George Bernard Shaw tells us: “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” I think this is true. Beautiful things are valuable, not so much because they are “pretty,” but because they distill the features of our experience so that we can make sense of it (at least that’s what John Dewey would say).
One of the many tasks of Christianity is to help people fathom the paradoxical quality of human existence: time and eternity, divinity and humanity, grace and nature, good and evil, life and death, and so on. For many, these dualities are contradictions: one simply cancels out the other. A subtler view holds that some phenomena, like evil, are not so much things (with being of their own) as the absence or malformation of what should exist (good), while other pairs, like time and eternity, or divinity and humanity, can only be compared by way of analogy. (For example, we learn something of the God who is beyond all material things by imagining certain qualities, though without limitation.) Great art helps us grasp, on an intuitive level, a sense of that wonderful juxtaposition. As a music teacher of mine used to say (was he quoting someone?): “Johann Sebastian Bach could look death in the face and write lullabies.”
Pierre Mignard (1612 – 1695) was a French painter who specialized in portraits, mythological images, and religious subjects: particularly those of Our Lady. His beautiful work, The Virgin with the Grapes, exhibited in the Louvre, adorns our bulletin cover this week. Its rich symbolism is at once profound and tranquil, serious yet…”playful.” The Christ Child peers out at us from under the security of his mother’s veil, almost as though he were playing “peek-a-boo” with the viewer (not unlike the image we saw last week). Moreover, we appreciate Our Lady’s care for her child by feeding him. As the Catholic blogger Veronica Mena points out (https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/12-religious-paintings-meanings-5758), the more prominent of the fruits featured in the painting are the grapes. Beyond their obvious meaning, the grapes symbolize the Eucharist under the form of wine and, for Catholics, the eternal life we have in Christ. Yet we should also take note of the apples on the table, which may well refer to the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, from which Our Lord came to save us. The serious themes of sin and redemption contrast with the innocent beauty of the Mother and Child. Our Catholic imagination encompasses the human experience of both good and evil, and yet the Madonna and her Child reassure us that nothing can prevail over God’s grace and goodness. In a precarious world, the servants of God have nothing to fear.