The Pope and the Muses


Caravaggio: The Incredulity of St. Thomas

Pope Francis spoke of many things in his recent interview with America magazine; we are all by now familiar with the deplorable web of distortions which the media proceeded to weave around a selection of his words.  Yet there is one part of the interview which generated no slick headlines: it is one in which the Holy Father discusses his tastes in art, music, literature, and film.  This passage is quite revealing and helps to fill out our knowledge of Pope Francis.  Pope John Paul II was, as everyone knows, an actor and poet; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is known for his love of classical music; but until now, one would have been hard pressed to state what Pope Francis’ aesthetic preferences were, or that he had any interest in the artistic life at all.  But the truth will out, as Shakespeare said, and the truth is that our Holy Father is no lightweight when it comes to art.

Pope Francis has said that “artists know well that beauty is not solely consoling, but that it can also be disturbing” and that great artists “know how to present with beauty those realities of life that are most tragic and painful.” It strikes me that Pope Francis is touching upon one of the key ideas of our faith, that through the Cross God has changed pain and suffering into glory, beauty and victory.  God elected to solve the problem of sin and death not by obviating them but by meeting them head on and then surmounting them, transforming them through the power of His love much as an artist might transform ugliness into beauty through the power of his art.  The Christian story is at heart a comedy, in the classical sense, but a comedy that is a tragedy transfigured.

The pope, as a matter of fact, is oriented towards “tragic” art, art that does not shy away from the earthier realities of life, and art that, in seeking beauty, may shock or disturb.  Witness his predilection for Caravaggio, a painter for whom spiritual truth was more important than ideal beauty, who peopled his arresting religious scenes with ordinary, un-prettified people from the street.  Or take Marc Chagall’s 1938 painting White Crucifixion, which the Holy Father names as his favorite painting: around an unequivocally Jewish Jesus swirl pogroms and other contemporary manifestations of the ancient scourge of sin.  When it comes to music, Pope Francis mentions Mozart (the C minor Mass), Beethoven and Wagner; but Bach’s Passions, and in particular the “Erbarme dich” aria from the St. Matthew Passion, St. Peter’s song of grief at his betrayal of Christ, is a telling choice.

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

Pope Francis’ artistic tastes embrace film, as well.  The Pope’s parents took him to the movies quite often, particularly Italian neorealist films, and thus he had the chance to see a many of these raw, slice-of-life works of art when they were new.  One of his favorites in this genre is Rossellini’s 1945 film Open City (Roma, città aperta), a film with distinct Christ-like resonances.  It tells of a Catholic priest who with perfect humility goes about aiding the Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Rome and eventually becomes a martyr to the cause.  The scene in which he is executed by a Nazi-commanded firing squad is one of solemn dignity; his altar boys, gathered behind a nearby fence to support him at his Calvary, become like the choir of angels in Renaissance crucifixions.

Roberto Rossellini, Open City (1945)

Roberto Rossellini, Open City (1945)

A complete journey through the Holy Father’s artistic loves would include many other stopping points—Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, Puccini’s opera Turandot, Fellini’s film La Strada—but the examples cited above should suffice to give the flavor.

There is a passage in the Old Testament that, whenever I read it, confirms me in my belief that art of the highest order belongs in the Church; it is 1 Kings: 6-7, which tells in painstaking detail of the elaborate  furnishing of Solomon’s Temple.  Yet art is not only for the furnishing of God’s Temple—for the embellishment of the Church—but should be brought out, to draw people to the Church.  Art can be a tool of evangelization.  Beauty has a shining persuasiveness, different from but complementary to the cool logic of rational argument, that can provide an entry for dialogue with those outside our communion.  And so I am heartened that we have such an aesthetic pontiff.  May he find time, along with his main pastoral duties, to remind us of the various phases of beauty that assist us on our journey toward God.

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