Thursday, January 4, 2007

Art Without Meaning: Francis Schaeffer on "The Red Virgin"

By Rick Pearcey

News outlets are reporting that an artist has portrayed actress Angelina Jolie as the Virgin Mary. The following analysis by philosopher-theologian Francis Schaeffer of Fouquet's The Red Virgin provides background on the worldview dimension of this use of Marian imagery and on the modern problem of art divorced from meaning.

* Masaccio: "It is crucial to notice that with Masaccio [1401-1428?] and the others up to this point," writes Schaeffer, "art could still have moved toward either a biblical or a nonbiblical concept of nature and the particulars (that is, the individual things, including the individual man). Up to this time it could have gone either way."

* Nature's Proper Place: "It was good that nature was given a proper place. And there could have continued an emphasis on real people in a real world which God has made -- with the particulars, the individual things, important because God made the whole world. Masaccio . . . pictured Adam and Eve as the Bible portrays them -- as real people in a real world. Or at this point humanism could take over, with its emphasis on things being autonomous."

* Dilemma of Humanism: "Immediately after Masaccio, the die was cast and the movement went in this direction. Man made himself increasingly independent and autonomous, and with this came an increasing loss of anything which gave meaning, either to the individual things in the world or to man. With this we see the dilemma of humanism which is still with us today."

* Fouquet's Red Virgin: "This position and its dilemma is strikingly shown in a shift in art. In France, one sees this with Fouquet (c. 1416-1480) in his painting The Red Virgin (1450?)."

* King's Mistress: "The world red refers to the overall color used in part of the picture. The girl was shown with one breast exposed, and everybody who knew the situation knew that this was a picture of the king's mistress, Anges Sorel."

* Not the Madonna: "Was this the Madonna about to feed her baby? No, the painting might be titled The Red Virgin, but the girl was the king's mistress; and when one looked at the painting one could see what the king's mistress's breast looked like."

* Mary as a Real Person: "Prior to this time, Mary was considered very high and holy. Earlier she was considered so much above normal people that she was painted as a symbol. When in the Renaissance Mary was painted as a real person, this was an advance over the representations of Mary in the earlier age, because the Bible tells us that Mary was a real girl and that the baby Jesus was a real baby."

* Where Has All the Meaning Gone? "But now not only was the king's mistress painted as Mary with all of the holiness removed, but the meaning, too, was being destroyed. As first it might have seemed that only the religious aspect was threatened. But, as we can see in retrospect, gradually the threat spread to all of knowledge and all of life."

* Beyond Meaningless Mary: "All meaning to all individual things or particulars was removed. Things were being made autonomous, and there was nothing to which to related them or to give them meaning."

-- Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?, pp. 68-71; for a fuller statement on Christianity and art, see Schaeffer's Art & The Bible

Rick Pearcey is editor and publisher of The Pearcey Report.