Since She Brought It UP
As many of you have noticed by now my colleague Emily has an irenic way about her, especially when she's channeling her Mary more than her Martha (no dis here but rather a reference to a sermon she preached a while back). Last week, when crafting a Daily Cup about art from a self-deprecating perspective she successfully painted a picture with words, as she often does. I can't help but to pick up where she left off and say more about The Things That Make for Art.
My recent travels included a visit to deCordova, a marvelous sculpture park in Lincoln, MA. As is often the case, and was last week, when I'm viewing art my heart leaps and I experience unadulterated joy. I'm overtaken with a feeling that is beyond description - time stops, tears flow and I feel that most precious of feelings - that life is all gift. I don't know why God has granted me this particular blessing and I don't know exactly what it is about particular works of art that evoke these feelings in me but I think it has something to do with the fact that what I'm seeing and sense in these moments is a glimpse of the souls of the artists who created them. They are singing God's song... trust, believe, express, create, love, make your mark! In the religious sphere such expressions of beauty transcend the doctrinal differences between denominations and the dogmatic assertions that divide world religions. The need that humans have to create art is timeless and universal, like God. In his Letter to Artists (Archdiocese of Chicago, Liturgy Training Publications, 1999) Pope John Paul II wrote, "None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God, at the dawn of creation, looked upon the work of divine hands... God is an exemplar who on the very first pages of the bible produces work, and the human who produces art mirrors the image of God as creator." In the Pope's native tongue the relationship between artist and creator is linked linguistically: in Polish stworca means creator and tworca means craftsperson.
One of the pieces that elevated my soul at deCordova last week was Jacob's Dream, a 9' tall cast aluminum sculpture by Isaac Witkin (1936-2006). Witkin was born in South Africa, studied in London under Anthony Caro and was an apprentice to Henry Moore. Witkin was part of a group of artists - sometimes called the school of Caro - who became a phenomenon in the British art world of the 1960's and were known as the New Generation of sculptors.
I suppose it's obvious that I'd be drawn to Witkins' Jacob's Dream because the inspiration for the piece comes from the Jacob narrative in The Book of Genesis (28.10-22). You know the story - Jacob travels to Haran and with a stone for a pillow he falls asleep and dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to the heavens on which the angels of God ascend and descend connecting a divine reality with a human one. In his dream-state the Lord, the God of Abraham (Jacob's grandfather) and the God of Isaac (his father) appears to Jacob and promises to be "with him and keep him wherever he goes." Jacob then wakes from his dream and proclaims, "Surely the Lord is in this place - and I did not know it!" In the morning Jacob sets up the stone on which he slept as a pillar, pours oil on it, names the sacred place of revelation Bethel (Bet = house; El = God) and makes his own promise: "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear... then the Lord shall be my God." But that's just the beginning of this story (ha)!
Tamari Witkin Marcus, Witkin's daughter, described her father's imaginative state when making works of art as if he was almost working in a dream. He would listen to loud operatic music, sometimes sing and enter into what she calls a transformative state. The white patina that Witkin used to finish the surface of Jacob's Dream was one that he hoped would evoke a ladder made of clouds. Looking at the piece in person one gets the sense that a figure climbs the cloud-ladder toward the heavens. There's also a strong visual sense of wrestling within the twisting metal shapes and forms (an allusion to another other Jacob story). Tamari has said that her father was particularly concerned with the concept of wrestling with God and that spirituality was "a very, very meaningful topic for him."
A document called Gaudium et Spes, which was part of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, maintains that through art "the knowledge of God can be better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the human mind." Theologian Marie Dominique Chenu, OP (1895-1990) claimed that the work of the historian of theology would be incomplete if it failed to give due attention to works of art, both literary and figurative, which are in their own way not only aesthetic representations but genuine sources of theology."
Here's a photo of Jacob's Dream that I took last week:
Thank you for wrestling with your dreams, Isaac, and for a glimpse of God. May your soul and the souls of all the departed, rest in peace.