Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Importance of Image in the Domestic Church

Part I. A Modern Dichotomy: Separating Beauty from Life

Our culture today has a tendency of discounting the "visual" as being superficial and unimportant.

I remember when we got married, we felt it was important to have the wedding in a beautiful church (i.e. not a building shaped rather like a missile silo or a granary storage unit).  After we had reserved a church for the occasion we received criticism for not being willing to get married in the church down the street, no matter how ugly it was.  "After all" we were told, "it is what goes on inside that matters.  Not how it looks."

Now, while I have to agree that the foundational requirement for a Church is to have valid sacraments, I simply cannot agree that the beauty of the Church is unimportant.  After all, is not Beauty a transcendental, that is, ultimately a name of God?  Is not the beauty present in a place an explicit participation in the divine?  If this is so, then it is vital to bring beauty to whatever sphere we work in.

However, it has been the gradual trend of modernity to create a dichotomy between the beautiful and day-to-day life.  Take, for instance, the rise of the museum.  Clearly, our culture believes that it proves how much it does, in fact, value art by preserving it in a museum.  It shows how much value it places on these works by protecting them.  The primary manner in which we might gauge how art-conscious a city is would be to count how many museums it has and how many important works these museums contain.  What is clear, however, is that the arrival of the modern museum and corresponding "art appreciation" represents the distillation of artwork.  Where was the traditional residence of all the great works of art?  In homes, in churches and in public forums: in places of living, dwelling activity. 

What is a museum?  A museum is a holding zone, in which artworks are preserved, kept safe and isolated from the dangers of the living world.  We contain works in "regulated environments."  What are these artworks being protected from?  From unregulated environments, from life.  What sorts of places would these be?  The home, even a church or public form.  After all, life can be messy.  An artwork might be damaged.

But this relegates art to being only of historical importance, rather than of living importance.  All the while, the vibrant importance of visual beauty and the power it has to gravitate or render topography to a location is nullified.  "The image is a reality; the mind can only attempt to plumb it.  The image is richer than the thought; hence the act by which we comprehend an image, gazing is richer, more profound, vital and storied than the thought.  People today are over-conceptualistic.  We have lost the art of reading images and parables, of enacting and understanding symbols.  We could relearn some of this by encouraging and practicing the power of vision, a power which has been neglected for too long." (Romano Guardini)

If Gaurdini is correct, then should we not attempt to bring the richness of the image into the domestic church?

Coming Soon:  Part II. The Problem with Ikea

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