God's Canvases

Interview With Director of Vatican Museum Patrons

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ROME, JULY 21, 2009 (Zenit.org).- There are two classes of people who come to Rome to see the thousands of masterpieces on display here: One group leaves with mere fleeting impressions; the other with an experience that cannot be forgotten.



The difference? Those who come as tourists learn art facts that are easily forgotten. Those who come as pilgrims seek -- and oftentimes find -- an experience of God that is opened to them by the sacred art they see.

This evaluation of Rome's visitors was given by Legionary of Christ Father Mark Haydu, international director of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.

ZENIT spoke with Father Haydu on the occasion of this month's opening of the renovated Pauline Chapel, a project sponsored by the patrons. Here, Father Haydu shares the experience that brought him to be a lover of the arts -- and explains how God himself is an artist.

ZENIT: How did you become interested in sacred art?

Father Haydu: An image like this one from a 17th-century painter named Johannes Vermeer opened my eyes to the world of art. It taught me to look for the deeper message that a work of art can hide. It helped me to realize that someone who approaches art can be enriched, and I saw that art is capable of opening up a spiritual dimension and communicating truths that might not be attained in other ways.

ZENIT: In this painting, we see a pensive woman in a cluttered room with a scale in her hands. What does this piece tell us?

Father Haydu: The first step would be to analyze the elements of composition so as to see what they tell us about the author, his intentions and his style. But I think your question is more about the deeper meaning of the painting. When I evaluate a work, I don't just ask what the artist wanted to communicate, but above all, what this work tells me about myself.

This is what's beautiful about a work of art: It speaks a universal language, that is, the language of beauty. For example, in this painting we see how the weight (on the scale) is heavier on the right side; this brings us to center our attention there. The light coming in from the window on the left side in some sense balances the scene. It is the inside of a room and an everyday moment that we are "invading." Vermeer introduces us to a private and personal moment in the life of this person.

Behind the woman we see a painting that represents final judgment. This woman is getting ready to balance her pearls. We can intuit that the pearls refer to her earthly treasures and this woman weighs them up in light of the universal judgment, of her eternal destiny. She is making a balance of her life and what she has, faced to eternity. This, for example, can help us to see that man is free to reflect on what he wants to do with his life, but that it is important to do this in the light of eternity, which awaits all of us. The light that falls over the woman illumines her head, but also her chest, thus indicating that the decision she has to make is, yes, in her head but, also and above all, in her heart. It is there that man's decisions are made. The mind considers them; the heart puts them in motion.

ZENIT: And how does one go about discovering all of this?

Father Haydu: After giving attention -- without rushing -- to the form, the content, the colors, the elements, it is very important to ask oneself, "Why did the artist do it this way and not in some other?" This is trying to penetrate into the mind of the artist. An artist can create whatever he wants, and this can bring us to think as well of the first artist: God.

ZENIT: God is an artist?

Father Haydu: Yes, he is the artist par excellence. The creation of the world and of the human person, which Michelangelo celebrates with his frescoes in the dome of the Sistine Chapel -- is that not a marvelous and incomparable work of art? And going beyond nature, we can see the marvel of God the Artist in ourselves. We are the canvas. With our free cooperation, the Lord progressively draws the work of art that is our lives. We can look back and ask ourselves why thing have happened as they have. When we analyze a painting we discover the hand of the artist; we intuit his idea and what he wanted to create. In the same way, in looking at our life, we can discover the hand of God: Our life has been this way because that is how its Artist has permitted it to be, that's how he has wanted it, and thus we realize that it is not a fruit of coincidence or fate, but rather that behind all this is the loving hand of God.

ZENIT: What is the aim of sacred art?

Father Haydu: Sacred art tries to bring the soul toward God. It aims to transmit the message of faith, explain it, share it. That's why a person cannot pass by sacred art as a mere tourist. "All the great works of art, cathedrals -- the Gothic cathedrals and the splendid Baroque churches -- they are all a luminous sign of God and therefore truly a manifestation, an epiphany of God. … If we contemplate the beauties created by faith, they are simply, I would say, the living proof of faith." These are words from the Holy Father from last summer in his meeting with priests of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone.

ZENIT: Some people think that so much art in churches is just a distraction. Is that true?

Father Haydu: If someone doesn't know how to "read" it, then it might be a distraction, but if they see it as a path toward God, then the opposite occurs: The art refers to what the liturgy celebrates and proclaims and this is a help. We can, for example, see the paintings in a church that show the lives of the saints and think about how all of these saints offered their lives for Christ. And from this contemplation we could follow along to the resolution of wanting to be saints ourselves, or turn our gaze to the Blessed Sacrament and ask for the grace to be saints.

It is therefore a matter of bridging two things that could appear separated. Art can also be a valuable aid for fervor when a pilgrim doesn't speak the language of the country where he is visiting a church. The pilgrim could appreciate the art and begin remembering the homilies he has heard about the scenes of Christ's life or of the saints that are pictured in that church. Art is there to help us pray, not just so that we look at it and leave the same as when we arrived.

ZENIT: The people who visit Rome's art -- what are they like?

Father Haydu: Frequently we find two attitudes: One is that of the tourist who comes to collect experiences so as to later talk about them with friends and family. "I went to the four basilicas of Rome; I went to the Vatican Museums; I saw this, that and the other; it was so beautiful, etc." And that's it. It doesn't go beyond that. The other attitude is that of the pilgrim: This is someone who wants to make a stop in life, analyze his soul before God, and leave enriched. This is someone who seeks a grace, a change in life.

I think that these days, the people who come to visit these places are seeking this. They need the art to elevate them toward God. Sacred art can be the means that paves the way for a conversion of heart to him who is the Author of beauty. Art puts man before God, it brings him to look at his life in the light of eternal and transcendent realities. In fact, one of the principal tasks of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums is to restore these works so that their original inspiration and impact are more evident. In this way, one who sees these works can appreciate them in all of their beauty. This impact can be the difference between one who sees the work as a tourist and one who sees it as a pilgrim. And when people make this click, everything changes. A new world opens before them, as was the case with me and that work of Vermeer.

ZENIT: And what do you recommend to the tourists or pilgrims or tourist-pilgrims who visit the art of Rome?

Father Haydu: That they come and rest not just distracting themselves with so much artistic beauty, but trying to discover Christ and the message of faith that is behind every work of Christian art. That they follow not just a tourist route but also a path of faith. In this sense, it can be helpful to ask the one who offers the explanations of the works of art to also help them to make an experience of faith.

ZENIT: How can guides help those who visit Rome?

Father Haydu: The guides are above all art historians. Now then, a Christian guide also tries to transmit the human, Christian and spiritual base that is behind every work of art. In fact, there are already many guides here in Rome and in other places that do this. I think the mission of a Christian guide is to be a bridge between God and art. He is the one who helps those who appreciate art to pass by it and learn of its artistic expressions, yes, but also to encounter the faith, the Gospel and Christ.

He speaks to them of the ideas that the artists wanted to transmit. The Christian guide, on one hand knows well the history and technical elements of each work, but on the other hand, seeks to communicate to the tourists and pilgrims ideas that will help them to better appreciate the art and to grow humanly and spiritually. In this way, the visitors will always remember that guided tour of Rome, because they will not only take with them the scientific and historical facts that are forgotten the next day, but they will take with them something more: an experience of getting closer to God. This is never forgotten.

ZENIT: Who can collaborate with the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums?    

Father Haydu: Anyone who wants to join in the effort to conserve the artistic patrimony of the Vatican Museums in their most perfect state, to preserve these valuable elements of universal patrimony, and to create a Christian culture of man and art. Anyone who wants more information can visit our Web page: www.vatican-patrons.org.

[Translation by Kathleen Naab]