Death, Beauty, Transformation

“Death,” wrote poet Wallace Stevens, “is the mother of beauty.” Without putting his line in context, how might we interpret it?

One interpretation could be that men make beautiful things, paintings, music, poems, to sweeten life in the face of its inevitable end, which no man welcomes in the way he will beauty when he encounters it. That would make death the “mother of beauty,” but I’m going to give the line another spin and want to begin by concentrating on beauty as conveyed by one art, painting.

Let’s ignore the question of what exactly makes a painting beautiful and agree that before modern time when many artists turned to trying to depict nothing but their own subjective state, all were devoted to covering a wall, wooden panel, canvas or paper with images at which others would care to look because, one way or another, the images were pleasing to the eye. This even if the subject was not pleasant (think of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel).

For something like a thousand years in the West most of the images were religious — pictures of saints, scenes from the life of Our Lord as related in the gospels — but even when artists began to make other kinds, as did painters of the Renaissance when they started depicting scenes from Graeco-Roman mythology, they benefitted from all that had been learned about image-making during the centuries when it was devoted to Christian subjects.

Of course it was the same with other arts. For instance, music certainly existed before Christianity even as it does in our post-Christian age, but when a couple of eleventh-century Frankish monks devised the musical staff so that plainchant could be “read” instead of learned only by hearing and repetition, they made possible everything that has followed from Beethoven’s string quartets to whatever John Adams is working on currently. However, we said we wanted to concentrate on painting. Where did Christian painting, and the beauty it conveyed, begin? It was in places dedicated to death: the catacombs of Rome.

There is a mistaken common belief that the catacombs were a hiding place for early Christians during periods of persecution. It is as if we imagined those subterranean chambers were kept stocked with food and other supplies like the fall-out shelters the U.S. government encouraged citizens to build in their backyards in the 1950s. When a siren went off everybody would head underground and be able to live there as long as the emergency lasted. How silly! The catacombs were burial places — cemeteries — pure and simple.

It wasn’t until early in the third century that the tiny number of Christians of Rome were in a position to build one; and at that, the land for it was outside the city on the Appian Way. Today we know the first catacomb as that of Saint Callixtus, named for the saint who superintended the construction and became pope (bishop of Rome) in 218.

There was nothing secret about this network of ten subterranean corridors and chambers lined with niches where coffins were set. There could not be. For some amount of time it was a construction site. Afterward neighbors would see Christians come and go, not simply for burials but for what we now think of as memorial Masses (Christians wouldn’t start building churches for Mass until the fourth century).

There was also nothing inviting about the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus. Lit only by oil lamps, the corridors were dark, dank and smelled with the smell of decomposing corpses. How make the place less dismal?

Those early Christians did it the same way it’s done today: with decoration, by trying to make the place beautiful. Today that takes the form of landscaping: lawns lusher than seen in most public parks, a grove of trees, maybe a pond with a couple of swans gliding on it. In the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus they painted.

However, there weren’t yet any Christian images or Christian artists to devise them. The earliest known image of the Crucifixion, for instance, was not made until the middle of the fifth century (it’s on the wooden doors of the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome). Yet the pagan artists of the day, commissioned by the Christians, were used to making images that could be seen in a Christian light and soon were.

For example, there was a figure known as the kriophoros, or lamb-bearer: a young man with a sheep on his shoulders. He symbolized philanthropy, care for others. A Christian could see the figure as the Good Shepherd.

Then there was the figure of the orant, a man or woman shown standing with hands uplifted in prayer to the gods. To Christians the prayer would be directed to the One True God. We see the gesture today in many Catholic Novus Ordo parishes where hands are lifted up during recitation of the Pater Noster.

The figure of Orpheus with his lyre can also be seen in the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus. This can be startling because today we mainly remember this character from ancient pagan mythology for looking back at, and thus losing forever, his beloved Eurydice as he led her from Hades. But the learned Christian Clement of Alexandria, steeped in the culture of his pagan ancestors, tells us that if Orpheus’s singing was so sweet it could pacify wild beasts, Christ’s “song” can tame “the most intractable of all animals: man.”

We could cite other examples of images from the Catacomb of Saint Callixtus, images meant to beautify the place, pagan images adapted by Christians for their own use and which, once adapted, transformed the place into more than simply a less forbidding city of the dead. For the day would come when out of the catacombs would rise great cathedrals and an entire civilization.

That civilization now needs not so much restoration as to be given new expression, and that is the point of these lines. Christian belief transformed Graeco-Roman civilization, including its art, into Christian civilization. However, belief by itself didn’t do it. It is when men live according to what they believe that belief becomes transformative.

As with the notion that the catacombs were a hiding place for persecuted early Christians, many seem to think nowadays that there is no art — no painting, books, music, film — of any interest to a Christian, but it is not true. There are artists who find elements in the world as it is — i.e., in our post-Christian culture — that they are able to put to the service of their Christian belief in the way our ancestors in the Faith transformed the kriophoros into the Good Shepherd. Could there be more such? I am doubtful. They would need an audience to support them. That, for now, seems to be lacking.

Let me offer a case in point: the most recent work of the filmmaker Terrence Malick, To the Wonder. Not for the intellectually lazy or anyone who thinks a movie with brief glimpses of female nudity must be immoral, it is the most explicitly Christian of Malick’s films to date. (I intend to write about it soon.) Either because anything Christian is beyond their comprehension, or they are hostile to it if is not, nearly all reviewers panned the film and it bombed at the box office. Will that prevent additional work by Malick from reaching the public who appreciate him? Probably not. He is an established master and has been reported as having two more films in production right now. However, it probably will be more difficult for lesser-known filmmakers to find the financial backing for work that is serious and also Christian.

The real problem seems to be that we have mainly two kinds of Christians today. The great majority assimilate. They continue to profess belief, but their lives are indistinguishable from the rest of society. They have the same tastes, listen to the same ghastly “music,” watch the same meaningless movies, read the same shallow best-sellers (when they read at all), and have the same empty ideas as most everybody else. Then there is a minority, including Catholics of traditional bent. As much out of fear of contamination as anything, too many of them ignore art, all art, including the works for which they should be the natural audience. They are not like the Christians who hired pagans to beautify the catacombs and found the Good Shepherd in the kriophoros.

Doubtless in their purity they are living their belief. Thus may they save themselves and that is always the Christian’s first duty. However, they also delay the advent of a renewed Christendom if it is ever to be.