Monthly Archives: February 2015

Basilica of St. Adalbert: Sacramental Beauty

Sketch by one of my previous high school students now studying church architecture in graduate school at the Catholic University of America.

“…church as a form of sacrament standing both within and outside of time…”

~attributed to John Ruskin

As part of the cityscape in Grand Rapids, MI, the Basilica of St. Adalbert beckons to those near in far to celebrate life’s sacred mysteries with in. Angels and stained glass windows abound in this spectacular Romanesque Minor Basilica. The cornerstone was originally laid in 1881 founded by Polish immigrants. The church has undergone major renovations to become the magnificent basilica that it is today. In December of 1979, Pope John Paul II declared the church the rank of Minor Basilica.

Angelic imagery in the stained            glass of the highest dome.

Within the highest of the three domes of the Basilica is a circular stained glass window. In the center of the stained glass is an image of Jesus surrounded by a dominion of angelic figures. One can begin to reflect on the myriad of imagery, yet “…having representations in churches whether narrative or iconic, is neither for narrative or iconic….(they) are placed so high that they serve neither of these purposes very effectively. They are there, rather,… as reminders of the religious culture from which they derive” (Loc 2203). The choir loft contains a floral shaped window visible from the front of the church above  the three sets of doors.  When gazing on the beautiful floral stained glass window whether from within the church or from without, one doesn’t necessarily need to know which of the images represent which of the twelve apostles. One may speculate on the imagery of the figure in the middle sitting at an organ, but is it really necessary to know exact details?  According to Kieckhefer,   “one need not consult a guide book to determine which angel is represented on a window” (Loc 2203). Within this context the images are simply religious cultural reminders pointing to a basic known principle, but not necessarily of a particular context.

Floral window with 12 petals          representative of the 12 apostles.

Most interestingly I have visited the Basilica on and off for over twenty five years. There was a point in time where I worked for the parish as the Director of Ministries in a joint venture with two other parishes in a  collaborative effort. I regularly frequented the Basilica. I was always drawn to its beauty, yet I had never considered the meaning of the myriad of sacred symbols. “It is all well and good to saturate a church with sacred symbols, but how do they function for a community that has not been told their meanings...?” (Loc 2127). Perhaps it is that I had simply never wondered. As one enters through the doors to the Basilica, one immediately feels God’s entry within gaining a spiritual experience. Indeed the symbols do call one to deeper reflection. Once one’s eyes are open to see, the  meaning is apparent everywhere. Similarly as does Ruskin who “saw buildings as having a kind of poetic metaphorical value

View from the choir loft.

(Loc 2186), I see the Basilica of St. Adalbert as boldly proclaiming the Trinity. From the three beautiful copper domes, the three altars, and the three copper sets of doors in the entryway, the imagery resounds of the Godhead. Kieckhefer states that the “Trinity was symbolized by the nave and the two aisles…and by the nave, choir, and sanctuary” (Loc 2166). The Basilica contains all of that symbolism and more. Within the longitudinal floor plan, the cruciform is evident by the main aisle leading directly to the altar with the aisle  separation from the nave as the cross beam. The Basilica is not only beautiful within, but has spectacular beauty on the exterior at night. “The whole church is a type of heaven” (Loc 2160).  The dome is lit up and can be observed from the city’s skyline. One can see the four angels surrounding the dome symbolizing the four gospels. The angels are playing trumpets as if calling out to the world, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).

“If you look at the surface of the canvas or board, do not look like on a flat surface, but imagine the deep space and light in a depth. This light like a bonfire in the evening field radiate the  circulars.”

~ Yuri Kuchukov, Artist

Naomi and Ruth

When reflecting upon the endless possibilities of icons to unlock, it dawned upon me the perfect opportunity to reflect upon.  This past month in January of 2015, West Catholic High School was entrusted on loan four beautiful icons to display.

The artist of the icons is Yuri Kuchukov, a Russian artist who studied art at the School of Fine Art in Kharkov, USSR.  He came to the United States in the 1970s.  He has exhibited in galleries in New York City.  He developed his skills as an iconographer in the 1980s at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY.  Since 1996 he has taught art at a private school in Hancock, NY.

West Catholic is honored to  exhibit the icons due to the generosity of a local philanthropist who is loaning out four of Yuri’s pieces.  For my interpretation I selected Ruth and Naomi for the reason that I love Ruth’s journey as well as the deep passion that the piece stirs in my soul.  Fortunately, I was able to connect with Yuri to find out more about the piece from his point of view. Further, I was able to understand his motivation and inspiration of the work and iconography.

Yuri’s motivation to paint this particular icon was similar to my desire to select it. He was asked to paint female images of the Old Testament. Yuri responded, “I love the story of Ruth and I started to work on the composition of the painting.

Ruth who as an outsider, a Moabite and traditionally considered an enemy to the people of Israel, seeks to journey with her mother-in-law, Naomi, as she returns to Bethlehem.  My interpretation of the portrayal in this icon is Ruth’s loyal declaration when seeking to accompany Naomi.

‘Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried’  (Ruth 1: 16-17)

Naomi who had already lost her husband and her two sons in Moab decides to return to her homeland in Bethlehem of Judah where she might find refuge with her people.  Naomi persisted that her daughter-in-laws return to their families since she had nothing to offer them. She had no more sons or resources. Ruth would not think of leaving Naomi to travel alone.

Ruth clasps Naomi’s hand. It appears that the clasped hands are in the inner circle of the icon. One is drawn to the open space in the clasp. “In the symbolic language of lines, convex curves always designate expression, the word, spatial unfolding, and revelation”  (Evdokimov IV: 1). In this clasp there is much that is unspoken. Ruth is a Moabite and Naomi a Hebrew. Naomi and Ruth are connecting and yet there is openness and room in the clasp for the Spirit to draw them further together.

DSC_0230

Striking is the solemn and pained look upon Naomi’s face. She is depicted with a staff appearing as the sage Moses. Behind Ruth’s head is a bush burning with crimson red as if referring to the theophany and saving act in Exodus. Ruth does travel with Naomi back to Bethlehem and meets Boaz when gleaning wheat from the fields. Naomi counsels Ruth on the art of manipulating Boaz (Ruth 3:8)  who does then later propose.  Boaz and Ruth have a son Obed. Ruth became the great grandmother of David.

The colors of the landscape are colorfully intense and harmonious as was Yuri’s intent.  The imagery of desert landscape was reminiscent of Yuri’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Geometry Considerations?

When asking Yuri’s response to my perceived geometric features, he expressed the following:

When I painted the Ruth and Naomi I did not think about the geometry, I don’t know how it happens. If you look at the surface of the canvas or board, do not look like on a flat surface, but imagine the deep space and light in a depth. This light like a bonfire in the evening field radiate(s) the  circulars. It is very interesting. The circular composition is often used in Byzantine iconography, Holy Trinity of Andrey Rublev is a great example. When I painted the Ruth and Naomi I did not think about the geometry, I don’t know how it happens.”

What I find most coincidental is that Yuri referred to Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon.  I had desired to interpret that work before I realized it was featured by Evdokimov.

When looking for geometric identifiers, I noticed right away the circular center of the icon including the clasped hands. I even got a tape measure and measured. It was 3′ top to bottom and centered horizontally as well. Four focal points that make a quadrilateral are evident as well. “According to the Fathers of the Church, the number 4 was symbolic of the four gospels. Nothing could be added to or subtracted from that fullness. The number was also the sign of the Word’s universality” (Evdokimov IV: 1).  The first focal point that was previously mentioned is the clasped hands. Another is the top of the staff. The highest point is Naomi as the pillar, and finally the fourth is Ruth kneeling as she is pleading to go with Naomi.

How Beauty Saved Thomas Merton

                                                                 

There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

~Thomas Merton from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

As a commemoration of Thomas Merton’s 100th birthday on January 31, this past week, social media (at least the sites that I follow) was infused with much of Merton’s writings. Interestingly I see many connections between Evdokimov and Merton’s work. Further, I see that Merton’s conversion applies to Evdokimov’s understanding of the role of beauty as well as the salvific power of beauty.

In Merton’s premier work, Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiographical, best selling novel, Merton recollects how he is drawn into the mystery and beauty (eros) of the Catholic Church.  As a young scholar and a man of the world, in his early years Merton considered himself an atheist. His autobiographical work is likened to St. Augustine’s Confessions. As a lover of literature what initially drew Merton to the faith was reading “Nature and Art in William Blake.” As a break through of Merton’s material philosophy and brilliant, rational mind, poetry illumined the interior beauty within him dawning the mystical and supernatural. In Blake’s poetic writings Merton began to see through his transformed eyes the deeper hidden meanings of Blake, “The harlot’s cry from street to street, shall weave old England’s winding sheet.” The interior logos could now be seen by Merton in Blake’s poetic prose: love that was outlawed had become lust.

Before Merton’s conversion he thought of himself as a pagan. He believed that social structures and economics would save humanity. Not only did Merton see himself as a pagan, but as a social critic drawn to seek truth in the rational world. It is in this quest Merton met head on the salvific power of beauty. His awakening came about through the beauty of prose and divine love (eros). Merton’s conversion was a long bumpy road through contemplation and full immersion in the liturgical life of the Church. His awakening brought him to the full realization that the divine creation of the human was true beauty.

Similar to Dostoyevsky’s understanding, as Merton was contemplating the Kingdom, he was contemplating beauty. Dostoyevsky saw beauty as the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit is the direct seizure, grasping of Beauty.” Throughout Merton’s conversion he was continually drawn to the beauty of the Catholic Church, he recognized for the first time that he was feeling happy. The beauty that he was drawn to is eros or love. The feeling of eros was stirring with in Merton as he continued seeking.

According to Merton’s journals on the Sunday he finally decided to go to Mass for the first time at the Church of Corpus Christi he wrote, “God made it a very beautiful Sunday. ” Merton was drawn to the light, the beauty of the bells, and the mystery of grace. Months later after further searching and reading literature like that of James Joyce, Merton felt a stirring and a prompting to walk to Corpus Christi and seek becoming Catholic. Merton was seized by Beauty. The Spirit spoke to him, “What are you waiting for?”

In later years Merton’s conversion grew more deeply while in the Trappist Monastery. Found after Merton’s death in 1968, was his journal. Recorded on the date of Merton’s epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut he wrote, “I am keenly conscious, not of their beauty (I hardly think I saw anyone really beautiful by special standards) but of their humanity, their woman-ness. But what incomprehensible beauty is there, what secret beauty that would perhaps be inaccessible to me if I were not dedicated to a different way of life (Thomas Merton’s private Journal; 3.19.58)

Merton’s diary entry is later transposed in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander as seeing everyone as lights shining in the sun. Merton’ s epiphany is profoundly beautiful and akin to Evdokimov’s composition, “To be in the Light is to be in illuminating communion” (Loc 201). This is recognizing persons as icons which is similar to Merton’s enlightened experience. Merton attributes his awakening to the secret beauty of seeing beings of beauty shining as the sun, to his way of monastic and liturgical life.

Merton was a contemplative and lived deeply steeped in liturgical life. The sacred life of the monastery is silence. The daily life is sacramental. Contemplating the logos, “its interior word” and its “entelechy,” the object itself, would be a daily ritual.   “Their intimate interpretation, the secret coinciding, reveals itself in terms of light and beauty” (Loc 274). The contemplative can see hidden in a bush, as St. Maximus says, “the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of his beauty inside every thing” (Loc 274).

In Merton’s early years he was consumed in seeking positive or cataphatic knowledge of all sorts. Later in life he was drawn deeper and deeper into the realm where words lose meaning and the negative knowledge or apophasis takes on greater value. This contemplation includes the symbolism of the liturgy or the “symbolic realism” (Loc 311) calling deeply an epiphanic symbolism.

As one who lived a contemplative monastic and liturgically immersed life, one would think Merton would have lived as a saint. But, “A saint is not a superman but someone who lives his truth as a liturgical being” (Loc 346) Even though in Merton’s final publicly recorded message in Bangkok he said, “I’m going to fly out of here,” he was no Superman.  Just as Superman had a weakness with kryptonite, Merton had a weakness where he found beauty (eros) in a beautiful young nurse. Fortunately, Merton was able to return in union with the Light and restore his monastic vocation.

Evdokimov’s theologizing on light and beauty seem interconnected and actualized in Merton’s epiphany in Louisville on 4th and Walnut street. Again, as Merton said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”