'm still no good at!  I think my brother's favorite hall was Arms & Armor...although for the most part, he was just bored.

First bored child at the art museum

We took the younger two kids to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts this Christmas.  It's smaller, but teeming with artifacts and stunning European works from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Counter-Reformation.  I felt so close to my grandmother! 

"Why are so many paintings about Jesus?" asked Nathaniel.

Well, a few reasons.  The minor, practical reason is because the most successful artists of the day were those who chose to dedicate their craft to God.  With the support of a very religious European culture, they were the only artists who could earn enough to live!

But more importantly, artwork educated during a time when only nobility were commonly able to read.  Paintings served to illuminate the stories of the Bible.  Priests, primarily those in monasteries, were the only teachers who served the common people, and they taught literacy and history using Scripture.

Second bored child at the art museum
And to this day artwork helps us relate more closely to the stories that we read or listen to.  One of the most common images, Madonna and Child, helped families understand the love within the Holy Family and put that love to work in their own homes.  And the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross simply doesn't hit home as deeply until one both hears and sees His injuries and the grief on His human face.

Finally, it's because the Catholic Church has always been in the museum business!  Even to the earliest days, the Apostles--the first bishops--recorded their activities and decisions, gathered memorial artifacts, and helped the Christians of their areas (diocese) bury the dead with plaques and relics to preserve their stories.  We wouldn't have a Bible otherwise!  Illustrations and artwork--some depicting the Consecration during Mass :) --are found on the walls of the very earliest catacombs where our ancestors gathered in secret to worship.  Then throughout the dark ages, some parishes and a handful of monateries were the only places that managed to ward off the invasions and protect records, art and artifacts. 

All for the purpose of understanding how God works in the world:  illuminating more of God's will for us, and giving honor to Him who is the source of all beauty!


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