Reflections on the Pieta – Beauty

Michelangelo's PietaIn our last reflection about Michelangelo’s Pieta, we were meditating about beauty as a goal in Christian life. It is significant that in biblical Greek the word to describe goodness, just as St. John uses it in Chapter 10 of his Gospel when he speaks of “The Good Shepherd” who gives his life for his sheep, is the word kalos which means beautiful. In the preceding example, where we usually translate “good shepherd”, we could very well say “beautiful shepherd”. Certainly there is no greater beauty than holiness as a reflection of God’s own goodness.

Beauty in art has always been an inescapable way to approach the contemplation of the mystery of God. This is what used to be called in Latin via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty. In a world where so many people are disoriented and lost, longing to bring beauty into their gray and desolate lives, art is a way of bringing them closer, without their realization, to the Lord from whom the beauty of all creation comes.

I am aware that when it comes to art there is an open and interesting discussion between the most practical and those whom we could call  “lovers of good taste”. Art has never been cheap.  We are endeavoring to keep in our parish one of the few replicas of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This effort could be seen as a squandering or a waste of money. Do we really need to find money for a statue? Isn’t it even sinful to spend such a large amount of money on an image when that money could be used for other more pressing needs?

I would like offer here the words of St John Paul II, wherein he presents a point of view that we can’t lose perspective on when it comes to the decoration of the spaces where the Holy Sacrifice of Mass is celebrated. It is worth taking the time to read it carefully:

“Reading the account of the institution of the Eucharist in the Synoptic Gospels, we are struck by the simplicity and the “solemnity” with which Jesus, on the evening of the Last Supper, instituted this great sacrament. There is an episode that in some way serves as its prelude: the anointing at Bethany. A woman, whom John identifies as Mary the sister of Lazarus, pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus’ head, which provokes from the disciples – and from Judas in particular (cf. Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4;Jn 12:4) – an indignant response, as if this act, in light of the needs of the poor, represented an intolerable “waste”. But Jesus’ own reaction is completely different. While in no way detracting from the duty of charity towards the needy, for whom the disciples must always show special care – “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26, 11; Mk 14:7; cf. Jn 12:8) – he looks towards his imminent death and burial, and sees this act of anointing as an anticipation of the honor which his body will continue to merit even after his death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of his person.

Like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no “extravagance”, devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist. No less than the first disciples charged with preparing the “large upper room”, she has felt the need, down the centuries and in her encounters with different cultures, to celebrate the Eucharist in a setting worthy of so great a mystery.

With this heightened sense of mystery, we understand how the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated.

Similarly, can we overlook the enormous quantity of artistic production, ranging from fine craftsmanship to authentic works of art, in the area of Church furnishings and vestments used for the celebration of the Eucharist?

It can be said that the Eucharist, while shaping the Church and her spirituality, has also powerfully affected “culture”, and the arts in particular.

Within this context of an art aimed at expressing, in all its elements, the meaning of the Eucharist in accordance with the Church’s teaching, attention needs to be given to the norms regulating the construction and decor of sacred buildings. As history shows and as I emphasized in my Letter to Artists, the Church has always left ample room for the creativity of artists. But sacred art must be outstanding for its ability to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church’s faith and in accordance with the pastoral guidelines appropriately laid down by competent Authority. This holds true both for the figurative arts and for sacred music.”   

-Ecclesia De Eucharistia, Chapter 5

I think it is worth the effort we are making to keep the Pieta in our beloved parish of St. Anne. If we are able to do so, one day its beauty will attract your children and future generations to come, to discover, to sense, the Mystery, our God, who is found in the grandeur, the beauty and the goodness of creation.

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