With a little imagination, it is not hard to conceive of the 20th century as being a new mythical age: man began to fly, invented coldly efficient means to exterminate adults by the millions, sanctioned infant sacrifices by the millions, and learned to control the power of the sun and deliver it in 20 megaton increments from the sky. Indeed, a mythical time.
And mythical times need mythical heroes. One man who experienced quite intimately many of the more dramatic through-lines of the Now-myth is Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. Born the son of a soldier and orphaned as a young man, he first resisted the Nazi occupation of his native Poland first by acting in an underground theatre, later by attending an underground seminary. When Poland traded the Nazi frying pan for the Soviet fire, Wojtyla exercised his professorial, priestly, and later episcopal responsibilities with truth, insight, and courage, and served as a living example that although Communism laid claim over men’s bodies, men’s souls were the province of the Church. His election as pope in 1978 was, quite simply, the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire, whose oppressed masses took courage in, and found in encouragement from, this erudite, saintly, and photogenic actor-turned-pontiff.
When communism petered out, John Paul navigated the Barque of Peter through waters teeming with more enduring ideological boogymen: consumerism, feminism, and the birth of the world’s first viable eugenics. It would be against this last adversary where John Paul’s most profound teaching would come, not in encyclicals or apostolic exhortations, but in the passion narrative of his last days, writ large on the screens the world media.
And in the end, history’s most travelled, most photographed, most heard apostle embraced a slow, painful, and noble death. John Paul’s via dolorosa took the form of a humiliating Parkinson’s, made more so by the self-satisfied excoriation of his critics both Catholic and secular, by the public nature this disease’s telltale signs. He showed us the only true escape from death is not found in our own cleverness, but in patient suffering in imitatio Christi.
After his death, his grand funeral served a fitting denouement to his life: played on the world stage, a performance none could claim was anything but stirring, epic, and most of all, true.
In short, if you wanted to write a myth, you couldn’t write one more fantastic than the 20th Century. And if you were to cast a hero for that myth, the mystic-prince-philosopher-priest-king who was John Paul the Great looms largest in the casting room.
Obviously, I think highly of him. (And I don’t think I exaggerate his importance). However, I bring him up not only because the man himself ignites the imagination, but because his teaching itself contains strong aesthetic power, not least of which in his writings on culture and the arts. Being at once a philosopher, artist and saint, he has profound, practical contributions to make to our understanding of the role of the Artist in the human story.
His 1999 Letter to Artists was a turning point for my own understanding of my artistic work, and it forms one of the major chapters of our ArtVoc prolegomena. I will spend a good deal of time in future posts attempting to tease out its rich treasures. The full text of the document can be found here, but below I post the introduction to give you a sample.
Do yourself a profound service: read this letter.
LETTER OF HIS HOLINESS
POPE JOHN PAUL II
To all who are passionately dedicated
to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty
so that through their creative work as artists
they may offer these as gifts to the world.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gn 1:31)
The artist, image of God the Creator
1. None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.
That is why it seems to me that there are no better words than the text of Genesis with which to begin my Letter to you, to whom I feel closely linked by experiences reaching far back in time and which have indelibly marked my life. In writing this Letter, I intend to follow the path of the fruitful dialogue between the Church and artists which has gone on unbroken through two thousand years of history, and which still, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, offers rich promise for the future.
In fact, this dialogue is not dictated merely by historical accident or practical need, but is rooted in the very essence of both religious experience and artistic creativity. The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator. This relationship is particularly clear in the Polish language because of the lexical link between the words stwórca (creator) and twórca (craftsman).
What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing—ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it—and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God. In fact, after saying that God created man and woman “in his image” (cf. Gn 1:27), the Bible adds that he entrusted to them the task of dominating the earth (cf. Gn 1:28). This was the last day of creation (cf. Gn 1:28-31). On the previous days, marking as it were the rhythm of the birth of the cosmos, Yahweh had created the universe. Finally he created the human being, the noblest fruit of his design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.
God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task. Through his “artistic creativity” man appears more than ever “in the image of God”, and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous “material” of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him. With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power. Obviously, this is a sharing which leaves intact the infinite distance between the Creator and the creature, as Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa made clear: “Creative art, which it is the soul’s good fortune to entertain, is not to be identified with that essential art which is God himself, but is only a communication of it and a share in it”.(1)
That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their “gift”, are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.
The special vocation of the artist
2. Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece…
To read the rest of this letter, please click here.