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The Church and the arts – a fading relationship

The Catholic Church has shaped not only healthcare and education around the world, but has also had a profound impact on art, architecture and music. While the Church's role in society is changing, Lawrence Ndlovu looks at some of the reasons why art especially seems to be losing out from one of its most important historical patrons and asks whether more can't be done by the local Church in Africa. 

One of the most unexpected partnerships, which to some degree went unnoticed when it was announced, is a recent partnership between The Vatican, Versace and Vogue Magazine. In February, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Vatican Pontifical Council for Culture, fashion designer Donatella Versace and Vogue editor Anna Wintour announced that they will be joining forces in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York. The exhibition titled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” will open on 10 May 2018. On exhibition will be what the museum’s Costume Institute called its most extensive exhibition which includes items from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel sacristy; jewelled mitres, papal tiaras, liturgical vestments and other precious items. Some of these precious items have never been on exhibition outside of the Vatican which makes this venture even more special. Alongside these items form the Vatican will be garments from different designers. This entire exhibition is under the overarching concept of bringing out the Met’s medieval and religious artwork. This event has in a very special way highlighted the role and the influence (inspiration) of the Church in society especially in and through the arts.

Many in society decry the fact that the Church is slowly moving away from education and healthcare. It was the Church that erected outstanding schools and systems of education across the world – not just in mission territories. The history of formal universities can be traced back to the Church with the formation of cathedral schools. It was the early missionaries that founded schools that produced the bulk of the continent's finest leaders in politics and other industries. In South Africa many hospitals, which are now state-owned hospitals, were once Church-owned and Church-run. The contribution of the Church in the area of healthcare is virtually uncontested and even unsurpassed. Governments have over the years taken the duty of providing these services to communities as part of the primary responsibility for this reason and many other reasons (including the issue of funding) the Church is moving, albeit gradually and not completely, away from these social responsibilities. However, the other area which the Church championed and influenced greatly was that of the arts and it seems that even in this area the Church’s connection is weakening.

Some of the finest historic artistic expressions have been conceptualised and commissioned by the Church for sacred use. It goes without saying that some of the most outstanding artistic works of the last millennia are found in churches around the world, be it in the high Renaissance frescos of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, or the Byzantine mosaics, or the iconography of the Eastern Churches, the architecture and so much more. It is interesting that to this very day much of the musical influences and the major compositions (which are still sung in concert halls across the world) are compositions that were put together as Mass settings. Very often when a new singer emerges, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, they have their musical roots in a church. However, over the years there is a disparity that is slowly emerging between the Church and the arts. It is a gap that is similar to the one that has been (is being) experienced between the Church and education or healthcare. It could be that this disparity is caused by the view that art has become an elitist activity. The expensive prices of artworks and the highbrow culture of the artistic world may also be contributing in entrenching the view that art is for the select few. For this reason, the ordinary person seems to be interested in survival more than anything else.

Tied to this perception of a perceived elitism in the arts is the underlying argument that the Church should not be too interested in art because the majority of the faithful are poor people. There are also those who believe that the Church should also, through her artistic expression, lead the faithful to contemplate matters of the world beyond the one that they are currently in. With that said, it is disappointing that liturgy commissions and groups in parishes seem to think less about beauty and artistic expression.

Many dioceses have very stringent procedures when it comes to authorising building work for churches, be it renovations or building new churches. The same strict measures are not in place when it comes to the interior of these new structures; many churches are vast barn-like buildings which show that there was no real plan for the interior. Music is also another area of great concern. New compositions and Mass settings are not coming out as they should. The organ and other instruments are slowly not being used. The state of vocal musicality is also deteriorating.

Township parishes often have great musicality, but are weak in other areas like architecture and other art forms. This could be caused by a lack of financial resources. Suburban parishes often have good architecture and other artistic commissioned works, but are very weak in choral or vocal expressions. There is no reason why local artists, who are not very expensive, cannot be engaged and commissioned to paint or sculpt stations the Stations of the Cross, ambos, altars, statues and so on. This would not only contribute in the church, but also in the development of the arts in the community. There is no reason why a list of local artists cannot be formulated so that there is a database of authorised artists should the need for their services arise. The amount of artistic detail that is found in the homes of many of the faithful makes it very surprising and it is an indication that artistic taste is there in our people, but it does not filter also to the parish Church.

The arts tell the story of a community. For this reason it is not entirely true that art is for the elite. The local Church should also, through its artistic forms, tell the story of local people. The words of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar are important in understanding the necessity of beauty; “We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make if it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it… We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name, whether they admit it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

Image: Camille King

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.