“The ministry of Word and Sacrament is a single ministry, the Word proclaiming, and the Sacrament dramatizing God’s promises. Yet the Word is primary, since without it the sign becomes dark in meaning, if not actually dumb.” John Stott
Such is the problem when literature (art) uses the richness of biblical imagery and narratives without recognizing the intent behind them – the art becomes dark in meaning; promising beauty that dies once we get past the sign.
Cleanth Brooks, in his essay “Religion and Literature”, says, “When we read George Herbert’s poem Love , we may believe, as Herbert evidently did, that there is indeed a spiritual presence in the universe whose name is love. But the reader of the poem is not compelled to believe in Herbert’s God of love. For him the love mentioned in the poem may be simply a human attitude which the poet has momentarily mythologized.” In this case, the reader would find “love” appealing, even marvel at the fact that “love” created the poet’s “eyes”, but the reader is still left with a dumb promise of love if he does not make the leap with Herbert. We cannot discredit Herbert for a reader’s unwillingness to travel the entire journey with the poet.
In another context, Brooks relates John Donne’s poem Canonization demonstrating how Donne uses biblical imagery and terms to describe and heighten the profane love he shares with a woman. While it’s a clever device, the best that Donne offers is to share such a history-marking physical love with a woman that they would be immortalized in verse, or etched in the side of an urn that entombs their ashes, thereby canonizing their love as long as there are humans reading English metaphysical poets.
The Responsibility of the Artist
I believe Dante, an Italian contemporary of Donne’s, graphically demonstrates the difference between these two ideas:grasping temporary immortality in the remembrance of art or being offered true immortality through the death and resurrection of Christ by representing them with women.
We meet Francesca in the whirlwind of the second circle of the inferno. She was alive in Dante’s (the poet) memory as a woman who had cheated on her husband with her husband’s brother, Paolo. And Francesca and Paolo had been tempted into adultery by reading a court poem about Lancelot and Guenevere’s destructive affair. Francesca and Paolo are murdered by the jealous husband, landing them in the circle of hell where they are allowed to chase their lust forever in a circular whirlwind. When Dante summons Francesca, it is discerned that the poem acted as a sort of messenger that allowed them to conduct their illicit affair. So, like Donne’s canonized lovers, Lancelot and Guenevere grasped some sort of immortality, but the only thing that piece of beautiful art ultimately offered was death (or some sort of immortality as long as there are humans reading Dante), in this case Francesca and Paolo’s deaths; but one can see how the cycle could keep repeating itself if the only story given to readers was that of Francesca and Paolo.
However, Dante represents the other idea, true immortality being offered through the death and resurrection of Christ, in the woman Beatrice. Dante (the person and poet) began at a kind of love that resembled Donne’s lovers for a real woman named Beatrice. Over the course of his life, Dante began to see that his courtly love for her might simply be a sign pointing to a much greater love; a love that offered true immortality. In the Divine Comedy, the woman Beatrice enters now as that sign, a guide, and she leads Dante to the visio Dei – vision of God.
Dante then offers to his readers the image of a God who loves a sinning human enough to drag him from the depths of hell (literally) and into eternity through the sign of a man’s love for a woman. Dante’s sign then is not rendered mute, but rather brings with it all of the richness and depth and purpose of the biblical (and redeemed cultural) imagery Dante uses. Essentially, he’s not lying to you.
As an artist, which seems more responsible: Donne or Dante; Francesca or Beatrice?