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INDIA : THE MISSION OF CHRISTIAN ARTISTS TODAY By Dr. J. Felix Raj, SJ (CNUA)
Address delivered to the Jesuit Artists at Kalakridaya, Kolkata.
Address delivered to the Jesuit Artists at Kalakridaya, Kolkata.
Fr. Felix Raj SJ, Vice Chancellor, St. Xavier's University, Kolkatta Photo - Wikimedia Commons
1. Art and Religion: Art as a diverse act of divine endowment enables an artist to offers aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind in a way that gives delight to humanity and elicits a sense of contemplation as it contains elements of essential beauty and truth. Art is a cultural benefit in so far as culture is broadly defined as “everything whereby human beings develop and perfect their bodily and spiritual qualities.” For Aristotle the proper end of art is “contemplation” resulting from aesthetic response to the beautiful and the ideal. Michelangelo considered art as an experience “sacred” in itself, precisely because there is an extremely profound relationship between art and spirituality. The virtue of these qualities inherent in art has always played a very important role in all religious experiences. In fact, all major spiritual movements have had a lasting influence on art.
2. Jesuits and Art: Although St. Ignatius, the architect of the largest religious Order in the Church, was not known as an artist, his sons inherited from him a sense and sensibility, an appreciation for the revelatory ability of the imagination which was a breakthrough in the western spiritual tradition. Unlike many earlier spiritual writers who warned against fantasy and the use images, Ignatius encourages retreatants to actively use their imaginations and intellects. Meditations and contemplations of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius take the retreatants into visual compositions with eyes, ears, minds and hearts open. Each exercise ends with an application of senses - to see the persons, to hear what they say, to smell, to taste and to touch. Life becomes an orchestration of the senses bestowed upon us by God. Even before the demise of St. Ignatius in 1556, full-scale plays were staged with his blessings in Jesuit colleges in Messina and Rome. The Ratio Studiorum of 1599, the Jesuit educational code recognized the dual value of performance for the young as training in poise and memory: “Our students and their parents become wonderfully enthusiastic, and at the same time very attached to our Society when we train the boys to show the result of their study, their acting ability and their ready memory on the stage”. From these beginnings, a rich tradition of plays filled the courtyards and theatres of Jesuit colleges from Vilnius to Cuzco, from Goa to Manila. The early Jesuits were primarily educators and wherever they started a school or college, they built a church or a chapel. This necessarily propelled them into architecture, sculpting and painting. They used local artists and also artists from other countries, when needed. It is clear from Fr. John’s findings that in different countries the Jesuit would sometimes adapt their creations to the local culture, as in Japan or in Paraguay, to suit the sentiments of the people of the place. Malley siad, “By building churches, they became involved with architecture and painting; by building schools and colleges, they involved in theatre, music and dance.” John O’Malley claims, the Jesuits were as eclectic in painting as they were in architecture. They were (no doubt in vigorous response to Reformists), enthusiastic producers and most prolific patrons to the Baroque art with its ornate, exaggerated and exuberant characteristics displayed in music, dance, design and painting. He reminds that John Paul Reuben and Gianlorenzo Bernini were consistent collaborators with the Jesuits. Over the course of nearly 500 years, Jesuits, among whom many were Brothers like Brother Andrea Pozzo (who was responsible for the wonderful ceiling painting of St Ignatius’ Church in Rome), have used a wide range of artistic platforms to reach out to people.
3. Art and Christianity: Art is an integral ingredient of Christian life and mission. The Church, by its very nature, is missionary. Hence, it has learned to enter into lively engagement with a variety of art forms embedded in cultures it encountered for the benefit of inculturating Christian life and mission, Christian cult, literature, sculpture and architecture. Its long-standing association with the world of art is climactic in the closing Message of the Second Vatican Council addressed to the artists: “We now address you, artists, who are taken up with beauty and work for it: poets and literary men, painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, men devoted to the theatre and the cinema… The Church has long since joined in alliance with you. You have built and adorned her temples, celebrated her dogmas, enriched her liturgy. You have aided her in translating her divine message in the language of forms and figures, making the invisible world palpable. Today, as yesterday, the Church needs you and turns to you…Do not allow an alliance as fruitful as this to be broken.” “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair… It is beauty, like truth… unites generations and makes them share things in admiration. And all of this is through your hands…Remember that you are the guardians of beauty in the world”.
Vice Chancellor Dr. Felix raj is seen discussing St. Xavier's University projects with Industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, an alumini of St. Xavier's College (Goethals News)
4. Mission with a Specific Vocation: St. Pope John Paul II categorically stated, “Beauty is the vocation bestowed on [artists] by the Creator in the gift of artistic talent”. Their talents are not simply for the self but for the human race, at the service of their neighbours and the community of the human kind. Further, Christian artists have a pastoral responsibility to share their unique talent for the benevolence of the Church. From this ecclesial perspective, I would like to suggest some possible areas of artists; mission in the Church.
a) Mission of Inculturation - A keen commitment of Christian artists to develop incultutated Indian Christian art models will be an enduring service for evangelization. Let me explain: India is known from ancient time for its rich Asian multi-cultural heritage. Christianity is also an Asian religion. But when it is presented in Medieval Western cultural garb, as it is being done, what impact will it have on the general public other than looking at it suspiciously as a colonial religion? Pope John Paul II recalled this problematic situation in which evangelization is caught up in India. He commented: “In India particularly, it is the duty of Christians now to draw from this rich heritage the elements compatible with their faith, in order to enrich Christian thought”. Further, Pope Francis reminds us: “Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new “language of parables”. From the seventh century to the present, inculturated Christian art has existed in India which reached a heightened period in the sixteenth century with the work of Jesuit missionaries. Hence, Jesuit artists’ mission of inculturation is not something new but only renewal of that great legacy in our contemporary pastoral context.
b) Mission for the Common good - Society needs artists, just as it needs professionals in other branches of knowledge who ensure the growth of the individuals and the development of the community. Within the vast cultural panorama of each nation and culture, artists have their unique place. Obedient to their inspiration in creating works that must be both entertaining and educative, both worthwhile and beautiful, they enrich the cultural heritage of each nation and of all humanity. They also render an exceptional social service in favour of the common good recognizing the eminent dignity of every person endowed with capacity to decide one’s destiny in life. Today, many artists in India are also social activists engaged with the struggles of the people at the margins of the society. Jesuits in Asia/India have profound as well as practical reason to collaborate with this movement by providing social critical art, because many Jesuits had been forerunners for subaltern movements in Asia/India.
c) Prophetic Mission against Consumerism - Today the culture of commercialization and consumerism has turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain consumers, while the poor eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. Pope Francis advises that the Christian artists, through their talents and by drawing from the sources of Christian spirituality, can be the contemporary prophetic voices for “an alternative understanding of the quality of life led by a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment, free of the obsession with consumption.”
d) Mission of Dialogue - Pope John Paul II proposes that the Christian artists are the best agency to promote dialogue between cultures. He reminds us, “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith.” Hence, they can be bridge-builders between cultures, and between Church and cultures. There is a vast social space in India for Jesuit artists to utilize their talents for building bridges between people in a world in which narrow domestic walls, raised out of fear of fellow beings, stifle the stream of clear thought and pertinent reason. Remember, Pope Francis acclaims the artists as “the custodians of beauty, heralds and witnesses of hope for humanity.”