On Saints, Artists and Faith

Interview With Contemplative Nun and Art Critic

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ROME, JUNE 29, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Artists and saints are united in how they see "the now" in the "not yet," says art critic Sister Maria Gloria Riva.



The contemplative religious of the Perpetual Adorers of the Most Blessed Sacrament calls this the look of faith.

Sister Maria Gloria recently published, in Italian, "Frammenti di Belleza -- La Preghiera nell'Arte e nella Vita de Madre Maria Maddalena dell'Incarnazione" (Fragments of Beauty -- Prayer in the Art and Life of Mother Mary Magdalene of the Incarnation), published by St. Paul's.

She has also published, in Italian, "Nell'arte lo stupore di una Presenza" (The Wonder of a Presence in Art), published by St. Paul's, and the DVD "Il Codice dell'Amore" (The Code of Love), published by MIMEP, in which she refutes some of the inventions of "The Da Vinci Code."

In this interview with ZENIT, Sister Maria Gloria comments on her new book and the relationship between faith and art.

Q: What is the nexus that unites artists and saints when it comes to appreciating the faith?

Sister Maria Gloria: In one of his novels, Chaim Potok offers an evocative image to describe how God sees.

He affirms that while man sees the world as fragmented, because he sees between blinks, God sees the whole world because he is the only one who sees without blinking.

Saints and artists have been able to see between blinks; that is why in their fragments, that is, in their lives and works, the beauty of a whole world shines.

The look of faith unites saints and artists, and it is to see "the now" in the "not yet."

Giotto expressed this "seeing of faith" in a fresco in the Chapel of the Scrovegnis (also commented in my book "Frammenti di Bellezza"). On describing the encounter between the risen one and Magdalene, he curiously paints Jesus on the margin of the fresco, as if he wished to emphasize his "other" presence, his being "already" with the Father, though "still" being here among us.

The look of faith helps to go beyond the limit to see the light of a "now" where the darkness of the "not yet" prevails.

Q: Who is Mother Mary Magdalene of the Incarnation and what is her connection with prayer and art, the object of your research?

Sister Maria Gloria: Mother Mary Magdalene made of this "seeing of faith" a charism.

The look of faith was fundamental for her, also for the period in which she lived. Quoting the Preface of Christmas, she affirmed that, with the Incarnation, a new light of the divine beauty appeared before our minds and therefore now it is possible for us, thanks to the look of faith, to see God, though invisible, in the visible.

In what is visible of the sacrament it is possible for us to contemplate a ray of the divine beauty.

Mother Mary Magdalene of the Incarnation was born in a time of transition, such as ours. Between the end of the 1700s and the beginning of the 1800s, the "Ancien Régime," though with undeniable values, manifested its end, while the emergence of a new economy, of modernity, was occurring within a scene darkened by threatening clouds.

She, young novice, at once timid and absolute, received a simple and radical mission from God: to go to the root of the faith to recover all; to plant a seed in the soil of the Church, to make everything flower again. This root is the Eucharist; this seed is the prayer of adoration.

Father Andrea Martini, Franciscan sculptor, who filled the world with prayer and beauty with his works, thus described the spirit and personality of Mother Mary Magdalene of the Incarnation in a sculpture -- a most beautiful profile, aerodynamic, where the bronze is most light and the figure of the mother rises from the base taking off to heaven as if in flight.

The face and one arm are turned to the Lord. Just as Giotto's Magdalene, all inclined toward the "Rabbuni."

This inclination reveals the main attitude of Mother Mary Magdalene: to be with her Lord for all and with all.

And it is this "with all" which is amazing and fills the other arm with meaning in Martini's bronze. The left arm is turned toward the people, toward the faithful and unfaithful, the saints and sinners, the Christians and the followers of other religions. All should be there, with her, to rediscover in adoration of the Eucharist the roots of existence.

Q: In face of the threats of terrorism and the moral crisis affecting most of the Western world, one notes a great demand to return to the classics and Christian roots. Increasingly more people seek the beautiful, the just and the true, basis of Christian humanism. In your judgment, is it possible to develop a pastoral program of beauty uniting faith and art and giving form and function to these demands?

Sister Maria Gloria: It is indispensable to again control the artistic patrimony that surrounds us. The artist, even the most secular and especially the artist who produces religious art, takes his inspiration from a patrimony of faith that envelops and surpasses him.

A typical example might be Salvador Dali, who during a period of his life was sincerely attracted by mysticism and produced some evocative crucifixions. One of these is examined in my book. It is the "Corpus Hypercubus" of New York's Metropolitan Museum.

He portrays a most beautiful and beardless Christ on the cross, as a Greek statue.

His body, tense from the suffering, does not show, however, signs of suffering.

Christ is fixed to the cross not by nails but by the force of love. His most pure nakedness contrasts with the sumptuous dress of the woman who remains in ecstatic contemplation under the cross.

He, with the nakedness of his innocence is clothed with grace for the whole of humanity. He, with the force of his love, has filled with meaning our suffering, too often the fruit of hatred and injustice.

Thus, also the extravagant and histrionic Dali, under the pressure of the impact caused by the explosion of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, wet his paintbrush in the wisdom of the Christian mystics, as his great compatriot St. John of the Cross.

And, even in a production that is perhaps demystified, has been able to transmit to us some works of very high religious and human value.

Therefore, not only is it possible but necessary. It is also a duty to break up the enormous production of secular artists and thinkers to unearth those eternal values mediated by the great Judeo-Christian tradition.

Q: Is the increase of vocations to cloistered monastic orders perhaps a sign of a new spring for the Church? What are the missionary forms that the cloistered order could also carry out?

Sister Maria Gloria: Vocations in the Church always respond to a need the world and the Church herself suffer. Today, undoubtedly, there has been, at least in Europe, a notable loss of the religious sense. Our chaotic cities and the customs to which the media push young people, are full of noise.

Ideological pluralism emptied of values has led progressively to relativism, as a result of which one notices increasingly the need for the absolute, for silence, for encountering God. He who through grace has this encounter cannot but notice the desire to make it the way of his life. Of what good is it to man to gain the whole world if he loses himself?

The numerous calls to the contemplative life are an invitation to post-modern man not to lose himself, in the name of an economy or a misunderstood freedom or, worse yet, in the name of a supposed emancipation.

The veracity of this affirmation lies in the fact that there are ever more numerous laymen that, though having received a different vocation, notice the desire to find spaces of silence and solitude to be able to address later, with greater lucidity, the challenges and their commitments.

That is why many times they knock on the doors of monasteries, of abbeys and of those convents that are open to some form of hospitality.

The mission of monasteries is inscribed precisely here, not of course in losing their own identity to go out to meet the world which increasingly manifests needs and unease, but in opening to this world some space of interiority, to communicate something of the very existence of God, in brief, to say with St. Thomas, "contemplata aliis tradere": to make others participants in the things contemplated.

This can be done at several levels and in several ways; through hospitality, whole days of retreat or moments of prayer or offering, through a discreet but qualified presence in the media, "another" reading of reality.

One of the most profound roles of the contemplative is that of learning to read history with God's eyes. This "other" reading, in my case not only of the history of a saint, but of art, is what I offer in my book and in different articles published in the site www.culturacattolica.it.

For our special monastic experience, not to be consumed by accident in the heart of the cities, leads us to offer the laity the possibility to pause in adoration and to experience in their lives that, by fixing their gaze on that root of the Church which is the Eucharist, relativism can be overcome and Christian values can shine again in life, offering answers to ethical or other challenges that society posits continuously today.