Restoring Art to a Place in the Community: New Lessons from Early Renaissance Italy

For three weeks in the summer of 2016, twelve faculty members from the art, art history, theology, biblical studies, and Christian ministries departments of both Catholic and Protestant liberal arts colleges gathered at Gordon College’s residence in Orvieto (Italy) to explore how to overcome the divides that often keep these two areas of the undergraduate curriculum in separate compartments. 

Participants were invited to write brief personal narratives that highlighted one or two particular aspects that encapsulated the experience.  This series of posts features several of these essays.

Katie Davis (University of Dallas)

“Mary the cook is a culinary artist, and her goal is to honor the body” (and so is the goal of painter-artist Luca Signorelli)

Each time I sat down to write this essay about my personal experience as a participant in the 2016 Lilly Summer Seminar for College Teachers, I felt compelled to begin with an account of how well we ate.  Maria, our cook, was a magician in the kitchen.  She prepared lovely meals every day for lunch and dinner.  She had a great memory, too: if someone mentioned in passing how much he liked her risotto with frutti del mare or chicken balsamico, those dishes mysteriously reappeared later on – better even than the first time.  She also noticed what wasn’t as popular. By watching us eat, she learned our preferences and accommodated for them in the menu.  She watched us, got to know us, and endeavored to make us happy by providing nutritious, satisfying, delicious meals.  

More on this anon.

I came to this seminar with one not very well articulated question about religious art in the post-modern era.  Prior to this summer, I had visited the San Brizio Chapel and the Stanza della Segnatura – and I had taught the latter several times – before.  I love these fresco cycles.  And I take it for granted that they represent a distinct achievement in the history of art, and perhaps in the history of human endeavor.  Compared with these frescoes, other art – especially contemporary church art – seems dull, ugly, and alienating to me.  A bit of time reflecting on this opinion led me to understand that I don’t understand contemporary art.  So I came to Orvieto hoping for enlightenment.  

Thanks to my new seminar friends – and especially the practicing visual artists among us – I had my mind changed about the merit of abstract modern and contemporary art.  I saw beauty where I hadn’t seen it before: in line, in form, in color.  I realized that churches – even the most revered churches in Italy – have always contained abstract elements: one need only look at the pavement at St. Peter’s, or the façade of the Duomo in Orvieto – to see that this is the case.  But when we looked together at images online of churches built recently in a modern style – even Catholic churches where I could imagine myself going for Mass – I still felt alienated.  Why?  

My working response is a direct consequence of meditating upon Maria’s cooking. 

Maria takes for granted the centrality of the body.  That’s what she’s aiming to satisfy, nurture and delight.  It wouldn’t make sense for a cook like Maria to say that the body isn’t important, to suggest that we move beyond it or get over it.  She is a culinary artist, and her goal is to honor the body.  This is not hedonistic, but perhaps we are a bit uncomfortable with the suggestion, thanks to certain readings of Plato and St. Paul, Descartes and Bacon (no pun intended) that go beyond the scope of this personal narrative.  Let’s just say that we moderns aren’t always comfortable with the suggestion that one acceptable aim of art is to glorify the body.  

But the Church, at its best, has always taken this for granted, at least in theory if not in practice.  It is not simply that we have bodies: we are bodies.  Or, we are embodied, and this is a fact worth celebrating visually.  There were those dark days when fig leaves were added to the most famous scenes from Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.  But the fact that they had to be added means that at some point, the glorious form of the first human body was proudly rendered by artists whose advisors (churchmen and scholars), patrons, and community-audience expected to see Adam wearing what God gave him and nothing more. 

And this brings me to Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body.  I don’t know whether fig leaves were ever applied here, but I can say with all modesty that I am glad they are not present. I have always had a love-dislike relationship with this frescoed scene.  This summer, the love half of the tug-of-war claimed victory.  It is extraordinary to see skeletons emerging from the earth and taking on flesh again.  To see trapezius muscles forming and separating the skull from the spinal column.  And, most importantly, to see faces coming into being, or re-coming into being.  Faces that had withered and decayed and been eaten by maggots, now glowing with lovely skin and clear eyes and full mouths.  What an imaginative marvel!  Faces to look at other faces, to look at the angels standing above them, to look at the Face of Christ the Judge. 

At the risk of employing a hopeless cliché, these bodies are naked without shame, or if there is shame, it no longer has anything to do with the body as such. Instead, it has to do with the will.  The souls in anguish suffer for the things they chose to do with their bodies during their lives. Agony in Signorelli’s fresco cycle is a consequence of the freedom of the will; the same goes for delight.  Suffering is finally wholly just; likewise, rapturous joy.  And what joy there is in this at-times harrowing and shocking fresco cycle comes from emerging bodies recognizing their dear ones, from faces recognizing faces, and ultimately, resurrected body-soul composites recognizing the Face that makes all other faces dear for those who love God.  

It is because of the face – because of the reality of the body, its needs, desires, temptations, and its governance by the reason and the will – that, in my humble and still-being-educated view, makes the human form a sine quo non as the focus of contemporary art in the Church. 

Thanks, Maria, for your help in working this out!  And thanks to my new Orvieto friends, for being willing to think through these questions with me.