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Being Modern: Apostasy or sacred obligation?

 

In this article we discuss four pictures, two works of art from the fifteenth century, and two others from our times.

The two paintings - "The Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" and "Saint Dominic in Prayer" - are the work of the famous fifteenth century artist Giovanni da Fiesole, better known as Fra Angelico. The work in metal, also representing the Annunciation, was done in our times by the artist H. Breucker. The sculpture was done by A. Wider, another contemporary artist, who has attempted to portray Saint Benedict, patriarch of Western monasticism.

Fra Angelico's "The Annunciation"

Such striking (if not shocking) differences in the rendition of the same and similar subjects, i.e., the Virgin Mary and saints of the Catholic Church, demand some commentaries.

The famous scene of the apparition of the Archangel Saint Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin constituted a moment of grace for mankind. Heaven, which the guilt of Adam had closed, opened and a spirit of light and purity came down in angelic form, bearing a message of reconciliation and peace. This message was addressed to the most beautiful, most noble, most innocent, and most benevolent creature ever to be born of the race of Adam. The Gospels recount the elevated and ineffable simplicity of the dialogue between the two.

The artist's task, challenged by such a theme, consists in expressing the moral values of that incomparable event in his rendition of the faces, attitudes, gestures, and setting as well as in his choice of colors and shapes.

Since this is printed in color, our readers can gauge Giovanni da Fiesole's success in this objective. The nobility befitting the angelic nature, his light and totally spiritual fortitude, his intelligence and purity - all are admirably mirrored in this figure so highly expressive of Saint Gabriel.

The Blessed Virgin is less ethereal, less light. One could almost say less intangible. This effect is reasonable since she is a human creature. Nevertheless, something angelic is perceived in the whole composure of the Queen of Angels. Her facial features surpass those of the heavenly emissary himself in spirituality, nobility and innocence.

Something else is to be noted here; the attitude of one toward the other: By nature, the angel is superior to Our Lady. The Virgin, however, is superior to the angel by her sanctity and by her incomparable vocation as Mother of God. This accounts for the elevated dignity found in the rendition of both the Virgin and the angel and the reciprocal veneration with which they address each other.

There is, yet, a more profound reason for this attitude. Although unseen. God still manifests His Presence by a supernatural light that seems to radiate from both personages-a light that washes over all of nature with a splendor of pure, peaceful, and virginal happiness. One almost feels the most pleasant temperature, the very light and fragrant breeze, the joy that permeates the whole atmosphere.

How could a moment of grace be better painted? With a profound sense of the whole, Fra Angelico knew how to create the lines and colors needed to express all the theological and moral content of this Gospel episode famous a thousand times over. Indeed, his picture is more than just a painted scene. It is comparable to a sermon because it forms, elevates, and stimulates one who contemplates it toward the good.

Breucker's modern "Annunciation"

A garish opposite is Breucker's modern "Annunciation." If a feeble minded person or someone delirious with a high fever were to ramble about the Annunciation, he might have conceived something like this. See how extremely extravagant the work is. It lacks the most elementary values and is devoid of any expression that would denote not only that which is elevated and supernatural but anything balanced or healthy as well. In short, everything works together to make this modern work a brutal and shocking antithesis of the picture from the fifteenth century. One is a marvel of spirituality and faith; the other, a product of a mentality that only knows how to see what is material-a psychology closed to the supernatural, a temperament that finds pleasure solely in horizons without beauty, nobility or anything which provides light, oxygen, life, and hope of eternity for the soul.

In his allocution on May 24, 1953, the Holy Father Pius XII defined the so-called modern spirit as "materialistic thought transposed into actions." In like manner, the example of art

depicted here can be classified as materialistic thought transposed into art.

Fra Angelico's image of Saint DominicNow, look at the picture of Saint Dominic. Elements of the spiritual shine admirably forth in it. It is more a portrait of the soul than of the body. The effort of thought, the exertion required for reading, the serene but strong strain of intellectual work, a countenance befitting one who understands and takes pleasure in understanding all, ultimately, are expressed here with unequaled discretion, intensity and veracity.

And still other aspects of the soul appear: the liveliness and exuberance of a young man, the equilibrium, innocence, piety, and temperance of a perfect religious.

In comparison to this second masterpiece from the fifteenth century, consider the statue from the twentieth century. Certainly there are considerable factors bearing on such a comparison: a) the materials of a painting and those of a sculpture are not the same; b) the talents and temperaments of the artists are alsoWider's statue of Saint Benedict different; c) finally, the spirit of the two subjects. Saint Dominic and Saint Benedict also differ.

Is there a shock, a violent contrast? By no means. Does Wider's sculpture merit the censures that we made of the work by Breucker? No. On the contrary, Wider's statue expresses-with much propriety, precision and strength-the idea that one may have of the patriarch of Western monasticism, who was a model of gravity, austerity, manly tranquility, profound recollection and great wisdom.

No one can deny that this sculpture corresponds satisfactorily to the requirements of an authentic artwork marked by orthodox and well-balanced piety.

Are we against the modern? By this word one understands that which not only pertains to but is typical of our times but rather something a) inherent to it b) different from the past, and c) distinct from the future.

More and more - not only in the field of art but in other areas as well - clever, pertinacious, and all encompassing propaganda is introducing a certain spirit of materialism, sensuality, and delirious extravagance. The style animated by this spirit masterminds the construction and reconstruction of entire cities; it marks the external design and interior decoration of the majority of new buildings of great, medium, or even small importance, in all parts of the world. It exhibits its works in universal art expositions, and so on.

The man in the street instinctively reacts against it ... but only slightly. Thus, this spirit already is - or is on the way to becoming-the style of our twentieth century, which distinguishes it from the past, and God willing, from the days to come.

If it is this and only this that one calls modern, if to be modern is to accept the mark or stigma of materialism-not only of radical materialism but also of "moderate" materialism with all its hues and misrepresentations-then it is undeniable that we are anti-modern because we are Catholic.

However, if one takes into account that alongside this offensive current of our century there are still artists animated by another spirit, and if one means by modern that everything contemporary is modern-whatever be its inspiration, then we cannot be anti-modern because we are not idiots. There is no other name for anyone who, in the ocean of cultural productions of the twentieth century, would judge everything preconceivedly and indiscriminately bad-both the works engendered by the children of light and the works influenced by the neopagan spirit, that is, the spirit of darkness.

Considering these two definitions of modern, which is the more true? It is a problem of semantics. However, one thing is certain: if the materialistic style should not be called "modern," then another name should be devised for it, which has not happened yet. And this name ought to take into account that the modern torrent contains not only the materialistic ingredients we are talking about, but also gnostic and satanic elements (which are the subject matter for another article).

To give a name to this current is an interesting assignment on which we invite our readers to test their wits. However, naming this phenomenon is not the most urgent thing. The twentieth-century man in the street still does not accept the "modern" in the depths of his soul. Let us preserve him from this disgrace. Let us be "modern" in the sense that we behave in accordance with the problems and dangers of our century.

This is what we are trying to do in these articles, amidst the clamor of much applause and to the muffled and furious snarls of hatred of some-certain though, whatever the case, of fulfilling a sacred obligation.

 


  

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Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for November 24, 2020

The devotions we practice in honor of the glorious Virgin Ma...

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November 24

 

The devotions we practice in honor of the glorious Virgin Mary,
however trifling they may be,
are very pleasing to Her Divine Son, and
He rewards them with eternal glory.

St. Teresa of Avila


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Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the Martyrs of Vietnam

Vietnamese Christians were ordered to trample on a crucifix...

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St. Andrew Dung-Lac and the Martyrs of Vietnam

Born in 1795 in the Tonkinese town of Bac-Nihh in North Vietnam, Tran An Dung was the son of pagan parents. In search of work for themselves in 1807, his parents moved to the ancient citadel of Hanoi. Here their twelve-year-old son was taken care of by a catechist and for three years was instructed in the Catholic faith. Baptized in Vinh-Tri, he received the Christian name Andrew (Anrê) in baptism and went on to learn both Chinese and Latin and himself became a catechist. He was selected for further studies in theology and was ordained to the priesthood on March 15, 1823.

An exemplary pastor, Andrew was ardent and indefatigable in his preaching, often fasted, and drew many to the Faith by his simple and moral life. As a testament of the love which his congregation had for him, in 1835, when he was imprisoned during the persecution of the Annamite emperor Minh-Mang, his freedom was purchased exclusively by donations from his parishioners.

The Vietnamese Christians suffered unspeakably during this time. Beginning in 1832 Minh-Mang expelled all foreign missionaries and commanded all Vietnamese Christians to demonstrate their renunciation of the Catholic Faith by trampling on a crucifix. Churches were destroyed; religious instruction was forbidden. Christians were branded on the face with the words ta dao (false religion) and Christian families and villages were obliterated. Many endured extreme privations and hardship; many more were put to death for their fidelity to the Faith.

To avoid further persecution by the authorities, Andrew Dung changed his name to Lac and relocated to a different region. While visiting a fellow priest, in order to confess himself, Dung-Lac was arrested with Father Peter Thi on November 10, 1839. In exchange for a monetary ransom paid to their captors, the two priests were liberated, but their freedom was short-lived. Re-arrested not long afterwards, they were taken to Hanoi and severely tortured. They were beheaded shortly before Christmas Day on December 21, 1839.

The priests, Andrew Dung-Lac and Peter Thi, were beatified on May 27, 1900 by Pope Leo XIII and formed part of a group of Vietnamese martyrs beatified together on that day. Another group, Dominicans all, was beatified on May 20, 1906 and a third on May 2, 1909 both by Pope St. Pius X. A fourth group, which included two Spanish bishops, was beatified on April 29, 1951 by Pope Pius XII. All 117 martyrs were canonized in Rome on June 19, 1988 by Pope John Paul II.

These 117 martyrs met their deaths during several persecutions of Christians that swept through the Vietnamese peninsula between the years 1625 and 1886. Approximately 130,000 gave their lives for the Catholic Faith and further beatifications may be expected from amongst their glorious ranks. Among the 117 that have been canonized were 96 Vietnamese and 21 foreign missionaries. Of the Vietnamese group 37 were priests and 59 were lay people, among whom were catechists and tertiaries. One of them was a woman, mother of six children. Of the missionaries 11 were Spaniards: 6 bishops and 5 priests, all Dominicans; and 10 were French: 2 bishops and 8 priests from the Société des Missions Etrangères in Paris.

The tortures these martyrs endured were among the worst in the history of Christian martyrdom. The means included cutting off limbs joint by joint, ripping living bodies with red hot tongs, and the use of drugs to enslave the minds of the victims. Among the 117 Martyrs of Vietnam, 76 were beheaded, 21 were suffocated, 6 burnt alive, 5 mutilated and 9 died in prison as a result of torture.

Weekly Story

WEEKLY STORY

In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared stan...

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The Conversion of Alphonse Ratisbonne

Born in 1814, Alphonse Ratisbonne was from a family of wealthy, well-known Jewish bankers in Strasbourg, France. In 1827, Alphonse’s older brother, Thèodore, converted to Catholicism and entered the priesthood, thus breaking with his anti-Catholic family whose hopes now lay in the young Alphonse. At 27, Alphonse was intelligent and well mannered. He had already finished his law degree, and decided to travel to Italy before marrying and assuming his responsibilities in the family business. However, God had other plans for him.

While in Rome, Alphonse visited works of art, and strictly out of cultural curiosity, a few Catholic churches. These visits hardened his anti-Catholic stance, and nourished his profound hatred for the Church. He also called on an old schoolmate and close friend, Gustave de Bussières.

Gustave was a Protestant and several times had tried, in vain, to win Alphonse over to his religious convictions. Alphonse was introduced to Gustave’s brother, Baron de Bussières, who had recently converted to Catholicism and become a close friend of Father Thèodore Ratisbonne. Because of the Baron’s Catholicism and closeness with his turncoat brother, Alphonse greatly disliked him.

On the eve of his departure, Alphonse reluctantly fulfilled his social obligation to leave his calling card at the Baron’s house as a farewell gesture.

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Hoping to avoid a meeting, Alphonse intended to leave his card discreetly and depart straight away, but was instead shown into the house. The Baron greeted the young Jew warmly, and before long, had persuaded him to remain a few more days in Rome. Inspired by grace, the Baron insisted Alphonse accept a Miraculous Medal and copy down a beautiful prayer: the Memorare. Alphonse could hardly contain his anger at his host’s boldness of proposing these things to him, but decided to take everything good-heartedly, planning to later describe the Baron as an eccentric.

During Alphonse’s stay, the Baron’s close friend, Count de La Ferronays, former French ambassador to the Holy See and a man of great virtue and piety, died quite suddenly. On the eve of his death, the Baron had asked the Count to pray the Memorare one hundred times for Alphonse’s conversion. It is possible that he offered his life to God for the conversion of the young Jewish banker.

A few days later, the Baron went to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte to arrange for his friend’s funeral. Alphonse reluctantly went with him, all the while making violent criticisms of the Church and mocking Catholic practices. When they arrived, the Baron entered the sacristy to arrange the funeral while Alphonse remained in the church.

When the Baron returned just a few minutes later, the young man was gone. He searched the church, and soon discovered his young friend kneeling close to an altar, weeping.  Alphonse himself tells us what happened in those few minutes he waited for the Baron: “I had only been in the church a short while when, all of a sudden, I felt totally uneasy for no apparent reason. I raised my eyes and saw that the whole building had disappeared. Only one side chapel had, so to say, gathered all the light. In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar. She was grandiose, brilliant, full of majesty and sweetness, just as she is in the Miraculous Medal. An irresistible force attracted me to her. The Virgin made a gesture with her hand indicating I was to kneel.”

When de Bussières talked to Alphonse, he no longer found a Jew, but a convert who ardently desired baptism. The news of such an unexpected conversion immediately spread and caused a great commotion throughout Europe, and Pope Gregory XVI received the young convert, paternally. He ordered a detailed investigation with the rigor required by canon law, and concluded that the occurrence was a truly authentic miracle. 

Alphonse took the name Maria Alphonse at baptism, and, wishing to become a priest, was ordained a Jesuit in 1847. After some time, and at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX, he left the Jesuits and joined his brother Thèodore in founding the Congregation of Our Lady of Sion, dedicated to the conversion of the Jews. Father Theodore spread his congregation throughout France and England, while Father Maria Alphonse went to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he established a house of the congregation on the plot of land where the praetorium of Pilate had formerly stood.

The two brothers died in 1884, both famed and well-loved for their exceptional virtues.  

By Armando Santos  

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In the midst of this splendor, the Virgin Mary appeared standing on the altar"

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