discovery’s Robert Hiini spoke to a Perth academic who’s passionate about helping others to see more in Christian art than a picture…
She isn’t a linguist but academic, Dr Angela McCarthy, delights in teaching a language at once so integral to the Church and yet largely unlearnt by most of us.
Standing before a painting by local artist Robert Juniper in St Thomas More Church, Bateman, she teems with enthusiasm and reverence as she explains the rich symbolism of the work – the meaning of each and every element the artist has chosen to represent.
She says that we have lost this language of symbolism and our ability to understand the Glory of God through art.
And she ought to know. A lecturer at Notre Dame University, she describes herself as having been fascinated with art her entire life, fondly remembering the years her mother sent her to weekend art classes at the technical college in Newcastle from the age of 10.
Her interest in Catholic art is not only academic but also personal being one of nine children born to parents she describes as “incredibly staunch Church people.”
Beginning on November 26 at Notre Dame she will teach a series of classes called ‘Windows to Heaven’ on the ‘writing of icons.’
She says that while icons are “the original Christian art form,” they are more: They are sacred objects – developing in the early and then eastern Church out of a desire to be close to God. “They are sacred in that the theology that’s written there leads you into an understanding of God and as you understand more and more of the symbolism, you engage deeper and deeper in an understanding of who God is.”
Having run the classes at her own parish of Bateman last year, she will take a new group of discoverers through a number of different icons, pointing out and explaining the symbols used in each.
Over the three weeks, participants will get an opportunity to write their own icon; an activity Dr McCarthy assures me is more about spiritual engagement and less about actual artistic talent.
Like all good religious art, she says, icons evoke meditation and contemplation on the spiritual reality the artist is trying to signify, hence the title ‘Windows to Heaven.’ “We examine all of those symbols and a theology that is profoundly accepted by the Church and as you engage in that it becomes a very revealing and often healing exercise.”
At this point in our conversation in her Fremantle office, she takes a print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation down from the wall and proceeds to explain the dense array of symbols contained therein.
“The book on her lap indicates that she is already engaged in the Word of God,” as the angel comes to announce the presence of Christ in her womb.
“Her gesture is saying “surely not me” and yet her face is saying “yes, I will do God’s will.” The blue of her mantle is an ancient symbol of divine truth so she’s wrapped in heavenly truth.”
“The arches echo that heavenly truth and connect her with the truth of God in heaven” as well as conveying an attitude of privacy that the angel enters in to from the outside, signifying “that this is the innermost deepest richest place of herself where God is implanted.”
The presence of Adam and Eve slinking off to the left symbolises the reverse of Mary’s fiat: “They go because now we have someone in Mary who has fully accepted God’s presence in the world.”
As she proceeds to explain the meaning of all the other symbols in the painting I confess what had been my ignorance up until that point and while not laying any fault at my feet, she is not surprised.
“We have lost this language of symbols so when we look at a painting like that we say “oh yeah, it’s a painting but too old fashioned for me” until we get in to the story and theology of it and learn what each of those symbols means. Then we go to a different place.”
More specifically, she says that we have lost liturgical art – art that “in some way needs to engage us in the paschal mystery” as Fra Angelico’s painting does, “because it brings us to contemplate the incarnation.”
Rather than bemoaning this loss of understanding, through ‘Windows to Heaven’ and other teaching engagements, she is trying to share what she knows with others to further enrich the faith lives of her fellow Catholics.
“My fervour is about spreading that wonderful richness that’s left us for a while, that should come back.”
But how did it leave us? Referencing the work of another academic she says that prior to industrialisation, any religious image was created by an artist – beautiful things designed to draw us into the mystery of God.
“In our era now some of the religious objects in churches and peoples home were never touched by human hands.”
I wonder out loud about the difference between a pious image and a piece of art. “One’s done by an artist. Something that’s been created by an artist is going to enter in to completely different levels of symbolism and will evoke something from us visually. A pious object will only evoke that piety.”
She laughs as she recounts a pilgrimage she made some years ago to Lourdes. While she marveled at the atmosphere of prayer – the thousands of people worshipping God pursuing healing and reconciliation – she was rather less enamoured with the religious items peddled by the thriving tourism trade.
“There’s this kitsch everywhere – plastic Jesus, plastic Mary…the luminescent jobs.”
She laughs even harder when admitting to having bought a statue herself, giving in to that other great human need to commemorate a trip with a purchase.
I ask her how we, as Church, get back to our heritage of producing, contemplating and understanding great works of art and her advice is eminently practical.
“We employ artists, not people who want to copy something, but real artists.”
Her own parish of Bateman did exactly that in commissioning local artist Robert Juniper to create liturgical art for their church in the early 90s.
One such painting of an egret integrates both ancient and decidedly local symbols. Situated behind the church’s baptismal font, the painting depicts “a fantastic flow of water from the hills” evoking old testament scenes of Moses hitting the rock and of the water flowing from the temple in Ezekiel. “Where the water spreads there’s greenery growing. Then flying out of the water is this beautiful egret and the egret is blue symbolising heavenly truth. So here we have the truth coming from the water.”
She points to the landscape being very West Australian and the inference that can be drawn with knowledge about the egret – that they will not settle in polluted waters.
I admit to her that I have walked past the other painting of Mary and Jesus many times before without giving it much attention. She says I have been missing out.
“Mary’s there with an unrecognisable face because this parish has 69 different origins of people so Mary is not recognisably of any nation.”
The depiction of the baby Jesus represents a sort of playfulness between ancient depictions and more realistic portrayls of an infant.
“Does he have his hand raised in blessing or is he going to put his thumb in his mouth? So on one side it holds you to the humanity of Jesus, this beautiful child. On the other it’s the classic image of Jesus’s hand as pantocrator and teacher – Lord of All.”
“Then you have Mary in contemporary dress. She’s wearing a kind of Broome floral, if you like.”
“Then there’s the pelicans and the early Christian legend of those is that they strip their breast to feed their young if there’s no food.”
These have not only been a great addition to the liturgical life of the parish, she says, but also a means of evangelisation – giving her an opportunity to share what she knows with her co-worshippers.
After many years spent teaching, Dr McCarthy says that she is still learning all the time.
“I’m just delighted that I’m in a time and place where I can pursue it and develop it and then share it: Share it with as many people as I can.”
For more information on ‘Windows to Heaven’ email firstname.lastname@example.org.