Image credit: Catholic University of America

The current Lenten season of prayer and penance is a fitting moment to recall a troubling episode of spiritual and imaginative blindness that played out at the Catholic University of America late last fall.

The saga began last March when CUA’s Columbus School of Law installed an icon of Mary cradling the broken body of her son Jesus, a classic Catholic image of the pietà. In November, the icon was stolen — not once, but twice.

Painted in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in early 2020, the icon depicted Mary and Jesus as Black. Many see in that depiction of Jesus a resemblance to the slain George Floyd. When asked if the man in the image is George Floyd or Jesus Christ, the artist Kelly Latimore responds: “Yes.” Latimore’s answer demonstrates the Keatsian quality of “negative capability,” meaning the ability to hold conflicting truths in one hand and confounds efforts to reduce art to a debate. But that didn’t stop some critics. 

In November, a conservative media outlet began to stir up ire toward Latimore’s painting and one petition by CUA students that called for the icon’s removal collected 3,600 signatures. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the pietà was stolen. The university replaced it with a smaller version, and several weeks later that one was stolen as well. 

After the hullabaloo, the university’s student senate voted 15-9 in favor of removing the image and replacing it with “other forms of art that represent diversity and bring forth representation of the African American community in a non-political and uncontroversial way,” according to the resolution. In other words, they wanted something more palatable. But palatable to whom is the key question and the crux of the problem. 

Comments from students quoted in an article from the conservative outlet, The Daily Signal, show that at the country’s most revered pontifical university, many students are apparently lacking an education in Church history and basic catechesis about the Incarnation. But more than any intellectual formation, their comments show a lack of what the late Father Andrew Greeley (drawing on the work of theologian David Tracy) has famously called “the Catholic imagination.” 

The below comment featured in The Daily Signal’s report illustrate this lacuna of imagination:

“I think it goes without saying that George Floyd didn’t deserve to die, and I sincerely appreciate the efforts of millions of Catholic Americans, who engaged in good-faith advocacy to advance policies that will prevent the use of excessive force by law enforcement,” junior politics major Blayne Clegg told The Daily Signal. 

But, [the student] emphasized, “George Floyd is not Jesus Christ.” 

“He is not a saint, nor a martyr, and to, in any way, compare him to the sinless son of Almighty God is to do a damning disservice to the vast majority of Catholics and Catholic theology,” [the student] said. 

First, what stands out in this comment is the idea that a human being, imago Dei, is somehow an insufficient representative of “the sinless son of Almighty God.” This will not be the primary focus of this essay, but it’s worth highlighting a theology of the Incarnation so malnourished. 

God became man, Anselm said, so that man might become God. The idea of a human being, even our enemy or someone unlike us, being made in God’s image and likeness is a tradition of the Church nearly as old as Genesis. And the inclusion of the other through Baptism in the mystical body of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, and sharing in a Christian’s ultimate destiny, which is inclusion in the life of the Godhead in heaven, is quite literally a creedal tenant of the Catholic faith. If this sounds like apotheosis — well, it is. 

But another comment, by a student senator, while demonstrating a similar theological misunderstanding, exposed the imaginative ignorance at the heart of The Daily Signal’s piece:

“It highly disappoints me that someone else is being depicted as Jesus Christ in the Pietà to begin with, [and] being right at the doors of a chapel makes matters worse,” [he] said in an email. 

Christ himself asked us to see him in others — in the least of these: the sick, the hungry, and the imprisoned. It’s unclear what this student would make of this command of Christ. But it seems clear that he finds a Black man unjustly killed outside the bounds of the “least of these” in whom Christ asked us to see him. 

In addition to revealing a lack of catechesis in incarnational theology, the students’ comments reflect an impoverished education in art. The questions these students grapple with are precisely the questions that Christianity grappled with 1,300 years ago upon the emergence of Islam.

As their Muslim neighbors decided that depictions of God were blasphemous, Christians debated whether or not to depict God in art. Art is necessarily a practice of juxtaposition and representation — a person’s likeness is recreated in what is not itself. Representation means that there is distance between the medium or representation and the thing being represented. 

Art is necessarily a practice of juxtaposition and representation – a person’s likeness is recreated in what is not itself. Representation means that there is distance between the medium or representation and the thing being represented.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan described the world around us as high on information, low on representation. We are bombarded by what McLuhan called “hot media” in our day-to-day life: television news, internet articles. He describes art as a “cool medium,” one that engages our imaginative function, and demands our participation. Hot media demands our passive reception, cool media invites creative cooperation.

A Greek philosopher 2,500 years before McLuhan might have named that division Apollonian and Dionysian. Even though the god Apollo blessed the Classical Greek polis with his gifts of order, individualization, and rational thought, a necessary cult of Dionysius persisted to keep alive the messier, more communal, excursive imaginative nature of the human person. Even in Catholic theology, the tradition of apophatic theology continues this Dionysian resistance to logic and propositional statements. Apophatic or negative theology honors truth as a mystery — sometimes all that can be said about the divine is nothing. 

“Negative capability,” as John Keats called it, is at the heart of the imaginative function. It’s the “yes” to an either/or question that’s at the core of artistic creation. We need art to cultivate this ability to hold a mystery in our minds.

As the executive director of the Catholic Artist Connection, I think a lot about Catholicism, art, and the intersection of the two. And I struggle a lot with the designation of Catholic and the designation of art, because I don’t believe in making “Catholic” art as a genre. And I believe that a Catholic’s engagement with art should extend beyond solely devotional art. As Jacques Maritain said, “Christian art is not a genus,” but rather, the result of a Christian making good art. Too often, the genre of “spiritual art” or “devotional art” ignores one of the fundamental elements of good art: it challenges and expands our imagination and it does not spoon feed it. It speaks to the Apollonian and Dionysian within us. 

Myes Connolly, a thoroughly modern man in the age of the skyscrapers and motion picture, penned a slim novel, Mr. Blue, in response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. If Gatsby is the jazz age’s zeitgeist incarnate, Connolly’s titular character is its prophetic Jeremiah. Blue is the prophet who alone possesses delight in an age of excess. He is a troubadour of Lady Poverty and lover of the human in the age of the machine.

And one of Blue’s questions to the narrator, Mr. Compromise (perhaps a stand-in for Connolly himself), is where is all the modern art? Blue calls New York City’s flagship cathedrals — St. Patrick’s and St. John the Divine, invocations of Gothic form — anachronisms. The Gothic is an old form of a now-dead culture for expressing the beautiful, for expressing humanity’s praise of God. It’s from a former age, which has passed away. So where is modern Catholic art and architecture? 

Mr. Blue might have had to look across the pond: at the paintings of the Expressionists Georges Rouault in France or Emil Nolde in Germany, or, closer to home, at the architecture of the Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York or St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Or perhaps he would also look to Kelly Latimore.  

Emile Nolde, “The Burial,” 1915 (Image credit: National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Norway/Wikimedia Commons)

Latimore is an artist whose art is just that: art. It’s not ecclesial imagery, revelation or dogma, but rather the fruit of artistic expression and imagination. Latimore imagines religious imagery in the clothing of today. Latimore’s reimagined icons depict Christ as a homeless man panhandling, a madonna and child as a refugee family, and icons of Moses the Black, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Thomas Merton. 

Although Latimore’s work uses many tropes and symbols of icon writing, they are paintings. They are distinctly modern and distinctly fresh. And they are, as Connolly’s novel suggests, art that’s been missing from the Roman Catholic imagination and that Catholics desperately need. 

The Catholic imagination has been crippled by uncritically accepting its European cultural milieu. The American Catholic imagination has too often yearned for old forms of art without bothering to reinvent those forms in the present. “Good art” is a label that has become time bound — meaning an old form of art from a now-dead culture. 

Our imagination is an essential means of connecting the spiritual elements of our faith to our own concrete situation. If we continually look to the past to understand beauty, then we become blind to the world of today. For art to continue to speak to our imaginations, artists must create images that bring the eternal into dialogue with the moment, just as Latimore has done.

The problem that the Catholic University of America episode underscores is that of the wider Catholic artistic community’s response to modern art. Catholics have become blind to Latimore’s artistry and forms of art that do not harken back to the old. 

Without art, thinkers lose their delight. Without art, students are taught ideology rather than imagination. Without art, believers forget the vital importance of imagination in the process of understanding the world. In our ultra-scientific, data-driven world, we relegate the imaginative to the “made-up.” But imagination is a mode by which humans can perceive the truth. The truth envelops our entire person, the body, soul, and imagination. If our negative capability withers, our imagination’s ability to behold (not just yammer about) the core mysteries of our faith — God made man, a Resurrection of the body and soul, one God, three persons — weakens.

If we are blind to Christ playing in others’ faces, “lovely in eyes not his,” we become blind not just to Christ in the pietà but blind to Christ in our neighbor and in the other. 

Renée D. Roden is a writer in New York City reporting on religion and social issues.