It had always puzzled me why most pre-modern Christian art depicted their subjects with such somber expressions (or weird babies). It is now fashionable for Catholics to quote St. Teresa of Avila when she said: “God spares us from sour-faced saints and silly devotions.” This is often utilized as ammunition against the big bad traditionalists and their morbid dispositions. Like many things there is a balance to be struck. St. Teresa’s own conversion was wrought by means of a grotesque statue of Christ being whipped. A surprisingly graphic statue that was common to Spanish devotional life of that period. I can’t claim to know if there was a cohesive philosophy dictating the choices of artists in their multiform depictions. At that point they didn’t even really have a philosophy of aesthetics. However, I can offer a few reflections as to why it would better to have a somber Christ than a smiley buddy Jesus. Not that the latter is never appropriate so much as it is not appropriate in Churches.
Firstly, life is hard. This life will never give us the full satisfaction we desire. Also, we are all going to die. We have a lot of things to be reasonably sad about. While I’m optimistic about the level of natural happiness possible in this life, that happiness is only possible by accepting these truths. When we are troubled, the Church invites us to experience genuine catharsis by seeing our own sufferings reflected in the suffering face of Christ. Nothing is worse, when beleaguered by sorrow, than being chided by pithy sanguine aphorisms. The somberness of Gothic architecture frees us from the tyranny of shallow optimism and forced felicity that saturates modern society. Atrabilious artwork enables us to experience the full magnitude of our mortality.
Second,rarely have I heard about sorrow for sin. St. Paul states: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor 7:10).” There is a reasonable sadness to be felt on account of our past (and present) failings. There is a limit to the degree and mode for which one can or should experiences this. No doubt modern spirituality tends to overreact to previous excesses in this regard. Although, I affirm with Aquinas and more importantly Christ (Mt. 5:3-11) that it’s good to feel sad for sin every once and while. Art should probable stimulate that contrition, especially in Churches where the sacrament of penance often takes place.
Third, the somber expressions are meant to convey reverence. Reverence can only exist in a world in which there are places and things imbued with more than symbolic meaning. Where an object takes on a profound significance inviting awe. For example, imagine standing in the presence of the constitution or an ancient relic. In our world there are a number of people who seem to be incapable of experiencing the cosmic grandeur attached to an object. Whether by temperament, philosophy, or enculturation I think of this as a serious imperfection. Church art is supposed to help those of us who may not experience that kind of immediate sense of awe to begin to feel it. Church art can help imbue us by making as aware of the sacramental resonance of the liturgy before us.
For these reasons I prefer for artwork in Churches to be more somber. It helps me know heaven is empathizing with my sorrows, helps me feel sadness for my sins in particular, and assists me in experiencing awe before mysteries.
“To thee I lift up my eyes, O thou who art enthroned in the heavens! Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he have mercy upon us.” (PS. 123:1-2)