Thursday, August 09, 2018

An ART in Orvieto Missive: Week 3, Sacred Recycling and Artistic Vocation

by Julia de Boer

Gallery night, where all participants shared their work from Orvieto.

In our last week in Orvieto, we took a little "field trip." Instead of being in Rome, Florence, or Assisi, this one was within the city itself, just a short walk from the convent. It was arranged for our group to go below the church of San Andrea, to see the archaeological excavations that were going on underneath the floor of the present-day church.

Human activity on top of this rock foundation dates back to at least the Bronze age, to some Italic peoples. Etruscan activity begins in the 7th century B.C.E. Our guide was able to show us the cobblestones of an Etruscan road and some home dwellings. After the Etruscans are brought under the long and forceful arm of Roman administration, the distinction between people groups begins to disappear and the Etruscans and their descendants intermingled with the Romans. What is clear, however, is that after they were Christianized they went to nearby Bolsena to avoid a Barbarian invasion, and then later returned to Orvieto and built a church on that site, making use of the Etruscan wells for their baptismal font and the stones of their homes for the church walls. The church at street level is the second one built on the site, the seat of the bishop before the Duomo was built a few hundred metres away. The blending of various people groups and religious traditions is significant, because the Christians who returned to Orvieto and built the font were related to the Etruscans who dug the wells initially.

Decorations from the first Christian church built on this site,
above Etruscan homes and roads

It felt to me like a physical hermeneutic spiral, going around and coming back at the problems of life with fresh insight. Or like an ambitious recycling project, reusing bits of mosaics from pagan temples in Rome to decorate around the altar.

It is interesting to consider the future potential for Christian art within the city of Orvieto (and the Italian context in general). With so much famous and genre-setting art inside these churches, what place do artists have today? As conservation gets better and better, the need for fresco painters is for restoration and not innovation. Am I advocating for painting over priceless, Holy-Spirit inspired works of art? Not really, or… maybe, since there is something stirring about the idea that faithful Christians will be needed throughout time to add to the history of a single building in a way that is not "merely" mimetic. There are a few new frescoes in San Francesco, Assisi, and a beautiful new baptismal fount in Orvieto’s San Andrea that show a continuation of expertise and artisan craftiness. This current baptismal font functions as a time-machine, once one has learned about the recycling of Etruscan wells for this new Christian sacrament. All of the interactions of space and time, people and place, are recalled by this one liturgical object.

Covering over an Etruscan well,
later used as a baptismal font in the church built on top
The question then evolves: “What would Christian art be like in Italy in contexts other than the church?” This is not really about religious images that are no longer in context, but the possibility for religiously suggestive art to partake in other societal contexts. It is an investigation of how persons of faith in Italy, with the co-extensiveness of the Catholic church, are participating in art-making communities that are not parish related.

In North America, where the idealization of parish life is relaxed or non-existent, it is more necessary to imagine contexts which are pluralistic or secular. Some of the post-modern philosophers we discussed during this course (Richard Kearney, Charles Taylor, Nicholas Wolterstorff, et al.) expressed a deep optimism that art could have a transcendent, ecumenical, good-news-sharing capacity within secular and pluralistic communities, not something to be feared but embraced and celebrated for its evolving character and sensitivity to the dangers of modernist meta-narratives.

The newest baptismal font in San Andrea, Orvieto
Theodor Adorno, whose work we also briefly addressed, explicitly denied the possibility of religious art that was not propogandistic, or tied to a hierarchical religious institution or hegemonic truth paradigm. All the artists on our course were bound to disagree with him; of course we want to hold out for the possibility of religious art which is not mere propoganda. However, examining Adorno’s work in the context of the Second World War was powerful in helping to elucidate why expanding the work of the artist from the church alone to all other spheres of life was attentive both to the abuses of power from which Christians should hope to remove themselves and perhaps the movements of the Spirit.

It is impossible to distill this class down to a single nugget of wisdom, because the contexts to which our students will return are so diverse. In the way that the discussion of religious art has similar and dissimilar vectors to the discussion in Toronto because of their seperate histories and their relationships to institutional religious practice, so it differs again in the lives of each of our participants, returning home to other countries and cities.

The vividly coloured ceilings in San Andrea, Orvieto
Personally, I came away again this year with a profound sense of gratitude, a thankfulness that there could be such differently abled and talented artists and scholars returning to their lives, jobs, teaching positions, and studios after this shared experience of mind and creativity together in Italy. Having met these artists and those last year, heard their stories, and felt their enthusiasm for the subject, I feel such a certainty that Christians can and will continue to make art suggestive of faith and transcendence.

Julia de Boer is a PhD student at ICS and assistant to Dr. Smick in Orvieto, studying philosophical aesthetics and linguistics. Orvieto had a special place in her heart, even before she went on the ART in Orvieto course the first time, and she continues to fall deeper in love with this city on every sequential visit. Photos by Julia de Boer.

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