St John of the Cross and the Artistic Portrayal of the Joyful Pilgrimage

Office of Readings, Friday, Wk 18 the reading is from the Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross. In it he indicates that the saints in heaven are in union with God through love.

He tells us that, ‘they possess the same blessings by participation as he [God] possesses by nature; for this reason they are truly gods by participation, equals of God and his companions. Therefore St Peter said:”Grace and peace be complete and perfect in you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ our Lord, according as all things are given to us of his divine virtue for life and godliness, through knowledge of him who has called us with his own glory and virtue; whereby he has given into us many great and precious promises, that by these things we may be made companions of the divine nature.” Saint Peter indicates that the soul will have participation in God, performing in him, in company with him, the work of the Most Holy Trinity, after the manner whereof we have spoken. And though this can be perfectly fulfilled only in the next life, nevertheless in this life, when the estate of perfection is reached, a clear trace and taste of it are attained.’

It is this final sentence that caught my eye. Our goal in this life, one might say, is to get to heaven in the next. Although we cannot experience heaven fully in this life, supernaturally we temporarily step into it through the liturgy and the sacramental life. This is a transforming process that by degrees takes us towards that heavenly state. And this means, in turn, that by degrees we can experience the joy of heaven in this life.

It is the gothic figurative liturgical tradition that through its form portrays this pilgrimage to heaven. (Baroque art portrays through it form evil and suffering transcended by hope; and the iconographic portrays man fully in union with God in heaven). I have talked about this before in an article: Why the Church has Different Artistic Traditions. In it I written about the theology that shapes the form of the three liturgical traditions of the Church and explain why I feel they are complementary.

This passage of St John did cause me to reflect for a few moments on my own journey and what caused me to convert to Catholicism. As one might expect there were a number of different influences, but very important was the belief that becoming a Catholic would open up for me a life of greater joy. I went through a very unhappy period in my mid/late twenties. I don’t want to get too melodramatic about the whole thing, but it was bad enough that I was even prepared to consider Christianity as an option. I was lucky during this period to meet someone who was a Catholic and I saw this joy in his life. He eventually became my sponsor when I was received into the Church. Through his example as much as through his answers to my questions, I had a clear picture in my mind of a life with a beginning, a journey and an end. The beginning was where I was before coming into the Church, suffering but with hope; the journey is the life of faith and Christian joy; and the final end is heaven. Artistically, this is a transition from the baroque to the iconographic via the gothic.

As one might expect, the the journey for me has not been perfectly smooth. In some ways I experience this grand picture in microcosm on a daily basis. It is a process of continually straying from the path, renewing that hope, fixing my sights once again on that final end and resolving once more to follow my guide on the journey. Nevertheless, the underlying trend is one that moves steadily upwards. And my overall experience is that the Christian life is a joyful one (without claiming to have reached the heights of St John of the Cross). This ‘gothic’ message of a joyful pilgrimage which attracted me to the Church was true.

In his address on the saint, Pope Benedict told us that in his Spiritual Canticle, from which the excerpt above is taken, ‘St. John presents the path of purification of the soul, that is, the progressive joyful possession of God until the soul feels that it loves God with the same love that it is loved by him.’ The Pope goes on to make it plain that this path is open to each of us. St John, he says, had ‘a hard life but, precisely in the months spent in prison, he wrote one of his most beautiful works. And thus we are able to understand that the way with Christ, the going with Christ, “the Way,” is not a weight added to the already sufficient burden, but something completely different, it is a light, a strength that helps us carry this burden.’

One of the surprises for me when I entered the Church was to discover that not all of my fellow Catholics seemed to believe that happiness was really on offer to them in this life as well as the next. Aside from missing out themselves, I believe that one of the reasons that people aren’t flocking to the Church, is that they don’t know that do not always see joy in the lives of Christians they meet. It as seem that part of the New Evangelisation we must rediscover Christian joy.

Clearly, the idea of Christian joy did not begin or end with the gothic period. Historically, of course, St John himself came after the gothic period. However, I believe that the artistic form developed during the gothic period can play a part in directing us to a participation in that joyful pilgrimage. It seems to me that one reason that Fra Angelico resonates so strongly today is that he is communicating something to us that is needed. This is why I would like to see the gothic reestablished as a living tradition.

Remember when I speak of what the gothic communicates, I am talking of its form, it’s style. The content, that is the subjects painted, is likely to be the full range that one would expect to tackle in sacred art; but its form, because it is integrated with the theology is always in the background speaking poetically to our mind’s eye, as it were, encouraging us with the idea that there is joy in this life on route to the next. (Just as with icon painting: the fact that its form speaks of the eschaton – the heavenly realm – does not mean that you cannot paint scenes in salvation history.)

The art from above: Christ on the Cross, by St John of the Cross; Chaucer as a Pilgrim from the Ellesmere Psalter; 13th century, lady at prayer; and Fra Angelico’s Madonna and Child.

David Clayton

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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  • LizEst

    There is no true joy in this life or the next except through the cross. All the saints have known this. It is when we joyfully accept the cross AND find joy in God’s will for us that we begin to taste just a sliver of that true supernatural joy that will be ours forever in the heavenly Kingdom. If we really knew and believed this, we would find more authentic joy here on earth.

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