Friday, November 20, 2009

Pope Benedict's Letter to Artists 2009

Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.
Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy “shock”, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum – it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it “reawakens” him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” The painter Georges Braque echoes this sentiment: “Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.” Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life. The quest for beauty that I am describing here is clearly not about escaping into the irrational or into mere aestheticism.
Photo:  L’Osservatore Romano
Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, quotes the following verse from a Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid: “Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up” (no. 3). And later he adds: “In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, the artist gives voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (no. 10). And in conclusion he states: “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence” (no. 16).
These ideas impel us to take a further step in our reflection. Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality. This close proximity, this harmony between the journey of faith and the artist’s path is attested by countless artworks that are based upon the personalities, the stories, the symbols of that immense deposit of “figures” – in the broad sense – namely the Bible, the Sacred Scriptures. The great biblical narratives, themes, images and parables have inspired innumerable masterpieces in every sector of the arts, just as they have spoken to the hearts of believers in every generation through the works of craftsmanship and folk art, that are no less eloquent and evocative.
In this regard, one may speak of a via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar begins his great work entitled The Glory of the Lord – a Theological Aesthetics with these telling observations: “Beauty is the word with which we shall begin. Beauty is the last word that the thinking intellect dares to speak, because it simply forms a halo, an untouchable crown around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.” He then adds: “Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. It is no longer loved or fostered even by religion.” And he concludes: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity. Simone Weil wrote in this regard: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.” Hermann Hesse makes the point even more graphically: “Art means: revealing God in everything that exists.” Echoing the words of Pope Paul VI, the Servant of God Pope John Paul II restated the Church’s desire to renew dialogue and cooperation with artists: “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art” (no. 12); but he immediately went on to ask: “Does art need the Church?” – thereby inviting artists to rediscover a source of fresh and well-founded inspiration in religious experience, in Christian revelation and in the “great codex” that is the Bible.
Dear artists, as I draw to a conclusion, I too would like to make a cordial, friendly and impassioned appeal to you, as did my Predecessor. You are the custodians of beauty: thanks to your talent, you have the opportunity to speak to the heart of humanity, to touch individual and collective sensibilities, to call forth dreams and hopes, to broaden the horizons of knowledge and of human engagement. Be grateful, then, for the gifts you have received and be fully conscious of your great responsibility to communicate beauty, to communicate in and through beauty! Through your art, you yourselves are to be heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity! And do not be afraid to approach the first and last source of beauty, to enter into dialogue with believers, with those who, like yourselves, consider that they are pilgrims in this world and in history towards infinite Beauty! Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art: on the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.
Saint Augustine, who fell in love with beauty and sang its praises, wrote these words as he reflected on man’s ultimate destiny, commenting almost ante litteram on the Judgement scene before your eyes today: “Therefore we are to see a certain vision, my brethren, that no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived: a vision surpassing all earthly beauty, whether it be that of gold and silver, woods and fields, sea and sky, sun and moon, or stars and angels. The reason is this: it is the source of all other beauty” (1 John, 4:5). My wish for all of you, dear artists, is that you may carry this vision in your eyes, in your hands, and in your heart, that it may bring you joy and continue to inspire your fine works. From my heart I bless you and, like Paul VI, I greet you with a single word: arrivederci!
Benedict XVI

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Semiotics of Sacred Architecture

The role of images in churches and the various levels of signification in liturgical objects and architecture contribute toward a complex semiotics of sacred space. This system of symbol, index and icon provides a framework for understanding visual experience, aesthetic response and concepts of space. When considering the meaning of the space, it is important to pay attention to the architecture, the objects within the space, the people accessing the space and the action that takes place, as parts of an inseparable whole. Neglecting the architecture when contemplating the image or ignoring the image when considering the space will almost always result in our only half-grasping the meaning of sacred space. Spatial experience and the context for the display and use of the image are influential in both signification and interpretation.
Mircea Eliade used the term “hierophany” to describe how heaven, earth, and the underworld are linked together by the vertical “axis mundi” of a sacred space. The use of light and the height of the ceilings in Gothic Churches form an axis mundi which serves to signify transcendence and inspire awe. The signifier (high ceilings and ethereal light) and the signified (transcendence) unite to form the sign which is ‘transcendental space.’ The message of transcendence cannot be disassociated from the space as long as the signifier forms an integral part of the church and is weighted with the definite signified. A space of similar dimensions and volume outside of a building reserved for religious ritual will not function as a sign in the same way. The purpose and function of the building therefore determines the making of the sign. The signifier becomes just an empty space or void without the signified. An arbitrary endowment of meaning upon the architecture of sacred spaces transforms the building into a signification of religious aspiration for the aesthete and a sign of divine presence for the believer. The Romanesque signifier of transcendence is itself formed of the sum of a series of signs. The high arches, large entrances, and narrow windows all function as signs independent of one another yet cooperate toward a global signification of holiness and transcendence.

Roland Barthes defined 'myth' as a type of speech, conceiving language, discourse and speech to be “any significant unit or synthesis” that carries meaning. For Barthes, the signifier can be seen as either the final term of the linguistic system or the first term of the mythical system. Rituals, architecture and symbols as materials of mythical speech are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught up with myth. According to Barthe “Myth can be defined neither by its object nor by its material, for any material can arbitrarily be endowed with meaning.” The stone altar endowed with significance represents an iconic iconicity where the form of the sign is similar to its meaning. Iconicity is the extent to which a sign has the properties of its denotatum or referent. On the plane of language, the meaning of the stone and its signification are already complete. The marble has a history, geology and geography. On the mythic plane, the altar is stripped back to its physicality as form and regresses from a linguistic sign to a mythical signifier. As soon as myth is involved, the stone is emptied and becomes a form awaiting signification to fill it. The altar as mythic form does not suppress the linguistic meaning of the stone, it only “impoverishes it, puts it at a distance, and holds it at [it's] disposal.” The concept of an altar and the signified sacrifice/offering will inevitably appeal to the believer in ways different to the aesthete. It is by no means an “abstract, purified essence” but a “formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its function.” For Christians, the altar is the site of sacrifice and nourishment; offering a liturgical point of reference for their joys and sufferings. Images in the vicinity of the altar have been customary since the days of the catacombs.

The church as a repository for symbols and ideas functions as a container or vessel filled with memories that cue the mind to recall previous encounters with the Divine. A Church could therefore be a kind of memory temple, layered with stories and symbols which embed themselves in the mind and heart, something to sustain the soul when no longer there.

An architectonic formation consists o transmitted information carried by a variety of co-present sign types. The primary unit in the code which is directly significative is the space-cell, having two alternate formal realisations: (1) a distinctive spatial configuration bounded by masses (a closed cell), and (2) a distinctive mass configuration bounded by space, which may or may not be artifactually delimited (an open cell or locus).
The space-cell enters into aggregations of cells (matrices) defined principally by the geometry of their tridimensional syntax or interaction. In general the matrix as an architectonic sign consists of an abstract diagram of arrangements which may have a wide variety of formal and material realisations. Essentially, at this level of organisation the focus of analysis is upon the relative arrangements of other signs (cells).
The architectonic code is built upon a principle of duality or double articulation. The 'smallest' directly-significative unit in a code, the space-cell, is built out of the sign-units which are not directly significative in themeselves, but are rather systematically-significant. Such forms function principally in a sense-discriminative manner to distinguish once cell from another, and are meaningful primaril in this sense. Forms may also serve sense-determinative functions as in the cases where a given facade or cell-component is directly significative of a certain conceptual domainArchitectonic forms may serve a dual significative role. They reveal a systematic function to discriminate one from from another in perceptuallu-palpable ways, and take on sense-determinative or sematectonic roles. (Preziosi, 1979. pg90)
An architectonic code comprises a hierarchical ordering of sign types in the following manner:
(a) features: formal / planar / topological
(b) systematic units: forms / planes / domains
(c) directly significative units: cells
(d) aggrgates of units
A church or liturgical environment is a complex spatiotemporal framework for human action and interaction whose components are less like building blocks and more like patterns of potential signification; their structures are not to be found as a definitive arrangement

There are two types of Architectonic signs; those with direct signification and those whose signification was indirect or systematic.

The Network of Architectonic Signs

A: Minimal sense-discriminative units, encoded as paradigmatic binary oppositions
B: Encoded as syntagmatically-simultaneous clusters of (A)
C: Maximal sense-discriminative units, encoded as syntagmatically-sequential arrays of (B), patterned alternations of (B) manifesting mass (consonantal) and space (vocalic) distinctive features
D: Minimal sense-determinative units, comprising one or more of (A), (B), or (C), either singly, simultaneously, or sequentially
E: Maximal sense-determinative units encoded as such in a system, comprising one or more of (D)
F: Minimal patterns of aggregation of sense-determinative units, comprising one or more of (E)
n: Maximal patterns of aggregation, comprising one or more of (F)

1. Marble; 2. Sidheropetra (ironstone); 3. Alablaster; 4. Breccia; 5. Kouskouras; 6. Gypsum; 7. Sandstone; 8. Shist; 9. Lime mortar; 10. Pozzolana; 11. Calcestruzzo; 12. Adobe; 13. Lepidha; 14. Rough stucco; 15. Terracotta; 16. Beaten earth; 17. Timber (mostly cypress); 18. Reeds

Contemporary Sacred Architecture

Alvaro Siza, Parish Church, Marco de Canavezes, Portugal, 1990-96

Giovanni Michelucci, Church of the Immaculate Conception, Longarone, Italy, 1966-78

Dominkis Bohm, Saint Engelbert Church, Cologne, 1930-32

Erik Gunnar Aspland, Woodland Cemetery Chapel, Stockholm 1918-20

Church of the Highlands, Baton Rouge, Louisiana - Trahan Architects

La Chapelle des Diaconesses de Reuilly, Versailles - Marc Rolinet

Takashi Yamaguchi, Buddhist Temple, Kyoto