Creative Preaching through Art: The Dominican Contribution

Eleanor Carlo, T.O.P

These addresses were presented at an Annual Dominican Family Awareness Day held at Providence College, Providence, Rhode Island, in March, 1978. They are offered to all the members of the Dominican Family through the cooperation of the Dominican Laity in the Provinces of St. Joseph and St. Albert the Great, U.S.A.
Dominicana Publications, 1979.

This paper offers a brief summary of a slide-lecture Workshop prepared for Dominican Family Awareness Day. Its thrust is the unique ministry of gifted Dominicans who responded to their vocation by creatively, effectively and compellingly enhancing and`supplementing the preaching of the Word of God — plus a challenge for us today.

It is a well-known fact that, among its members, the Order of Preachers has contributed some distinguished artists and architects. That it has also been responsible for recognizing and commissioning some of the greatest talents of all time is another fact with which art historians and art lovers are well-acquainted.

Preaching and religious art are related
in that each is concerned with communicating truth and beauty.

Preaching and religious art are related in that each is concerned with communicating truth and beauty. Since Dominicans are called to preach the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith, not only by word and example, but in every possible way, it follows that if one happens to be an artist in the Dominican Family, he will endeavor to lead others to God through his art. As St. Catherine of Siena relates in her “Dialogues” there are many roads and ways which God uses through His Love to lead people to Him. Art is the way of beauty, a road which leads directly to Him, if we are so blessed as to be led along this road.

Because their inspiration comes from God, the preacher and the artist communicate with a sense of mission. Mission implies the giving of self — and the motive of mission is Love. Artists are ardent preachers who have been inspired by God and have been given gifts for interpreting the Gospel and spiritual reality. Fra

Angelico and Fra Bartolomeo are among those who point out things we often fail to see without their help. A more recent artist-preacher who has made visible for us the invisible (invisible that is except to Lucy, Francesco and Jacinta) is the late sculptor, Father Thomas McGlynn, O.P. How grateful we are to him to have his representation of Lucy’s description of her vision of Our Lady of Fatima — made visible to us through his Labor of Love!

Art is the way of beauty,
a road which leads directly to Him

And what of the well-loved painting of Fra Angelico in which St. Dominic appears meditating on the Passion in “The Buffeting of Christ”? Doesn’t that penetrate far more deeply into our hearts and minds than descriptive words, happy as we are to have them? The greatest masterpieces are in reality sermons on canvas or stone. They are created to dispose us to prayer. They have the capacity to arouse us from an attitude of indifference to deepest compunction or to a sense of the sublime. We come away from them ennobled and enriched.

Dominican art is marked by the strong influence of St. Dominic’s spirituality, the Order’s theological emphasis of preaching truth and fighting heresy, as well as the contributions of such distinguished authorities as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Antoninus, and Savonarola. Through its special devotions to the Body of Christ, to our Lady, St. Catherine of Siena, and other illustrious saints, it has enriched the iconography of the world of art. Reflected in formal beauty and style, purity of expression and jewel-like color are the following qualities of art for St. Thomas: integrity, proportion, harmony, and splendor. The universally admired Dominican contributions to Christian artistic expression are our legacy, our heritage, –ours for the looking! Ours for the challenge of today’s call and response.

Since this workshop is intended to be participatory, you will want to know just how you are expected to participate. Your share is to do something very much in keeping with the Dominican call and its response, i.e., to contemplate the slides which are to be projected on the screen, and to share the fruits of your contemplation with others by contributing your insights and appreciations. You will be shown works created by Dominican artists or commissioned under the auspices of Dominican patronage, influence, and inspiration — Duccio, Albertinelli, Masaccio, Botticelli, Lippi, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, to name a few. They are works of great beauty in style, in message, in spiritual depth. They have a special quality about them, not only because they were created by experts in their field, but because they were created in many cases by men who had trodden the mystical path themselves. Even though their voices are long still, they continue to preach with an artist’s passion, and are able to nourish us today.

You are asked to relax and to enjoy them
Serenely, because you are called to contemplation,

In order to make the artist-preacher’s art a meaningful experience, it is necessary to develop a contemplative approach. In viewing these slides, you are asked to relax and to enjoy them serenely, because you are called to contemplation. “Contemplation,” Evelyn Underhill tells us in her book on Practical Mysticism,” …is the necessary activity for all artists. The artist is a contemplative who has learned to express himself, and who tells his love in color, line, and form. He tries to express something of the revelation he has received through his experience and understanding. He wants to communicate to you a glimpse of what he, himself, has grasped.”

Just how do artists contribute to our understanding of spirituality? Is it really possible to depict what eye hath not seen? The religious artist agonizes over his effort to communicate to us his life of faith. How successful he is is in large measure in direct proportion to our receptivity to what he has produced, and to the extent that we allow God to speak to us through the medium of His created works.

After contemplation, through love,
we are called to action.

St. Thomas Aquinas’s belief in the importance of the image, that there is no thinking without the use of images or symbols, should continue to have great significance for the power, prestige, and practice of art within the Dominican Order today. This includes contemporary art forms such as graphics, photography, and film. The incredible possibilities of reaching untold “congregations” of captive television audiences for Christian Communication by preachers and artists working together in the spirit and zeal of St. Dominic but in today’s idiom and imagery holds mind-boggling possibilities of making God’s world televisible. “Images,” says St. Thomas, “necessarily accompany our knowledge in this present life, however spiritual the knowledge may be, for even God is known by us through the images of His effects.”

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