Asymbolist-symbolism, or Why Modern Church Art Stinks
We had a Liturgy workshop this past Saturday, and our wonderful pastor took time to explain to us the deep and rich symbolism of the beginning stages of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Fr. Loya explained how the introductory psalms originally were chosen to be sung by the townspeople as they walked to church, how the word eleison (have mercy) has etymological affinities with elaios, olive, referring to the olive branch from the Flood--what we ask when we say "Lord have mercy" is "Lord, make things right between us as you did after the flood", and how all the vestments worked together.
Everything in our liturgy has a meaning, and usually several. There are symbols intertwined with symbols. But, as beautiful as these symbols are, they are not well understood by the congregation, since we haven't grown up in the Byzantine Empire and we don't speak Greek. The symbols have to be translated, explained to us through telling the story of their origins.
Symbols (realities that point to other, transcendant realities) are never made in a vacuum, but are always in a historical context. In order for a given symbol to have meaning, its meaning must be recoverable by those that see the symbol. It has to make sense. Symbols are like words: if I say to you "Put the gigthump in the bobnad!" you will be confused. You will need to have the words defined so that you can make sense of the sentence. If I persisted in using my own private language like that ("Gigthumps are vermicious plagtodytes with bobbulitic snards!"), you would soon quit talking to me, since it would take to much effort to understand me.
Now imagine you see this in your church. You are told that this is a very symbolic crucifix, and even see in the bulletin that " Johanine in its symbolism, it presents a powerful portrait of Jesus, thoroughly incarnate, yet Divine Lord and Master of every moment." Intrigued by "Johanine symbolism," you sit and look at the cross, trying to figure out what it represents, and what the giant wishbone is in Jesus' right hand. (Look really closely--there is a wishbone in his right hand! The bulletin says it's a dove, but it's a wishbone.) Is this Jesus, Lord of Thanksgiving? What's going on? It looks sort of like a crucifix, but not really.
Perhaps the artist, Arnoldo Pomodoro, had a very good reason for constructing the crucifix as he did. But the symbols are private; who could figure them out? The test of good religious art is if an 85 year-old grandmother with no artistic training, but who has lived her faith for 85 years, can figure it out. I suggest this crucifx fails the test.
A language of symbols arises out of a tradition. It is accessible to those who see it because they know the tradition as well. You understand English likely because you grew up speaking it--likewise, in the old days you would have understood Gothic stained-glass windows, having been exposed to the tradition of Christian art for your whole life. But we have in the last forty years dismantled that tradition, and now our art is meaningless, obscure, and empty.
Byzantine churches have been mandated by Vatican II to rediscover and re-appropriate their roots, something that we did in our parish last Saturday night. We are trying very hard to learn what it means to be Byzantine, so that our symbols will not just be quaint echoes of the old country, but will be alive and pregnant with new meaning. If you are a Roman Catholic, perhaps you should try similarly to reacquire your own tradition. We always ask ourselves "What does it mean to be Byzantine?" Ask yourself "What does it mean to be Roman?" There is a great treasure hidden within your rite--study it!