Raphael’s School of Athens. A great painting in the Vatican by a great Renaissance artist

So I was thinking recently of all the different types of Catholics in today’s divided world, or the different factions within the Church. For instance, on the more orthodox sides we have such groups as the  Traditionalists, Neo-Traditionalists, Sede Vacantist (they believe there has not been a legitimate Pope since Pius XII died in 1958), just to name a few. On the less orthodox side, well we have those who probably should just become Protestants yet still want all the aura and legitimacy that the Catholic Church provides.

What you basically have is a spectrum of those whose spiritual leanings are either toward the rigidly orthodox, and those who want to change a myriad of Church teachings and doctrines, essentially transforming the Catholic Church into a kind of glorified Anglican Church.

So, in the midst of all this strife and confusion in today’s Church, I will offer my own variety, the type of Catholic I want to be. Hey, we live in a market place of ideas and religions, so why not? So I am adopting something which has not been in vogue for at least four centuries: the Catholicism of the Renaissance. That’s right: all the degeneracy, decadence, and impurities of the Renaissance Church. Popes fathering children, Popes leading armies into battle, Popes selling indulgences to the highest bidders, now that is what I call a practical version of the faith or what others might call the “Whore of Babylon”…

Well not really, but…

What I do mean is this: a spiritual and religious celebration of beauty, of great art, and great literature. The recent header I added to my blog is from a famous work found in the Vatican: Raphael’s Parnassus. Raphael is, along with Leonardo and Michelangelo, one of the three great painters of the Italian High Renaissance. For centuries he was considered the greatest of the three, although there is plenty debate on that today. This scene depicts Mt. Parnassus, the traditional haunt of the Nine Muses in Classical Greece. Apollo sits in the middle, playing a musical instrument (music was one of Apollo’s attributes), while he is surrounded by the Nine Muses. We have images of famous poets on each side of the muses, for instance, on the far left we have the great triad of Homer, Dante and Vergil (Homer is the blind poet in the middle, and Dante and Vergil are on either side of him). There are many more great poets in this image, too many to mention here (I don’t like making my blog post too long). This fresco is found in the same room in the Vatican that another, even more famous painting by Raphael is found, The School of Athens, which is depicted at the beginning of this post. To stand in this room and be surrounded by such artistic greatness is a wonderful experience.

Many at the time found these images somewhat scandalous: the unbridled celebration of pre-Christian, pagan societies and figures. After all, this is the Catholic Church, depicting an image of a pagan god, Apollo. But what these critics of these art works did not understand is that they are only symbolic and nothing more than a celebration of great art and literature, whether present or past, and that this great art and literature was in some way or form ultimately derived from God, even in pagan societies. Still, such artistic movements ultimately lead to severe reactions, both within and outside the Church. We can partially trace the Protestant dislike of religious imagery to these heady days of Catholic artistic fecundity. In reaction to the Protestants the Catholics went even further and developed the Baroque style of art, which lacks the spiritual grace and harmony such as we find in Raphael’s high classical style.

So to sum this all up: in answer to the puritanical leanings of many religious people, who mistrust much of art and literature, I say lets celebrate the beauty of great art, literature and life in general. Great art and literature often transmits deep religious and spiritual themes in a way that a drier, although perhaps more accurately intellectual theology, cannot. And if we even get a little decadent every now and then in our pursuit of these things, in our expressions of love and eros, of spirituality and beauty, well I say that is a risk worth taking. Unlike in our highly utilitarian world of today, the Catholicism of the Renaissance, despite its many problems, produced some of the greatest artists of all time, artists whose expression of Christian faith remain to this day unmatched. For at least some of us of a spiritual bent, this is highly alluring.

I hope to show more examples of what I mean by all this in future posts.