A Papal Address to Artists

By Marc Laudonio

Laudonio 1In a wonderful stroke of providence, 2019 marks both the 40th anniversary of CIVA and the 20th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. As the universal pastor of the Catholic Church, John Paul sensed a responsibility and desire to care for all the people of the world, and sought to dialogue with many sectors of society, in hopes that together we could pursue the truth, goodness, and beauty that has found its full unveiling in the Person of Jesus Christ. With that in mind, he wrote many “letters”—to women, scientists, families, and more. Of particular interest to the CIVA community is his aforementioned Letter to Artists which he addressed to “all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world.”

In his letter, he encouraged artists to live out their vocation, or calling, as those who show forth the beauty of God in a particular way and enable people to recognize how the created world, especially the human person, is redeemed in Christ. Interestingly, CIVA’s mission statement states, “As men and women bear God’s image by all kinds of creative expression, CIVA equips those called to the visual arts to flourish in their holy vocation and to pursue it with excellence.” In another remarkable connection between John Paul’s Letter and CIVA’s mission statement, we find that John Paul declared, “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”[1] Again, CIVA’s mission statement coincides with John Paul’s encouragement to artists in saying “CIVA deploys its expertise and resources to help the Church embrace the visual arts and bring work of quality and substance into its centers of worship and learning.” Finally, John Paul II and CIVA share common ground in their rootedness in the Incarnation of God in Christ and desire to draw men and women into a greater knowledge and love of Him through art. John Paul invited Christian artists to “use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man.”[2] Does not CIVA aim to live that invitation out when they propose to “cultivate an incarnational presence in contemporary culture that is marked by serious art, learning and practice, intellectual rigor, prophetic voice, serious pursuit of faith, and a spirit of hospitality”?

Are We There Yet? If we were to ask this question of John Paul II in relationship to his invitation to Christian artists in 1999, I may be tempted to say that there was a group of Christian artists 20 years previous to his letter that were aiming to live out precisely what he was calling for. Then there is the quarterly journal Dappled Things, which I find to be a superb example of Christian artists living out both what St. John Paul II encouraged in his Letter to Artists and what CIVA strives to accomplish in its mission.The Easter 2015 edition of Dappled Things features several works by artist Ann Schmalstieg from her series “Marriage & Mortality.” As a military wife who lost her spouse in Afghanistan, she is particularly aware of the relationships between body, soul, love, and grief. In her work Placed, she was trying to convey the belief that “life is objectively beautiful, even when pain prevents us from perceiving it as such; the understanding that sacrifice of self is inherent to love, which is the true purpose of the human person; the awareness that great love will open one up to great sorrow; yet, at the same time, the knowledge that overwhelming pain is minor in comparison to the gift of love that is eternal.”[3]

Daniel Mitsui, another artist featured periodically in Dappled Things, specializes in meticulously detailed ink drawings inspired by medieval religious art. His work entitled Sacred Heart, featured in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2016 edition is especially impressive in how it reveals how “all of creation awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19). Mitsui himself explains, “It is one of my ambitions to find theophanic symbols in the scientific knowledge of the present day. The animals that appear in my drawing of the Sacred Heart include sea horses, embryonic dogfish in their tendrilous egg cases, platypodes, chameleons, lyrebirds and a pangolin. In them, I see symbols of universality; they represent all of creation worshipping its God. Chameleons are creatures that seem to contain within themselves all colors, and lyrebirds are creatures that seem to contain within themselves all sounds. Platypodes and pangolins are beasts so peculiar in their anatomy that they resemble creatures of every class. Dogfish and sea horses (as their names suggest) are aquatic animals that resemble terrestrial ones.”[4]

Laudonio 2One final witness to both John Paul II and CIVA’s hopes for Christian artists is Luis Tapia, whose forte is polychrome wood sculpture, a folk art tradition established in seventeenth-century New Mexico. More than that, as Dana Gioia, former Chairman for the National Endowment of the Arts, professes, “He has reconceptualized one of the oldest traditions of Latino and American regional art—the santero’s craft devotional sculpture—in a way that is both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins.”[5] A captivating instance of this reconceptualization is his Pieta, featured in the Pentecost 2017 Dappled Things. Tapia’s reimagining of Michelangelo’s iconic sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless body of her Son is a testimony to someone “who visibly occupies the same daily world as the viewer but also reveals its hidden moral, indeed religious, resonances. He has made the devotional forms of the santero profane and political without losing their sacred authority.”[6]

I, for one, am grateful for publications such as Dappled Things and artists such as the three featured here, as they all represent a resounding “Yes!” to the question Are We There Yet? prompted by both CIVA’s mission statement and Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. And yet, we must admit that CIVA, and all Christian artists seeking to live out their unique vocation, are always in via, on the way, to that fullness of life and beauty which we all desire. Our hope remains in the historical fact that Beauty Himself became physical and tangible, sculpting the greatest work of art ever known in Christ’s very own Body. For it is in Him that we can see Beauty in all its fullness. And as St. Paul reminds us, the Resurrected Jesus is the first fruits of all creation, slowly and patiently sculpting us and the entire material world into the great masterpiece of the new heavens and new earth where one day God will be all in all.

[1]Pope John Paul II, Letter to Artists, 1999, 12.

[2] Ibid, 14.

[3] Ann Schmalstieg, Dappled Things, Easter 2015, 67.

[4] Daniel Mitsui, Dappled Things, Mary, Queen of Angels 2016, 30.

[5] Dana Gioia, Dappled Things, Pentecost 2017, 17.

[6] Ibid., 19.


Marc Laudonio is the Director of Evangelization at the Cathedral of St. Raphael Catholic Church in Madison, WI. He is hopeful that indeed one day “beauty will save the world.”

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