Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: A Christian Work of Art Part III

Mel Gibson’s artistic quality is unquestionable, as is, his steadfast belief in the Christian faith and his desire to be true to the gospel story.
by Father Jesús Villagrasa | Source:
The phenomenon of The Passion of the Christ could be considered –as in this article- in three levels: one, superficial, goes only into the cinematographic chronicle; another, could stop to analyze the motivations behind the controversy; and, finally, as a profound explanation of the phenomenon, you can delve deep into what is, in my opinion, the reason for being of the originality and beauty of this film: this is a true work of art and, more specifically, of a true work of Christian art.

Click here to read part I of the article.

Click here to read part II of the article.

A Christian work of art

Mel Gibson's artistic quality is unquestionable, as is, his steadfast belief in the Christian faith and his desire to be true to the gospel story. The result of these myriad ingredients is a Christian work of art.

"This film is a triumph of art and faith. It will be a tool to explain the person and the message of Christ. I am certain it will help all those who see it -both Christian and non Christian- to be better. It will bring people closer to God and to each other," says Cardinal Castrillón.

In light of this artwork and of this artist, there seem to come together in a concrete and tangible manner some of the ideas expressed by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to the Artists on April 4th of 1999. The letter is addressed "to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new 'epiphanies' of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world," to the "ingenious creators of beauty."

The artist imitates the Creator in his particular way. Only God is actually "Creator" in the strictest sense, as only He makes the being itself and generates something out of nothing. The artisan, on the other hand, imitates the Creator in his/her own way to give form and meaning (cf n. 1). The artist can not disregard his own experience, as when conceiving a piece "he expresses himself to the point that his production is a singular reflection of his own self, of what he is and of how he is (n. 2)."

The beauty an artist expresses is not unrelated to good. "In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good, just as the good is the metaphysical condition of beauty (n. 3)."

Gibson's The Passion of the Christ does not fall into aestheticism. Its beauty is the sensitive expression of the greatest good, which is the love to the extreme of giving one's life.

It can be understood that The Passion of the Christ is not just borne from Gibson's faith but also from an interior call within the artist that only through the representation of this mystery could he reach his vocational plenitude.

"The artist has a special relationship to beauty. In a very true sense it can be said that beauty is the vocation bestowed on him by the Creator in the gift of artistic talent. Here we touch on an essential point. Those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation-as poet, writer, sculptor, architect, musician, actor and so on-feel at the same time the obligation not to waste this talent but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole (n. 4)."

These truths apply to every artist, but in particular to Christian artists who express through their art the mystery of Christ, incarnate. The Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the invisible and ineffable God by means of "graven or molten image (Dt 27:15)", because God transcends every material representation. Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes visible in person. God became man in Jesus Christ. This prime epiphany of "God who is Mystery" is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty, which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation.

In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this He has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim. Sacred Scripture has thus become a sort of "immense vocabulary" (Paul Claudel) and "iconographic atlas" (Marc Chagall), from which both Christian culture and art have drawn (n. 5)."

The Old Testament, read in the light of the New, has provided endless streams of inspiration. "From the Nativity to Golgotha, from the Transfiguration to the Resurrection, from the miracles to the teachings of Christ, and on to the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles or foreseen by the Apocalypse in an eschatological key, on countless occasions the biblical word has become image, music and poetry, evoking the mystery of "the Word made flesh" in the language of art (n. 5)."

In the history of human culture, all of this is a rich chapter of faith and beauty.

"Believers, above all, have gained from it in their experience of prayer and Christian living. Indeed for many of them, in times when few could read or write, representations of the Bible were a concrete mode of Catechesis. But for everyone, believers or not, the works of art inspired by Scripture remain a reflection of the unfathomable mystery which engulfs and inhabits the world (n. 5)."

Saint Gregory the Great in a letter of 599 to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles, stated: "Painting is employed in churches so that those who cannot read or write may at least read on the walls what they cannot decipher on the page." Perhaps the seventh art can help discover for the "religious illiterates" of our time the Christ they have not met in the Gospels.

What John Paul II says about an artistic intuition gains new and unsuspected dimensions when that art represents the mysteries of the life of Christ. "Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things."

"If the intimate reality of things is always 'beyond' the powers of human perception, how much more so is God in the depths of his unfathomable mystery! The knowledge conferred by faith is of a different kind: it presupposes a personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Yet this knowledge too can be enriched by artistic intuition (n. 6)."

Art is a privileged means of expressing and communicating the richest and deepest mysteries.

"Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning. That is why the Gospel fullness of truth was bound from the beginning to stir the interest of artists, who by their very nature are alert to every "epiphany" of the inner beauty of things (n. 6)."

Although the mystery of God is unfathomable and the limitations to artistic representation are great, the mysteries of faith can be represented. Along this path there were troubled moments. Precisely on the issue of depicting the Christian mystery, there arose in the early centuries a bitter controversy known to history as "the iconoclast crisis". Sacred images,

"which were already widely used in Christian devotion, became the object of violent contention. The Council held at Nicaea in 787, which decreed the legitimacy of images and their veneration, was a historic event not just for the faith but for culture itself. The decisive argument to which the Bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: if the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities-his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible- then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents (n. 7)."

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, faith, culture and art were closely linked and flourished together. In the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art,

"another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes (n. 10)."

Perhaps it is this diminished interest by producers that the thirst of consumers responds to and may be what generates the extraordinary success that works such as Gibson's and the series of religious films produced by Italian television have enjoyed.

The Church continues to nurture great appreciation for the value of art as such, "art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption (n. 10)." All the more so if the object represented is redemption itself. This Christian art, both literary and figurative, are in their own way not only aesthetic representations, but genuine 'sources' of theology (cf. Father Marie Dominique Chenu, La teologia nel XII secolo, Jaca Book, Milan 1992, p.9).

"In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms, that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery. The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force (n. 12)."

Given the "efficient" means of communication art offers, Cardinal Castrillon's expression does not seem exaggerated: "I would gladly exchange some of the homilies I have given regarding the passion of Christ for some of the scenes in this movie."

Gibson's The Passion of the Christ seems an answer to the "special calling" that Pope John Paul II made in his letter to Christian artists:

"I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man. Human beings, in a certain sense, are unknown to themselves. Jesus Christ not only reveals God, but 'fully reveals man to man' "(Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 22).

In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself. All believers are called to bear witness to this; but it is up to you, men and women who have given your lives to art, to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation which, according to Saint Paul, 'awaits impatiently the revelation of the children of God' (Rom 8:19), is redeemed. The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God also through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny (n. 14)."

This has been the artistic intuition and intent of the director and producers of The Passion of the Christ. Spectators shall judge if it has been accomplished. Those who saw it prior to the release ensure us that it is a true work of art and that it stirred in them a true experience of faith.

The work of art has been served. The aesthetic and spiritual experience will depend also on the artistic and religious sensibility of each person.

Father Jesus Villagrasa is a professor of metaphysics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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