new passions v2

**And the Facebook is working again. And all was right in the world.**

Warning: The following post inspired by my recent trip to the Augustiner Museum is extremely long and highly nerdy. Writing it mostly helped me sort out some of my own thoughts, but I think it’s interesting enough to post, too. If you don’t agree, you can go read my thoughts about beer instead.

I think I’m developing a new intellectual pursuit. I know, I know, that’s all pretentious and Plan II of me, but it’s true. It’s nothing I’d ever even really thought about before, but now that I’m immersed in it, I’m fascinated.

Sacred. Art. Is. So. Cool.

I blogged a little bit about some of the art my mom and I got to see when we were in France. But even since then, I’ve just been captivated with all that I’ve seen.

Sacred art is really prevalent here in Europe, what with all the old churches and, you know, the Renaissance and stuff. No big deal. But apparently the Oberrhein, the region of Europe that includes Freiburg and Strasbourg, is a hotbed for statues, altarpieces, paintings, wood carvings, and stained glass windows depicting Jesus, Mary, biblical scenes, and the early saints. In my exploration of the sacred art of the Oberrhein (a journey which, thus far, includes the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, cathedrals in Strasbourg and Freiburg, and most recently the Augustiner Museum in Freiburg), I’ve discovered how rich and alive my faith’s history and culture really is.

The cathedral in Freiburg was easily the biggest church Ive ever seen... crazy.

One thing that’s especially fascinated me and made me want to learn more is the style of the portrayals of the early saints. In every church I’ve visited (like, ever visited, even in the US when I was 8 years old), when there are stained glass and statues portraying the saints’ lives, I always look as hard as I can for some indication, some label, of which saint is which. But they’re almost never labeled! It’s so frustrating!

But at the Unterlinden, I learned that that’s because there is this extremely detailed network of associations and symbols used to identify portrayals of the saints. For instance, if there is a statue of a female saint holding a lamb, that’s St. Agnes. However, if it is a male figure with a lamb, it’s John the Baptist. Some of them are kind of weird–St. Antony is always accompanied by a pig.

I mean, I guess I was aware that this kind of thing existed–I recognize statues of St. Laurence, my home parish’s patron, because he’s always holding a griddle, and St. Lucy, my confirmation saint, because she always holds a platter adorned with her eyeballs (lovely). But I never realized how important it was to the artistic culture or how detailed and all-encompassing it was. It just makes me want to learn every single saint’s story so I can identify all the paintings and statues!

Another thing that’s really stuck out is the specific assortment of saints that are frequently pictured. Biblical saints, of course, are very present; the Evangelists, appropriately, and also James the Greater, who for some reason really looks like a pirate. Besides them, though, the big players are the great saints of the early church. Despite choosing one of them as my confirmation patroness, I really don’t know too much about these martyrs and virgins of the first few centuries A.D., so it’s been awesome to learn more about them. The common portrayals I’ve been seeing have been Sts. Laurence, Barbara, Antony, Margaret, Catherine, and Sebastian.

For serious, at the Unterlinden I saw so many depictions of St. Sebastian that I really started to wonder what the heck was going on. The only reason I really knew of his story–he was being shot with arrows–was because a lot of my male friends chose him as their confirmation saint. He is the patron of sports, after all. It turns out that he’s one of the saints that people really turned to during the Black Plague and so he, logically, became very popular at that time. And then it all made complete sense. I’ve seen him all over the place since then.

I’ve gotten pretty good at distinguishing these guys. Laurence, as I said, carries a griddle (in memory of his martyrdom), Antony is always accompanied by a pig (again, no idea on that one…), Barbara normally carries a small model of a church, and Margaret is shown with a dragon and the staff with which she killed it. (Um, awesome much? Those early virgins were pretty badass.)

Now, it’s not surprising at all that a specific time and place in art and culture would have certain trends, certain things that artists especially valued, and certain people to whom they gave honor. But what really strikes me is the simultaneous dynamism and stability of Christian society. In the middle ages, Catholics in central Europe had really strong devotions to St. Barbara, St. Sebastian, and company… they prayed to them, made art featuring them, probably named their children after them. Even the main guilds of Freiburg each had a patron saint. The tanners, for instance, were especially devoted to St. Agnes. These devotions were so ingrained in European society in that historical moment.

But it didn’t stop there. Christian society; European society; heck, human society: they don’t stand still. They’re in constant motion. Which we can see because hundreds of years later, in the 20th century, the same region of Europe was marked with a completely different flavor. Modern Europe, building off of hundreds of years of tradition, produced a new generation of great saints, men and women whose lives were very different from those of the early martyrs. And these saints are some of the ones my generation most identifies with, prays to, and will probably name our children after: Sts. Faustina and Maximilian Kolbe in Poland and St. Therese of Lisieux in France, to name a few.

Despite the obvious differences between today’s society and the Middle Ages’, there is still a need to connect to people, especially those who inspire us, those who are great. And we build and strengthen those connections in a lot of the same ways. Ever seen a picture of St. Therese that didn’t include a rose? Modern saint identification. And how did St. Faustina communicate her message to the world? Largely through the Divine Mercy image. Modern sacred art!

You know, after typing that all out, it doesn’t seem groundbreaking at all. It seems like the most natural thing ever. Seeing the very nearness of the early church to my own experiences kind of drives home the universality of my faith and of the human experience in general. I’m sure there were people going to the Cathedral in Strasbourg back in the day who were curious about the saints in the stained glass windows. In fact, the artists, writers, and theologians who first began devising the network of saints’ symbols and associations probably did so because of that human desire to identify with and understand art. (Also probably because those people wondering about the saints’ identities weren’t exactly literate… but I diverge.)

Before I get lost in my nerdy little world and bore all you people in blog-land, let’s summarize. Sacred art is cool. There is lots of it in Freiburg. Art brings people together. Even people who live thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart. It kind of makes me want to write my thesis on it. Which kind of makes me want to change my major to European Studies. But I don’t want to get too ahead of myself. So for now, let’s just stick with “Sacred art is cool.”


We took the train to Colmar, France, today. It was pretty rainy, so we decided to go to the Unterlinden Museum so we could spend some time inside. Which was a good idea in theory, but we didn’t factor in a 35 minute detour of walking, lost, around the entire city in the rain.

The museum was fantastic. It was mostly Catholic art from the early Church and the late middle Ages, prominently featuring a number of artists from the Alsace-Lorraine area. The main attraction was a huge room devoted to the Isenheim Altarpiece, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen before!

One really striking thing that my mom and I both noticed was the recurrence of this image, or images like it, depicting the “dormition of Mary,” or Mary’s deathbed.

In these images, Mary is always surrounded by the apostles. Christ is generally seen in the heavens, accompanied by a child representing Mary's soul.

The first time we saw it, in St. Leodegar’s in Luzern, we had no idea what we were even looking at. Then, it just kept coming up at the museum today! Luckily, the handy museum tour headset thing was kind enough to tell us what the heck it was… Mary’s dormition, where according to tradition the apostles all came together to comfort Mary as she died. (Apparently they were “carried on clouds from all over the earth…” a cooler image than my mom’s projection that they all just texted each other.)

Then, I came back to the hotel room and ran a Google search and came up with this: “In Byzantine icons and Western medieval art, the most common deathbed scene is that of the Virgin Mary.”

Um, WHAT? I have never heard of this or seen an image like this in my whole life! And neither has my mother! And, to use her words, she’s “been Catholic for a long time”! And we go to museums quite often, too! Are we just the only Catholics who haven’t been informed of this artistic phenomenon?!?! Help me out here, Catholic friends!