Art, Truth & Time, Essays in Art by Sister Anselma Scollard OSB, Luath Press, 112pp, £12.00
‘Artistic creation depends as much upon the body as soul and the soul’s intelligent use of the body’s own way of understanding’, writes Sr Anselma in her Preface to this insightful collection of fourteen essays on art, its relationship to faith and its capacity to express truth.
Drawing on the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure, Pope Benedict Emeritus, Jacques Maritain and von Balthasar, as well as continental philosophers of the last century who wrote on aesthetics, such as Ernest Cassirer, she offers a vivid vision of the human person, unique unity of body and soul, whose art, properly rooted in God and objective reality, is capable of bearing truth and therefore of purveying peace. Art, she argues, creates a way of ‘seeing beyond the present moment’.
The volume is divided into five sections. The titles of the sections and those of the essays within them reveal the importance of the subjects treated: ‘Art and Truth’, ‘Art and Humankind’, ‘Criticism’, ‘Art and Death’; ‘Body and Soul: Some Reflections on Art and Religion’, ‘Spontaneity and Objectivity’, ‘The Importance of the Subjective: the True Meaning of Originality’, ‘Art and Death: the Endless Search, the Enduring Present’ and ‘Visual Silence in Monastic Architecture: Cistercian Architecture of the 12th and 13th Centuries’. An Appendix offers glimpses of Sr Anselma’s own work in the monastery: a crozier carved for her abbess, an arbour with vines, table and stools in the garden of the Garth Retreat House which is offered by the enclosed Benedictine nuns of St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight for the use of guests, together with a plan of its flowers and plants.
Beyond analytical reasoning
In the first section, the author reflects in two short essays on ‘The Experience of Truth’ and the relationship of ‘Art, Truth and Time’. Here, we encounter leitmotifs that are heard throughout the volume: truth transcends description by the scientific method (the thinking of Pope Benedict Emeritus is evident here); it ‘exists before and beyond’ the analytical reasoning of which it is sometimes presented as a product; real artistic vision engages with the objective world; it ‘points to the future’ rather than seeking celebrity at a ‘cutting edge’ of an artistic practice in the present that is inevitably transitory.
Reason and hands
Central to the second section is the role of the body, and particularly the human hand in artistic creation. Before entering St Cecilia’s Abbey, Sr Anselma worked and lectured on sculpture. ‘We cannot imagine how a “mind” could paint’ wrote Maurice Merleau-Ponty. His words serve as an epigraph to the second essay in this section and as a critique of ‘Conceptual Art’ where art, remaining simply an idea, betrays ‘its own materiality’. Man, as Thomas Aquinas observed, is equipped ‘with “ratio et manus” – reason and hands’, hands that are ‘the tool of tools’ – “organa organorum”’. These and later essays express appreciation of the material world and of the delicate receptivity to the nature of the materials with which the artist must be ‘in dialogue’. Sr Anselma also reflects on the physical senses, particularly that of touch and their analogy to the spiritual senses of which St Bonaventure wrote. These medieval sainttheologians and philosophers thought so much about art and the human person’s path to God.
An unfinished gesture
In the section ‘Art and Death’, the reader is offered two examples of how art may be ‘a bearer of truth’. When working in Milan
before entering St Cecilia’s, the author used to spend her lunch hours in the Pinacoteca di Brera gallery. In the stillness of Mantegna’s Il Cristo Morto (c. 1480), death is presented in its finality: Christ lies on a mortuary plinth; only the mourners, probably added by a later hand, disturb the silence. The painting, observes, Sr Anselma, is composed on the horizontal: this is death as traditionally defined - the separation of the soul from the body.
Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà expresses a different truth. Unfinished and originally intended, perhaps, as an Entombment sculpture, it has been reworked on the vertical. The composition expresses ‘an unfinished gesture’, a ‘movement towards eternity’; it communicates the dynamic of resurrection. It occurred to me, reading this essay on ‘Art and Death’, that in a society that has largely lost a coherent vision of the significance of death, beset by ethical problems relating to the end of life, informed contemplation of these works might open the beginning of a new understanding where discursive argument fails.
Originality within tradition
The final section offers two essays on monastic architecture. Quarr Abbey astonished Pevsner when he visited the Isle of Wight in the mid-1960s: it was ‘inspired indeed’; its architect was a ‘virtuoso in brick’. This was the work of the monkarchitect Paul Bellot (1878-1944) who had come to the Isle of Wight in 1901 with his Benedictine brothers from the Abbey of St Pierre of Solesmes in exile on account of France’s anti-clerical laws. A little way up the coast, the nuns of Ste Cécile of Solesmes had at the same time found a home at St Cecilia’s. This essay memorably illustrates how originality can innovate while working within tradition and how creative are the fruits when artistic subjectivity engages with objective reality – the subject of earlier essays. These are particularly Benedictine reflections awoken by Benedictine architecture.
These are subtle insights. Compressed, at times running together a number of different philosophical and theological lines of thought, the essays are not always easy reads. Thought provoking and vivifying, however, they repay careful reflection: all three of our last Popes, Francis, Benedict and St John Paul II have signalled the arts are a subject of great importance.
Truth through matter
One of the most joyous and profound insights explored in these essays is that ‘It is in weak and vulnerable flesh that man is saved. It is in matter and through matter that man creates art’. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, the author suggests, that a spiritual truth can, at times, be expressed ‘more efficiently’ by matter than it can be by analytical formulation. In a striking insight applied to the artistic process, she observes that Wisdom, traditionally considered the highest of the spiritual gifts, ‘spans from end to end’ (Wisdom 8:1), and, being exceptional in its reach, encompasses both speculative thought and the humble materiality in which the artist works, ‘ordering all things sweetly’ (Wisdom 8:1).
The fruit of contemplation
Before entering St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight in the late 1970s, Sr Anselma practised and taught sculpture, having read for a double degree in Philosophy and Sculpture at the University of California, and later for an MA in Philosophy. Some years ago, she was invited by former colleagues in the art world to contribute, from the monastery, to the art journal Blunt Edge. In response, she wrote a number of the essays presented here. Recently, she was approached with the proposal that her essays might be published in the form of a book. Art, Truth & Time is the result.
Stimulating and the fruit of contemplation, these essays invite the reader to return to the many sources, old and new, that are cited and set here in original, unexpected, illuminating dialogue.