The Glimmer of the Eschaton in Van Gogh

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1861.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait, 1861.

Today I leave you with two richly evocative quotes from God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic by Greek Orthodox theologian John Panteleimon Manoussakis (previously excerpted here) accompanied by relevant paintings..

Van Gogh, Potrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin , December 1888.

Van Gogh, Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin , December 1888.

“How, or rather, what do I see when I see you? A body? Isn’t it the case that I see only you in your body? Are you totally exhaustible by your body? Then, what is a gesture? The tone of your voice? Posture? The same questions can be asked concerned painting. What makes this painting a Van Gogh and not a Rembrandt? What is the style? Is it in the painting without, however, being the painting. It is the unapparent, the aphanes, that somehow appears visible? For what is visible in a painting–the colors, the shapes, the strokes of the brush–is precisely not the style. It is never the eye (as a physiological organ) or the ear that sees and bears but ‘I’–this ‘I,’ however cannot be seen, heard, or touched. That is why it (the I) can see and hear and touch what is called here the unapparent. This is not to deny embodiment and the flesh–on the contrary. The ‘I’ does not float in the air, it is always embodied–incarnate–in my body (as style is in the painting), but it is not completely exhausted by the body understood as a physical, measurable, that is, objectified thing. What would dare to say the I is a thing? (That is, who else but Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza?).”

 Van Gogh, Potrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin , August 1888.

Van Gogh, Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin , August 1888.

“What Kierkegaard calls ‘eternity’s equality’ is not any different from what we mean by eschatology–for, indeed, this likeness, the iconic reflection of the divine in each and all of us, shines more fully at the eschaton, but it has always begun to glimmer in the now. It is this glimmer that the prosopic [person-in-relation] reduction should allow us to see–in other words, what Merold Westphal refers to in one of his essays as the ‘halo’ that we often see emanating from the faces in Van Gogh’s portraits. But in order to see it, we have to hold each person up, so to speak, to the light that shines from a future unknown and unseen, refusing thus to decide about the definite being and the definition of the persons on the grounds of who he or she is or has been. The truth of the other person does not lie in his or her past or present but in the eschaton.”

Van Gogh, Potrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin , April 1888.

Van Gogh, Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin , April 1888.

What I found most interesting is how the “halo” comes through differently in each of these monumental Van Gogh portraits of the same quotidian subject. But is there anything quotidian about the undesirables–the homeless, the undergraduates, and the lawyers–whom you meet in the streets? What’s more, can you bare to look at this aspect of your mailman’s face without averting your gaze?

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Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists 3: Warhol’s Byzantine Iconoclasm & the Mystery of Blau’s Bafflement

Modernity: you can touch, but there isn't much in there you can eat.

Consumerism: you can touch, but there isn’t much in there you can eat.

You’d be surprised how many Christian academics with cushy jobs at state schools are gloating over the demise of the humanities in the “secular” academe during the latest round of budget cuts. They think the cuts will result in fewer people getting degrees in post-colonial studies, therefore fewer students will become polluted by them (and we’ll have fewer students overall). In turn all those saved from the evils of scholarship will be taught “responsibility” in the “real world” by the dynamic McDonald’s jobs our presidents have been creating for us over roughly the last thirty-three years (Jesus!). Some will even chide you for not respecting the “dignity” of these “workplaces.”

It’s difficult to dispense with ironic quotation marks when you see armchair theologians using these catchwords. Words which were maybe meaningful, say, about a hundred years ago. What they don’t seem to know is how much the humanities have recognized they need to extricate themselves from the dead-ends of identity politics. Ironically, all the while, many seminaries are only now discovering these same intellectual trends and jumping at them as if they were the royal road to relevance.

Nihilistic artists such as Andy Warhol are sometimes the targets of these, I believe, sincere attacks.  They say it’s better that our children don’t get exposed to postmodernism if they are to keep their faith. Yet, it turns out Warhol was a faithful Byzantine Catholic who participated in Mass frequently, carried around a missal and a rosary, financed a nephew’s studies for the priesthood, and might have remained a virgin all his life.

Despite popular prejudices to the contrary these biographical details did discretely spill out into his art. He did a cycle of nearly 100 variations on the Last Supper, which the Guggenheim folks think “indicates an almost obsessive investment in the subject matter.” Or as I’d have it: devotion.

Is there anything consumerism can't absorb?

Is there anything consumerism won’t absorb? To paraphrase Robert Musil: clean hands don’t necessarily imply a clear conscience.

In my estimates, the painting above is a fine bit of iconoclasm, part of a long tradition of busting idols, going all the way back to the most riveting (and slightly embarrassing) episodes in the Hebrew Bible.  It takes the hammer to our daily idols by transposing them upon the Real Presence they cannibalize. I know it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing work of art, but neither is the process of consumerist absorption it depicts.

My line of reasoning gets even more twisted, more Rabelaisian, as I know from my own experience at a secular university. Even the most secular academic culture can bring up (and even answer) some of the ultimate questions that are at the heart of religion.  By the time I was at the University of Washington I thought I had the boring paleo-nationalism of Polish-American Catholicism behind me. While majoring in history, Slavic, and ultimately comparative religion, I was fascinated by how much my professors deeply appreciated the artifacts of Christian culture, while doing their best to disarm the way of life and beliefs that stood behind them. There was obviously something dangerous about it. This got me thinking. And to make a long story short, I ended up reverting to Catholicism at a secular university. Some of this was the result of taking classes with outstanding Christian intellectuals such as Eugene Webb and James Felak.

Herbert Blau still keeps me on my toes.

Herbert Blau’s bafflement keeps me on my toes and in the pews.

But it wasn’t only the faithful remnant who taught me about faith. Actually, people who work outside of religious studies are given more leeway than those within them. It’s because they aren’t always required to bracket off the truth content of what they’re teaching. One prime example is the recently deceased professor of theater, Herbert Blau, an American theater pioneer who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett. I’m still reeling from his passing, because I miss his encouragement and the intensity he brought to teaching the importance of ultimate questions (to students who weren’t always aware they exist).

Here is the essence of his teaching method, “I often say to my students, ‘When I know what I think, I couldn’t care less. It’s when I don’t know what I think, when I’m utterly baffled, that I really like it, because that’s when I have to keep thinking. It keeps the mind going.”

His own inability to believe, perhaps his inability to accept grace, was one of the things that baffled Blau. He was willing to talk about it to whomever wanted to listen. The seriousness with which he took these questions would blow many a catechist out of the water. His influence keeps me going in trying to understand the Catholic tradition and its significance for my own life, my family, and our community.

Perhaps the world and the academy are much more mysterious than we make them out to be? After all, we shouldn’t forget we live in a post-Christian culture where everything, even the very concepts anyone thinks in, are half baptized. Let’s be a bit more charitable toward it and call off the undertakers unless we want to saw off the branch we’re sitting on.

Couldn’t help myself:

Pope art.

Pope art.

Nota Bene: Don’t miss the Sartre and Camus installments in the “Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists” series.

  

The Obscenely [Baroque] Catholic Difference

Bernini's statue of Bl. Ludovica Albertoni puts her best, uhm, forward

Bernini’s Bl. Ludovica Albertoni menaces us by putting her best Baroque forward.

What I love the best about the passage I’m going to quote at length below is how it goes against so many trendy opinions.

It should royally tick off the following groups: Baroque haters, techie nerds, entrepreneurs, Trent detractors, modernity boosting Neo-Cons, liberals who still believe in progress, detractors of modernity, some Protestants, Duns Scotus slanderers, and believers who lose their lid whenever they’re preached at by an atheist.

“. . . During the same period, in response to the Protestant Reformation and the humanist breakthrough, Baroque art following the Council of Trent breathes new life into the Catholic experience through the fabulous proliferation of music, painting, literature.  Without denying the suffering, nor leaving out the silence, new languages sublimate plaintiveness, turning it into a kind of serenity ready to bloom with joy.  Doesn’t Ecce homo here arrive at total lucidity in a new ecceistas, that is, in a singularity already foretold by Duns Scotus, but one that is henceforth none other than the singular freedom of creation of European men and women, living though misfortune and wretchedness and initiating a new, a modern universality?  Let–I invite you as my final argument–let the ‘miserere nobis’ of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor resonate in your mind.  ‘Miserere nobis,’ sings the choir, and pain is here refined into complicity, into grace, into glory.

This civilization–from the Christ who inhabits this altar [in Notre Dame de Paris] to Mozart whose renown is worldwide–this civilization, ours, today menaced from from the outside and by our own inability to interpret and renew it, bequeaths us this its subtle triumph over human suffering, transformed, without losing sight of the suffering to death of the divine itself.  It is incumbent on us to take up this heritage once again, to give it meaning, and to develop it in the face of the current explosion of the death drive.

Totalitarian and, in a different, but symmetrical way, the modern automation of the species, claim to put an end to, eradicate, or ignore suffering, the better to force it upon us as means of exploitation or manipulation.  The only alternative to these different forms of barbarism founded on the denial of malaise is to work through distress again and again . . .”

—Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, p. 97

Acquainted with the Night: The Art of Jerzy Nowosielski (An IMAGE Journal Essay)

What follows is an essay I published with IMAGE Journal with the help of the Starmach Gallery in Krakow (You too can own a Nowosielski!).

IMAGE needs your generous emergency donations more than ever. They are in serious financial trouble through no fault of their own.  I know many of you read IMAGE, so please step up.

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Jerzy Nowosielski. Wings of the Archangel, 1947. Oil on canvas.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—Robert Frost

Lately I’ve become acquainted with the night coursing through my veins. Like any good diabetic, I have to draw murky drops of blood several times daily to measure my sugar levels. This all began with a hospital visit some seven months ago. That was when I discovered my bloody secret. Around midnight I was led into a darkened hospital room which would be my home for the next week. My two octogenarian companions lay sleeping. Their diapers filled our temporary camp with a smell that outdid anything the corpse of Father Zosima could have emitted.

You might wonder what a grad-student-for-life does in situations like these. He reads this in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: “After Buddha was dead people showed his shadow for centuries afterwards in a cave—an immense frightful shadow. God is dead: but as the human race is constituted, there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.” The Prussian was probably right. The shadow of God has accompanied me since time out of mind, yet I continually reach for his light—never overcoming the shadowy impression that I’m neither quite wrong, nor really ever right.

The Bible’s sacred history is typically associated with the metaphor of light—the blinding light of revelation banishing darkness. But what, someone might ask, does revelation have to do with the murky ambiguity of so much human experience? For many of us, the light of revelation seems to leave the dim regions of our lives untouched. The paintings of Jerzy Nowosielski address the shadowy, opaque dimensions of experience. His art proposes a spectral shift in our reading of the biblical story—and therefore of our own stories. Nowosielski’s paintings seem to imply that there is something deeply human, and therefore perhaps also divine, about the darker aspects of our existence. No wonder one Polish art critic called him “the most secular religious artist and the greatest theologian among secular artists.”

But before we look at his paintings, we should dim the lights theologically. If we look at the foundational events of the Bible, the ones that guide the lives of Jews and Christians, we cannot help but notice the obscure register that reigns there: God appears to be a creature of the night, hidden when he reveals himself, seen “as through a glass, darkly.” One of the first things we read is, “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” A bit later, the foundation of the Israelite religion is built upon Moses receiving the tablets from a God clad in a cloud of darkness. During the Exodus, God’s people are saved by the dark waters which consume Pharaoh’s soldiers. Think also of Jesus in Mary’s dark womb, the dark night of the nativity, the midday darkness falling upon the land during the crucifixion, the darkness of the tomb and the descent into hell; add to it all the blindness of Paul en route to Damascus. I could multiply the examples here (for example, the Apocalypse, a dark unveiling indeed), but I’ll leave that up to you.

The darkness of the Bible is murky but enriching, a bit like a blood transfusion—and the paintings and icons of Jerzy Nowosielski share this quality. Nowosielski inscribes the canvas with the full range of our fears, disappointments, cruelties, and passions (in both senses of the word). “We must honestly admit to ourselves that we find ourselves on the edge of an immense metaphysical black hole,” he says. Yet something more is going on here: he dips his brush into these dark regions and then proceeds to mix them with a transfusion from the clouded streams around the Sacred Heart. Echoing Dostoyevsky’s dictum that “Beauty will save the world,” he writes: “Everything will capsize into the other side. Only art will help us carry our reality onto that other side. Art will save us.” Grace does not cross nature out; even at the general ressurection, we will still bear the marks of our humiliating sufferings, but then they will be accepted and transfigured—just as Christ still had the marks of his passion after his resurrection.

When I think of abstract painting (with the possible exceptions of Congdon, Kandinsky, and Rothko), I think of a personalized vision that dims all connections with reality. Personally, the schizophrenic solipsism of abstract art can be so bleak that it makes me want to stop reproducing and consider suicide.

So how did somebody like Nowosielski, who trained to become an Orthodox monk and icon writer during World War II in a Kiev monastery, first come to public attention with a series of abstract paintings? These works took the theologically saturated Polish art scene by storm during a 1948 exhibition in Krakow. A long-time resident of that city recently told me that the two poles of Sunday recreation that year were the Dominican church and the gallery where Nowosielski and his like-minded friends, the Krakow Group, displayed their paintings.

Nowosielski said that he lost his faith sometime during the Second World War. Though he never systematically addressed why it happened, he came to see that loss as a religiously fruitful experience. It led him to a state where “there is no metaphysical reality, which in essence is a highly metaphysical state, when the consciousness hits some absolute rock-bottom.” For Nowosielski, the way down turned out to be the same as grappling in the dark for the way up. “I started seeking the metaphysical roots of painting in this state of certain uncertainty about what I’m doing in art and where I stand. That’s when my ‘abstract painting’ was born,” he says. His statement echoes the Eastern Orthodox practice of apophatic mysticism (known in the West as the Via Negativa). In this tradition one begins by “cleaning the house” of one’s mind, negating all images of God and letting go of all ties to the world. Paradoxically, the practice has a positive and practical aim: clearing our minds of the concepts which screen us from the immanent energies of the transcendent God.

In the 1947 painting Wing of the Archangel, playful, wing-like dark blue triangles poke through in several locations, seeming to push out of the blue-gray areas on the sides and bottom of the canvas [see front cover]. This activity creates an expanding, luminous area of subtly variegated blue calm in the center portion. The orange rectangle and triangle just to the right of the middle emanate a sense of controlled passion.

Theology aside, abstract works like these were in part a rebellion against the mandatory Socialist Realist style imposed by the Soviets, kitschy art that papered over the gray reality of life in the Warsaw Bloc after World War II, a land overwhelmed by memories of atrocities and beaten into the ground by brutal foreign domination that would continue for four more decades. Then again, history is always theological. If there is one thing we learn from Nowosielski’s art it’s that there is no clear distinction between the sacred and the profane, believer and atheist. Everything can and must be taken into the eschatological realism proposed by the resurrection. As Karl Barth loved to say, God’s “no” also contains his ever greater “yes.” Nowosielski continued to follow his abstract intuitions throughout his career and later came to see them within a theological horizon. “The angel is abstract painting,” he once said—albeit sometimes a fallen angel.

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Plate 1. Jerzy Nowosielski. Woman in Darkness, 1971. Oil on canvas. 31 ½ x 47 ¼ inches.

Nowosielski’s love for painting the female body saves him from an abstract, heavenly escapism. He has painted sportswomen, housewives, women fully dressed, women in front of mirrors, women near windows, half-nudes, nudes, Madonnas, women in the ambivalent situations of ancient mystery rites, even women undergoing torture. As regards the last three categories, he once said that “art must always be suspect, because it redeems hell.” He meant all of his art, but what subject needs more redeeming than our representation of the female body, reproduced endlessly and demeaningly on billboards and internet sites? Something of this predicament is present in Nowosielski’s Woman in Darkness (1971), a work that suggests a coming to terms with painful secrets or fears about the future [see Plate 1]. The painting uses a dividing wall reminiscent of icon painting or the Stations of the Cross. Here, however, the boundaries seem permeable, intertwined. The bodies participate in a circling exchange, like the perichoresis of the Trinity. The ocher body is either screaming at or reconciling herself to the part of herself in blue, divided from her by the deep gray-blue wall. At the same time, some ochre part of herself seems to pass through that wall. She is merging with or emerging from the blue aspects of herself, which are turned away from us in a gesture of shame or despair.

A bold aspect of many of Nowosielski’s secular paintings is how they resemble icons. The rumor is that Eastern Orthodox faithful often complain that they cannot pray with Nowosielski’s actual icons, because his work consciously breaks so many conventions. I must admit that I would have no qualms about praying with one of Nowosielski’s nudes. I believe him when he says, “When it comes to my so-called secular paintings I am convinced that my theology of the body expressed there ‘speaks’ about problems similar to the ones expressed by the pope in words.” (He refers here to the late John Paul II’s collection of 129 Wednesday audiences on the theology of the body in which he says, among other things, that sexuality can potentially be an image of the Trinity.)

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Plate 3. Jerzy Nowosielski. Black Half-nude, 1971. Oil on canvas. 39 x 32 ¼ inches.

Compare the theology implicit in Nowosielski’s Black Half-nude (1971) [see Plate 3] with any of the nudes by the consensus nude painter par excellence, Lucian Freud. Freud’s cadaverous nudes, like the rest of his paintings, seem to be overwhelmed by the weight of sin, which they bear reluctantly like the tree which bore the weight of Judas’s body. For example, search for the painting of the pregnant Kate Moss entitled Naked Portrait. What should be an annunciation of life, Freud turns into a bloodless and dispiriting vivisection, despite his almost Polaroid realism. On the other hand, Nowosielski’s Black Half-nude is all the more real for all the elements of iconic abstraction it employs. Thanks to this, there is a gravity to the body which I can only compare with Michelangelo’s Pietà. Then come all the theological quotations: The white towel around her hips resembles a perizonium (the cloth usually worn by Christ on crucifixes). She sits on a heavenly azure seat, an iconic convention of both East and West in early Christian mosaics representing the coronation of the Virgin.

The cloth around her face creates a mix of theological and secular ambiguities. It could be Veronica’s veil with an imprint of a suffering face, invisible to us, or maybe the woman is taking off her blouse. In a secular inversion of da Messina’s Annunciation, perhaps she is anticipating a sexual encounter with the person facing her: the viewer. While enunciating a theology of the body, the painting playfully breaks with the iconic convention of concentrating upon the face and eyes. To paraphrase an Image editorial [from Issue 41], if we cannot incarnate God in our blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva, bellies, knees, and breasts—he vanishes into the ether. Then again, our conventional iconic expectations are not completely denied: her torso, breasts, and shapely stomach are arranged to resemble a face smiling back at us. I don’t know if they’re telling us to change our lives, but that ambiguity is just how Nowosielski would have it. Finally, there is the orange and yellow glow around her, which at first looks like the neon of a red-light district. But the glow also resembles what Pavel Florensky called “admixtureless light”—that is, gold, the color of the backgrounds of icons. And yet, iconic conventions are again turned inside out here. The background is black, and black penetrates most of the body. According to the painter, this mixing of boundaries is part of the plan of salvation, and therefore art: “There is a mysterious bond between sin and holiness. It can be partly seen with the aid of art. Eros illuminates matter, but this cannot be described with words. Some small part of it can be painted.” Then again, the connection between religious art and eroticism has been part of the tradition for a long time, running from the Song of Songs to any number of Saint Sebastians (most notably Mantegna’s), Bernini’s sculptures, and Donne’s poetry, to name just a few examples.

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Plate 4. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mountainous Landscape, 1955. Oil on canvas. 25 ½ x 30 ¾ inches.

Despite his redemptive vision, Nowosielski shows a marked pessimism in his landscapes. This is not because he has any distaste for nature. Quite the contrary. Mountainous Landscape (1955) is typical of his complex understanding of the natural world [see Plate 4]. This landscape has less to do with saccharine Hudson River School canvases than T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland—that is, the metaphysical black hole applied to the natural world. The scorched brown of the mountain turns into black. The green pasture is infected by a mold-like brown. The only unspoiled element is the little blue lake at the top of the mountain. A tiny abstraction built into the scene, integrated yet standing apart, it is a small window of hope. From a purely aesthetic vantage point, there is as much alienation here as in all of de Chirico’s claustrophobic cityscapes (which employ similar compositional structures). But why?

The real subject of the painting can be interpreted as absence. Nowosielski’s theoretical writings are especially helpful here. Asking most modern painters to explain the worldview behind their works is usually as fruitful as asking an art critic to paint something: vanity of vanities. But Nowosielski’s writings and paintings co-inhere, one interpreting the other. Poland is a nation where meat is served at almost every meal. Pretty much the only vegetarians are practicing Catholics on Fridays—and this despite a thriving Franciscan community. In this context, one of the more controversial aspects of Nowosielski’s writings is his outrage at our instrumentalization of the animal world. Orthodoxy is historically more sensitive to the suffering of animals and puts an emphasis on the salvation of the whole world: man, animal, vegetable, and rock. Even so, statements like these from Nowosielski have caused considerable outrage among both professional Catholic and Orthodox theologians: “We all participate in the suffering and death of Christ. Animals also participate, as does the whole of nature. For example, the Paschal Man is not named a lamb as a symbol; it is not a symbol! The suffering of animals is the real suffering of God.”

Mountainous Landscape shows us an apocalyptic nightmare of a world without animals—a world after an environmental Armageddon which might not be that far off. In the negative sense, this landscape is also in the image of fallen man, much like the lonely city-wrecks of de Chirico. It is a prophetic lament for a devastated creation and for a humanity unconsciously losing a salvific opportunity through an ecological crisis. The antidote to all of this could be an embrace of the Christian roots of the environmental movement, which cannot and should not be divorced from the doctrine of creation. Rid of its current quasi-soteriological and Manichean tendencies, environmentalism might become more appealing to a wider group of people. Its historic connections with a more generous worldview are there, if one is willing to look. The green and the sustainable-community movements were heavily influenced by the book Small Is Beautiful, published by Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher during the energy crisis of 1973. And there are ecumenical patron saints of conservation waiting in the wings: Seraphim of Sarov, Francis of Assisi and, more recently, Wendell Berry.

Plate 2. Jerzy Nowosielski. City Landscape, 1959. Oil on canvas. 23 x 32 inches.

Plate 2. Jerzy Nowosielski. City Landscape, 1959. Oil on canvas. 23 x 32 inches.

City Landscape (1959) reverses the schema, showing an urban setting as a desert [see Plate 2]. The streets are sparsely peopled, the trams seem more symbolic than real, scantily clad women (or are they mannequins?) stand behind windows on either side of the street, and a possible flasher or drunkard in a yellow coat walks briskly away from the viewer, as if he has something to hide. Townhouses oppressively press upon the earthy brown of the streets, and at the top of the painting, the tram tracks fork into the shape of a snake’s flickering tongue. The man in white pants and black coat, despite his dandy hat, has downcast eyes and keeps his hands in his pockets in a reserved, modest, self-aware, almost pious gesture. Is he thumbing rosary beads in his pocket? The colors of his outfit are probably not incidental, as a mysterious drama of good and evil plays itself out at the edges of the painting. Why shouldn’t we see this man as a modern-day Saint Anthony, fighting temptation, loneliness, and maybe a hangover in an urban desert? The strange women and the drunkard-flasher seem to fit this motif, and the trams slither like demythologized serpents.

All of this is seen from above, as if from a bird’s-eye, or God’s-eye view. Nowosielski frequently uses this perspective in otherwise lonely and bleak paintings of cities. It forms the impression of a downward movement toward the earth, as if we are seeing through the eyes of one of Wim Wenders’s angels or the “descending Dove” of Charles Williams. Madeleine Delbrel, sometimes called the French Dorothy Day, captures this iconic vision of the modern urban desert better than anyone I have read: “In those crowds marked by the sins of hatred, lust, and drunkenness, we find a desert of silence, and we recollect ourselves with great ease, so that God can ring out his name: Vox clamans in deserto.” Elsewhere she describes the intersection of this desert of urban sin with the dark ray of divine love in words borrowed avant la lettre from Nowosielski: “Our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejections of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators.”

There are chronological and intellectual reasons to save a discussion of Nowosielski’s explicitly religious works for last. First of all, he regained his faith fairly late in his life and creative career, some time in the late 1950s. Also, his journey back to the church, and to icons, was quite original. Surprisingly, the importance of modern art cannot be underestimated here. “Who is responsible for my being this way? Certainly my fate, but also experience, the lessons of surrealism,” he says. Surrealism proved to be a liberating experience for Nowosielski, because it opened him up to viewing art of all periods, especially Orthodox iconography, as a living and anarchically liberating reality. This freed him from the widespread prejudices of nineteenth-century historicism, which saw art simplistically as a march of progress that consigned all so-called “archaic” forms to the dustbin of history. The spiritual pedigree of the modern avant-garde is well attested theoretically and artistically by Kandinsky (among others), a Russian who drew inspiration from icons.

Ever since the late fifties, Nowosielski has consistently produced sacral art of the highest quality and inspiration. However, he had greater aspirations: “From childhood on I dreamed about designing a sacred space. I worked with architects, made polychromes, but these were just fragments. I wanted to create something from the ground up.” Nowosielski got his chance in 1992 in the small town of Biały Bór, population about 2,200. The town is a center of Orthodox and Greek-Catholic culture in northwestern Poland. This unique geographical and cultural situation led Nowosielski to some creative solutions. The dark and womb-like interior has both a traditional and modern feel to it. Its modernity is not in the way of most American churches, which often feel little different from Starbucks.

Plate 5. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland, 1992-97. View of Main Nave from the Entrance.

Plate 5. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland, 1992-97. View of Main Nave from the Entrance.

Nowosielski’s modernism digs deep into history without turning into archaeology. The church’s center area, where the liturgy is performed, is notably lower than the raised sides where the faithful congregate [see Plate 5]. This is a direct quotation from the Greek stage, as are the columns and the triple red arches, which imitate the doors through which Greek actors used to enter the stage. It is not incidental that these doors through which the Trinity enters into the drama of the congregation’s lives are colored red, the liturgical color of the Lord’s passion—and also of sexual flush. This understanding of the liturgy as a transforming drama where our salvation and damnation are at stake is confirmed by the artist himself: “As a person who is well nigh obsessively concerned with liturgical questions, I consider the Christian liturgy to be a transformation of the Greek theater, and also as a kind of sacred circus.”

The interior’s color is difficult to render in a photograph, which tends to make it look black; it’s actually a very dark shade of green. In the Orthodox Church green is the liturgical color of several feasts and seasons: the Feasts for Ascetics and Fools for Christ (that is, the holy circus), Pentecost, and Palm Sunday. It is also the liturgical color of hope and resurrection, but as the list suggests, it is a hope achieved by going into the darkness (even the darkness of madness) with God instead of circumventing it with Prozac. At the center is the tetrapod upon which icons are placed for veneration. Directly above, like a top hat floating down upon the congregation below, is a cupola with Christ as Pantokrator. This setting is one of the best spatial representations I know of the Pauline imperative to put on Christ’s mind. Really, it seems like it might fit. We just have to be raised toward it.

Plate 6. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland. Exterior.

Plate 6. Jerzy Nowosielski. Church in Biały Bór, Poland. Exterior.

The exterior facade of the church deliberately resembles an iconostasis (the wall of icons that separates the nave from the sanctuary in an Orthodox church) [see Plate 6]. In part, this is an outgrowth of demographics. During the ordinary parts of the liturgical year the church serves a small congregation. However, during the high holidays, the region’s widely dispersed Polish Greek-Catholic flock comes to this sanctuary. During those times, the church cannot hold the crowd, and so the liturgy moves outdoors. The facade prominently features two archangels flanking a Mandylion. The Mandylion is something like the Orthodox iconic version of the Shroud of Turin. This image, faithfully reproduced by iconographers, shows the imprint of Christ’s face. It is not Veronica’s veil, but a cloth used by Christ to wipe his face during the passion, which was passed along to a servant of King Abgar of Edessa, who was later healed of an incurable sickness thanks to it. It is usually acknowledged as the first and most authentic image, ikon, of Christ. Nowosielski has made many such icons, including one for the Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception in Krakow [see Plate 7]. The placing of this image so prominently on the exterior of the church in Biały Bór, facing the elements, invokes for me Nowosielski’s sacrificial logic of the collision of the world with the self-emptying God: “If the earth were not so saturated with evil, there would be no need for the coming of Christ. I am thinking of the kenotic descent of God into such an earth.” The end result of that descent, death, is not easy to swallow, but Christ’s life is normative as an example for anybody who wants to become a Christian. All of reality must be irradiated by the shadow of this suffering face if reality is to be taken up into the life of the Trinity.

Plate 7. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mandylion, 1978. Acrylic paint on board. Franciscan Church of the Immaculate Conception, Krakow, Poland.

Plate 7. Jerzy Nowosielski. Mandylion, 1978. Acrylic paint on board. Franciscan Church of the Immaculate
Conception, Krakow, Poland.

What I have written may seem like an odd art essay, with its swerving into theology, politics, and sex. But the imperative to soil the clean white gloves of high aesthetics is dictated by the oddity of Nowosielski’s art itself, which mishmashes these taboo subjects and opens them up to comparative inquiry. His painting forbids an aestheticized, abstracted “view from nowhere” and instead demands a Christian, personalist engagement with the rough edges of reality. Nowosielski has said that he sees himself as making icons for westerners, for Catholics and Protestants. The West, he says, “properly grasps the spiritual issue of the mystagogical role of art,” an attitude he believes will bear fruit.

Plate 8. Jerzy Nowosielski. Theotokos Oranta with Fathers of the Church, 1984. Greek-Catholic Church in Lourdes, France.

Plate 8. Jerzy Nowosielski. Theotokos Oranta with Fathers of the Church, 1984. Greek-Catholic Church in
Lourdes, France.

Several years ago I went to Lourdes with two of my best friends. We did it all: confession, masses, Stations of the Cross, shopping for the finest religious kitsch, and we got dipped in the chilling healing waters. After the bath I noticed a palpable change in myself: I got a sinus infection and spent about two weeks battling it. As we left, I remember seeing a beautiful church with golden cupolas from our moving train. It was Saint Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church. It immediately charmed me and I wondered what hid inside the dark walls. I had no idea what I missed until I looked at a book of Nowosielski’s works. He painted the whole interior of this little Greek-Catholic church in 1984. Right behind the altar is an immense depiction of the Theotokos in prayer with the Doctors of the Church below her [see Plate 8]. The whole composition is bathed in a deep blue background of a shade that has very little to do with the light-blue ceilings of medieval Catholic churches. Her face is a study in patience learned through suffering. Her eyes (and sinuses) are shadowed by a darkness that she seems to face without flinching, never flagging in the welcoming gesture of her praying arms: she is not afraid of being infected by our sins.

The Greek verb used to describe the making of icons, graphia, means both “to paint” and “to write,” and this is why the whole process is often called “icon writing.” This is how God communicates his image to people in painting. All of it finally brings us to the form of the biblical text, or any other text. Take a look at this page. How is it that the words I write here resound in your mind?

The whiteness of the page is not shouldering the message. It is not the white background, but the ray of darkness of the text which is doing all the work.

Likewise, Nowosielski’s art teaches us to get acquainted with the night of our blood, guts, shit, piss, semen, saliva, minds, gender, environment, cities, diseases, art, and politics, and not fear them, but live them out rightly as the coming of God’s darkness as it incarnates itself within the whole of our mind, body, and soul—especially when they are wracked by suffering. As we contemplate an image like the 1978 Mandylion, its apophatic darkness shows us that our concepts cannot capture the great price and music of the hypostatic union: a God who was fully human, a man who was fully God. In the muddy darkness of daily experience, Nowosielski’s paintings are a visual answer to the question asked by Job: “Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night?”

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Update: I recently noticed that Amazon has one copy of the best catalog of Nowosielski’s work. It’s reasonably priced so snap it up here before someone else does.

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Supersessionism: Two for the Price of One?

Cranach the Elder, Law and Grace, 1529.

Divide in two? Why not three?

Debates about supersessionism frequently flare up in America between evangelicals (generally pro) and mainliners (generally contra).  They look and sound like an outgrowth of the early modern law and grace controversies.  I would like to argue the real debate is elsewhere.

The following etymology is a helpful frame for what we want to talk about: “The word supersessionism comes from the English verb to supersede, from the Latin verb sedeo, sedere, sedi, sessum, ‘to sit,’ plus super, ‘upon.’ It thus signifies one thing being replaced or supplanted by another.”

Recent scholarship suggest that the definitive break between Christianity and Judaism is later than first supposed, much later, perhaps as late as the sixth century.  Things get even more complicated when you consider the following passage from Richard John Neuhaus:

“In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a ‘Jewish sect,’ which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.”

This means that both rabbinical Judaism and Christianity in some sense superseded Temple Judaism as rival versions of Judaism.  Therefore, you get two supersessionisms for the price of one, or, alternatively, two legitimate theological developments.

Justin Tse says all of this appears to be in line with Dabru Emet, the historic statement on Jewish-Christian relations from a Jewish perspective.

My Being Turns to Smoke

"What countless suns the boastful fancy forges"

“What countless suns the boastful fancy forges”

Sonnet [read at 3AM]

My being turns to smoke in the mad strife
Of passions which have whirled me in their wake.
How miserably blind was I to take
This human span for almost-endless life.
What countless suns the boastful fancy forges
To gild this false existence as it flows,
But now my slave-like nature undergoes
The blasting havoc of a life of orgies.

Pleasures, my tyrant cronies, in confusion,
Hurling you to the gulf of disillusion,
My thirsty soul no longer can be pent.
Before my light fails, grant, my God! that I,
(One moment saving what in years I spent),
Who knew not how to live, learn how to die!

—Manuel Barbosa du Bocage (1765-1805), trans. Roy Campbell from the Portuguese

This poem features the theme of philosophy as a way of life briefly mentioned in an earlier post.  We’ll come back to the topic some other time.