Christian art born of this empty tomb

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

We are awaiting a summary of Jesuit Jean-Paul Hernández’s introductory speech 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 School of Arts and Theology of Naples, of which Hernández is director, in collaboration with the Cultural Foundation of San Fedele in Milan and under the auspices of the Posillipo Foundation, the conference is under the scientific direction of Giorgio Agnisola and Andrea Dall’ Auction and sees 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, among others.

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 top of another”, we can say that Christian architecture begins when a stone has been 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 examination he says, “They took the Lord out of the tomb” (John 20:2). Almost as if by seeing what happened to the stone, Mary could have guessed what happened to Christ. This is the essence of Christian sacred art: stones that allow us to understand what happened to Christ and lead to his quest. In the original of Joh 20 the verb used in the two sentences is the same ( Air, i.e. “uplift”) and the syntactic parallelism is obvious. With this rhetorical game, the author entrusts the springtime moment of Christian experience to the materiality of stone. Also, “stone” and “son” in Hebrew are two words that are pronounced almost the same and are often referred to in the Bible. So the “stone taken away” is “the son taken away”. “Son” in the affective and protective sense with which we also use this word in Italian for a person dear to us. For Magdalene it is the “loved one taken away” that only leaves a gap, an open door. This parallelism of John 20 is so striking in the Greek text, and the passage between “stone lifted up” and “Christ exalted” is so illogical and surprising that even in the first centuries of manuscript tradition more than one writer was bothered by it. In fact, in a very authoritative manuscript like the Sinaiticus (fourth century), we find the addition “of the door.” Obviously, it was necessary 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 behind the exquisite ambiguity of a “risen” stone. Several exegetes tell us that the place in life One such tale of the empty tomb was the early morning practice of going to Christ’s tomb in the early years of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Presumably it was visited empty and liturgically the announcement of the resurrection sounded in it, proclaimed by a celebrant who became the “angel” in our gospels. Sacred Christian art was therefore born for the Easter kerygma, indeed as an integral part of the Easter kerygma. The biblical complementarity of “sign” and “word” reaches a paroxysm here: the empty tomb does not “demonstrate” the resurrection but “shows” it, making the Word “resound” within it. In Greece: kat-echein (hence “catechesis”). The memorial 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 do you have to see and touch in this first Christian sacred art? It is no coincidence that the Greek word used to describe Christ’s tomb in almost all resurrection stories is mnemeion which also means “monument”. It’s a word very close to the word “memorial” because the root is the verb mimnesko (recall). In fact, since the beginning of humanization, a tomb has made it possible to “remember” the deceased. Sort of to “keep it alive in the memory”. Each grave is a “sadness revision” that attempts to “tame” an absence. But the meaning of the “monument” in Jewish culture is much more significant. To say that Mary Magdalene goes “to the memorial” of Christ is to say that she is transported “by the memory” to the actual encounter with Christ. And it is indeed what the gospel narrative presents to us immediately afterwards. She will “really” meet Jesus because she went to his “memorial.” The passage is clear: “remembrance” of Jesus becomes “encounter with Jesus”. A Jesus then elusive (” Do not touch me”) but corporeal and alive enough to overthrow the heart of the Magdalene and send her out to preach the gospel to the brethren. Note that this “physical” encounter with the living is possible because the “monument” is empty. The believer of the first Christian community in Jerusalem will be able to have a real experience of encounter with the living in his life, because the “monument” that leads to this encounter is empty. The first monument of Christian art is therefore an extremely original “monument”. It is not a flat reworking of mourning, which depicts the deceased in perhaps the most beautiful and touching features, because “we like to remember him that way”. But it’s a gap for a meeting. It is a space that allows for a circularity between the word heard and the signs observed. Signs that allow us to come to faith when illuminated by Scripture. “And he saw and believed” says the fourth gospel of the beloved disciple at the grave (John 20:8). But immediately afterwards we read: “They had not yet understood the Scriptures” (John 20:9). In a way Hysteron Proteron The author tells us that only listening to Scripture, that is, the Word, allows the “signs” (the bandages left in the grave) to lead to faith. Christian sacred art is therefore a place where the signs of death become a place of encounter with the living. In this sense we can say that Christian sacred art is, by its very nature, an “incomplete” art. An art to be perfected through the Word, through the proclamation of the Easter message. If Christian sacred art is to be “complete,” it is a simple remembrance of a dead person in the clumsy human attempt to revive them. 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 exquisitely linked to the first monument of Biblical art tout court, namely the holy of holies of the Temple of Jerusalem. It too basically represents “a void between two angels” above the Ark of the Covenant. The two angels that we find on either side of the tomb in the New Testament. Paradoxically, this emptiness is a place insightful, where a transfiguration of the gaze is experienced. Absence becomes a promise par excellence inconceivably Present. And that promise is the relationship that allows us to see every void on earth as a “sign” of life. Art becomes “Christian sacred art” if it allows this transfiguration. Sacred Christian art is essentially “a frame in the world,” but “a frame that speaks,” like the other two angels asking the apostles “not to look up into heaven” on the day of the Ascension (Acts 1, 11) and therefore (implied) simply to look to the earth to see Christ returning to her. The country will then holy of holies and empty tomb. That means “free for a meeting”. First time not manipulated. That is, for the first time with the one who alone is Lord.

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