Godfried Cardinal Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, has frequently been included on experts’ lists of the papabile (likely possibilities for selection as pope). An advocate for constructive engagement between the worlds of art and religion, Danneels has gained a hearing both inside and outside the Catholic Church. Christianity and human culture, he writes, have a shared responsibility: the rescue of hope. Ordained a priest in 1957, he studied Thomistic philosophy at the Higher Institute of Philosophy in Leuven and theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. After obtaining his doctorate in theology, he taught at the Brugges seminary and at the Catholic University of Leuven. His articles for the Dictionary of the Liturgy brought him international attention, and he helped to write Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document which initiated the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council. He was named Bishop of Antwerp in 1977 and created a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983. Danneels argues for an incarnational model of the relationship between faith and religion, in which God the creator has entered the world integrally in order to divinize it, and “culture becomes a kind of blueprint of revelation: not the object of worship, but of divinization. Creation awaits re-creation and culture longs for revelation, as the stem for the flower. There is continuity, but the flowering comes not of itself but by grace of the warmth and light of the sun.” He was interviewed at his residence in Mechelen by Timothy P. Schilling, who translated their conversation from the Dutch.
Image: Recently, in an interview with the Belgian weekly Tertio, you voiced your appreciation for contemporary art. We don’t hear that so often from church leaders. More commonly, when it comes to art, we find them silent, or criticizing some recent “provocation.” Have you always been interested in art?
Cardinal Danneels: Yes. I haven’t had any formal training in an art academy or in any particular artistic discipline, although I play music and can read it. But art has always intrigued me—I am not necessarily suspicious of it—and I have always enjoyed it. Perhaps my interest is not surprising, since art has much in common with faith. Art is saying what can’t be said and seeing what can’t be seen. Faith is also seeing what is not visible. But we can’t do without what is visible. We need what can be said. One of the readings at Christmas says, “What was invisible has become visible.” Art gives us the power to bring forth something that the senses wouldn’t otherwise perceive. Art feeds supposition. It brings you further. That is why I like to feature works of art in the pastoral pamphlets I issue at Christmas and Easter.
Image: Does your interest lie with contemporary art in particular?
GD: No, I’m interested in all kinds of art, but I prefer art that is less explicit, less literal, in its depictions. While I appreciate the more purely imitative style of Van Eyck—his technical mastery of color and form—I like contemporary art, ancient art, Romanesque art even more. Different kinds of art approach life’s mystery in different ways. I wonder, though, if we didn’t lose some of our sensitivity to symbolism in the transition from Romanesque to Gothic art. In Romanesque art, the human figure is a kind of animated disguise. It is referential, not self-contained. It implies something, but not in a realistic way. Gothic art is much more realistic. The difference between a Romanesque angel and a Gothic angel is that the Romanesque angel asks you questions as you sit in church. The Gothic angel shows you everything.
For me, the suggestiveness of art is important. Impressionism gives us beautiful landscapes that are not just landscapes. Still life, Expressionism, modern art—they all want to say something other than what is immediately evident. That doesn’t mean I can’t admire a Van Eyck or Memling for its surface. The colors and composition are brilliant. But the art that I admire says something more or other than what it appears to say, as in Magritte’s pipe that is not a pipe. If a Van Eyck succeeds, it is because it has something behind the surface. If you look at a Memling portrait, it is more than a portrait. Consider his paintings of girls, for example. Great art is to be found throughout the ages, but it varies in its way of being evocative. The evocative power of a Vanriet is different from that of a Rubens.
Image: That’s an interesting example. Recently you featured Jan Vanriet’s watercolor Three Nails on the cover of one of your pamphlets [see Plate 1]. Afterward you said you find this painting speaks more quietly and yet powerfully than Rubens’ Crucifixion. Could you elaborate?
GD: It’s hard to say where the power of Vanriet’s painting lies. You can’t really compare Three Nails with a crucifixion by Rubens because that is a different matter altogether. But I have seldom seen such a forceful presentation made with such modest means—just three nails, so simple, a small detail. You see no body, no blood, no wounds, no crown of thorns—just nails in wood. The suffering—the crucified one—is absent but fully present. There is something fearful about it. It is purely evocative art. It suggests everything and shows little. A Rubens is far more explicit, being more a tour de force of painting technique.
Image: Are there other works of Vanriet that impress you?
GD: Yes, many. His recent cycle of paintings illustrating scenes from the Bible, for example, featured in the book Testamenten, and his work that meditates on the experience of the suffering of the Jews in the concentration camps [see Plate 2]. The details he draws on in his depictions of biblical scenes are often surprising. He’s a wonderful artist. I admire his work and he’s someone I know personally. I don’t think he is a believer in the usual sense, but religious belief intrigues him. He is open minded. He is searching for something.
Image: So believers can learn from artists who are not exactly believers themselves?
GD: Yes, I think so. Believers look for truth to be revealed. They are sometimes helped more by nonreligious art that spurs them on in their searching than by so-called religious art that says so much that there is nothing left to say, or by kitsch that is more commodity than art. Often the nonbeliever or doubter will dare to ask questions or adopt forms that the believer will not. The believer may be inclined to confirm or restate complacently what is already held true.
On the other hand, believers understandably find much contemporary art to be lacking, being too wrapped up in a private vision or nihilism. Some contemporary art is willfully destructive. Believers are not content with art that does not aspire to truth, drowning instead in its own skepticism. Nihilistic art is a manifestation of a society that has perhaps lost its trust in itself, a depressed society that suffers from burnout.
Image: What you say about art and belief has implications for the church, in its efforts to reach people and be a leaven to the world. One way to approach people is to spell everything out, but another is to leave room for mystery.
GD: That’s true. You can explain the faith through catechesis and theology, and explanation is necessary. But ultimately the one who is the object of our faith can’t be fully grasped with concepts. In theology and catechesis there is room for symbolism and poetry, which are means of saying much without pretending to say all. This is also why liturgy is so important. If we do our work properly—attentively and with humility—we can find transcendence by means of it. Through the play of word and light and music and our own movement—our senses become attuned to God’s presence. For this to happen, we must not forget that God is the initiator. Our role is to give a response and not to claim his role for our own. Christ is the true actor in the liturgy. He is the one who should have the stage, ultimately, and we must make room for him to enter. The liturgy is a mystical reality, and we must respect that. I consider a homily, for example, that is without any poetic quality whatsoever to be a failure. Compare that with the parables of Jesus. It is necessary to mull over what he said, to puzzle over it and let it sink in. Too often the church falls short in its preaching, reducing the homily to exegesis or an action plan.
Image: Why is that? Given the church’s long tradition of drawing on and supporting the arts, couldn’t we expect it to be more at home with the ways of art? And why is the church not the patron of the arts it once was?
GD: With regard to patronage, partly it’s a question of scale. The world of art has so greatly expanded. There are so many more artists and patrons now, and the church is finite in its resources and ability to support the arts. The church does not stand central in society, as it once did, and it is not able to be the patron it once was.
But nonetheless, there remains much to be gained by cultivating aesthetic sensibility within the church and by promoting interaction between the church and the arts. The arts, for example, can help the church to avoid the trap of didacticism or being too cerebral.
To come back to the question of preaching: there is a great difference between talking and preaching, a great difference. Usually I know within the first few lines of a homily whether anything will come of it. Sometimes I listen to homilies on the radio on Sunday morning. When the subject is the wedding at Cana and the celebrant begins by saying, “Six stone jars, each with a hectoliter of water turned to wine—that must have been some party!” I know that nothing can come of it. It’s finished. The story has been robbed of its power by the banal tone and literalism.
The average believer, moreover, has become conditioned to conceptual thinking. This is a problem for the church. The hidden layers of the gospel stories are overlooked in favor of an understanding of concepts. A concept naturally has the advantage of tightness and clarity. It shows the contours plainly. It says something. When you have a concept, you know something, and concepts are certainly necessary. Symbols and narratives, however, are something else entirely. They are not matters of clarity and correctness, but of suggestiveness and waking enthusiasm and appealing to intuition and the senses.
Image: It strikes me that an artwork that succeeds is like liturgy that succeeds: it draws you in and something happens to you.
GD: Yes. We understand liturgy with our heart. Lamentably, liturgy too often becomes a didactic and cerebral event, a kind of performed catechism lesson. It becomes something that we have hold of rather than something that contains us. It is no longer an encounter. It is no longer the place where I enter to recognize myself and reality and allow myself to be transformed by Christ. Occasionally Catholics are drawn to the liturgy of the Eastern Church because of its power and mystery. Some have left the Roman Church for the Eastern Church out of dissatisfaction with how we handle our liturgy, for our neglect of the contemplative dimension of worship. Others have turned to esoteric practices and secret narratives in their search for happiness. We should not ignore people’s dissatisfaction. We can learn from it. A liturgy can become so understandable that it no longer inspires.
Image: Can the Roman Catholic Church do something about this? I don’t mean we need to win back those who have gone over to the Orthodox Church. But is there a way to preserve or enhance the mystery of the Roman liturgy, to better serve the people?
GD: Sometimes people say that the solution lies with the reintroduction of Latin in the liturgy, but I don’t think it’s a question of Latin or Dutch or whichever local language. I think it has to do with how we approach the symbolism of the liturgy and everything around it. It has to do with the celebrant and the manner of presiding, with how the readings are read and how we use language. I think the reforms of Vatican II were very good. The problem doesn’t lie there. It’s more a matter of how we approach the mystery at the heart of the liturgy. Consider the emergence of the presider as commentator, a consequence of the desire to make the liturgy more accessible. Commentary during the liturgy is deadly. The celebrant announces, “Now we are going to do this….” In theater, that’s the worst thing you can do, to say: “In the next scene, here is what will happen….” It spoils it.
Image: Where is the place to begin to change this situation? In theologates? In the seminary?
GD: Perhaps, up to a point. Ideally we would do a better job with the aesthetic formation or schooling of priests. We could help them to cultivate the Greek notion of sensitivity to depth.
But it’s not just a question of training in aesthetics. It’s also necessary to foster a sensitivity to people and to appreciate the celebrant’s role as one grounded in a community—as one who helps the people to see in depth. The celebrant helps the people to see beyond the surface, into an invisible world. There is a certain pressure of the empirical—a fixation on the clear and immediate in society itself—that has to be resisted and overcome. The emphasis in the parishes is often on doing, at the expense of contemplation.
Image: I have read recently of a school here in Belgium that wanted to accentuate its Catholic identity through the introduction of a new work of art. Rather than commissioning a painting or sculpture they have devoted a space in the school to the continuous showing of Pasolini’s Gospel according to Matthew. Whenever the students and faculty pass by in the hall, they come across flickering scenes from the life of Jesus. Are you familiar with this project?
GD: No, I haven’t heard of it. But film has great power to reach people, and I can understand why they chose Pasolini. It’s a very straightforward, concrete presentation, which follows closely the actual wording of the gospel and uses amateur actors. It isn’t all dressed up with images and words and sounds and so forth. It has almost the power of the liturgical celebrations of Good Friday, when the Passion in the Gospel of John is read, or of the gospel reading on Palm Sunday. In this case, the less acting talent, the better. The gospel itself is allowed to speak. I was impressed not so long ago when I heard a child of twelve read during the liturgy. It was so natural and simple and clear. He just read what was there. There was nothing added. The reading was pure medium.
Image: As you say that, I think of the paintings of Michel Ciry, an artist you’ve said you admire. On the one hand, the people and scenes he depicts in his paintings are accessible and recognizable—such that we could call them ordinary, as in Jesus Breaks the Bread [see Plate 3]. On the other hand, there is clearly something unusual taking place. But what is it?ou
Image: Do you have your own idea of what art, fundamentally, should be about?
GD: No. Art is about everything. But I do have a problem with art that is solipsistic, ending in itself, dwelling in meaninglessness, offering no opening to something beyond. I find that sad. A work of art that is true, that is real, is more than mere self-expression. It leaves open the possibility that more can be said. It spurs hope and supports the connection, the trust, between people. I also value work that invites feeling and emotion, which are so important to who we are as humans.
Image: Another artist whose work you have said you appreciate is the Belgian Benedictine priest, Father Maur (Etienne van Doorslaer). His is a very different sort of art—I’m thinking of his more abstract works. How do these point beyond themselves?
GD: Yes, Father Maur invites us to see in another way. He plays with geometric forms and gradations of white, nuances in white [see Plate 4]. He lets mystery be mystery. His work seems to ask, “What are our criteria when we look?” He challenges us to enter into the tension his paintings create. Spirit is the ordering principle.
Image: His paintings are rather demanding, I would think, for the viewer who wants to know what the point of a painting is or what it has to say. The several paintings of the French artist Arcabas you have hanging in your residence, by contrast, are easier to get hold of. We can often see a link with stories familiar from the Bible.
GD: Yes, the works of Arcabas are very accessible for the average believer, and they are full of warm colors. In ways his paintings are reminiscent of those of Fra Angelico. His scenes from scripture—the annunciation, visitation, birth, passion, and resurrection, and so forth—are familiar and yet mysterious nonetheless [see Plate 5]. Some criticize him for being too accessible, but I don’t think that is fair. The figures are not quite realistically painted and at the same time they are full of human concern. They are not as easy to grasp as they seem. In his forms you see something of his experience as a sculptor. Arcabas is an example of a very religious painter. His paintings have a life-giving message. By pointing to the vertical dimension of human existence, they have something valuable to offer.
Image: Others, even nonbelievers, can learn from this life-giving message?
GD: Yes, certainly, from Arcabas and many others. In my view, the greatest artist was Jesus. With his whole life he pointed to something greater, something deeper—to the truth. Francis of Assisi, he too was an artist, following Christ’s example. He found the way to deep happiness. Such beauty disarms us when we find it. It shows us our own possibility and opens us to what lies beyond ourselves.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.