Beauty & Truth

Exploring John Paul II’s Vision for Artists


In director Cristian Murphy’s documentary film “Masterpieces: An Exploration of the Vocational Call to Artisanship,” playwright and actor Brother Joseph Hoover, S.J., says, “I don’t think you have to wait until you’re a rich, well-established person who then can create their meaningful, faith-oriented piece, or a piece that has some real moral depth to it. If you tell a true story…you are telling the story of Christ because Christ is the Logos…. So, if you just share and really get down into how people actually are and what actually happens, stories move towards hope themselves.”

Brother Hoover’s words reflect a sentiment expressed by St. Pope John Paul II in his 1999 letter to artists, in which he wrote, “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, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”

Taken together, these statements cast authentic artistic endeavor as an activity that tends toward the good. Those who honestly strive to show the essence of the natural world and of human experience will invariably offer glimpses of the beauty of God through the work they produce. Seen in this light, artistic pursuits, whether in the classical mediums of painting, sculpture and music, or modern forms such as film, remain capable of providing transcendent experiences and offer fertile ground for the exploration of important ideas, regardless and sometimes even in spite of the background and ideology of the creators themselves.

These statements point to art’s ability to explore aspects of life that would otherwise be inexpressible. In his letter, John Paul II encourages awareness and utilization of this capacity, writing, “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.”

John Paul II’s letter is ultimately a call to Catholic artists and people of faith to understand the gift of their vocation and to explore their ability to share God’s beauty within the confines and nuances of their respective mediums. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his letter, and The Sheen Center will celebrate its enduring message with two events this fall, the first an Oct. 18 screening and discussion of Murphy’s “Masterpieces” and the second a Nov. 17 discussion with Dr. Elizabeth Lev about her book “How Catholic Art Saved the Faith.”

Dr. Lev’s book celebrates the art commissioned by Church leaders during the Counter-Reformation and shows how artists responded to the call to help preserve the faith in a time of religious divisions in Europe. In her book, Dr. Lev mentions what she characterizes as “spindly engravings” produced by Lucas Cranach with the intention of undermining Church teachings. She contrasts those engravings with the work of Michelangelo, whose talent the Church unleashed to create masterpieces that brought clarity to the contentious theological issues of the time. Dr. Lev concludes, “Cranach and his woodcuts never stood a chance.”

Demonstrating how the challenge to artists during this time evoked works of genius, she writes, “Painters, grown expert at rendering the natural world during the Renaissance, were now required to illustrate mystery.” For an example, she offers Caravaggio’s “Entombment of Christ,” a painting that depicts a small group of mourners gathered around the lifeless body of Jesus in the aftermath of the crucifixion. Two mourners hold Christ’s body and look as though they are about to lower Him into the viewer’s space. This work was an altarpiece, so the implication is that the celebration of Mass completes its meaning. Dr. Lev writes, “Caravaggio added a greater urgency to participate in the sacrament, as if the entire group in the painting were waiting for the faithful to step up and accept the offering made for mankind.”

Whereas the Church funded the work of artists during the Counter-Reformation, John Paul II’s letter calls for a renewed alliance in our time motivated by artists’ recognition of the importance of faith to their work. Murphy’s “Masterpieces” spotlights five contemporary artists who cultivate this alliance between art and faith. In addition to Brother Hoover, “Masterpieces” features a small group of artists from varying fields – a dancer, a poet, a filmmaker and a sculptor. None is particularly famous, yet all approach their work with openness to the inspiration that faith can provide. In so doing, they tap into a joy that feeds creativity.

Towards the end of his letter, John Paul II quotes Dostoyevsky, who wrote, “Beauty will save the world.” What monumental importance this statement bestows upon artists, whose role is to reveal beauty in a way that opens the heart to the mystery of God. John Paul II writes, “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future.” He then puts the role of the artist into context, adding, “That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy.”

Acknowledging such limitations can be a freeing realization for artists, each of whom can only ever provide small sparks of illumination on the way to God. Seen in this light, the artist might understand that all it takes to tap into the genius-producing alliance between art and faith is dedication to their medium combined with an openness to reveal beauty and truth to the best of their abilities.

In his letter to artists, John Paul II captures the essence of what it means to be an artist, and his words remain a beacon, lighting the way for all who wish to pursue genius in their work. In one of the final sentiments expressed in his letter, John Paul II leaves artists with a hope and a vision for where their vocation will take them. “Artists of the world,” he writes, “may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.”