Cosmic Onions? What does a Still Life Have to Do with the Liturgy

by David Clayton on May 20, 2011

It is said that all the great art movements begin on the altar. So, for example, the gothic style began as the style for gothic churches and cathedrals in harmony with the liturgy. However, very quickly the architecture of mundane buildings of the period reflected that form too, adapted as appropriate to the purpose of the building (the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge immediately come to mind). Similarly, the baroque style of art and architecture, which began as liturgical forms, became the model for all building and art of the period, with for example, the portraits and landscapes of the 17thcentury reflecting the stylistic forms of the liturgical art of Ribera, Velazquez and Rubens.

This is not just an arbitrary extension of style into non religious subjects. It is consistent with the idea that the whole of the cosmos reflects and points to the rhythms and patterns of the heavenly liturgy. So any art form that is in harmony with the liturgy, will also be harmony with the cosmos. The cosmos, in the context of this discussion, is the mundane. I repeat a remark made to me recently (and no doubt will do so in the future, for it says it so well): the Mass is a jewel in its setting, which is the Liturgy of the Hours; and in turn the liturgy as a whole is itself a jewel in its setting, which is the cosmos. When we perceive God’s creation as a thing of wonder and beauty, we are recognizing at a deeply intuitive level, the harmonious relationships between all aspects of the cosmos and the heavenly order. The heavens point to Heaven and circle is completed.

The work of man, through God’s grace can, simply through its beauty, participate in this cosmic order and therefore direct the souls of mankind to the heavenly order too, believer and non-believer alike. It is through the mundane aspects of Catholic culture that we look to therefore, to lay the groundwork, so to speak, of drawing the non-believers to God, for it will be very likely the first aspect of Catholic culture that they will have contact with. A beautiful landscape or still life can open up the souls so that they might become fertile ground for the later sowing of the seed of the word.

The baroque painting of the 17th century, is a naturalistic form that is every bit as integrated with the Catholic worldview as the iconographic. The baroque portrays our naturalistic world as imperfect, fallen, but nevertheless still good. It’s aim is to acknowledge the presence of evil and suffering, while offering hope through Christ that transcends it. Much of the visual vocabulary of the tradition is linked to contrast of despair and the hope that transcends it for example in the symbolism of light contrasted with darkness; of variation of focus in which those areas of primary interest are sharper and crisper than those of secondary interest; and of variation in colour in which those areas of primary interest are rendered in naturalistic colour, while those of secondary interest are rendered tonally in monochrome. In the context of sacred art, I have written about it, for example here.

A simple still life, therefore, can portray the work of God or man (inspired by God) and it does so by employing the same visual tools. Whereas a landscape looks at the broad horizon in wonder, the still life invites contemplation of the small and ordinary aspects of everyday life. through them we can see how even these small otherwise unremarkable details of the day conform to and participate in the same liturgical dynamic as the grand cosmos. The Christian artist can create cosmic vegetables, or cosmic pots and pans that, in the words of the Canticle of Daniel, ‘give praise to Lord’.

The model to look to in this regard is the French 18th century artist, Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin. His is the painting shown above. The person who drew my attention to Chardin is Henry Wingate, a Catholic and Virginia-based artist who is a wonderful painter of portraits and still lives. (He is also a gifted teacher who his teaching the naturalistic drawing class at the Thomas More College summer program this year.)

I show below an example of a still life by Wingate which reflects, in my opinion, the baroque vision of the world. I you wish to see more I posted a series of his still lives recently, here; and for those who are interested, I have written about his portraits here.

Above: still life by Henry Wingate; below: Jar of Olives and Silver Cup, by Chardin (1699 – 1779)

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Cathey R. Bayless May 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I love painting still lifes because they depict a still life – calm, peaceful. I feel peaceful when I paint them, and when I look at them. I love the still lifes of the Dutch Masters because strings of pearls symbolized vanity, vanity, vanity and snuffed out candles symbolized the transience of life.

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