Tag Archives: Michelangelo

Contemporary art is capable of conveying eternal truths

June 29, 2010


School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Ann Osborne holds her artwork “Sanctuary” as she stands in her Mankato studio.

School Sister of Notre Dame Mary Ann Osborne holds her artwork “Sanctuary” as she stands in her Mankato studio.

People don’t usually think of Michelangelo as a modern artist.

He’s known for his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the marble “Pietà” in St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s dome that dominates the eastern Roman skyline.

But it’s partly a Michelangelo sculpture that inspired Sister Mary Ann Osborne to create the contemporary wooden artworks that fill her Mankato studio and grace several churches, including Holy Rosary in Minneapolis and Pax Christi in Eden Prairie.

Known as the “Pietà Rondanini,” it was one of several pietà statues carved by the Renaissance artist. It was also his last; Michelangelo worked on it just days before his death in 1564.

Most historians consider this pietà an unfinished work because it lacks the smooth polishing and intricate dealing of his other work.

Sister Mary Ann thinks it may be otherwise: a modern piece before its time.

In it, Mary holds the crucified Christ vertically, his head resting on her shoulder. The marble is rough and tool marked, the faces undefined. A disconnected arm is suspended in front of Christ, revealing that Michaelangelo either changed his mind or reused another piece.

“I love more primitive pieces; they bring out the essence of what something is about,” she said. “Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Michelangelo’s piece, because it is more primitive.”

Mary and Jesus’ chests are touching, she pointed out, as if their hearts are connected. “It always spoke to me as something that [Michelangelo] knew at the end of his life that was different than when he was a young person,” she told me as she sat in her studio, surrounded by her art, raw wood and tools.

Professed for 35 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame, Sister Mary Ann has been making art for about 25 years. She works mostly in wood, but her sculptures also include glass, tile, paint and metal. Many of her pieces are large, and all of them are inspired by her Catholic faith.

“It’s really ancient truths told in new ways,” she said. “I cannot really separate who I am and how I pray from my art, because it’s one and how God speaks to me.”

‘Custodians of beauty’

On Nov. 21, Pope Benedict XVI hosted more than 250 international artists in the Sistine Chapel, where he invited them and their work into a deeper relationship with the church.

“Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world,” he told them.

For centuries, the church was the greatest patron of the arts, but in the last few centuries that relationship has waned, giving way to a growing disconnect between contemporary art and the church.

I haven’t always connected with it, either. Truth be told, for a long time, I detested modern and contemporary art.

I mean, it looks weird, right?

Its abstracted or stylized forms are confusing, and I’m often frustrated by my inability to immediately understand the message the artist is conveying. At first glance, some of it can look unrefined and childish.

However, I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve learned to appreciate the challenge of contemporary art, the way it coaxes me to really think about  what I’m seeing.

Earlier art doesn’t always do that. Unfortunately, it can be easy to gloss over a medieval “Annunciation” painting, because its scene and meaning are so painstakingly clear.

However, a modern “Annuncia­tion,” like the one in Sister Mary Ann’s studio, compels me to pause to consider the symbolism, to ask why the artist painted something in that way.

“I want to help people see things in a new way, or a deeper way,” Sister Mary Ann said.

His own relationship with art persuaded Pope Paul VI to inaugurate the Vatican Museums’ Collection of Modern Religious Art in 1973.

“We need you,” he had told artists in 1964 at a Sistine Chapel gathering strikingly similar to that of Benedict XVI. “We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God himself.”

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated these words Nov. 21, urging the artists not to seek “mere aestheticism,” but rather authentic beauty that liberates mankind from darkness and transfigures it, “unlocking the yearning of the human heart

. . . to reach for the Beyond,” ultimately spurring the heart toward God.

“Faith takes nothing away from your genius or your art,” he said. “On the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal, the sun that does not set, the sun that illumines this present moment and makes it beautiful.”

As much as an exhortation to artists, the pope’s words are also an invitation to viewers: Don’t so easily write off the works of contemporary artists. Search out the beautiful, the true and the good within the works. Ask what they can teach you, and then be taught.

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Take a Sistine Chapel tour without ever leaving home

January 19, 2009


“Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,”

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you’ve ever taken a tour with a guide who wasn’t connecting with his or her group, you come to appreciate really good tour guides, people who not only know their subject but engage you in the topic, bringing information, insight and even entertainment.

My wife and I had that excellent kind of guide — Liz Lev — with a group touring the Vatican Museums. Everything we saw became so much more meaningful thanks to a great guide who was able to help us see not just artistic value but intention and the works’ place in history.

With “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Andrew Graham-Dixon offers much of the same insight to his readers.

It’s not quite halfway into his book that the London-based art critic begins an absolutely thorough interpretation of Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel.

But that’s because he sets up his art instructing by first giving readers a rather complete picture of the artist and his world at the beginning of the 16th century.

Inside Michelangelo’s world
No piece of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is left untouched, and I came to feel that the biographical section of this book was as helpful and important for understanding the Sistine Chapel as the interpretation of the world-renown paintings itself.

We learn of the artist’s family background, his training, his benefactors — and most importantly his faith.

Graham-Dixon’s analysis is that Michelangelo felt the hand of God in his life:

“Before he was ever chosen by the Medici, or the pope, he had been chosen by God. . . . He felt that he had been given his gifts by God, and charged with serving the purposes of the divine will.”

Using those God-given skills then, “Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be,” Graham-Dixon claims. “He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of Christian faith, centre stage.”

A superior user’s guide
The heart of the book, written in observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the work by Michelangelo in 1508, is Graham-Dixon’s interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. While not ignoring style, he focuses on what Michelangelo meant by what he painted, how the pictures’ meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which the artist gave expressive life to this amazing group of interlinked compositions.

As a user’s guide to the Sistine Chapel, this book is superb.

Graham-Dixon walks us through each section and each panel of each section, pointing out not only beauty and the technical skill but why each figure is painted the way it is.

What we learn is that Michelangelo was a student of Holy Scripture — especially the Hebrew Books — and that he aimed to paint “his own vision of what he believed to be the eternal truths of Christianity,” the author states.

Readers will come to understand the geography of the chapel ceiling, how the famous depiction of creation — with God’s pointed finger reading out to touch the finger of Adam — fits into the rest of the biblical history, with the great cast of characters including Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, Judith, Jeremiah, Jonah and on and on.

Graham-Dixon gives his excellent interpretive skills to helping readers grasp in much the same way Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” painted 15 years after the ceiling. Taking up the entire wall behind the chapel’s altar, it is a monumental fresco as rich with meaning as the ceiling above.

Sadly, details of this beautiful work are depicted only in black and white photos, which hardly do justice to this colorful masterpiece.

Bigger would be better
And, if there is any fault at all in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” it is the small size of the pages — six inches by nine inches. There are 32 full-color pages that bring the Sistine’s ceiling right into our hands, but I couldn’t help but think how much more delight to the eye would have been deivered in a larger format. Perhaps Skyhorse Publishing will be able to work that out in a later edition.

As it is, though, I compared the printing in this latest book with the same Sistine Chapel panels printed in a larger, coffeetable-sized book given to me as a gift several years ago.

The color work — the brightness and the clarity — in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel” is far superior.

If you plan to visit the Vatican, take this along to read on the plane ride. It’s a fact-filled yet easy read with the beautiful prose that is the hallmark of a fine writer.– bz

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