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Evansville, Indiana
October 16, 1987     The Message
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October 16, 1987

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Faith Today Supplement, The Message, Catholic Diocese of Evansville, October 16, 1987 Page 2 Faith Today The silent language By Katharine Bird NC News Service l n man}" ways, the chapel of the Dominican Retreat House in McLean, Va., is a piece of art in its entirety. Its beauty comes from its lovely wooden walls and the huge windows which allow the sunlight to filter in through the trees outside. The focal point of a side altar is an unusual tabernacle crafted by a Dominican sister and adorned with multicolored glass which refracts the light. The chapel's serenity and beauty puts one in the mood for prayer and contemplation. A church with a quite different kind of beaut}' is Notre Dame d'Haiti Mission Church in Miami, Fla. Its central artistic feature is a striking mural painted by a young Haitian artist. Situated in a prominent position by the front altar, the mural uses the vivid colors loved by Ilaitians. It features a brilliant blue ocean, an island green with trees and a portrait of Haiti's patroness, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The lovely mural in an other- wise plain church helps to create a prayerful environment where Hai- tians feel at home and drawn to worship. Both the chapel and the Haitian church illustrate for me what pro- lessor of art and art history David Ramsey identified in an interview as the goal of church art. Paying attention to a church's artistic environment isn't "art for art's sake," said Ramsey, who teaches at the College of Notre Dame in Belmont, Calif. Art plays a sacramental role by putting "us in the presence of the sacred in special ways." Art is "a silent language," he emphasized, but a language which has a special capacity to speak to us about God through beaut},. "You can know and understand things through art sometimes bet- ter than through the written word." One of Ramsey's goals is to pro- vide education in the ways art can help to create a suitable environ- ment for worship. He said he finds that many people are unaware of what artists are doing today in the church. Man}, people seem to think "that the church disengaged itself from art" after the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he said. So a first step is to "see what has been done and what is being done now." Ramsey is the founder and direc- tor of the Archives of Modern Christian Art developed at the Col- lege of Notre Dame ;ts a resource for people and parishes interested in what artists are doing in the church today. The archives collects books, periodicals and pamphlets on contemporary church art and has compiled a list of some 200 ar- tists active in creating art for chur- ches today. It also is building an audio-visual library of slides of modern church art. A carefully chosen piece of art in a church can establish a power- ful setting for worship, Ramsey stressed. Part of the appeal of a true work of art, he added, is that it usually is created from materials such as stone or wood, or lovingly painted or drawn by hand, not made of synthetic or plastic materials. Ramsey's discussion with me focused on the visual arts, which lie identified as "all the visual ob- jects within the church which assist the community at worship." These include the building itself, craft works such as banners and wall hangings, paintings and statues, and the objects used in worship such as vestments and chalices. He believes that art can put peo- ple in the frame of mind to meet God with "broader and deeper perception." The ultimate goal of art in a church, Ramsey added, is to place people "in a situation more receptive to the presence of Christ in their midst." (Ms. Bird is associate editor of Faith Today.) No 'carved idols' here! By Father John Castelot NC News Service hen archaeologists investigated sites in the Holy Land that they felt sure were ancient Israelite towns, they discovered a helpful pattern. As they dug throdgh the layers of debris, they ff)und many signs of Israelite occupation: pot- tery, utensils and the like. Then, suddenly, something became clear: In reality, they had reached a level of pre-Israelite culture. How could they be sure? The carefully sifted earth yielded a pro- fusion of art objects: amulets, figurines of fertility goddesses and other religious symbols. But the Israelites were forbidden to make visible representations of anything whatsoever: "You shall not carve idols for yourselves in the shape of anything in the sky above or in the earth below or in the water beneath the earth" (Exodus 20:4). The practical reason for this pro- hibition was the real danger of idolatry. The surrounding nations all made representations of their gods. It was too easy for people then to end up adoring the works of their own hands. But the prohibition also reflects a realization of God's total otherness, his transcendence. God is so completely different from anything in creation, from anything even imaginable, that it is impossible to represent him artistically. There were those who inter- preted this commandment strictly. As a result they practically stifled all artistic eXpression, at least pain- ting and sculpture. Others evident- ly were more flexible. For in- stance, cherubim were 'installed in the very Holy of Holies, atop the Ark of the Covenant'. One of the most surprising ex- amples of Jewish religious art is the mosaic floor of a synagogue at Tiberias, on the shore of the lake. It dates from about the fourth cen- tury. The colors are still strikingly vivid, although it helps to throw some water on them and wash away the dust. At the four corners of the pat- tern are female figures representing the seasons. On one side is the Torah scroll flanked by two candelabra, with flames blowing realistically in the breeze. Most astonishing is the centerpiece, a representation of the zodiac, with the names of the 12 signs in Hebrew. This type of mosaic art appears in other synagogues from the same general period. However, these are exceptions to the general rule. Hebrew artistic inspiration ex- pressed itself in other rich ways, especially literature-and music. It is not for nothing that the Bible has been on the best-seller list for so long. All acknowledge it as a masterpiece of human literature. The Book of Job, for example, is accounted one of the high points in the history of human literature, and the artistry of Luke is almost proverbial. It would be difficult to assess the Bible's immense in- fluence on later language and art. But there is something paradox- ical in the fact that a culture which produced little or no paint- ing and sculpture, furnished the in- spiration for many of the greatest paintings and sculptures of all time. (Father Castelot is a professor of Scripture at St. John's Semina. , Plymouth, Mich.) Etching by Marvin Hayes, from GOD'S IMAGES. Copyright 'From th, of the e, By Father David K. O'Rourke, OP NC News Service D uring the American tour of the Vatican's great art collection a few years ago, a friend ex- pressed surprise at the t breadth of the holdings. After r viewing the collection in San Francisco, he told me, "I ex- 1 pected to see the religious art but a I was really surprised by how l much Greek, Roman and modern c art the church has collected." Then he asked a question peo- I I I Iw