Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Cathedral’s Hodegetria sculpture

June 23rd, 2010, Promulgated by Bernie

Continued from A contemporary Hodegetria icon

Here is the Mother of God statue at Rochester’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Compare (or contrast) it with the icon in the last post and with the one’s from the 15th and 16th centuries. What is your reaction to this one?

All of the icons we have looked at beginning with the Eastern Orthodox prototype, the 15th and 16th century western variations, the Christmas card design, and this cathedral sculpture should communicate the doctrine or meanings of the Hodegetria icon, namely:

–that Mary knows the way and presents the way to us

–that the “way” is the eternal Logos, the Word of God, and Redeemer of the world;  Jesus the Christ

Now, I used the word “should” but there is no written canon or rule for representations of divine or holy persons in the Western Church. In the East the canon is always the original and miraculous prototype –that is the “written” canon for them. The West underwent a liberalizing development –the Renaissance– which gradually moved religious imagery into naturalistic expression and away from the Eastern/Byzantine icon spiritual style.

The requirements of icons/religious images for use in the Liturgy

(You could rightly argue that the above sculpture is a devotional image and not meant to be a liturgical one. The requirements are, indeed, different. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument that it is intended to be a work of liturgical art. The purpose of this post is to see if we can establish a way of judging art for use in support of the Sacred Liturgy.)

What Gregorian chant is to the Western Church the Icon is to the Eastern. Both seem to be the result of Divine intervention as they fit so perfectly with the Liturgy –the “Divine Liturgy” as the Mass is called in the Byzantine Rite. Neither chant nor icons fit into any other human activity. Hear the one or see the other and you are immediately transported into the spiritual realm. There is nothing profane about them and yet both make use of the natural world: the human voice and human imagery.

As I inferred in an earlier post, the development of naturalism in the West presents a challenge for it risks upsetting the balance between the physical and the spiritual by favoring the physical.

What’s this “balance” I’m referring to, you might ask? It was disclosed to Peter, James, and John on Mt. Tabor, in the Transfiguration. At that moment the three were able to “see” all aspects of the Glory that is the Incarnated Son of God. Further, they were able to see their own futures for they, too, would become living Icons of God through a lifelong process called theosis (deification).

Icons (religious art) for use in the Liturgy (which is the limited and yet real experience of the heavenly Liturgy) must meet this requirement: somehow the imagery must represent a world restored with divine life.

Mary, then, must always be represented as she now exists in heaven, as also all the saints and angels. That is the hope of Christianity, a completed process of divinization.

Now look at the cathedral sculpture, above, again. Examine it by answering two questions:

  1. Does it communicate the doctrines a Hodegetria icon should represent?
  2. Does it communicate a world that has been restored –does it offer us the hope of divinization?

Has your opinion of the sculpture been changed or confirmed?

Ask yourself the same two questions while examining the sculpture shown below.

Mother of God Hodegetria, St. John Weston Anglican Church, England

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Book suggestion: Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy by Dennis R. McNamara, (Hillenbrand Books)

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27 Responses to “Cathedral’s Hodegetria sculpture”

  1. avatar Dr. K says:

    Has the Blessed Mother ever been portrayed wearing a headband as she is in the SHC statue? Has she ever made an apparition where she was wearing one?

    This statue does not scream “Mother of God” when I look at it. It could be most any woman portrayed in this work.

  2. avatar Bernie says:

    There is a comment about this SHC sculpture that I overhead while on a tour of the cathedral. I will share it with all of you but first, let’s see if there are any more comments people would like to offer.

    Headband? Not that I’m aware of, Dr. K.

  3. avatar Dr. K says:

    What is that white thing on her head? It’s surely not a veil.

  4. avatar Nerina says:

    Fortunately for the SHC statue it is placed within a church, otherwise, it would be more difficult to discern who it represents. Obviously it is Mary and Jesus because it is in a Catholic church, but this statue could easily be in any secular environment. It reminds me of some of the modern Christmas ornaments that depict a mother and child but it is not clear that the mother and child are actually Mary and Jesus.

    Given the criteria for Hodegetria, I would say this sculpture fails. First, the woman in this statue doesn’t appear to be looking at the child, nor is she looking directly at us (and I say “the woman” intentionally because outside of a church context, I’m not sure people would always recognize her as Mary). Thus, I don’t see her “showing us the Way” or “knowing the way.” Her right hand is supporting the child, but it doesn’t point to his heart. I don’t see an invitation to enter into relationship with either her or her child.

    Second, the child is non-descript. He doesn’t gaze at us nor does he gaze at his mother. Overall, I think this statue focuses solely on the humanity of Christ at the expense of his divinity.

    Finally, it doesn’t offer a “world restored with divine life.” There is no indication of our heavenly destiny. Not even the traditional golden “halos” (Bernie, I’m sure that’s not the right term, but I didn’t know how else to describe them).

    I think this statue *might* work as a devotional item. But the standard for art in service to the liturgy, in my opinion, is not met. Frankly, I think the Christmas card from the previous post does a better job even with its weaknesses.

    And, Dr. K., I don’t like the “Alice band” either. I think it only further diminishes Mary.

  5. avatar Nerina says:

    Oh, and Bernie, I am just so enjoying this series. Thank you for all the effort and time it must take to prepare them.

  6. avatar Bernie says:

    Dr. K, I meant I don’t ever recall seeing an image of Mary with a headband, at least none I took note of.. I’m sure that’s a headband we see depicted in this sculpture. I like Nerina’s “Alice band” term, though.

    Nerina, halo is the only term I know.

  7. avatar Bernie says:

    I wonder how folks feel about the St. John, Weston, “Madonna” at the bottom of the post.

  8. avatar benanderson says:

    Bernie. I am also very much enjoying this series of posts. I am totally uneducated in this regard, so I’m learning a lot. In regards to these statues, I pretty much just echo what has already been said.

    Mary, then, must always be represented as she now exists in heaven, as also all the saints and angels. That is the hope of Christianity, a completed process of divinization.

    This really hit me after reading Scott Hahn’s “The Lamb’s Supper” and other writings about how heaven comes to earth during mass. Thus the sanctuary is sort of a psuedo heaven. I guess it all goes back to the sacred. We are Catholic – let’s be sacred – not ordinary.

  9. avatar Nerina says:

    Bernie,

    As an icon, I think the St. John Weston does a much better job of meeting the criteria spelled out in your post. Mary is clearly inviting us in to relationship with her son. Her gaze is penetrating. Likewise her left hand is placed directly over her son’s heart. I notice the halo around both heads and the inlay of gold. I also note the difference in lighting. With the St. John Weston statue we see a single, blue sanctuary light. Somehow it seems more…intentional and significant whereas with the SHC statue there are candles of varying heights around it. That effect seems random and almost an afterthought. Does that make any sense? One more thing, in the SJW, the babe’s arms are open wide (I can’t help but think of the cross) also inviting us to Him.

  10. avatar Bill B. says:

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps if more people had gotten involved when these pieces of art were chosen, maybe it would have been different. It is still the Cathedral, it’s obvious in this setting who the represented are. I don’t go to Mass to look at statues or stained glass windows. We are particiapating in the continuing Life, Death and Rresurrection of the Lord. I don’t need objects. The “best” Mass I ever attended was in a field, near a tent full of ammunition; we were all carrying weapons at the time. Hmmmm, priorities I guess.
    The Cathedral is different now; however, if the art bothers one, get on the next committee to work for change.

  11. avatar benanderson says:

    I’d like to comment on 2 attitudes (or prejudices) that I find in your above comment (I know you didn’t make these points exactly, but they are attitudes we often encounter)

    1) No one should offer an opinion after the fact. If you weren’t involved in the process, then don’t criticize. For in fact, all criticism comes from the devil.

    I posted a good article a while back on a similar topic:
    http://www.fallaciesandfashions.com/2010/01/offendedness-barometer-of-acceptable.html
    Our society needs to stop acting like children and be open to criticism. Look at how much criticism this blog takes? We have thick enough skin and believe firmly enough in what we’re doing to continue. We don’t cry FOUL and run home to mommy saying, “they said nasty things about me”

    2) Things (statues, windows, etc) that aren’t of ultimate importance don’t really matter.

    If you were to go back to your childhood and enter into the home that you grew up in, you’d probably find some things there that were pretty important to your family. Perhaps a vase, or a picture frame, or maybe some china has been passed down through a few generations. Now, let’s take this attitude that things don’t much matter. All that really matters is the people in your family and the relationships between them. Now imagine that in the presence of your mother and father, you were to pick up that precious vase which your grandfather brought over from the Old World and smashed it to pieces? Maybe you kind enough to put something in it’s place like a nice paper mache vase that you constructed in your 4th grade art class. How do you think your parents would react to this? We have, as Bernie is showing us, a great tradition of art which has been handed down to us through thousands of years. Would you not say that it’s a slight presumptuous to just write that off and say, “ya know what? I don’t really care about what they did – it isn’t important”. I find that to be a real travesty and might disrespectful to our ancestors in the faith.

  12. avatar Richard says:

    It looks like any woman who has been roused out of bed in the middle of the nite to care for a baby. Ther is no sense of the sacred. But this diocese has done a yoeman’s job destroying the sacred.

  13. avatar Christopher says:

    There’s an article in “This Rock” magazine this month on the cover about the visual arts and why they are important in Churches. Some of you might be interested in it….

  14. avatar Nerina says:

    Bill B.,

    What’s funny is that you think getting involved in the process would have resulted in a different outcome. Have you served on any church committees? Because let me tell you as someone who has served on three different ones, it doesn’t matter. They choose what they want to choose and go through the motions of getting different opinions and then ignore them anyway. Look at the renovation of the Cathedral.

    Good for you that you don’t need visual aids to participate in the Mass. Good for you. However, God did make us with five senses. He knows what affects us. That’s why good liturgy includes our ears and eyes and noses. I always hear, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or music is “according to one’s tastes” but the Church clearly feels differently. Read the documents of Vatican II because I’m not going to sit here and restate them.

    The artwork in our churches is just as important as the way the Gospel is proclaimed because it has the ability to influence our relationship with God (either for good or bad). I’m not saying that reverent Masses can’t be said in other environments (let’s face it, the fact that you found the Mass in the field the “best” was clearly influenced by the context of the Mass – I assume it was a situation of war? The context was important).

    My entire life as a Catholic has been in churches influenced by the minimalist approach. As I learn of the heritage we have been and continue to be denied it frustrates me.

  15. avatar Dr. K says:

    It is still the Cathedral, it’s obvious in this setting who the represented are. I don’t go to Mass to look at statues or stained glass windows. We are particiapating in the continuing Life, Death and Rresurrection of the Lord. I don’t need objects. The “best” Mass I ever attended was in a field, near a tent full of ammunition; we were all carrying weapons at the time. Hmmmm, priorities I guess.

    Bill, most people don’t see it as you do. Cathedral attendance has plummeted since the renovations. How many registered families do they have now, like 450? Ouch. That’s not to say that you’re wrong about experiencing our Lord through the Mass in any setting, it’s just that few see it like that.

    Perhaps if more people had gotten involved when these pieces of art were chosen, maybe it would have been different.

    Have you forgotten the outrage at the renovation idea/process/outcome? Of course people were involved in voicing their disgust with what was happening. It didn’t get them anywhere, did it? Especially when the committees were staffed with people like Mark Hare of the D&C.

    The Cathedral is different now; however, if the art bothers one, get on the next committee to work for change.

    You make it sound so easy. It’s not. Millions of dollars were sunk into this cattle barn. The next bishop isn’t going to ask people to open up their wallets to reverse the damages done to the Cathedral. We’re stuck with the Greece Ridge Mall church, and with much of what is contained within.

  16. avatar Bernie says:

    (I’m sorry if this is the second posting of this comment. I broke away for about 30 minutes to tend to something else. I may have posted twice.)

    Bill B,
    Thank you for your comments. I think if you go back and read my very first post “Evidence of the Unredeemed” (Look under “Posts by Topics” and choose “Liturgical Art” on the right.)you can discover where I’m coming from. Briefly, the source of all beauty is Beauty Himself. If you believe, as I do, that there is such a thing as objective truth then beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but resides, ultimately in God; Truth is Beauty and Beauty is Truth. The eye of the beholder may be blind to the truth but the truth is there none-the-less. Also, “things” (icons and the such) are important because of the Incarnation –God chose to be imaged in Jesus Christ. (And, the Eucharist, don’t forget,is the image of Jesus; “Behold, the Lamb of God!”).) It is probably enough here to recall that the Church settled the question of the importance of images and other material objects in the Liturgy when it doctrinally refuted the iconoclasts many centuries ago –images and “things” are, indeed, important.

    We think of redemption usually in terms of human beings only but forget that the entire universe was affected by the sin of our first parents. In the same way the entire world has been redeemed by one man, Jesus Christ. The result is that material “things” can, in fact, help us to achieve our ultimate destiny, eternal happiness with God in heaven. (There is a hierarchy of importance of course; the Eucharist at the altar is obviously more important than the stain glass windows but that doesn’t mean the stain glass windows are not important.)

    It’s important that we enter into discussion, and critique how we are fashioning “things” to best help us in the process of our divinization. We can’t all be on a selection committee (a “committee of the whole”). That’s not practical. But, we can learn from our mistakes and redirect our efforts in our future endeavors. Criticism, after all, is a form of participation, and fosters growth.

  17. avatar TD says:

    The artwork in our churches is just as important as the way the Gospel is proclaimed because it has the ability to influence our relationship with God (either for good or bad).

    Artwork is as important as the way the Gospel is proclaimed? Lily, thou art gilt.

  18. avatar Nerina says:

    Perhaps I need to clarify for you, TD. I mean that I have heard Scripture read at Mass with great skill and also with great carelessness (mispronounced words, lazy enunciation, overlooked words and boredom). Artwork can be quite inspirational or quite banal. And yes, it can proclaim the Gospel.

  19. avatar Nerina says:

    Okay, I think I see what you mean, TD. The Gospel is beautiful enough, so there is no need to add to it. Fair enough in some cases. But as a child, what makes more of an impression? Or if you are unfamiliar with the Gospel? I agree that “the Gospel” (meaning the message of Jesus Christ in general) needs no embellishment. I’m referring to the actual, physical proclamation of Scripture (see above comment).

  20. avatar Anonymous says:

    I don’t care for this statue and never have. It looks more like a store mannequin than it does a religious statue. That being said, I can also say that I have rarely seen a statue of Mary depicting her as a Middle Eastern Jewish woman. Icons are symbolic, not portraiture. Western art has diminished any Jewish features Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul and the rest of the apostles had. I’ve even seen Renaissance art of the Madonna with child where the obviously older than 8 day child Jesus is uncircumcised. And if the depiction of Mary now in most pietistic art is that of how she would be in heaven, it makes me very nervous that she has now become very European and not as she lived here on earth, not as she was created by God.

  21. avatar Anonymous says:

    All,

    If mere identity (a mother and child image on display in a church must be Mary and Jesus) were all that was important then the Christmas card illustration we saw in an earlier post could hang in the cathedral over the high altar. I imagine most of us would object to that, even those of us who might find the image interesting and pleasing. We may not be able to explain why very well but it somehow just wouldn’t seem to fit in a church, much less a cathedral.

    My goal in all this, in addition to the primary goal of stimulating personal meditative prayer through use of images of the Mother of God, is to gently lead us to the conclusion that there is a way to make intelligent decisions about the appropriateness or effectiveness of works of art proposed for use in a church. By adopting an intelligent process we can avoid faddishness and images that pay more homage to sociological, political, and personal visions –the biases of committee members– than to the truths of the faith.

    On to the next post! Please stay with me.

  22. avatar Bernie says:

    Anonymous at 6:10 is me. Sorry.

  23. avatar Bernie says:

    TD and Nerina:

    “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that scripture communicates by words” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1160.

    “…Then we must give at least as much attention to the role of images in church as we do to the reading of Scripture.” Catholic Church Architecture, McNamara, p140

  24. avatar benanderson says:

    Christopher,
    My copy just came in the mail. I think they make their stuff available online for free 3 months later. I’ve set a notifier to myself when that happens, so maybe I’ll post it then.

  25. avatar Nerina says:

    Money quote from Bernie:

    “By adopting an intelligent process we can avoid faddishness and images that pay more homage to sociological, political, and personal visions –the biases of committee members– than to the truths of the faith.”

  26. avatar Anonymous says:

    Anonymous at June 24, 2010 at 5:47 PM
    “…if the depiction of Mary now in most pietistic art is that of how she would be in heaven, it makes me very nervous that she has now become very European and not as she lived here on earth, not as she was created by God.”

    You raise a some very interesting issues in your comments that I think I would like to someday write about but for now the Mother of God Virgin of Guadalupe comes to mind.

  27. avatar geloruma says:

    I think these images have to be seen in context of the state of art training in our present generation. Over the past fifty years, art education in England has been spearheaded by conceptualists. This means that figurative art and its necessary study of anatomy went out of favour. The result has been a lowering of standards and skilled artisans. The modernist movements in art were tied to ideologies which glorified reason, science, industry. A neo – paganism if you will. Those who wanted to shake the image of ” medievalism” embraced this somewhat imprudently. Added to the fall in catechesis, Sacred art and its function has become disconnected. Add to this the employment of non – Catholic or non-Christian artists in the production of major works such as the Virgin at Ely Cathedral. (The figure having closer connotations with the Babylonian snake – goddess than the gestures and balance we associate with the Blessed Virgin.) While I am not against finding new ways of expressing the Divine (we cannot presume to limit the creativity of the Holy Spirit as he inspires a Christian artist;) Individuals in the church must do more to support Catholic artists who have a sincere desire to do the work God made them for. In this way the art works should “get better”. The church has always used images as a form of catechesis, and this is needed more than ever now to help impart to the young a sense of the sacred and inspire them to faith.


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