Monday, April 4, 2011

Catholic Kitsch and the Incarnation

Recently, my wife and I have been checking out different flea markets on Long Island. A really good flea market reminds me of a really bad mall in that a good flea market has the very best of the very worst. For me, the gold standard of crappy malls is the Latham Circle Mall in beautiful Latham, NY, a mall that only stayed open despite a mass exodus of quality stores and overall good taste because the owner didn't want his ex-wife to get her share of a buy out (or so I was told. This, coincidentally, was basically what someone once gave me as the actual reason why George Lucas really waited 16 years between Return of the Jedi and the Phantom Menace, but who knows for sure...).

Like the Latham Circle Mall (at least up until my last visit there) a good flea market is a mish-mash of boutiques that sell bizarre imports, dubious aftermarket items of varying practicality, and preserving the faint (or not so faint) aroma of a really damp basement filled with several decades worth of old clothes and discarded board games. They look and feel like a pastiche of disjointed memories that I can handle visiting only every so often but am grateful for visiting when I do come around to doing it. Maybe you know the feeling.

One of the most interesting aspects of flea markets are the cheap kitschy religious items that you'll find there. Only at a flea market will you find the Lord presented in so many varieties of cheapness. If at any point you've been moved by the Pieta or marveled at Notre Dame, you may begin to question those impulses when coming face-to-neon with an image of the Last Supper that plugs in and lights up as it shimmers in glorious gaudiness. If they all weren't such wonderful examples of the pitfalls of mass production, one might possible be tempted to consider them an interesting perspective on just what constitutes a "graven images".

Personally, I am rarely offended by these kind of things. Somewhere, someplace, for someone, an image of Jesus with a spinning light up wheel for a halo is a reminder of God's abiding love for them and their household. There's no mockery or irony intended, just earnest and humble devotion.

Sometimes, the more carefully thought out system of traditional Christian imagery is referred to as "iconography". In the book "God's Human Face" (and again more recently in his survey of Christology "God Sent His Son"), Christoph Cardinal Schönborn traced the history and purpose of icons in the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. Icons are those elegant images of Christ and the saints whose primary purpose is not necessarily to accurately or realistically portray their subject but rather to elevate one's heart and mind to prayer. These "windows to heaven" will often contain a few (or sometimes several) details of symbols, words, or even gestures that are often hidden to the naked eye before they are uncovered through prayer and contemplation.

For example, one of my favorite icons depicts the calling of St Peter. Upon a first glance it seems like a simple image of Christ and St Peter. But spend some time with it and other details become clear. The scene is clearly the moment where Christ calls Peter to follow Him. In the background are the symbols of Peter's life and livelihood: the sea, his boat, his fishing net. In front of Peter is Jesus who looks kind, compassionate, but intent. His hand is at Peter's shoulders. He has just asked Peter to leave everything and follow him. Peter's most distinguishing feature is that his hand is up as though in protest. How could he abandon his life, his responsibilities, his sense of place, permanence, and security? His hand is up as if to say "No! I cannot! I have all that I need." Except...

Except this doesn't seem to be everything. Praying deeper it becomes apparent that Peter is not merely standing in opposition to the Lord. In fact, while his body seems to move away from Jesus, his head is poised forward...paying attention, listening. The simple and unremarkable artistry of Peter's face still betrays a sense of his dilemma and his heartbreak. Here he is, face to face with Christ, and he cannot seem to bring himself to complete rejection...not now, and while he will sorely fail later in the story, his stubbornness and weakness will never have the final say. At this moment and for every moment hereafter, he is open to Christ and possesses the impulse to that basic desire to linger on His words just a little longer and perhaps follow Him for even a few more steps.

A simple icon betrays a depth that swings open the potentiality of its seemingly most mundane elements to effectively communicate God. In both of the above mentioned books, Cardinal Schönborn recounted the history of the Christian icon and showing that the root issue over the controversies on whether or not it was proper or heresy to depict Christ artistically was the claim that, in Christ, God allows Himself to become a human being, to embrace our frail condition and with it the fullness of our greatest joys and our worst sufferings. Remember that in Judaism it was a grave sin to depict God, and if Christians claimed Christ as God than images of Him would necessarily be controversial. That controversy was exacerbated by the various iconoclastic controversies where images of Christ and the saints were obliterated by other Christians who could not bear what was experienced as an abomination that had people claiming to be Christians worshipping paintings and statues. By the time of the Protestant Reformation the dividing lines were drawn and even today the use of such images is a source of interdenominational misunderstandings.

Cardinal Schönborn traces the tradition of making images to this simple point: while the Law of Moses prohibits making our own images of the invisible God (thereby curtailing the worship of God as we would like Him to be, something that is a perennial temptation), God Himself provides an image of Himself. That image is Jesus Christ, in whom God is seen concretely and personally, who was seen by those around him as clearly as one person can see another. Making images of Christ is as potentially harmful as taking a photograph of your spouse then being afraid that at some point you may mistake that photo for your wife. A truly corresponding image points to the reality represented, not away from it (or in this case, "from Him").

This was all in the air as I beheld these different images of heavenly things. In an odd way, the Incarnation of the Son of God lent a certain suitability to the kitsch and I could only find joy in these cheap Asian imports.

Still, one thing was abundantly clear: a lot of the stuff you'll find at flea market is...interesting. Interesting and weird...weird...weird.

So here's some stuff that I found interesting:

I would love the story on this one. This is an image of the baby Jesus positioned as though he were in a traditional kreche/nativity scene. What distinguishes this particular version of the baby Jesus from others is that here he is clearly an MD (or DO or maybe even a dentist...either way he's a doctor). If you're not sure if this is supposed to be the baby Jesus, the halo and the name badge ("Dr. Jesus") give it away. He is also resting on an easy chair. I'd like to know the history of this particular image (The Divine Physician by way of Doogie Howser?) but maybe I'd be better off not knowing.

I forgot the name of this particular version of Our Lady but I can say that I never heard of it (I guess it has a good chance of being Mary Star of the Sea). There are so many wonderful cultural expression of Our Lady that span all nations and all people, but these this statue looks more like Lady Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.

Anyone who knows me knows how much of a fan I am of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. So I should be all over this. But the second JPII from the left looks like he's plotting for world domination and JPII all the way to the left looks a little like Cary Elwes (Wesley from the Princess Bride, but he also played a young Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II in a halfway decent movie on his life). I give them points on having a genuine Benedict/Ratzinger and I wish I picked it up because it would be closest to having an action figure of my favorite pope.

As much as I love these popes, however, this. is. so. creepy.

I think this image speaks for itself. Hippy-ish, bizarre, oddly pleasant, but certainly well meaning. All I can add is that these multiple baby Jesuses look like the Eloi from the George Pal version of the Time Machine (1960).

I have a long standing devotion to St. Michael. My Confirmation name is Michael and I get a smug satisfaction of watching St. Mike give Satan a cosmic body slam. Much like the statues of Mary that have a serpent supplanted under her sinless heel, this traditional image of St Michael overcoming the devil is the heavenly equivalent of a poster of Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat sneaking in for the surprise sneak reversal that pinned "Macho Man" Randy Savage at Wrestlemania 3. Except Satan is no Macho Man...that's for sure.

But if you're going to capture St. Michael in a pre-smiting pose, DON'T FORGET TO GIVE HIM HIS SWORD. How can he smite if he doesn't have his sword?

It should also be noted that Satan's grimacing mouth kinda looks like it was given the Robot Chicken treatment (you either get that or you don't).

Am I hallucinating? THREE Jesuses? Fret not, this is merely a confused rendering of the Holy Trinity...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only they all look like Jesus. Theologically you can kinda make a case for it because Jesus (the Son) is the image of the invisible God. Given the triune nature of God, He is really the only real image of God which we have to work with. It may have some basis in traditional art or iconography, but I think it was well-intentioned misfire. For one, the triangular halo is usually used in images of God the Father (an always tricky affair, depicting Him...see picture below) but here all 3 images have the halo. They all obviously look like Jesus. They are only distinguishable from the items they are holding and the images on their chests...with a scepter for God the Father, an image of a lamb on the chest of God the Son (the "Lamb of God") and a dove representing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the artist was positing an interesting solution to Sabellianism, where the 3 persons of the Trinity are merely singular manifestations of the one God at different times (i.e. God is the Father sometimes, the Son at other times, and the Holy Spirit at other times still...all depending on the situation), but deep down I doubt that.

I also wonder why the artist thought it would be tasteful for God to be resting His feet on the heads of baby angels.

This is a more traditional image of the Trinity...the 3 persons are unmixed, distinguishable, and yet still united in their oneness-yet/and-threeness. The angels are no longer footstools but are hanging out with the Godhead. While I'm no real fan of depicting God the Father, in this image He certainly looks like Jesus' Father. The mystery of the Trinity....ready for your contemplation.

This is another image of the baby Jesus, this time in a more Infant of Prague position. This is most likely some older devotion to the baby Jesus that I don't know about, but this reminded of the 3 Musketeers.

I think the inspiration for this statue is a beautiful image I saw online of Pope John Paul II (presumably after his death) being embraced by the "Black Madonna", which is an image of Our Lady that is cherished by the Polish. While the sentiment is laudable, the execution (which transposed that image with the much more ubiquitous Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image that has found a home everywhere from traditional minded Hispanic homes, gang tattoos, and hippie "supply" shops) was just a little weird.

Finally this is an image from my own collection. This is a peculiar image of St Therese of Lisieux that I found in China Town in NYC. I saw it and I just had to get it. My wife had no problem with me getting long as it wasn't in our apartment. With it's green velvet background and distorted facial features, it's not what one would consider a flattering image of this quite beautiful saint. St Therese looked like this:

I have a huge devotion to her for a number of reasons, not least of which is that she helped me to really know Christ through simple love and simple service. It may sound weird talking about "knowing" Jesus, but I challenge anyone who would scoff at that to read her autobiography "The Story of a Soul". You would have to be pretty hardened if that beautifully simple book doesn't crack you even a little bit.

Still, there is this fairly hideous image:

In short, I love this image because the person who made it must have had some sort of respect for St Therese. The polished wood, the interlocking pieces, the dark green velvet...this thing took some work. At the very least it was made by someone who believed that a perspective buyer would appreciate it. Maybe the execution seems a little off but to me it's a beautiful piece of art. The time and care that this image required mean that the artist believed that this image could do something that a photograph or painting couldn't do.

Besides that, I believe that it is a wonderful allegory for what the Incarnation is all about, and along with it holiness, grace, and the communion of saints. St Thomas of Aquinas said that "grace does not destroy but builds upon nature". This means that God uses the raw materials of our nature to elevate and perfect us. We don't do all the work, we just need to be open to God's work. In fact, so much of our relationship with God is about "being open" what He can show you, to His mercy, to His transforming power in our the end of it all God does most of the work. We just provide the materials. In fact, we provide nothing more than what He gave us to begin with. He gave us our lives, our bodies, and ourselves, and our gift of ourselves back to Him is merely letting Him finish the job. The results are glorious. When we make the images, the results can be dicey. But since we are already in His image, the final results of His work in us will be glorious.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

No comments:

Post a Comment