ROME, June 6, 2011 – This July, Benedict XVI will again meet with artists, less than two years after the previous encounter in the Sistine Chapel.
That art, together with the saints and before reason, is «the greatest apologia for the Christian faith» is a thesis that Benedict XVI has supported on a number of occasions.
For him, beauty is «the most attractive and fascinating way to come to encounter and love God».
But this thesis is not having an easy time at all today, that is at least since, a couple of centuries ago, «the thread of sacred art was broken»: the title given by art historian Timothy Verdon to an essay of his published in «L’Osservatore Romano» on March 28, 2008.
Enrico Maria Radaelli, a philosopher of aesthetics, poses a paradoxical question in his latest book (La bellezza che ci salva):
«What would be learned by the millions of faithful who visit the Sistine Chapel if its noble walls and its famous vault had been painted, not by Michelangelo, but by a Haring, a Warhol, a Bacon, a Viola, a Picasso?»
Radaelli’s new book is entitled La bellezza che ci salva [The beauty that saves us]. And its subtitle is a whole program in itself: The power of 'Imago’, the second Name of the Only-Begotten of God, which, with 'Logos’, can give life to a new civilization, founded on beauty.
It is three hundred pages of metaphysics and theology, enhanced with a preface by the philosopher of «common sense» Antonio Livi, a priest of Opus Dei and professor at the Pontifical Lateran University.
But they are also pages of blistering criticism of the tendency that has overthrown a fruitful, centuries-long relationship between Christian art and faith. Without sparing the hierarchs of the Church, whom Radaelli accuses of abdicating their magisterial role as beacons of the faith, and therefore of Christian art as well.
Radaelli writes that in order to turn back the tide, it is not enough to have a few sporadic encounters between the pope and artists. In his view, it is necessary to convene in the Church «a universal debate, not merely artistic, but theological, liturgical, ecclesiological, philosophical, a multi-year and multidisciplinary symposium, the name of which could be the simple but clear ‘Coalition for Beauty’».
Radaelli names those whom he has approached, at the Vatican or outside of it, and who have adhered to the idea: Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the congregation for the clergy; Cardinal Albert Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo and former secretary of the congregation for divine worship; Abbot Michael John Zielinski, vice-president of the pontifical commission for the cultural heritage of the Church; Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums; Valentino Miserachs Grau, president of the pontifical institute of sacred music; Timothy Verdon, president of the office for catechisis through art of the archdiocese of Florence; Roberto de Mattei, historian, vice-president of the National Research Center; Nicola Bux, consultant for the congregation for divine worship and for the office of pontifical liturgical celebrations; Ignacio Andereggen, member of the pontifical academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
With a polemical thrust, Radaelli observes that «we need more courage to organize this ‘Coalition for Beauty’ than for a Courtyard of the Gentiles. Because – he explains – dialoguing outside of the temple with the profane world may indeed be just and meritorious, but even before this the Church should see to it that the cathedral of doctrine does not fall into ruin, full as it is of unknowing but no less genuine Lutherans, Arians, Gnostics, Pelagians».
But it is not a given that in the Courtyard of the Gentiles, the question brought into focus by Radaelli is silenced. In the first of these dialogue meetings desired by Benedict XVI and realized by Cardinal Ravasi, held in Paris in March of 2011, there was one speaker who brought it to the attention of all in fiery form.
This speaker is Jean Clair, a world-famous art historian, member of the French Academy and conservator general of the French artistic heritage.
Moreover, on June 2, the feast of the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, the theologian Inos Biffi writing in «L'Osservatore Romano» developed the theme of the beauty of the truth of God with accents similar to those of Radaelli’s book: another sign of authoritative attention to the question.