Communicating the Word Without Words

Author: Mons. Timothy Verdon

Communicating the Word Without Words

Mons. Timothy Verdon
Canon of Florence Cathedral

Mons. Timothy Verdon on the relationship between art and faith

Mons. Timothy Verdon's work as the Canon of Florence Cathedral brings him into constant contact with some of the most awe-inducing, world-renowned art in the Catholic Church's cultural heritage. Among all of this, however, the most beautiful work of art he has come across is one that many do not even consider as such: the Liturgy. As a man whose ministry involves reawakening believers and non-believers alike to the deep significance of the Incarnation as communicated through Renaissance art, Mons. Verdon's roles are many. They include, among others: President of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue, Professor of the Stanford University Program in Florence and Director of the Diocesan Office for Catechesis through Art. A respected art historian who has authored many books on sacred art, he was also invited to be a member of the scholarly committee invited by the Vatican Museum to advise on the restoration of the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace.

Tania Mann

Your work has been described as focusing on the dynamic bond between the realities of the Mystery of God, the Liturgy of the Church and art shaped in the service of the faith. Could you speak on the relationship among these three?

God is infinitely beyond human comprehension — God is God, we are creatures. And yet in everything that the Judeo-Christian tradition tells us about God, it is clear that God wants to communicate with his creatures, God wants to be known by his creatures. The whole point of the law and the prophecy in ancient Israel was that God wanted his creatures to understand him and themselves — a creature is a reflection, to some degree, of the Creator. This will of God to make himself understood — and in that process help us understand ourselves — reaches fulfilment in Christ. Christ is the Word of God where the Scriptures are many words that come from God and are filtered through the inspired authors; Christ is the very Word that all those other words try to give partial expression to.

Christ assumes a form that makes him intelligible to human beings — the Word becomes flesh. And then the Gospel of John immediately adds that he dwelt among us, and we saw his glory. What Christ did while he was on earth was to reveal the identity, the personality of the Father: all of the wonderful things that he did that reveal the Father — the words he spoke, the miracles, the acts of mercy — even after Christ's Resurrection and Ascension, they continue. All of these communicative actions continue in the sacraments of the Church.

What Christ did while he was on earth is materially continued in the sacramental actions of his mystical Body, the Church. So when a priest baptizes, consecrates bread and wine, when two Christians commit themselves to each other in marriage, when a penitent makes his confession — in all of those situations the saving actions of Christ are again fully present. Rendering Christ's action continually, we see God, we understand God, we experience God.

What's the relationship of all of this with art (which is my specific field)? The relationship is simple. When Christ took a Body — when the Word of God took a body from the humanity of Mary — it was to be seen. Christ is now invisible except in the abstract forms of the sacraments — we see water and we know that we're being cleansed, we see bread and wine and we know that his Body and Blood are present, but we don't really see the body and blood. But somehow the extreme simplicity of that communication that God wanted in Christ's Incarnation is now filtered by a symbolic system of sacraments and signs. So we don't actually see, but the art of the Church allows us to see. It extends down through the centuries, something like that privileged experience of the people of Jesus' own time when they saw him and intuited that there was more than just a man here. Art allows us to continue to enjoy that experience.

It is no accident that historically speaking, most of the monumental art of the church... [was] made as a context for the Liturgy. Small paintings were made for the home. The church building itself really has one function, to house the celebration of the Eucharist. The works of art that allow us to imagine ourselves present really become the backdrop for efficacious signs and sacraments in which really is present, and when Christ is present then God is present.

So the ancient desire of human beings to see God, Moses on the mountain asks God to show him his face.... In Christ people really contemplated the Face of God. Christ tells us that we see him in the poor and the needy, and so on. But the works of visual art that surround these privileged moments in which [people] come into direct contact with Christ, and which usually tell stories from the life of Christ, or of Mary or of the saints, in whom we also contemplate Christ — the works of art are part of this process.

How have you incorporated all of this into your work as an art historian?

Much of what I've done as an art historian is to try to remind other art historians of this whole dimension that I'm describing, which usually has not been discussed. And that's a grave omission, because the artists and the patrons were more or less conscious of all of this. They lived within this system. So the art historians should be aware of it, because if not they are going to talk about these works in a way which is misleading. Certainly the style, the economical features — all of these things are interesting and real and an important part of the history of art, but the larger framework within which these works were meant to function was something more like what I've been describing.

I try to call the attention of colleagues to these things, and even more, perhaps, I try to reawaken Christians to the extraordinary eloquence and beauty of this visual heritage which today ordinary believing Christians have the equipment to understand. They may not be art historians but they have keys to understanding the works of architecture and painting and sculpture that many art historians don't have. And those keys come from their own faith, from the simple experience of life in church, the life of the sacraments.

One could add that something that Christians tend not to reflect upon and that historians of art and of sacred music and sacred architecture similarly tend not to reflect upon, is that the great work of art that Christianity has produced since its beginning is the Liturgy.

What believing Christians have been harried by the Spirit to do right from the beginning is to seek those poetic forms of expression and those physical actions and those material objects that can be called into play to express their faith. Really Jesus himself taught us to do this. At the Last Supper, he took bread, and then he said words: "This is my Body". Jesus, who is himself the Word made flesh, in order to communicate, takes physical things that already have their own range of meanings and says words that open that implicit range of meanings to a much more specific and explicit communication.

So Jesus himself is the first teacher of how you combine things and actions and words in order to create a composite work, which is basically a work of art. At the Last Supper, he puts on an apron, he kneels down, he washes their feet. He's continually doing things that invite reflection and then making sure that we understand what he's doing.

What I'm saying is that you can't really just talk about the visual art of the Church, or the music of the Church, or the Liturgy. All of this is part of a single creative impulse that flows from the experience of Christ himself, the Word who becomes flesh. A conceptual expression of God who becomes visible and tangible. The First Letter of St John says that this is what we have seen and touched and contemplated with our own eyes; it's a total sensory and intellectual experience. The Liturgy is that. So an artist working for the church and for its Liturgy is within this millennial creative action which, in the last analysis, is a continuation in time and space of the Creation described in Genesis.

Can you speak on your role as President of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue? How does, or how can, art factor into that dialogue?

It's a delicate question. The art of course is a kind of non-verbal communication that in a sense can get us beyond things that could otherwise cause problems....

I think the art that probably could make it possible for all of us to talk is architecture. Certainly if one begins to reconstruct the spatial interest and grandeur of the Temple of Jerusalem as described in Scripture and reconstructed by archaeologists. That remains an important part of the history of Judaism, and it also offers a number of fascinating keys as to the ways the ancient Hebrew imagination communicated the idea of the sacred in space. If you start with the temple in Jerusalem, and then talk about the early Christian basilicas in Rome, or the Renaissance churches, you're talking in the same language, because you're always talking about walls and roofs, large or small spaces, going from an outer courtyard to an inner courtyard to the Holy of Holies, and so on. The basic dynamics are somewhat more abstract, and so too with mosques.

For example, a very interesting line of reflection is the mystical significance of the space of one of the greatest Byzantine churches, Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which was later transformed into a mosque, but its basic basis remains as it was designed in the 6th century, when the building was constructed to be a church. Then, as everyone knows, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and changed the name to Istanbul. In the later 16th century, the Sultans constructed a building which basically was an imitation of Hagia Sofia right there in Istanbul, what's called the Blue Mosque [Sultan Ahmed Mosque]. But there are a series of subtle architectural changes, which oblige you at that point to say: "If what we have here are Muslim architects interpreting a 6th century Christian basilica in the perspective of their own faith, let's try to understand why they're introducing these changes". I think that that kind of study can be of enormous help in discovering universal spiritual values and also defining — in a way which is not as limiting as actual theological argument — some of the differences of sensibilities between Christians and Muslims.

Another marvellous case is the beautiful mosque in Cordoba, Spain — built when that area of Spain was a Moorish Emirate, and the official religion was Islam — which is actually built on the site of an early Christian church. At the moment of the reconquista when the Christian Spanish kingdom reclaims those parts of the country that had been under Muslim rule, the same building becomes a cathedral. They kind of eviscerate the centre of the mosque and built a mini gothic cathedral rising out of the mosque. But today when you enter, you enter into what used to be the outer courtyard of a mosque, where for centuries people spread their carpets and prayed. If you go into this forest of columns and Moorish arches that was a genuine mosque... in the centre of all this, suddenly the walls soar up, you have stained glass windows, and you have a big Spanish retablo.

Architecture which documents these historical changes also provide a vehicle for discovering the beauty of the other faith. They oblige you to say that "even if I don't agree with what these people believe, I have to recognize that there's great beauty in it". There are elements of great beauty, there are genuine reflections of God in all the great faiths of history.

In that respect, one of my dreams is to be able to one day do a very beautiful photo exhibit of all the things I just described — the Temple, Christian architecture and mosques — here in Florence. Florentines are very sensitive to the quiet eloquence of architecture.

You also served as a consultant at the Synods of Bishops of 2005 and 2008. Are there certain ideas that have remained with you from those sessions that you care to share? What do you think or hope that the upshot of these Synods will be?

It is significant that someone like myself was invited. The recognition that the presence of a person familiar with the relationship between art and the life of the Church could be useful seems to have come about with the Papacy of Benedict XVI. I think it really has to do with his extraordinary awareness of the role of beauty in the life of faith, that larger art form which all of the Liturgy is.

Certainly the Synod on the Eucharist saw Benedict's insistence on this, expressed in the Sacramentum Caritatis, the Document that sums up the work of the Synod. In it he insists on the ars celebrandi, the art of celebrating Mass. Yes, we receive the real Body of Christ, but the whole process in which we're called to become a part — the Mass, with the Church, the priest, the vestments, and so on — is a work of art. The priest has to learn to be that beautiful sign of Christ's presence that he's called to be, in his movement, in the way he pronounces the words, so as to communicate that creative, artistic character of everything that goes on.

I think that it really is a function of the Holy Father's own sensitivity and his conviction, which he expresses in the introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Remember that he both supervised the work on the production of the Catechism and then, at John Paul II's request, prepared the short Compendium.

In his own introduction — which he wrote first as Cardinal Ratzinger but has reissued now as Benedict XVI — he stresses the fact that in our modern, image oriented society, sacred images can often say more even than the words of Scripture. That's an extraordinary affirmation, and I believe that he's absolutely right! That would help explain why he wanted me at the Synod on the Eucharist, and then the Synod on the Word of God is the same sort of thing. It wasn't just on the Bible as Bible. When the Church summons Bishops for a Synod on the Word of God, it's talking about the word of God as Bishops and priests have to communicate it to the faithful, and we do that in the framework of the Liturgy. Whereas in many centuries people couldn't understand the Gospel because it was proclaimed in Latin, even today, when people are half-attentive, the images that are there reinforce, flesh out and in some cases probably even take the place of listening to the Gospel. So images have been so much a part of the context in which we Catholics actively transmit the word of God.

There is an increasing interest in what the history of communications —and the art of the church is one of the forms of communication — can tell us about the way we have approached these things in the past, and from the past, you can sometimes find ways to follow in the present.

Speaking of the convergence of past and present: some people question whether the money spent on Cathedrals and other great works of religious art would be better spent to help the poor or in other similar ways. But others argue that a Church's beauty is important because, for instance, it serves as a place where past, present and future come together — a place where we can understand better where we come from, where we are now, and where we hope to be headed.

First of all, the Church over the years has spent great deals of money for the poor. But one of the great things we can give to the poor as well as to the rich — maybe we're all poor when it comes to this — is that harmonious sense of how the distant past and the remote future are present. Any one of us who is in Church is there because someone else has helped to communicate these things. There's the immediate past of those that gave us the faith, but then there were those who gave them the faith. We go to Church and we pronounce words that were written a long time ago, and we listen to words written such a long time ago. We really are in communication with that past.

What happens during the Celebration, in the here and now of any Catholic Liturgy, is that the past becomes present, because Christ's sacrifice on Calvary becomes genuinely, if not visibly, present in the Bread and Wine. It's an objective link between past and present — not just emotional or poetic — and it's there in a way that it can't be anywhere else. All of this is in the perspective of the final day. "Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again". All of it is looking toward that eternal Liturgy in heaven to which we are called.

As a teacher, do you find that your students help you to see things in a new way? What are for you the most important messages that you hope they leave your classes having grasped?

Yes, because the temptation for all experts is to lose touch with the much simpler questions that people have who haven't studied the material in depth. Experts tend to get lost in theoretical questions, whereas a bright undergraduate student — or sometimes even better, a young child — will ask some obvious questions and suddenly you realize that you have to be simpler in your way of thinking about these things.

All of this art was not created for art historians or for theologians; it was created for ordinary people, who, in every age of history, have been extremely diverse — with different sensibilities, different levels of culture, and different interests. Those works which have survived down the centuries because they continue to speak to people are somehow masterpieces of mass communication.

Students can help me find a language adequate to communicate the genuinely universal values both of the faith and of the particular style of the work I'm talking about, and that's very important.

As to the second part of your question, I always invite them to consider — even if they're not Catholic or Christian — the historical, cultural interest of the basic Christian message of a God who becomes a human being. Much of the art is involved in a communicating aspect of Jesus' humanity — as a child, a man on the Cross, a man who rises. It all has to do with the idea of a God who assumes a body and who goes through all these things. Certainly what I teach, Italian Renaissance art mainly, is an art which focuses on the physical humanity — on the body, on the emotional configuration, facial expression, gesture, and so on. I invite them to grow in their sense of the beauty of our own humanity.

I try to make them aware that for many centuries many people, certainly the patrons, believed that our human condition is so important that God himself entered into it — in order to save it from destruction, to elevate it to the level of his own divinity. Even if you don't want to believe this, it is a part of understanding Western culture. You really have to be aware that these dynamics were at work for 1500 years, if not more.

As Canon of the Florence Cathedral, if you were able to point out one thing to every visitor to "il Duomo", what would it be?

It would be the most obvious thing, which is that it is very big, like many cathedrals and churches. There is an urge to try to configure a human space that is worthy of our concept of God — a space which, in the simplest terms, is going to be very big. Because God is infinitely above us; God occupies the entire universe.

That first, most obvious, most simple, most universal impression that you get in our Cathedral, as in many churches, really, has to be taken seriously. Why do people want these enormous spaces?

Then from the very size, you move to the sense of order, articulated in a different way according to the different period or architect. There always is some more or less legible sense of order. You find something that is much bigger than most spaces you've been in that is then ordered in a particular way that engages your intelligence. Why this large central area, these smaller side areas? What goes on down at the far end? In the chapels? The order itself interests people. And then you start to talk about specific works.

The one thing that I do tell all visitors to the Cathedral — or indeed any church where I might have the task of helping them understand — is that if we are there for a visit, we are seeing it in our own way. The church isn't built to be visited by tourists. We really should come back when the church is full of worshippers, when the central nave becomes the space through which a procession enters to go to the altar. We have to experience these spaces within that framework of total art that I talked about, in a liturgical situation.

If we believe in a Word who became flesh, then the experience of an ordered space that becomes animated, alive with people, with the Liturgy, is very close to the heart of what we believe. It's about a conceptual Word that becomes man. But it would be true in any religious situation — you have to see these buildings in use.

The real church is not the building, the real Church is the people. The building assumes the name "church", which in the Christian Scriptures is used almost exclusively to refer to the community of people.

The building is just a container — beautiful, historical, rich in memory. But if something were to happen to it, we would be sorry, but we would go on.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 August 2009, page 5

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