In this our 3rd and final post on the illustrations for Pope Benedict’s addresses on the Spiritual Masters, the Prado’s deputy director Gabriele Finaldi looks at other forms of artistic expression the Holy Father drew attention to.
Particularly striking is the force and originality of the early medieval brass bicephalic image of Saints Cyril and Methodius from Kreuzenstein Castle in Austria, two heads attached to one neck, both tonsured and one of them, the older Methodius, sporting a very neat beard.
They were brothers by blood and in the faith and their hearts beat as one in their concern to evangelize the Slavs.
The Virgin Mary
The chapter on Saint Bernard is illustrated by Giovanni da Milano’s gold-ground panel painting at Prato in which the saint is sitting at his scriptorium and the Virgin appears to guide his hand; in another Florentine work, Filippino Lippi shows the saint pausing in his labours at a rustic writing desk in an open-air setting as the Virgin turns the page of the manuscript he is composing. He looks at her, completely captivated.
The Pope reminds us that yet another Florentine, the poet Dante, put on the lips of Bernard, the Doctor Mellifluus, the sublime prayer to Mary: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your own Son, / humble and exalted more than any other creature” (Paradise XXXIII).
Architecture and light
The Pope devoted one of his addresses to the Cathedral and how its architectural idiom developed from the Romanesque to the Gothic. It is the closest he comes to a lesson in art history, explaining how developments in building technique made possible the upward thrust of Gothic architecture and the replacing of thick load-bearing walls with vast stained-glass windows:
“Great luminous images, very suitable for instructing the people in faith […] A cascade of light poured through the stained-glass upon the faithful to tell them the story of salvation and to involve them in the story.”
This chapter is illustrated with photographs of the great pile of the Cathedral of Trier and the Romanesque Abbey of Saint Denis in Paris.
Other chapters are illustrated with stained glass: Cyril and Methodius preach to the Slavs in a window in Prague designed by Alfons Mucha, best-known for his art-nouveau poster designs, and an English Neo-Gothic window gets a look in, too, with the scene of the Martyrdom of Saint Boniface from St Luke’s Church in Bath.
Ancient wisdom for our modern journey
The CTS has drawn on the great iconographic tradition of East and West to illustrate Pope Benedict’s texts, on the vast storehouse of manuscripts, windows, buildings, paintings, icons, frescoes and mosaics that have served to celebrate and to expound the faith, to teach it and to celebrate it over twenty centuries.
There is truly an ancient wisdom here. The Pope concludes one of his addresses thus:
“May the Lord help us to rediscover the way of beauty as one of the itineraries, perhaps the most attractive and fascinating, on which to succeed in encountering and loving God.”
These books are intended as a help along the journey.
Gabriele Finaldi is deputy director of the Prado museum in Madrid.
Spiritual Masters: Fathers and Writers of the First Millennium by Pope Benedict XVI is available here.
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