Christian art, born of that empty tomb

“Women at the Tomb”, mosaic, 6th century. Ravenna, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – archive

We expect a summary of the introductory speech of the Jesuit Jean-Paul Hernández at the conference “What sacred art today?”, scheduled for tomorrow and Friday in the Aula Magna of the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy in Naples. Promoted by the Higher Education School of Art and Theology of Naples, of which Hernández is director, in collaboration with the San Fedele Cultural Foundation of Milan and with the patronage of the Posillipo Foundation, the conference is scientifically led by Giorgio Agnisola and Andrea Dall’ Auction and see interventions by Giuliana Albano, Claudia Manenti, Secondo Bongiovanni SJ, Giorgio Bonaccorso Osb, Roberto Diodato, Bert Daelemans SJ, the artists Nicola de Maria, Ettore Frani, Giovanni Frangi, Bruna Esposito.

Christian sacred art begins on Easter morning with faith itself. Because the first “monument” of Christian sacred art is the empty tomb. If Le Corbusier could say that “architecture begins when one stone is placed on another”, we could say that Christian architecture begins when a stone is rolled in an unusual way. In chapter 20 of the Gospel of John Mary Magdalene “he saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” and without further verification he says, “they took the Lord out of the tomb” (John 20:2). Almost as if Mary sensed what was happening to Christ by looking at what happened to the stone. This is the essence of Christian sacred art: stones that make us understand what happened to Christ, and lead to His quest. In the original of Jn 20, the verb used in the two sentences is the same ( sky, that is, “exaltation”) and the syntactic parallelism is obvious. With this rhetorical play, the author entrusts the spring moment of the Christian experience to the materiality of stone. Furthermore, in Hebrew, “stone” and “son” are two words that are pronounced almost the same and often refer to each other in the Bible. The “removed stone” is thus “the removed son”. “Son” in the affective and protective sense with which we also use this word in Italian for a man dear to us. For Magdalena it is the “taken away beloved”, who leaves only a void, an open door. This parallelism of John 20 is so striking in the Greek text, and the passage between “exalted stone” and “exalted Christ” is so illogical and surprising that it disturbed more than one writer as early as the very first centuries of the manuscript tradition. In fact, in a very authoritative manuscript such as the Sinaiticus (4th century) we find the addition “of the door”. There was apparently a need to resolve the ambiguity and clarify that the “exalted stone” had not been removed “from the tomb” (like Christ), but “from the door of the tomb” to guarantee the difference. But the most original text seems to be the one that leaves the exquisite ambiguity of a “risen” stone. Several exegetes explain to us that the place in life of these empty tomb stories, the custom was born in the early years of the primitive Christian community of Jerusalem to go to the tomb of Christ early in the morning. It was probably made for empty visits and in it the announcement of the resurrection was liturgically heard, proclaimed by a celebrant, who became “the angel” in our gospel stories. Sacred Christian art was therefore born before the Easter rygma, indeed as an integral part of the Easter rygma. The biblical complementarity between “sign” and “word” reaches a paroxysm here: the empty tomb does not “demonstrate” the resurrection, but “displays” it, allowing the Word to “echo” in it. In Greek: cat-echein (hence “catechesis”). The monument of the empty tomb is the “catechesis” of the first Christian community so that the naked Word of the kerygma can become visible and tangible. But what must be seen and touched in this first Christian sacred art? It is no coincidence that the Greek word by which almost all accounts of the resurrection designate the tomb of Christ, mnemonic which also means “monument”. It is a word very close to the word “memorial” because the root is the verb mimnesco (to remember). Since the beginning of humanization, a grave has even made it possible to ‘remember’ the deceased. Somehow to “keep it alive in the memory”. Each grave is a “rework of mourning” trying to “tame” an absence. But the meaning of the “memorial” in Jewish culture is much more meaningful. To say that Mary Magdalene goes ‘to the monument’ of Christ is to say that she is transported ‘by memory’ to the encounter with Christ himself. And this is, in fact, what the Gospel story presents to us immediately afterwards. She will “really” meet Jesus because she went to His “memorial.” The passage is clear: “Remembering Jesus” becomes “Meeting Jesus”. A Jesus then elusive (” do not touch me”) but sufficiently physical and alive to overthrow Magdalene’s heart and send her to preach the gospel to the brethren. Note that this “physical” encounter with the Living One is possible because the “monument” is empty. The believer of the first Christian community of Jerusalem will be able to have in his life a real experience of encountering the Living One, because the “memorial” leading to this encounter is empty. The first monument of Christian art is therefore an extremely original “memorial”. It is not a flat adaptation of mourning that represents the deceased in perhaps the most beautiful and moving features because “we remember him so fondly”. But it’s a void for a meeting. It is a space that allows for a circularity between the Word heard and the signs perceived. Signs that enable us to come to faith when enlightened by Scripture. “And he saw and believed,” it says in the fourth gospel of the beloved disciple at the tomb (John 20:8). But right after that we read, “They had not yet understood the Scriptures” (John 20:9). in a kind of hysterone proterone the author tells us that only listening to the Scriptures, that is, the Word, the “signs” (the bandage left in the grave) can lead to faith. Christian sacred art is therefore a space where the signs of the dead become a place of encounter with the Living. In this sense we can say that Christian sacred art is in its origin an ‘incomplete’ art. An art made to be completed by the Word, by the proclamation of the Easter Annunciation. If Christian sacred art is to be “complete,” it is a simple memory of a dead man, in a clumsy human attempt to revive him. When Christian sacred art accepts that it is incomplete, it becomes part of a complete proclamation, in which the signs of death become the proclamation of life. In the texts of the New Testament, this first monument of Christian art is beautifully connected with the first monument of Biblical art tout court, the holy of holies of the Temple of Jerusalem. Basically it also presents, above the ark of the covenant, “a void between two angels”. The two angels we find in the New Testament on either side of the tomb. This void is paradoxically a place revealing, where a transfiguration of the gaze is experienced. Absence becomes someone’s pre-eminent promise unimaginable presence. And this promise is the relationship that allows us to look at every emptiness on Earth as a “sign” from the Living. Art becomes “Christian sacred art” when it allows this transfiguration. Sacred Christian art is, in fact, “a frame in the world,” but “a frame that speaks,” like those other two angels who, on the day of Ascension, ask the apostles to “look not into heaven” (Acts 1:11). , and therefore (implicitly) to simply look to the earth, to see Christ return to it. The country then becomes holy of holies and empty grave. That is, “empty for a meeting”. Not manipulated for the first time. That is, for the first time with the one who is only Lord.

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