May 2014 Print

Letters to the Editor


Dear Angelus Press,

In the March/April issue of The Angelus, there was a depiction of Our Lord’s Baptism. Was this appropriate for a Catholic magazine?

Dear Sir,

We are grateful for any feedback on our use of Catholic art in general, even if it involves some criticism or confusion. In this case, since the issue was dedicated to Baptism, it was natural to use some of the most famous depictions from our rich heritage. The image in question is from the 6th century and is a theme found in many baptistries in Italy from the era.

Needless to say, Christ’s baptism in general draws our attention to the humanity of Our Lord at the same time as the Trinity is being manifested, which may explain the more human details found in early Christian iconography. It is a rather common motif to have Christ depicted thus simply covered by the waters of the Jordan, in a stylized mosaic. You will find very similar reproductions in the High Middle Ages, as in Giotto’s Arena chapel in Padua (from the 14th century).

Why did the Christian age give us reproductions which could be seen as somewhat “graphic” by our modern sensibilities? Need we say that these Christian times had a very different purpose in their imagery than what we are now accustomed to? In our rampantly immoral times, when immodesty is ubiquitous, perhaps we have come to see all nudity in art as problematic in itself. It is the Puritan temptation to make no distinctions here and see any depiction of human flesh as intrinsically disordered and problematic. Yet the endless reproduction in churches of our first parents in painting, sculpture and mosaic show indeed the human body as God’s creature, good in itself and an occasion of sin only because of human disobedience. There are also the images of the General Judgment in which the damned are always sent to hell in Adam’s trappings. In other words, there is always a theological bent to picturing the human body: the deviation of the sexual bodies is intimately connected with sin, whether original or personal.

The topic of the morality of nudity in art has often been debated, and we will dedicate a future article to a fuller understanding of the question. It perhaps suffices to say that if such an image is found scandalous, one can hardly visit the churches and museums of Europe, full as they are of similar pictures. The modern world has certainly gone to the libertine extreme, but let us not reject the baby with the bath water. Two thousand years of Christian art are part of our history, even if we may not understand them at first glance.

Sincerely in Christ,

James Vogel