Book Review: Seeing the Mystery by William S. Taylor

Seeing the Mystery: Exploring Christian Faith Through the Eyes of Artists by William S. Taylor was a find for me at a local thrift shop. One look at some of the provoking paintings in the book was enough to convince me that it would be at least worth the laugh if it did not contain anything actually insightful.

What I found was a good book, with several interesting and thoughtful expositions of paintings depicting various religious themes. The author’s comments were beneficial, at least for an artistic novice myself, in pointing out several paintings’ strengths and weaknesses in showings Christ’s humanity and divinity. The book also focuses on how a particular culture can influence a painter’s depictions of Christ in terms of race and style.

Although interesting the author failed to connect a few important dots clearly which I would expect from a book published by the Catholic publishing company Novalis. The author connected to the United Church of Canada, cannot be blamed too harshly for not clearly showing how art can be liturgical and especially connected to the sacraments as their affiliated church is poor on these ancient, apostolic and Catholic teachings.

But first I will point out a rather false idea expressed on page 7 in the preface. “Like an artist, the Bible singles out details to convey a universal truth. So, for instance, it does not talk of the origins of the human race in general. Rather, it gives us a picture of a single man and a single woman. It lets their story illuminate the experience of the race. From that picture of one man and one woman, our minds reach out to understand something of what it means to be a human being in God’s world.

For a Catholic who knows that Genesis is not entirely Epic Myth but contains true primeval events (CCC 390). Scott Hahn for example in his bible dictionary lays out 9 facts which should not be questioned from the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the literal and historical meaning of Genesis. Among those are the fact that there was a special creation of man, woman was from man and the unity of the human race. Although I feel we could round the quotation above from page 7 to fit within the bounds of orthodoxy – I don’t think the wording “in general” applies well to the fact that humanity literal did come from Adam and Eve. The story details the actual beginning not something representative of a group or series of events. Back to the main topic.

The whole reason why the Catholic Church did not burn all its images during iconoclastic debates was due to the Incarnation. God entered the world, thus it is fitting that images of beauty which lead us to the invisible are duly fitting. Art which is truly sacred – not just pious or general religious – is art which illuminates the biblical actions of God. And those actions properly understood lead to the sacraments their foreshadowing especially the central and key elements of Christ. Images of God’s action in the Bible display God’s inner meaning and reality to us. A Paschal Christ – crucified, risen and who will come again becomes the sacred image archetype. That is the key to understanding the division to where art is art and where art is sacred. Why true sacred art requires prayer and meditation along with true holiness to complete because it requires a connection to Christ and these mysteries. Additionally, when you start to talk about salvation events in the bible it easily transitions to the sacraments and especially the Eucharist Liturgy where these events are unfolded before our very eyes. You need a connection to the Liturgy to be able to unpack these events as a painting.

Thus, in some eastern images where the author comments on how they show the divinity of Christ over his humanity by drawing a baby form with an adults head – I would like to comment that these images are expressing the Paschal Christ. A Christ born, ready to face the cross an angels holds in miniature (see page 19), regale in appearance as if he has already rose again, being held not just by a mother – but by a heavenly Mary waiting with Jesus on her lap in the heavenly realms for the second coming.

The author notes how some paintings show us more of the painter’s presuppositions than about Christ. Several great examples of this are presented in the book. Where I would like to comment on this is by adding the reminder that a painting that shows us more about the painter’s ideas than Christ has failed miserably. It is no longer about the Paschal biblically inspired events but ultimately a self love portrait.

In terms of an overall rating, it was not a bad introduction at all to some great art – in fact pretty good. For it to be a truly Catholic Novalis book though, it needed reference (even just 4 extra pages to bring the 96 pages to an even 100) to the sacraments and liturgy which the author just failed to consider.

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