And now, just before the first Sunday of Advent, a book has been published in Italy that gives new life to this tradition. It is a commentary on the lectionary of the Sunday and feast day Masses of year A – the volumes for years B and C will follow – made up of images from great Christian art. Images more eloquent than many words.
The author is Timothy Verdon, a priest and art historian, professor at Stanford University and the director of Florence’s diocesan office for catechesis through art. He is also the author of important books on Christian art and on the role of art in the Church’s life.
The idea of this book came to Verdon from the synod of bishops on the Eucharist in 2005, at which he participated as an expert consultant, at the invitation of Benedict XVI.
In the post-synodal exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis,” pope Joseph Ratzinger dedicated one paragraph, number 41, to religious iconography, which, he writes, “should be directed to sacramental mystagogy,” toward initiation into the Christian mystery through the liturgy.
The book is a direct response to this summons. For every Sunday and feast day of the liturgical year, Verdon selects a masterpiece of Christian art related to the Gospel of the day. It is art as the guide to entry within the mystery that is proclaimed and celebrated.
To present this book to the public in Florence just a few days ago, Verdon enlisted a priest who is in complete agreement with this approach: theologian Massimo Naro, the rector of the seminary of the diocese of Caltanissetta and the younger brother of Cataldo Naro, bishop of Monreale until his untimely death one year ago.
The cathedral of Monreale, in Sicily, with its interior completely covered with twelfth century mosaics, is an absolute masterpiece of Christian art. The Christ Pantokrator reproduced above dominates the apse.
But Christian art lives within the liturgy, and for the liturgy. And its language is visual inspection, contemplation. This is what the Italian-German theologian Romano Guardini, one of the current pope’s great mentors, understood in visiting the cathedral of Monreale during Holy Week of 1929.
Guardini wrote an account of this visit. Observing the men and women crowding the cathedral of Monreale and participating in the Easter liturgy, he wrote:
“All were living in the gaze [original German: Alle lebten im Blick], all were rapt in contemplation.”
Bishop Cataldo Naro reproduced the entire page of Guardini’s account in his last pastoral letter to the faithful, to guide them to contemplate and love the Church.
And his brother Massimo cited it again while presenting Verdon’s book to the public, in this section of his remarks:
“One must not only believe, confess, profess; one must also ‘look upon’ the faith. Jesus is the one who has ‘seen and heard’ his Father. In him is the union of word and image; he is Logos and Eikon (cf. Colossians 1:15). It is no accident that, since the fourth or fifth century, the legend grew in the ancient Church that the evangelist Luke had also been a painter. To this legend may be added the anathema of the second council of Nicaea, according to which ‘If anyone does not accept the artistic representation of scenes from the Gospel, let him be excommunicated.’ Painting the face of Christ, of Mary, of the saints is another way of writing the Gospel, and thus also of passing it on, proclaiming it, permitting it to be read, meditated upon, and understood by the faithful. In Nicaea, in 787, Church teaching incorporated the legend and gave it the dignity of doctrine, including within the deposit of tradition not only written and oral tradition, but artistic tradition as well; not only the writings of the Old and New Testament and the books of the Church Fathers, but also the images that translate into full color the black ink of the sacred writers.”
The works of art selected by Verdon to illustrate the Mass readings of year A are found in churches and museums all over the world. Many of them are in Italy, and a few in Florence, so Florentine priests have a special incentive to make use of this commentary.
But the important thing is the method, which is valid for everyone. Verdon’s book teaches an “artistic” interpretation of the biblical texts used in the liturgy. It restores to priests and faithful the fruits of a “preaching through images” developed in the Church over a millennium and a half, and today in danger of withering away.
Because there is an unbreakable bond among Christian art, theology, and liturgy. Just as the cross and the resurrection are the foundation for the composition of the Gospels and the New Testament, and just as Easter is the keystone of the entire liturgical year, so also the Crucified and Risen Jesus is at the genesis of Christian art.