The Miracle of Western Art

Fall of Phaeton
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It is not a secret that there is a war on art, a war against the good and beautiful. The new Vandals are on the move. And unlike the vandals of the previous generation who framed crud as art, the new Vandals tear down and destroy all art in the name of the politically correct zeitgeist. Despite the destruction, this kind of iconoclasm is nothing new. And, as in the past, Catholics must stand up for the good and beautiful in art.

Before the rise of Dada and impressionism, Western art was uniquely exceptional in the world. It was, indeed, the exception. Form and elegance, concretion and fluidity, personality and the collective, had all become features of the drama of Western art. But Western art’s exceptionalism is a product of Christianity. Nowhere else in the world was the portrait such a concern, or the drama expressed in art able to invoke such feeling, passion, and soul searching.

The seed of Western art is theology. The seed of Western art is in the first Book of Moses, known to us as the Book of Genesis. To be made in the image of God led to the rise of portrait and personality in the Christian and Western artistic tradition. The concentration on the form and personality of individuals was the way to express the anthropology of the imago Dei in art form. 

Western art reached its acme during the Renaissance, Counter-Reformation, and Baroque periods. No other such era produced the great flourishing of art that adorns museums and remains such a precious treasure to Catholics and the rest of the world. Indeed, even the stories of Europe’s ancient past were redeemed under the baptismal brushes of Michelangelo, Titian, and Peter Paul Rubens.

A dramatic painting by Peter Paul Rubens, when isolated, produces a portrait akin to Rembrandt. One can look at Rubens’ Elevation of Christ on the Cross and see, simultaneously, a collective whole and instantiated individuals who can be isolated. One can feel that the isolated depictions of Christ on the Cross or Mary Magdalene looking at Christ are complete paintings in and of themselves, despite being part of a larger masterpiece. The acme of the Western artistic tradition is a remarkable synthesis of wholeness with individuality, the particular with the collective, the lone and the many.

But the Western artistic tradition was not always on such comfortable and secure footing. In the eighth century, the iconoclast controversy threatened to destroy all that seven centuries of Christian art and iconography had worked to produce. 

St. John of Damascus penned his famous three treatises in defense of Christian iconography. Drawing from Scripture, tradition, and the witness of the saints, Church Fathers, and other ecclesiastical writers, John condemned the iconoclasts as spiritually infantile and the unwitting tools of the demons. He went as far as also saying that the iconoclasts were waging a war against the saints and doing greater damage than even Satan and his minions could do. Art, John argued, teaches us about God, about love, about beauty.

The salvation of Christian iconography preserved the Christian artistic tradition which blossomed in the Middle Ages and reached the exquisite and inspiring form that we know today. But what lurks behind the paintings are stories of communication—something that John of Damascus also discussed in defending the images from the iconoclasts. Art tells us a story.

Peter Paul Rubens’ The Fall of Phaeton is a quintessential example of portraying a pagan story with a Christian message. Phaeton had usurped the chariot of his father, Apollo, and driven off with it; but he was incapable of controlling its potentially deadly consequences. Apollo wielded the chariot with delicacy because he, and he alone, kept the balance of heaven and earth and the seasons, which is now destroyed because of Phaeton’s hubris. Zeus struck Phaeton down to save the earth.

In the painting, Phaeton is falling from the chariot. He is inverted, head plunging downward with his hand covering his eyes from the awesome power of heaven and his feet directed up in the air. The Horae, the butterfly-like creatures off to his side, shriek in terror. The light from heaven, the power and authority of Zeus, shines down on the chariot. The earth below is darkened. The painting is a masterpiece.

Phaeton’s inversion is an allegory of what happens when reckless and rebellious man attempts to usurp the divine, natural order. Phaeton has literally inverted the order of the world, caused disharmony, and is plunging to his death through a fall as a result. The Horae, which represent the beauty and harmony of the seasons, shriek in horror. 

Additionally, the astrological bands which are disrupted also represent cosmic and seasonal order and harmony which are ruined because of Phaeton’s hubris. The red cloak that once adorned him in glory is falling off him. The disrobing of Phaeton symbolizes his spiritual infirmity because red is often the color of spiritual enlightenment and love. In Phaeton’s case, as the red cloak falls off his body, it communicates to the image-conscious viewer that Phaeton lacked any spiritual enlightenment, which is doubly reinforced by the fact that he is falling headfirst and feet up to the heavens, to his death.

The false love and pride of Phaeton has brought destruction. Rubens’ painting not only communicates Christian truth through allegory, it is also a brilliant reminder of the false love and pride leading to destruction we see today with many mini-Phaetons desecrating the awe and beauty of art, monuments, and icons.

It is not coincidental that with the demise of Christianity there is also a demise in art. Art is a powerful medium to express ideas, stories, and form the imagination of others. Art has the power to direct us to the good, true, and beautiful. Art can communicate deep spiritual truths as testified by the long history of sacred art patronaged by the Church.

Sacred art is a cornerstone of Western culture, identity, and faith. It is a cornerstone of true culture, a culture which celebrates life and the ascent of man to God. Even “secular art” contains the traces of Christian truth and beauty in it. 

Art inspires and allows us to have divine experiences precisely because art captures that far off event long ago, the creation of beauty and magnificence which uplifts the soul and divinizes man. In art we find the drama of our existence. It can guide us upward or it can drag us downward as so many of the great geniuses of the West have said, from Plato to Dante to Hildebrand. It is, therefore, important to recapture the art that calls us to heavenly things because art is one of the greatest instantiations of imitatio Dei.

It is essential that those who are not the new vandals and philistines defend the wonder and glory of Western art. After all, had John of Damascus not done so, we may have never developed the great artistic spirit and tradition which is now threatened by the new iconoclasts and barbarians. Catholics saved art before; it is imperative that Catholics save art once again. Art is, and ought to be, a road to God. As John of Damascus wrote long ago, precisely because art is a pathway to God, the demons wage their war on art to impoverish our souls. 

[Image: The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Rubens]

By

Paul Krause a teacher, writer, and campus minister. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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