Sciorra, “Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City”

Later this month, the University of Tennessee Press will release “Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City” by Joseph Sciorra (Queens College). The publisher’s description follows:

Over the course of 130 years, Italian American Catholics in New York City have developed a varied repertoire of devotional art and architecture to create community-based sacred spaces in their homes and neighborhoods. These spaces exist outside of but in relationship to the consecrated halls of local parishes and are sites of worship in conventionally secular locations. Such ethnic building traditions and urban ethnic landscapes have long been neglected by all but a few scholars. Joseph Sciorra’s Built with Faith offers a place-centric, ethnographic study of the religious material culture of New York City’s Italian American Catholics.

Sciorra has spent thirty-five years researching these community art forms and interviewing Italian immigrant and U.S.-born Catholics. By documenting the folklife of this group, Sciorra reveals how Italian Americans in the city use expressive culture and religious practices to trans- form everyday urban space into unique, communal sites of ethnically infused religiosity. The folk aesthetics practiced by individuals within their communities are integral to understanding how art is conceptualized, implemented, and esteemed outside of museum and gallery walls. Yard shrines, sidewalk altars, Nativity presepi, Christmas house displays, a stone-studded grotto, and neighborhood processions—often dismissed as kitsch or prized as folk art—all provide examples of the vibrant and varied ways contemporary Italian Americans use material culture, architecture, and public ceremonial display to shape the city’s religious and cultural landscapes.

Written in an accessible style that will appeal to general readers and scholars alike, Sciorra’s unique study contributes to our understanding of how value and meaning are reproduced at the confluences of everyday life.

An Ancient Mystery

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Mosaic in S. Costanza, Rome

Here’s a puzzle. The mosaic in this photo is in Rome’s Santa Costanza, a lovely fourth-century church with some of the oldest surviving Christian art. The mosaic is famous among scholars of Christian iconography, even among scholars of Christian jurisprudence. It depicts Christ–blond, beardless, looking like the god Apollo–giving a scroll to St. Peter. Christ is dressed in a golden toga. Scholars believe the image is meant to represent Christ giving the Law to the Church.

According to French scholar Rémi Brague, during the patristic period, “Christianity came to think of itself as a law brought by Christ in the same way that Judaism is a law brought by Moses.” This understanding, he says,

received artistic representation in images such as that of a lawgiver Christ giving St. Peter the scroll of the Law in a mosaic in the church of Santa Costanza in Rome, on the sarcophagus of Probus in Rome, or in the basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan.This scene is adapted from the pagan model of the investiture of a high functionary by the emperor. After Constantine, the ideology of the Christian empire utilized the notion of a unique law. This iconographic theme is present from the fourth century to the sixth, when it was replaced by another image in which Christ gives Peter not the Law but rather the Keys to the Kingdom.

If this reading is correct, the mosaic is an important object, not only in the history of Western art, but Western law as well. A key piece of evidence that supports the reading is the inscription on the scroll Christ holds. According to most scholars, the inscription is “DOMINUS LEGEM DAT,” or, “The Lord Gives Law.” If that’s what the scroll says, it does indeed confirm the reading of scholars like Brague.

Except that isn’t what the scroll says. As the photo, which I took this summer, shows, the scroll reads, “DOMINUS PACEM DAT,” or “The Lord Gives Peace.” Not “Law,” “Peace.” Now, I suppose, the inscription may be elliptical: Christ gives Law, the Law of Christ gives Peace, so Christ gives Peace. But that’s a strain. Besides, in Christian teaching, the Law of Christ is usually described as Love, not Peace. Does the scroll refer to Christ’s words at the Last Supper, “My peace I give to you”? Maybe. But that would definitely change the meaning of the image.

So, what’s the explanation? Perhaps, as Brague suggests, this was a conventional image in late antiquity, so the mosaic must be about law. One scholar I’ve read thinks the word “PACEM” on the scroll is an simply an incorrect reconstruction of the original “LEGEM.” Sounds plausible. But when did the reconstruction take place? The Middle Ages? Why are scholars so confident that the image is about law, when the words on the scroll are about peace? Anybody know?

Kandinsky: Law Professor Turned Anti-Materialist Artist

If you happen to be in the New York City area and have the chance to stop in at the Guggenheim, there is a very small but charming exhibit on the work of Wassily Kandinsky from the 1911-13 period.  Kandinsky was a successful lawyer and law professor — he had even been offered a chair in Roman Law at the Universität Dorpat — when he suddenly abandoned the law and applied to art school in Munich.  Maybe legal academia is the second best job in the world.

Among the items in the exhibit are some really neat first editions of his work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art — and Painting in Particular, published in 1911.  When I got home yesterday afternoon, I found a translation here.  Kandinsky had ambitious ideas about the power of art to achieve spiritual illumination — and in some ways to replace traditional religion for future generations.  He had some very critical things to say about “materialism” in art, as well as the idea that art was to be enjoyed for its own sake.  Here is a selection which gives (I think) something characteristic of the flavor of the writing:

With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work.  Connoisseurs admire the ‘skill’ (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the ‘quality of the painting’ (as one enjoys a pasty).  But hungry souls go hungry away . . . . This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colors, this vain squandering of artistic power is called ‘art for art’s sake.’ . . . . The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but easily definable movement forwards and upwards.  This movement is the movement of experience.  It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.  Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears.  When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated.  But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision.  The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so. Scorned and hated, he drags after him over the stones the heavy chariot of a divided humanity, ever forwards and upwards.  Often, many years after his body has vanished from the earth, men try by every means to recreate this body in marble, iron, bronze, or stone, on an enormous scale. As if there were any intrinsic value in the bodily existence of such divine martyrs and servants of humanity, who despised the flesh and lived only for the spirit! But at least such setting up of marble is a proof that a great number of men have reached the point where once the being they would now honour, stood alone . . . .

When religion, science and morality are shaken . . . and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself.  Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent.  Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul. 

Ambrose and the Emperor

CLR Forum readers in New York City this summer should check out “Bellini, Titian, and Lotto,” currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The whole exhibition is worthwhile, but church-and-state types will particularly enjoy an 15th century altarpiece, “Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius I,” by Bergognone (left). The painting depicts one of the most important church-state confrontations in history.

In 390 A.D., the Emperor Theodosius — the same Emperor Theodosius who had made Christianity the state religion of Rome — ordered a massacre in the city of Thessalonica, some of whose citizens had revolted. Seven thousand people died, many of whom had played no part in the uprising. When Theodosius subsequently appeared in Milan and attempted to attend Mass, Ambrose, the city’s bishop, physically stopped him from entering the church. According to a roughly contemporaneous account by a church source:

When Ambrose heard of this deplorable catastrophe, he went out to meet the Emperor, who—on his return to Milan—desired as usual to enter the holy church, but Ambrose prohibited his entrance, saying “You do not reflect, it seems, O Emperor, on the guilt you have incurred by that great massacre; but now that your fury is appeased, do you not perceive the enormity of your crime? You must not be dazzled by the splendor of the purple you wear, and be led to forget the weakness of the body which it clothes. Your subjects, O Emperor, are of the same nature as yourself, and not only so, but are likewise your fellow servants; for there is one Lord and Ruler of all, and He is the maker of all creatures, whether princes or people. How would you look upon the temple of the one Lord of all? How could you lift up in prayer hands steeped in the blood of so unjust a massacre? Depart then, and do not by a second crime add to the guilt of the first.

Theodosius, the account continues, “who knew well the distinction between the ecclesiastical and the temporal power,” submitted to the rebuke and repented. At Ambrose’s insistence, he decreed that a death sentence would not again be executed until 30 days had passed, so that the authorities could justly determine the facts. Ambrose then readmitted the Emperor to the church, but ordered him to remain with the laity outside the altar rail: “A purple robe makes Emperors, but not priests.”

Struggles between the Church and the Empire did not end in the fourth century, of course; indeed, they were just beginning. And this account does sound a bit tendentious. I imagine the Emperor (who, like Ambrose, is a saint, at least in the Orthodox tradition) had his own version of the story. But church-autonomy supporters have long argued that this episode shows that a distinction between church and state as institutions goes back to the very beginnings of Christian civilization in the West. And there it is, hanging in the Met. You see? Church and state issues really are everywhere.

The Donation of Constantine

Last week, Marc posted about the fantastic exhibit of the Vatican archives currently underway at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. One of the documents on display is Lorenzo Valla’s definitive refutation of the so-called “Donation of Constantine.” Forgotten today, except by historians of law and religion, the Donation played an important role in justifying papal assertions of temporal power in the Middle Ages.

The Donation was a purportedly an imperial decree, signed by the Emperor Constantine, granting the entirety of the Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I and his successors. Constantine supposedly made this gift in gratitude for Sylvester’s actions in miraculously curing him of leprosy and baptizing him in the Christian faith. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Donation was taken as authentic, and it played a major role in justifying papal assertions during the investiture crisis that Harold Berman famously described in Law and Revolution. By the Renaissance, however, scholars within the Church had begun to have doubts. On the basis of textual analysis, Valla, a priest, demonstrated that the Donation was a forgery in the fifteenth century. Protestant reformers made much of the forgery in their arguments against the Catholic Church.

All this is fun for law-and-religion nerds, but, back when people believed it to be true, the Donation was the subject of some powerful art. On the Coelian Hill near the Colosseum, off a very quiet street, stands a medieval church called Santi Quattro Coronati. In the church’s courtyard, a separate entrance leads to the Oratory of St. Sylvester, where — after giving a small donation — you can see a series of medieval frescoes that tell the whole story: Constantine’s illness, his subjects’ despair, his miraculous cure by Pope Sylvester, and the Donation itself (above). In their credulity, the frescoes are really rather charming. It’s definitely worth going out of your way to see them — even if you’re not a law-and-religion nerd, and even if the story is a complete hoax.

Clive Bell on Paganism and Impressionism

The New Republic will from time to time reprint old essays on various subjects.  Here is a 1923 piece by the formalist art critic Clive Bell, whose ideas about the nature of aesthetic experience have always seemed to me nearly universally wrong.  That notwithstanding, I found his discussion in this piece of the connection between impressionism and paganism to be illuminating — one of the most concise explanations for why I have always disliked impressionism with such great intensity.  A bit:

The cultivated rich seem at last to have discovered in the impressionists what the impressionists themselves rediscovered half by accident. They rediscovered paganism—real paganism I mean—something real enough to be the inspiration and content of supreme works of art. Paganism, I take it, is the acceptance of life as something good and satisfying in itself. To enjoy life the pagan need not make himself believe that it is a means to something else—to a better life in another world for instance, or a juster organization of society, or complete self-development: he does not regard it as a brief span or portion in which to do something for his own soul, or for his fellow creatures, or for the future. He takes the world as it is and enjoys to the utmost what he finds in it: also, he is no disconsolate archaeologist spending his own age thinking how much more happily he could have lived in another and what a pagan he would have been on the banks of the Ilissus. No, paganism does not consist in a proper respect for the pagan past, but in a passionate enjoyment of the present; and Poussin, though he painted bacchanals galore, would have been quite out of place in the world of Theocritus. Your true pagan neither regrets nor idealizes: and while Swinburne was yearning nostalgicly for “the breasts of the nymph in the brake,” Renoir was finding inspiration for a glorious work of art in the petticoats of the shop-girls at the Moulin de la Galette.