Florence: What Art, Beauty, and Naked Statues Have to Do with Being Catholic

“This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair”.

~John Paul II, Letter to Artists~


One of the reasons I love being around kids is that they ask the honest questions that adults are too afraid to ask.  When traveling to Florence with kids, a question that will almost inevitably come up is, “Why so many naked people?”  I’m not talking about the people passing by, but everywhere you look — in churches, piazzas, and museums — there are naked people depicted in very life-like reality.

It might surprise you that the Church was one of the greatest patrons of the arts — and without the Church, and individuals within the Church — some of the greatest works of art wouldn’t exist.  Yes, many of those naked figures were approved of — and made possible — by the Church.

Honestly, I think that if you do any digging, you will find that Catholics have some of the healthiest attitudes towards human sexuality, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been affected by the world around us.  We can’t breathe the air around us, without it affecting our health in some way — for good or bad — and the extreme views surrounding us in respect to the human body have likely affected our own views on these matters.

We have had to grow up in the midst of a puritanism that shuns the body and a hedonism which has over-sexualized the body — both fail to recognize the dignity of the human person — and both lead to a loss of humanity.  This is important stuff, and encountering beautiful art has a way of making us examine –and possibly even change–our attitudes towards these things.

Take my experience of encountering the David in the Accademia Gallery Museum, for example.

At first glance, you might notice David is naked.
At first glance, you might notice David is naked.

I must admit that at first glance, I was struck by — well, his nakedness.  But, almost immediately there’s a reverence that comes over a person seeing the David.  The absolute magnificence of this statue was truly beyond any other sculpture I had seen before and it became clear why the David is one of the greatest masterpieces in the world.  Yes, there were a few goofy selfies taken with the David, but the overall impression of everybody I observed was one of reverence.

As I sat there, staring at the David, I had to face my own attitudes towards the human body.  Did I really believe that the human body was good?  I mean, Genesis makes it very clear that God thought the human body was good, but what do I think?

Before I could think any more about it, my sweet little baby let me know that he was hungry and I needed to find a spot to nurse him.  For anybody whose has visited the Accademia, you know that there is only one place — in all of the museum– to sit down, and it is right behind the David.  I walked down and found a spot on the bench.  I had no choice but to reconsider my question — because this was going to be my view for the next twenty minutes.

Yep, for the twenty minutes of nursing my baby, this is what I had to look at.
Yep, for the twenty minutes of nursing my baby, this was my view.

At first, I felt a bit awkward — staring at the backside of David.  But pretty quickly, I stopped seeing a naked figure and started to see the brilliance of the whole work.  To observe the beauty of this work – the way marble was chiseled to show veins, and muscles, and skin — it was truly awe-inspiring!

The awe I experienced towards the David was nothing compared to the awe that God must have each time He creates another human being — delicately knitting together their body and placing their soul within them.  And He makes us good –very, very good.  Do you believe you’re good?  Sometimes I have a hard time believing that about myself — but it’s true!  If only I could see myself the way that God sees me, how would that change my life?

Michelangelo chose a rejected hunk of marble for his David.  He said that David was inside of that huge, imperfect hunk of marble and he just had to chisel away until David was set free. It makes me wonder what’s inside of me that God wants to help me uncover?  Have you ever wondered what beauty is inside of you that is meant to come out?

And what if some of the most painful moments of your life are God chiseling away at you — because He sees the beauty inside of you, and He want to set it free?

What is God trying to chip away at, so that you can be set free?
What is God trying to chip away at so you can be truly free?
I believe this is from a series he did of slaves...ironic because it made me think about being set free!
I believe this is from a series Michelangelo did on slaves…which is ironic since it made me think about being set free!

The point is that the Church has always recognized the importance of art in conveying the deeper meaning of life.  John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, took it one step further by emphasizing the task that all men and women are entrusted with in this life –that of the artist who crafts their own life into a work of art, a masterpiece of sorts.

Your life is meant to be a masterpiece — my life is meant to be a masterpiece.  Now that’s pretty amazing! Granted, most of us are works in progress, but one day, if we reach heaven, the masterpiece within us will be fully revealed.  The Saints have a head start on us, for sure, and the more we say yes to God the more our lives here on earth will resemble that masterpiece — but we aren’t simply hunks of marble, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and God has given us a noble part to play in the process.

In a real way, God has given us the choice in whether we will become the masterpiece that He had in mind for us, from the beginning of time.  He gave us free will, and He won’t force us to say yes to His will.  But His will is to give us a future full of hope and a life of abundance, so why are we so afraid to say yes?

John Paul  II said that the Church needs art to convey the message entrusted to her by Christ.  “Artists have the very serious duty of sharing the truth that in Christ the world has been redeemed, the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole of creation is redeemed.”  We are not dung heaps covered over with snow, as John Calvin would have stated — we are redeemed in Christ and we have a part to play in sharing this truth with others.

Ultimately good art is meant to remind us of the beauty of life and it should lift our souls to God.  Art can unite people of all faiths, and it can speak truth to people of all faiths.  Art serves to refresh our minds and souls so we can have a better perspective on our own lives and return to our work ready to make something beautiful of it. Ultimately, beauty calls us back to Beauty Itself and it reminds us of our ultimate home in God.

A world without beauty, is a world destined to sink into despair –think about that.  Those aren’t my words.  They are the words of the Church, reiterated at the Second Vatican Council and by subsequent popes.  All of us have been entrusted with the task of sharing beauty –however that may be– with the world.   This task looks different for every person, but we have a part to play.  Let’s get going people! Let’s go out and share God’s beauty with the world.

Thanks for visiting!  I’d love to know your thoughts on the matter!

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