A Crisis of Crèches

Today, religious art is the subject of an almost universal indifference. It’s no great task to see why.

In September of 2019, Pope Francis (or, rather, Pope Francis’s coterie of managers, handlers, and other particolored eminences) installed a statue called Angels Unawares in Saint Peter’s Square on the snappily named World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Pope John Paul II had transferred the observance to the Second Sunday after Epiphany. This year, Francis shifted it to the months preceding the presidential election.

The statue depicts a barge full of refugees. The figures, crammed together, stand in several thick-set bronze columns of humanity. Yet the sculpture itself manages to squat rather than stand. Each figure is designed to elicit pity, either because of a certain weather-beaten Promised Land “Leaning-on-the-everlasting-arms” look—or because, like one figure, they crouch, eyes and mouth wide with pain, at the very end of the queue. Both poses are, I am afraid, artistic clichés, and therefore both are deceptive.

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The piece might have been done better in bas-relief, since it is not, at any rate, a three-dimensional portrait of refugees or migrants as a whole. One noticeable difference: they aren’t modern refugees and migrants. They are dressed up as extras from a period film set in the early twentieth century. If this were a Charlie Chaplin film, one might expect them to appear following a title card reading “The Hopeful Refugees. . !!!” What can this tell us, except that this statue and its promoters are peddling a simplistic political position: the naivete of the melting pot?

The verse that serves as the statue’s title—“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”—commands us to acts of individual charity rather than to toe the U.N. party line on Replacement Migration. When Eric Gill said, “All art is propaganda,” I am certain this is not what he meant.

It’s unfortunate, because in general the artist—one Timothy P. Schmalz—is a decent and imaginative sculptor. Usually his work is full of movement, unexpected leaps, curves, and striking imagery. He is at his best when he depicts relatively simple subjects: Saint Benedict, the Little Flower, or Saint Michael and the Dragon. I don’t think he’s brilliant, but he can do better than Angels. Some of his sculptures remind me of Blake’s paintings. But his only real mood is emotional and devotional.

Before the season of cold and darkness descended on our fair state, my wife and I spent a lovely Sunday picnicking on the lawn of the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. I had no idea it existed, though as a boy on holiday, I had often stopped in admiration by the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on the Boston Common. This work and the barge statue mentioned above both aim alike to portray those “on the peripheries” as human and worthy of sympathy.

Yet what a difference! The Gould Shaw Memorial shows the nobility of human suffering. It elicits a feeling of tragic glory. It ennobles, because its theme is noble. But more importantly, it is beautiful. It subordinates its political message to the truths of harmony and proportion. Angels Unawares does not. The humanity it seeks to stir up in its audience is smothered by a feeling of kitsch, and the disappointment of an idea crudely and eccentrically expressed.

But the Vatican’s new Nativity scene stains the record of papal taste with an even darker blot. Supposing that some Abruzzian sixth grader had mistakenly sent to the Casa San Marta a hand-made present intended to grace the benevolent and uncritical eye of his favorite Nana, one might understand, and reserve judgment.

Again, if a devious prankster had swapped out the title card, one might feel free to imagine that this amalgamation of ceramic was intended to represent an Esquimaux family standing in triumph over a clubbed seal. (The figure intended to be the Christ Child has, to my mind, a rather stunned expression.) Alternative interpretations might include a set of oversized and ugly extras from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, or a pile of used dinner plates left out in the middle of a power plant. Perhaps the workshop that produced these objects intended to give artistic expression to Edgar Allen Poe’s observation that “there is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.” By that solitary metric, this heap of drab nonsense is exquisite indeed.

In 2018, when the Vatican commissioned a life-size presepio, conservative journalists and bloggers jockeyed to be first in at the kill when they became aware that the Nativity scene in question features an exceptionally well-developed man, nel nudo, lounging about as a second fellow drapes a bit of cloth over his vulnerable pudendum. People seemed worried that it was a hat tip to the Lavender Mafia. Perhaps so. To me, it seemed closer in kin and kind to a 1970s Stretch Armstrong doll. In other words, it seemed like kitsch. It seemed like bad art.

Of course, I unfairly focus on decisions made under the auspices of the current pope. There has been plenty of shabby, grotesque, and even blasphemous art installed in the Vatican during the last century. But I will allow the gentle reader to pursue his own rabbit trail toward the bottom of the raging dumpster fire of modern art. Not all is wicked in the Modern Wing, of course. There are several pieces that combine expressiveness with both craftsmanship and contemporaneity. One might mention the work of Will Barnet, Pedro Cano, Adolfo Wildt, Francesco Messina, and many others. A personal favorite of mine in the collection is Munch’s Il padre in preghiera. All in all, it’s rather a mixed bag.

It’s easy for people to shift weight in the ergonomic rolling desk chairs and lament the decline of sacred art. It is easy to say, “If only we had sound teaching, we would have sound art.”

But frankly, it’s not that simple. As Dana Gioia put it:

The Catholic subculture seems conspicuously uninterested in the arts. What absorbs the Catholic intellectual media is politics, mostly conducted in secular terms—a dreary battle of Right versus Left for the soul of the American Church. If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it’s probably time to shutter up the chapel…. If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time to render everything up to Caesar.

In short, we have only ourselves to blame.

[Photo credit: Pool/AFP via Getty Images]


  • Michael Yost

    Michael Yost has a wide variety of interests, most of which may be pursued either in the garden or in his library. He’s a recent convert from Anglicanism and a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. When hounded, he goes to earth in the depths of rural New Hampshire, where he and his wife are raising their infant son.

tagged as: Art & Culture

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