Saturday, August 29, 2015

Art History & Prayer

Before the humanities, mad with science envy, gave up on point of view, one could get away with a lot. Here's Henry Adams describing the windows of Chartres Cathedral in 1904:
You had better stop here, once for all, unless you are willing to feel that Chartres was made what it is, not by artist, but by the Virgin.  If this imperial presence is stamped on the architecture and the sculpture with an energy not to be mistaken, it radiates through the glass with a light and colour that actually blind the true servant of Mary. One becomes, sometimes, a little incoherent in talking about it; one is ashamed to be as extravagant as one wants to be; one has no business to labour painfully to explain and prove to one's self what is as clear as the sun in the sky; one loses temper in reasoning about what can only be felt, and what ought to be felt instantly, as it was in the twelfth century, even by the truie qui file and the ane qui vielle. Any one should feel it that wishes; any one who does not wish to feel it can let it alone. Still, it may be that not one tourist in a hundred--perhaps not one in a thousand of the English-speaking race--does feel it, or can feel it even when explained to him, for we have lost many senses. 
Interestingly, Henri Nouwen gets at the same idea when describing not the Virgin at Chartres, but prayer to God in a common room:
The "first and final" movement is so central to our spiritual life that it is very hard to come in touch with it, to get a grasp on it, to get hold of it, or even - to put a finger on it. Not because this movement is vague or unreal, but because it is so close that it hardly allows the distance needed for articulation and understanding. Maybe this is the reason why the most profound realities of life are the most easiest victims of trivialization.  
Newspaper interview with monks who have given their life to prayer in silence and solitude out of burning love for God, usually boil down to silly stories about changes in regulations and seemingly strange customs. Questions about the "why" of love, marriage, the priesthood or any basic life decision usually lead to meaningless platitudes, a lot of stuttering and shaking of shoulders. Not that these questions are unimportant, but their answers are too deep and too close to our innermost being to be caught in human words.
Wonderfully, both Henries continued to articulate themselves despite the difficulties, to similar result. No wonder the Italian scholar Paolo Prodi recently remarked, in a high profile art history publication, that “there exists a relation between prayer and art that has not yet been explored. This is a task for future research."

Such research, which is well underway, might even have a point of view.