The topic of inter-religious dialogue is very popular. Visual arts can play a crucial role in facilitating such a dialogue. In the book The Ecumenism of Beauty several authors share insights and experiences of how art opened up their mind and created new dimensions for liturgical traditions. For Reading Religion, the book review site of the American Academy of Religion, I wrote a review of The Ecumenism of Beauty.
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Published on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther publishing his 95 theses, the collection of essays titled The Ecumenism of Beauty is an expression of the hope “that art might become an instrument of communion among separated Christians” (v). While the Reformation caused a separation between Catholic traditions and a newfound Protestantism, five hundred years later, Monsignor Timothy Verdon edits this book from the conviction that aesthetic admiration is key to overcoming denominational difference. As director of the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Cultural Heritage, the Cathedral Foundation Museum, and the Centre for Ecumenism in Florence, Verdon synthesizes his theological and art historical expertise. With contributions from Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant authors, this publication breathes the ecumenical effort. Verdon also manages to present a variety of perspectives with authors from academic, artistic, and clerical backgrounds.
Verdon provides the introductory and concluding essays in the book. The first is centered around the discussion of two seventeenth-century paintings, one of a richly decorated Antwerp Cathedral in which people (and dogs) walk and sit around in various constellations; the other of the Sint-Odolphus Church in Assendelft, with its plain walls and people sitting quietly, listening to the sermon from the pulpit. The paintings are used to illustrate the different attitudes towards the use of imagery and aesthetics in liturgical sites and practices. It also sets the scope for the book, to explore the connective potential of visual art within liturgical spaces. So, the beautyfrom the book title is firstly reduced toart, which in turn is specified liturgical art.
Art unmistakably has the power to bring people together and function as sacred objects within, or between, communities. However, it should not be ignored that contemporary artistic practices also have the ability to shock, or, at the very least, elicit discussion. At the very end of the book, in the last sentence of Verdon’s concluding essay, he writes, “Even when images may not be to our taste, or are qualitatively inferior, in the liturgical context they are rarely without effect, for the believer…also learns to look beyond the images, whether beautiful or ugly, certain to one day possess that which, for the present, art lets him only see” (113). This suggests that ecumenical unity is not solely dependent on the beauty of a work of art, but just as much on the manner in which an individual contemplates it, which may lead to spiritual transformation. While this is a valuable point of view, it is at odds with the title and premise of the book.
Moreover, the focus on the ecumenical character of art suggests that believers from different traditions have to step into each other’s churches as a prerequisite to any form of ecumenism. While the artists in the book, Susan Kanaga (Protestant) and Filippo Rossi (Catholic) discuss a collaborative project, it would have been informative to have a chapter included about the interaction of various Christians with this art. As Martin Shannon observes in his contribution on the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, “Church walls are more than surfaces for art. They are the locus of a religious experience, something meant not only to be observed but to be entered into” (74). Within the context of this publication, the level of religious experience from various denominational perspectives is unfortunately left unexplored.
The book is published by the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, an ecumenical monastic community in Orleans, Massachusetts. As such, the artistic examples addressed in various essays draw from the practices of this community, resulting in a rather narrow scope. Moreover, the departure point of multiple essays is how Protestantism can learn from Catholicism in its use of aesthetics and imagery. One example is how William Dyrness concludes his excellent analysis of the place of aesthetics in Protestant liturgy with the directive statement, “Since the Reformation Protestants have embraced the beauty of the word and of music in their collective prayer; this year reminds us that now it is time to open their worship spaces to visual beauty as a sign of God’s presence” (21). A second example is Kanaga’s personal account of the impact of a visit to Rome on her spirituality, after being raised in the Reformed tradition. In Italy she finally understood what had been missing: “Imagery!” (23). While such perspectives concern what one denomination may learn from another, I would argue that interfaith dialogue is primarily concerned with mutual understanding, which to some extent is missing here.
As a collection of essays, this book’s theoretical framework, aiming to connect the notions of art, beauty, and ecumenism, is in need of a more coherent formulation. Yet The Ecumenism of Beauty presents a set of interesting individual perspectives upon the role of art and visual culture within a variety of Christian denominations.
About the Reviewer(s): Lieke Wijnia is Lecturer in Art History at the University College Tilburg and postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Religion and Heritage at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): Timothy Verdon, one of the world’s most respected art historians, is the academic director of the Mount Tabor Centre in Barga, Italy. He earned his PhD at Yale University and for most of the last 50 years has lived in Florence, Italy, where he directs the Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Church Cultural Heritage, the Cathedral Foundation Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore), and the Centre for Ecumenism of the Archdiocese of Florence.