Friday, August 31, 2018

Art in the Church Catholic

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I was raised in a Lutheran home. So was my mother. My father, however, was raised in a Roman Catholic home. It wasn’t until Dad returned from the war and met a spunky Lutheran gal, ten years his younger, that he began thinking perhaps Luther was on the right track. Four children later, and Dad was totally convinced. This is most certainly true.

That family connection to Roman Catholicism has caused me to be persnickety about what it means to be catholic. Like Luther, I’m very comfortable with being catholic. Rome, however, has no part of it. That is, I consider myself part of the unseen company of saints that make up THE Church – the Church Catholic – whether they be of the LCMS variety or not.

I get annoyed when folks, in relating some subject of adiaphora, work themselves into a lather and blurt out that something is “too catholic.” The same sentiment is sometimes applied to sacred art.

Where it often comes up is at the cross or in the lap of Mary. Folks get nervous when an image of Jesus Christ is depicted on the cross (Shouldn’t it be empty?!), and when Mary is shown wearing blue (That was an expensive color of fabric!), and things quickly devolve when a Latin phrase is embroidered on an altar cloth or when pastor shows up wearing (Gasp!) a chasuble. And tassels.

There ARE things that are distinctly Roman Catholic among the visible things in the sanctuary. If, for example, you spy paraments or vestments in a shade of blue lighter than what you ever remember in a Lutheran church, then chances are good that the Virgin Mary is being highlighted while her Son is taking a back seat. A conspicuous initial cap “M” is also another hint, as is a lily motif. (Which is why I shudder at many generic Easter bulletin covers!)

But images of Mary are not of themselves wrong. Context is, of course, key. Neither is there anything wrong with opulent decoration, providing it points in the right direction.

To be fair, myopia sometimes goes in both directions. I once had the opportunity to create art for a Roman Catholic confessional booth. It would have been a lovely piece, the local Monsignor seemed genuinely pleased with my portfolio, and he even came to my studio space to chat about the project. But the commission quickly evaporated, along with the Monsignor’s very existence, when he found out I was Lutheran. Perhaps I was TOO confessional.

Like the inside quip and its rejoinder in our family, “Is it heavy?,” “Then it’s expensive,” the reality seems that if something in the sanctuary is fancy, then it’s Roman Catholic. It occasionally feels true, but that’s just plain nonsense. the Pope doesn’t have a monopoly on gold brocade or Gothic architecture or Latin. If you still think so, then perhaps it’s time again for you to sing the Te Deum Laudamus. A capella.

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