My first novel, PILGRIMAGE, has a chapter set in Venice, with scenes in San Marco, San Zaccaria, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. The canals are flooding, the waters rising and Venice becomes a haunting reflection of the night demons of Madeleine, who is our narrator.
Returning to Venice since publication has been a great blessing for me, and I’ve shared my novel with a few book vendors and clergy. And on this trip, as I returned to San Marco and San Zaccaria and Santa Maria dei Miracoli, I have once again been challenged by the definition of art and why we are so attracted to these giant narrative canvases of color and light, these dramatic, vibrant statues of marble depicting the human body in cold stone.
What is art? I don’t have the answer.
The paintings of Titian and Tintoretto and Bellini, the sculptures of Canova and Sansovino, even the music of Vivaldi, all were created in a world of belief. The pictures tell stories from the Bible, from the prophecies of the Old Testament to the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection in the New Testament. The sculptures depict the great saints of two thousand years, the martyrs, the apostles, the evangelists. These works of art are hopeful, showing man’s salvation, his redemption by a loving God.
Throngs of tourists swarm the aisles of these churches; they jostle down the lanes leading to the next church or museum, also filled with Christian art.
But the art is only a message. It is an expression of truth. The tourists often do not believe the message, yet they long to see the art. Confounding. Do they long to believe? Do they long to hope?
On entering San Zaccaria one is struck by the massive canvases on the north wall. But isn’t the body of Zaccaria in the south wall of infinite more consequence? Here lies the father of John the Baptist. Here lies the body of the man who lost his speech when he did not believe Angel Gabriel’s prophecy concerning his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy. And isn’t the Reserved Sacrament, the presence of God the Son, in the tabernacle on the altar far more tremendous than a canvas of oils that in its own way was simply pointing to God the Son, and painted by a devout believer?
It is as though art has replaced faith, rather than enhanced, communicated, or glorified it. Man cannot bear too much reality, T.S. Eliot said. How true. We must admire the removed truth, rather than the immediate. Rather than encounter God directly, we can admire his story from a distance, through an artist’s eye.
For me, although I appreciate a great masterpiece reflecting a great truth, such a work is no substitute for a real encounter with God.