Consider how beautiful the devil must be. A fallen angel is an angel still. Seeing him fall, Jesus likened the plunge to “lightning from heaven.” (Luke 10:18). Lucifer appears a pulsing field of light, a flash of pure spirit. All luminous intelligence, he is bright as the morning star, radiant as dawn. Were he not, temptation would be beggared. It would be too dull, too unsightly, to gain purchase on the human heart.
Folded within the history of art is the history of the struggle to depict moral deformity. Master of disguise, demonic cunning cuckolds the eye. In default of better means, visual art personifies the prince of lies—or, in that marvelous phrase, prince of the power of the air—with grotesque physiognomy. It is a familiar convention that incarnates disproportion and hurls defiance at canons of beauty.
The Middle Ages had a genius for monstrous iconography. Its repertory developed in fear and dismay at the conditions the son of disobedience instigates. Claws, hooves, horns, bat wings, and loathsome grimaces illustrate a culture’s recoil from his works. But what of his own self?
William Blake came closer to the apparent truth of the Rebel Angel and his divisions than did painters of misshapen monsters rising out of hot pitch to ride herd on the damned. Contra centuries of depiction, and hellholes full of sharpened bidents, Lucifer is alluring.
radiant, lithesome, and well formed Blake presents him. All masculine beauty, Lucifer moves with athletic grace, more dancer than demon. From a figure so fair and commanding must come a voice low, melodic and seductive. He speaks with the tongue of angels. After all, he is one.
And Lucifer is accomplished—as we need our tempters to be. Accomplishment is a magnet for those who prefer to suffer the tragedy of existence in concert halls and theaters, away from the trenches of the lived life. Might our trickster even be pianist enough to scrap his sheet music and play Mozart by heart?
However he comports himself in other times and places, in our own the hellion keeps up with fashion. With an eye on all things current, he guards a natty wardrobe of ideas. Charming at table, polished at the lectern, he talks with passion about the good, the true, and the beautiful. Like John Walsh, director emeritus of the J. Paul Getty Museum, he professes belief that works of art make “an audience of happier, wiser, more complete people.” Without a doubt, Lucifer is a patron of the arts.
Blue state all the way.
What brings on this end-of-summer reverie, you wonder? It is this: Next Monday, September 15, Cardinal Dolan cuts the ribbon on the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Center for Art and Culture, a non-profit initiative that views itself, in His Eminence’s words, as “America’s premier center for The New Evangelization.” It is an ambitious undertaking. The Cardinal continues:
Its goal is to bring practicing Catholics closer to the faith, attract and accompany “lapsed” Catholics in returning to the Church, and introduce non-Catholics to the person, message, and invitation of Christ.
Fine sentiments. But the swagger and the timing could hardly be worse. The archdiocese plays art patron on the downtown scene while parishes are shrinking, schools and churches closing under the juggernaut of an archdiocesan pastoral planning extravaganza with the Orwellian title “Making All Things New.” A more candid title would have been “Staving Off Bankruptcy.” But in our hope-and-change era, stirring, focus-grouped slogans deflect attention from somber realities.
While financial realism was turning parish pastors into corporate-style administrators, the archdiocese found means for a 25,000 square foot boost to the arts-and-entertainment economy of the Lower East Side. Sheen Center will house two theaters, four rehearsal spaces, exhibition and archival space. A chapel, too. Fully staffed, promoted, and board-of-directed by the great and the good, it will sponsor plays, opera, symposia, concerts, dance, and celebrate “momentous events and occasions in the life of the Church, the archdiocese, and community.” It promises to help us “uplift ourselves, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.”
In short, a high-end clambake. Is it likely to enhance the credibility and cohesion of the Church’s teaching authority? Or will it dwindle into a white elephant like the John Paul II Cultural Center in D.C.? (Built in 2001, it was a financial disaster sold to the Knights of Columbus ten years later at a stunning multi-million dollar loss to the diocese —Detroit—that had funded it.)
I wish the Sheen Center well. But optimism is on hold. The project gives off the aroma of episcopal vanity and utopian swank. We can explore the reasons next time. For now, it is enough to hold close Vigo Demant’s caution against using a Christian idiom to capitulate to secular enthusiasms.
Canon Demant’s Our Culture: Its Christian Roots and Present Crisis is as trenchant now, for varying reasons, as it was in 1947. Thinking about the character of ambition implicit in the Sheen Center, I cannot dislodge from memory his comment on the men of antiquity “who went down under the barbarian darkness still professing their belief in deathless Rome.”