The Holy Ghost in Sight and Sound

This year, my High School religion course is covering, among other things, the Catholic doctrine concerning the Holy Ghost. Because I wanted to give my students a sense of how the rich heritage of Catholic art strives to express the orthodox Faith, I spent a few minutes in class showing them the Altarpiece of Boulbon. Dating from about the year 1450 and by an unknown artist from Provence, the painting has a strange depiction of the Holy Ghost.

But in its strangeness, it is an effort at depicting a truth of the Faith.

Here is a detail that catches the Holy Ghost up close:


The entire altarpiece can be seen here and here. I ask the reader a question: What is the doctrine of the Faith that is here depicted?

(One of my students answered this correctly, by the way.)

If you don’t know the answer right away, think about it. Say the Nicene Creed slowly. If you give up, click here. The answer is the last word in the title of the brief linked article.

A short explanation of the painting is found at the Georgia Regents University web site.

After showing the students the painting, I played for them a few minutes’ worth of the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” The twenty-six-minute movement is a setting of the Latin Catholic hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus.

Mahler, a Jew born in the Czech part of the then Austrian Empire, converted to Catholicism in February of 1897 — the same year St. Therese died and Father Feeney was born, by the way. It is said that this was a conversion of convenience so that he might secure the position of Kapellmeister of the Vienna Hofoper, which no Jew would have been given.

Without any anxieties about the matter, I’ll leave the judgment on Mahler’s true motivations up to God — but I’ll still pray for the repose of his Catholic soul. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the immensity of his musical genius. And “immensity” is the right word. The sobriquet, “Symphony of a Thousand,” is no exaggeration. It takes about that many people to perform it, no kiddin’; just watch: