Beautiful works of art make theological statements, manifesting to us profound truths about God
It is time perhaps to turn our thoughts upwards and think of the more transcendental aspects of our religion.
Years ago, as a youngster, I had a book called, I think, The Book of Lists, which as its title suggested, was a book that consisted entirely of lists. You can imagine it: the fifty states of the Union, the Kings and Queens of England, the last six people to be hanged, and so on. There might well be a market for a book of Catholic lists which could feature lists of Popes, saints, and pieces of esoteric information. Who, for example, was the first saint to be photographed? I once knew, but have forgotten.
Which is the most beautiful image of the Madonna in existence? This is the question that is currently vexing me. I do not think that we can ever really have agreement on such a matter, but it is beyond doubt that there are many ugly pictures of the Madonna in existence. I myself strongly dislike many of the images of Our Lady of Sorrows that are so popular in Italy. But two of the most beautiful images of the Madonna that I have ever seen are both in Rome. One is the statue of the Regina Pacis, the Queen of Peace, that dates from the time of the First World War, and which is to be found on the left hand side of Saint Mary Major’s. It is an art nouveau Madonna, and you can see a picture of it here.
The other great statue is la Madonna del Parto, Our Lady of Childbirth, which is to be found just inside the door of Sant’ Agostino in Rome, the very fine church only a few metres from the Piazza Navona. Most people come to look at the paintings of Caravaggio, but they ought not to miss the Madonna. There is a picture here. This statue is the work of Jacopo Sansovino, the great renaissance sculptor, though I have heard the claim that the statue is in fact an ancient work, originally meant to represent the goddess Juno and subsequently adapted for Christian use. (Augustus Hare subscribes to this theory and makes good polemical use of it, but no one else I know of believes this nowadays.)
The Madonna del Parto is the Madonna to whom Roman women who are unable to bear children still turn; and she is the one who protects those in labour; around her statue are numerous ex votos and hundreds of photographs of babies, the evidence of answered prayers.
Both of these works are supremely beautiful, to my mind, and both make a significant religious impact as well. They make theological statements, manifesting to us profound truths about God, about the world and about ourselves. One comes away from contemplating them changed.
As for the greatest Catholic work of art ever created, which tells us more than most books of theology ever could, by pointing us towards the transcendent, that is also in Rome. I mean, of course, Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, which is found in a rather unremarkable church not far from the noise and squalor of Termini station. But that is the way of God, and of Rome: one turns a corner and one comes face to face with the most astonishing beauty where perhaps you least expect it.