Betrayal or Tradition

Christian Symbolism in Contemporary Italian Art

Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, Marcello Francolini

What are the linguistic mechanisms that, starting out from the symbolic dimension, also have repercussions on actuality?
This article is structured on the basis of two specular perspectives. The first, a general one, starts out from the relationship between work, word, symbol and thought; the second, which is more particular, starts out from the analogy between the mechanisms of some contemporary artworks and some of the iconographic themes of Christian art.

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The cybernetic mind, seen in light of Christian analogism (a typology of movement: from the linguistic surface to the symbolic depths)

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In the current landscape of Italian art, the extensive typological phenomenology of the artwork has made a lateral move, overflowing classical meanings of beauty to invade concrete reality. It has done so first in an objectual mode, in the years of the historical neo-avantgardes, and then in a performative one, in postmodernity. Faced with this, what theory or method can give us stable moorings, amidst the plurality of morphologies? We must certainly go beyond aesthetics and consider works as objects similar to words, as objects that also inhabit the ontological region of language. When we take this route, we see how we can gain new perspectives on the linguistic mechanisms of contemporary art, when we look at them in light of early Christian art. We get a first route into this theme when we imagine the following initial situation: the Praedicatum project, the new work of M – an artist gaining national attention – is being presented in a well-known gallery. It is a site-specific installation, set up in a rectangular room. Along the two long walls are two large photographic reproductions that seem to confront one another with similar imposing force: on the left, an enlargement of a detail from Michelangelo’s Creazione di Adamo (The Creation of Adam), from the Sistine Chapel; on the right, a photographic enlargement of Silvio Ceccato’s Adamo II, presented in Milan in 1956 on the occasion of the first post-war congress on automation. In the brochure presenting these works, we read that it would be difficult to think about the origin of Adam as the first man without thinking in symbolic terms, of a non-birth from childbirth (on the contrary there is Christ, born from a birth without conception); Adamo II seems to have been born from a symbolic processuality. Thus, Ceccato’s machine does not show the meaning of thoughts, but only how they come into being, according to the correlation of different stages of consciousness. Looking for the primary mental operation, Ceccato realised that there is always a symbolic link between concept and word, similar to the working of the simplest mathematical operation – addition. When it comes to addition, the value of the addends is established a priori, and the real activity is the correlation between them, which is the primary and spontaneous act, to which subtraction, multiplication and division – which are obviously more logically complex – then connect up. But how can it be said that something symbolic precedes both of these births?

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If, as Hans-Georg Gadamer argues in his Truth and Method, it is precisely in the artwork that we contribute to that symbolic activity of showing a non-explicable, non-scientific truth, then we would have to admit that while Adamo II demonstrates that it is possible to describe mental operations, it also tells us that at the primary level of thought there is nothing but pure correlation. This is the junction at which cybernetics meets semiotics, phenomenology and philosophy, all of which address art as a field of occurrence in which the symbolic provides a gaze on primary thinking, on correlative thinking.

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Proceeding in this manner, Ceccato crosses paths with that same desire for upheaval which is at the contemporary origin of all those in various fields adjacent to art who have evoked the death of philosophy, of art, or of mechanics. In making this proposal for a re-visability of present-day art, starting from the possibility of seeing it in the mirror of early Christian art, we will use the singular method which Martin Heidegger was among the first to refine in his The Origin of the Work of Art. He did not seek to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions to arrive at the best definition of “art” according to a classical application of logic but, rather, to pose art the problem of its “essence” and to identify this as a correlative constant standing above and beyond its aesthetic form. Only by identifying this essence is there any guarantee that we will be able to recognise, beyond the aesthetic datum, the operative mechanism of the work, starting not from the connection of its aspectual properties but, rather, from its semantic properties. Heidegger had seen in the very origin of the meaning of the word “art” a movement, “the enactment of truth”. He understood this latter to be a correlative activity, which cannot be expressed in the grammatical category of the verb that serves to support the subject or object in describing reality, but rather in the propositional category (that of the Praedicatum?).

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How far do Nicaea’s choices persist in the processes today used to construct a work? Focusing only on the propositional formula, we could say that: the Father is tothe Spirit, as the Spirit to theSon. So, we could say – limiting our gaze to the semantic – that the revelation of the Eucharistic mystery has already set in motion even in its form of linguistic presentation; the prepositional is here substitutes for the identifying is, thus establishing a type of quality of transfiguration for the Son. If this is so, Christ’s divinity is not posed within the aesthetic datum, insofar as Jesus is a man among men. This also rebounds on the question of the “indiscernibles” central to the construction-processes of the contemporary artwork. For it allows us to focus attention on the properties that works do not share with mere objects, just like how in the twenty-first century present, in which the status of the work has been extended to the performative quality of the event, we must discern works from mere actions. What differentiates passing through an environmental work (materials, things, sounds, photographs, and so on) from an entirely similar space which we encounter in everyday reality, is the profound and voluntary interpretative activity linked to the conscious experience of the symbolic dimension. How else could we discern holy water from ordinary water?

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Collection of Exempla (typology of movement: from the historical depths to the surface of the present day)

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In the nineteenth century, Hegel pointed out that no one still kneels before the image of the Virgin Mary. Here, he grasped a shift that would grow stronger in the years that followed. The arrival in Dresden of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, purchased by Augustus III of Poland in the mid-eighteenth century, produced a heated debate on art among artists, philosophers, writers and religious figures, as is well recounted in Hans Belting’s book The Invisible Masterpiece. The discussion, precocious in its modernity, revolved around the question of whether this was a religious painting or simply an artwork and whether it should be in a sacred place or in a museum. Over the course of time, Winckelmann, Wackenroder, Wagner, Schlegel and his wife Caroline, took part in the debate, discussing a Virgin Mary that expresses sacredness and spirituality, or, as Nietzsche put it, carnality and licentiousness. This prolonged debate underlined the extent to which the idea of modern and contemporary art passes through the how, when and why something is a work of art. In this advance towards the autonomy of art, it ought to be noted that the few religious themes to which modern and contemporary artists turn their attention include, as well as the Virgin Mary, the Crucifixion and The Last Supper (Eucharist). These are themes on which, from the very beginning, the dispute over the necessity and modalities of their representability has turned, making them not only a religious issue, but also a question of sign and the signs of art. Already in 787, a special council, the Second Council of Nicaea, was convened to discuss these issues, laying the foundations for all subsequent art. The discussion centred on the possibility of representing the sacred, and especially the body of Christ, on which question Christianity divided into Orthodox and Catholics, responding to two different conceptions of art. The Orthodox leaned toward a kind of iconographic “inertia”, while the Catholics opted for an iconography-in-becoming. For the Orthodox, the icon-work, even if painted by a human being, is not considered the work of the painter, but of God or the Fathers of the Church, while for the Catholics, it is the work of the painter who executes it. Since the artist is God, the idea of an original or a copy cannot exist, since all icons are original because they are the work of God, even if they do appear slightly different at a formal level. Conversely, the Western Catholic religion has an evolutionist vision, and when a prelate commissions a religious artwork he does so because he wants an artwork by such and such an artist: Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, and so on. For the Orthodox, the artist is always and only God, and the painter only an executor, as happens today in conceptual art, in which the artist is the one who has the idea for the work and not the one who materially realises it. On this subject, the Orthodox philosopher Pavel Florensky, in his book The Royal Doors(1914), wrote: “The painter’s only job is the technical aspect of the work, but its entire arrangement (that is, its disposition, composition, and even more so the artistic form in general) clearly depends on the Holy Fathers”. So, it is no coincidence that the Uffizi begins the way through its exhibition with a room in which three Majesties (Madonnas) by Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto are brought together, presented as art images before which no one any longer kneels. Today, sacred images are discussed as signs, “signs that mark”. This is a question that Plato opened up already in his Dialogues: “It is not you, the artist, who speaks to us, it is a god who makes you speak. You do not know of what you speak or how come you are speaking… It is others who, possessing an indispensable competence, are called upon to interpret your message”.

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This shows how the two main paths of modern art, Picasso’s way of doing and Duchamp’s way of ideating, are proposed to modern and contemporary art by examples starting already in the eighth century, as the atheist Picasso himself reminds us: “There is no more beautiful theme than that of the Crucifixion, because in over a thousand years it has been represented millions of times and continues to be so”.

These themes were at the centre of reflection in crucial phases of history, starting from Nicaea and continuing with the great theological debate between St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas. It is here that the ideas of Plato’s Timaeus find their place, asking whether things are holy because they please the divinity or if they please divinity because they are holy. This was also the case for the dispute between Catholics and Protestants, in which the former believe in the Eucharist of transubstantiation (the bread and wine are no longer such, but the true body and blood of Christ), while the latter opt for consubstantiation (the body and blood of Christ coexist in the bread and wine, which remain formally and visibly such). Again, in this case, each position is accompanied with its own disposition toward art. In the contemporary world, Victor I. Stoichita uses the sense of the sixteenth-century Protestant challenge to the authority of the Church to find a terrain of origin for the conceptual poetics of the site-specific context and the white cube. Indeed, what is the Duchampian ready-made, in which a thing is no longer that thing, but another thing and, in our case, a work of the spirit and mind as an artwork if not a kind of secular Eucharist? On the level of painting this ranges from Magritte’s seeming answer in his Trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe, 1928-1929), up to Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), and beyond.

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But at this point we should add that these religious themes seem to be taken as a pretext for contestation by modern and contemporary artists, insofar as they subject them to a sort of martyrdom of images and forms when the Madonna, with Gino De Dominicis, becomes La Madonna che ride (The Laughing Madonna), or when a statue is maintained at a constant temperature of 36°, as in Alberto Garutti’s human body. Warhol, Vik Muniz and Vanessa Beecroft, among others, have devoted themselves to the Last Supper. But it is the Crucifixion that has been revisited more than most such themes, from Guttuso, who surrounds it with female nudes, to Martin Kippenberger, who crucifies nature by crucifying a green frog, and Maurizio Cattelan. This latter seems to revisit many religious themes, with the crucifixion of his own gallerist attached to the wall (A Perfect Day, 1999), and La nona ora (1999), but also in Tre bambini impiccati (2004) and in Blind (2021), an airplane stuck into a black monolith that is a sort of crucifixion. However, it would be superficial to read these and similar works as targeting religion, because theirs is not a blasphemy against religion. Rather, the message is revised in the light of the cultural, moral and ecological demands of today’s society, flowing into works that are provocative about everything, about art and its language.