Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Over at Bensonian there is a post from little more than a year ago on one’s personal canon and life author.  I thought it a fun exercise and decided to put my own together. The following list did not have a lot of thought go into it. It is made more from memory, impressions, and awareness of what I seem to go back to. My personal canon in no particular order:

  1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  5. The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Card. Ratzinger
  6. Flannery O’Connor, short stories
  7. Hugh of St. Victor, works
  8. Five Theological Orations, St. Gregory of Nazianzus
  9. The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
  10. Ezra-Nehemiah

My life author is Cormac McCarthy.

And you?


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Early in his pilgrimage through Hell, Dante (the character) is given a warning. It is a warning he does not heed and consequently a lesson he does not learn. If commentary on canto V of Inferno is any indication, it is also a lesson that we, the audience, have not learned and the consequences of this lesson-not-learned are reverberating throughout both the city of the world and of God.

Making his way from the first circle to the second, Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos, the infernal judge who determines which circle of Hell (and, consequently, which infernal punishment) the condemned will eternally suffer. He is Satan’s sorting hat.


Minos, infernal judge - Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s “Minos”


Minos gives a warning to Dante: “O thou! who to this residence of woe approachest!… Look how thou enter here; beware in whom thou place thy trust. Let not the entrance broad deceive thee to thy harm.” Being that the place is Hell, this warning of Minos seems rather obvious. But the road to Hell is very wide and turns where it will to our delight. It takes every advantage it may to play upon our mind and our heart, to sway our thoughts, our emotions, and our will. It blinds us so that we only see ourselves, and, in the swaying of our being to its infernal end, we justify ourselves.

Like all things, Minos’s warning has a context. That context is the canto in which he speaks, Canto V. After receiving this warning from Minos (and dismissing it), Dante and Virgil continue to the second circle of Hell: those who gave themselves to lust. Immediately, Dante is put to the test concerning the warning he received. Entering into Hell proper (as opposed to Limbo), he first meets Francesca and Paolo being swept in a perpetual tempest, never to have any rest. They are uncontrollably carried away in this evil storm just as they were carried away by their lust. Before meeting Francesca and Paolo, Dante describes what he saw and heard. Among what he heard were “blasphemies ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven” from the souls being endlessly tossed. He said that their reason was swayed by lust. They blasphemy the One who is Truth. As Virgil points out specific people, Dante becomes filled with pity. Heroes of old such as Achilles, Paris, and Tristan are identified as those “whom love bereaved of life”. These great men and women of old were undone by lust. It is telling though that Dante does not say that lust bereaved them of life, but rather love, and before he speaks to any of these poor souls he already pities them and is drawn in pity to them.

Dante now calls out in “strong affection” to a man and woman he sees clinging to one another in their hell. His strong affection moves them to break free temporarily from the tempest and speak with him. As they come, Dante describes them as doves with strong wings returning home to their “sweet nest”. He is swept up in the pathos of what he sees and portrays them as something they are not, innocent. When they come to him Francesca tells him their tale of woe, and he is so moved by what he hears and sees that “through compassion fainting… [he] fell to the ground.”

paolo-and-francesca 1

paolo and francesca 2

Francesca was married to Gianciotto and caught by him in an affair with his more handsome brother, Paolo. In his rage, Gianciotto killed them both. It is easy to sympathize with Francesca. She was young, her marriage was arranged, and she was married to a man who was not pleasing to look upon nor (one may infer) treated her well. With Paolo, she was able to form true affection through mutual interest and time spent together. Theirs is a sad and pitiable story. But sadness and pity do not change what is, and it is in this that Dante (the character) fell into the trap of which he had been warned.

Francesca and Paolo may not have been malicious in what they did and they may be pitiable, but none of that rights the wrong they committed. It is not truly about the wrong committed though; it is that they died unrepentant. Remember, they, with all the other souls ceaselessly driven by that devilish wind, “blasphemy ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven.” They blasphemy against the Truth. They do not call God friend (line 90) and they do not pray for Dante’s peace (line 91). Thrice Francesca invokes love: “Love, that in a gentle heart is quickly learnt… Love, that denial takes from none beloved… Love brought us to one death.” (102-105; emphasis mine) Her thrice invocation of love is a blasphemy in and of itself. By “love” she really means lust and by it thrice insults the Holy Trinity, Who is Love. Their story is a lie, told with enough twisted truth as to elicit pity from their hearer. And Dante was ready to lend his heart before ever he heard their tale.

Michelangelo foreshadows this in his representation of Minos shown above. He depicts not only Minos but also points to Francesca and Paolo through the mutilation of Minos’s genitals, the organ of lust, by the serpent. In Francesca and Paolo, we see “the entrance broad.” We also see ones in whom Dante has placed his trust. He trusts them through the lending of his ear and the sympathy of his heart.

The sins of the flesh produce great heartache and elicit great sympathy from people. We often find pitiable (and rightly so) people who find themselves in difficult situations because of the swaying of their heart toward lust. One reason we find these circumstances so pitiable is because lust is not what truly underlies them; there is more that underlies the lust such as sadness, pain, and fear. Yet these do not excuse a pitiable situation. And people in those situations should be encouraged to rise heroically to the universal call of holiness, rather than given allowance out of pity.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality.” When we look at the world and its progression now for generations, when we look at the issue currently sending shockwaves through the Roman Church – that being the possibility of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried – can we really doubt that Chesterton was right? We need to learn what Dante did not and heed, better than he, Minos’s warning.

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Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,                                                             And better then they stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

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This morning I came across an article on the Catholic origins of Halloween. Reading it, I was reminded that the three days of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 are a reminder of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory (not respectively), and the four last things. A post, therefore, on the danse macabre seems rather appropriate with Halloween so near.

The danse macabre (dance of death) is a literary and artistic theme with strong roots in the late Middle Ages. Its precise emergence is debatable (perhaps the 13th century, perhaps earlier), but it was a common and powerful theme throughout much of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. After waning during the Renaissance it re-emerged in the 19th century and continues in various depictions – including music and film – to our own day. The danse macabre is not only a reminder of our own death, but the death of all. In the eyes of death all are equal: one’s status, wealth, prestige, and talent is of no consequence where death is concerned.






The two images below, separated by centuries, depict the same scene: a dance coming to its end. In the first image a soul is being lowered into their grave, their hand not grasping anyone else’s they are clearly separated now from the dance. The second image, however, has some significant differences. The first is that the person is being lowered into a hole which is definitely not a grave. The look of pain on the shrouded face coupled with a lowering into darkness is indicative not merely of a grave, but entering into hell. The person’s hand is also still holding on to the hands of those still in the dance: they are not simply going to their own graves, but will also be joining this person in eternal pain and anguish.



While images such as the first depicted above and the one at the end of this post remind us of the universality of death, some images such as the one below remind us of this more poignantly as well as of death’s perceived untimeliness.


In Western society (or at the very least American), the reality of death is something people actively try to avoid confronting. We don’t want to think about death and even less do we really want to think about what may possibly come after death. We comfort ourselves with all kinds of sayings: “They’re in a better place.” “God will see how good I am.” “They’re angels now watching over us.” We automatically assume that when someone dies they go to Heaven. We come up with excuses not to visit someone’s grave such as their being everywhere. And, yet, we fool ourselves because there is something so different about the grave that we dare not go! Instead of praying for them, we only celebrate them. It’s amazing to me how many people with all their faults are suddenly saints upon their death. Parents pass this on to their little ones. Children are kept from funerals because it will “freak” them out. They are not brought to grave sides to remember loved ones who have passed. This inability to confront death is then passed on to the next generation. For all our avoidance, death is all around us. It is an inescapable part of our life. It is for that reason that images focusing on the individual such as the child typically (at least for me) elicit a more emotional response.

This is also true of some images that come from another theme derived from danse macabre: death and the maiden.


The anguish on the woman’s face is palpable with hands clasped, pleading not to go down into darkness. Death has no pity here. He is rough, tugging her hair and indicating with his other hand where she must go. We do not know her story; only the sad culmination of her life.


Here we see a very different picture. Again, we are presented with a woman in the prime of her youth. She is surprised, obviously not expecting that her time had come, and pulls the blanket to herself – a defensive and modest gesture in response to her vulnerability. Death here is not rough. The raised hand is a calming gesture, the wing stretched to embrace her. The lantern will light the way to we do not know where. In this painting all that matters is the immediate moment of encounter with death.

There are, unfortunately, depictions of this theme that are perversions of the mystery of death rather than being a rumination. One of the reasons for this is the separation of danse macabre and death of the maiden from the context in which they originated: Christian Europe. For the Christian, death is not the end; it is not finality. Rather, it is a comma in life as it was so wonderfully stated by Dr. Evelyn Ashford in Wit. This view of death is not avoidance. It is not an expression of the sickness of society as seen above. No, this comes from viewing death in its proper context: the victory of Jesus Christ, it’s unbinding. The context is the Resurrection. But the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is not a free pass. It is not something to be taken for granted and to be presumed upon. We are called to partake in the Paschal Mystery. We are called to take up our cross and be crucified with our Lord. It is through the dying of self and to the world in Christ that our physical death will bring Life. Without this previous dying our physical death will bring eternal death.

The inability of our society to confront and live with the reality of death points to just how sick our society has become. If we do not embrace death, we cannot embrace life – either here on Earth or after our departure. Today, perhaps more than ever in this country, we need images like those above. We need them urgently. We need them in our churches, our homes, and our schools. We need them to confront us with the mystery of death and what happens after. We need them to remind us of our hope in the Resurrection, rather than thinking it is something owed to us. So on Halloween enjoy the danse macabre in its varied depictions. Remember the reality of Hell and the wages of sin, and look forward in hope to Heaven. On the following day joyously celebrate that hope with all saints.


And just for a bit of fun…


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Today I am assigning a Rosary project to my students. They will each need to put together a Rosary meditation using images and quotes on PowerPoint slides. It’s very simple. They choose a set of mysteries and devote one slide per mystery for the set they have chosen. Each slide has the name of the mystery, one image to depict that mystery, and one short quote. Usually when images accompany Rosary meditations they are depictions of the mystery itself. This is what I am modeling for my students and what I expect to see from most of them. However, I’m also going to show them examples of images that do not so much depict the mystery, but rather give a narrowed interpretation of the mystery. (I call this an interpretive image. This is not the best name, however, because all images are interpretive). It’s an interesting exercise. The advantage of the mystery itself being depicted is that it allows for greater freedom in what one may meditate upon concerning that mystery. The advantage of an “interpretive” image is that it brings our attention to an aspect of the mystery that we may have otherwise never thought of. The following are the examples I am giving to my students of interpretive images with accompanying quotes.

The Annunciation


I will make all things new.

The Institution of the Holy Eucharist


For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 

The Carrying of the Cross


He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases. 

The Ascension


One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more, death, though shalt die. 

This last image more than the others requires a little explanation. It points more to the fruit of the mystery – hope – rather than the mystery itself. I was struck by the bleakness of the environment and the contrast of the girl’s interiority with it. Within her is light, warmth, joy, and life. Within her is hope.


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Allegories of Fortitude and Strength

Allegories of Fortitude and Strength

There are many great works at the Accademia in Florence, Italy – the most famous being Michelangelo’s “David” – but what left the greatest impression on me was the “Allegory for Fortitude and Strength”. From the first moment I saw it, I was completely captivated. It is wholly different from other allegories of fortitude that I have seen. It exudes strength manifested through surety and confidence. She does not need to be stern. Her presence is enough. She is relaxed in victory, but still vigorous. She is playful and this is the key to the allegory. She is not simply holding her scepter nor wielding it; rather, she is almost playing with it while her thoughts are elsewhere. There is a bit of Tulkas in her. The perfection of fortitude includes laughter, a twinkling of the eyes that comes from knowing nothing can overcome you. Perhaps there is a bit of old Tom Bombadil in her as well.

Clare of Assisi - San Rufino

For a week I could do nothing, but sing the praises of Fortitude. She had become for me the ideal of all women. The following week though I saw the above statue of St. Clare of Assisi in San Rufino,  Assisi’s cathedral. Upon seeing this statue I was awestruck and dumbfounded. Before me was not an allegory of fortitude, but the reality. The statue refers to an episode in the life of Clare of Assisi when the city was preserved from invading Muslims. Though sick at the time she was brought out and she carried with her our Eucharistic Lord. Raising Him up as a shield and praying for the preservation of the city, the Muslims fled. In the statue above, however, we see her holding our Lord close to her heart. The allegory, as is always the case, falls short of reality. St. Clare teaches us that true fortitude springs forth from love and devotion. Its surety is rooted in trust; it is a confidence not in ourselves, but in Another. Fortitude is attained through prayer and the one who attains the virtue of fortitude is also the one who has quieted their heart.

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The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is a true gem of Indiana’s state capitol. When one thinks of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis, they do not typically think truly great art collections at a large and magnificent museum. However, it turns out that Indiana has a history of great art and the IMA is both a part of and a continuation of that history. 

Virgin of Sorrows

Virgin of Sorrows by Francisco Meneses Osorio cir. 1690

Immediately apparent are the dark tones, the bowed figure, and the instruments of Christ’s passion and death in the lower left corner. The description next to the painting at the IMA says, “In this work, the Virgin’s grief-stricken gaze is fixed on the shroud, crown of thorns, and nails in the foreground. This painting was probably intended as an aid to meditation on the instruments of Christ’s Passion.” (The full description can be read online here). In addition to it aiding meditation the painting also seems to depict devotion. This is accentuated by the posture of kneeling, the manner in which the hands are brought together, and the gaze of the Virgin. While there is certainly grief expressed on her face, it is not the grief of a mother who has just watched her son die and whose heart has been pierced by a sword. The expression rather elicits the sadness that comes with memory, of his passion and death made present again. While no one has experienced and, therefore, expressed the grief that the Holy Mother of God has, the face expressed above is not the face of the Virgin alone, but is rather the face of any millions of Christians who have meditated in loving devotion upon our Lord’s Passion and the instruments of that passion.

What immediately struck me though was the Virgin’s face. It is round, full, soft, and youthful. There is a theological meaning behind her face. It points to her purity and innocence, but it also points to her perfect love of God, her Son. What temptation our Blessed Mother must have endured in those days that her Son lay in the tomb! Her sorrow and anguish had to be great, but was there anger? Her Son was unjustly put to death in one of the most horrible and humiliating ways possible. Was she tempted to murder in her heart through anger? Regardless of whether she was tempted in this manner or not, the image above shows the reality: She did not sin. The depths of her sadness rather than being directed at others in rage and hate were directed to her Son in love. Always was her gaze upon her Son.

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