Gargoyles and Gaffes

You do not have to be a communicant to adopt one of Milan Cathedral’s one hundred thirty five gargoyles. Any cosmopolitan aesthete with a spare $123,000 can help restore the Duomo’s medieval downspouts. Splendid in its ecumenicity, the archdiocese’s fundraising scheme invites “citizens of the world” to earn an engraved plaque under their very own adoptee.

Citizens of the world —a utopian term that has taken on a certain ugliness over time. It runs counter to the principle of subsidiarity that is a core precept of Catholic social thought. But let that pass. For simplicity’s sake, let us stick with the gargoyles. If Fendi, Prada or Dolce & Grabbana decline to pony up, there is always a Saudi prince or World Passport type with an eye for historic monuments. Good-will adoptions from entrepreneurs in the hospitality and tourist industry are sure to come.

Six hundred years of labor by countless anonymous craftsmen contributed to a cathedral built ad majorem Dei gloriam . Today, in the seconds needed to write a check, any deep pockets can have their names bolted to the work of centuries. It takes brass.

GargoyleMeantime, down in the Duomo’s crypt, ruin of a different order is on display. Since September 22, 2005, the citizens of Milan have had their own chapel to contemporary art alongside the relics of St. Charles Borromeo. On that day, a video installation by English artist Mark Wallinger was dedicated in a small room in the cathedral treasury. Formalities began with a fusion liturgy: a ceremonial press conference yoked to a Benediction.

Milan CathedralMt. Hera did not come to Mohammed but the Blessed Sacrament came to Wallinger’s projection screen. And what was the image that carried such power of compulsion? Hardly anything, really. Shrewdly entitled “Via Dolorosa,” the piece is a tour de force playing in a room dim as a crack den. Gloom signals the contemplative mode, don’t you know. Besides, they always turn lights out at the movies. Here, though, the movie— Jesus of Nazareth , Franco Zeffirelli’s Christ for the Family Channel—is blocked by a large black rectangle. Only a scant fringe around the border of the screen gives any hint of a film playing behind the black-out. There is no sound track. As far as you can tell, you are watching the periphery of Charlie Chan’s Secret or a spaghetti Western. The project is a jarring incongruity in a building begun in fidelity to the belief that life was ordered by Revelation, not technology. Not technique.

According to Monsignor Luigi Manganini, archpriest of the cathedral, the Church has to court the Third Millennium with its latest upscale accessory: video art. The perfect embodiment of postmodernism, video entered the cathedral, he chirruped, “with the same force as the entire history of great painting and sculpture.” His second in command, Fr. Luigi Garbini, upped the promo: “The blocking of ninety percent of the view brings the visitor into a cloud of unknowing, in which he finally faces the free decision: to believe or not to believe.”

Park benches and bar stools exist for that sort of brief, bantam-weight brooding. Ditherers can muse gainfully over a few Rogue Dead Guy ales. It is a serious mistake to suggest equivalence between the dark night of the pilgrim soul and a night spent staring at a test pattern on widescreen HDTV. The long and daunting via negativa of Christian mysticism is cheapened by comparison to eighteen minutes (if anyone stays that long) in front of flickering incoherence. Like so much conceptual art,Via Dolorosa is a parasite upon its title.

Mark Wallinger in front of his installation, State Britain (2007), at Tate Britain, London.
Mark Wallinger in front of his installation, State Britain (2007), at Tate Britain, London.

It is easy to proclaim the absence of God. It is harder to proclaim His presence. A cathedral, though, is just that: a proclamation in stone. The Duomo’s shrine to digital technology reminds us that the open and candid skepticism of a secular culture is less worrisome than the unconscious skepticism of our own ecclesiasts toward the Church’s traditional patrimony. The latter risks disfiguring the Church into a superficial appendix to contemporary culture.

Raising a monstrance over video paraphernalia is a confession that the object of veneration has shifted. Installations like this fail to distinguish the Church from the secular ethos it seeks to engage. The words of Henri de Lubac apply here: “The great minds that have spoken about God are all our contemporaries.” So, too, our heritage of sublime religious art, a cultural deposit which anxiety must not displace.