“The unique miracle of Christian culture”

“And this is the mark of your major artist: without losing memory, the mirage, the illusion, he grasps the tangible in three planes.” —Carl Schmitt, “On Wind in Art,” 1925

For Carl Schmitt, the fault of the modern artist lies not in making too much of his art, but too little.  In his fixation with originality, personal expression, and an “abstract” style, he denies art its true significance as a bearer of “transcendent reality.”  Like oriental or primitive art, modern art is “but a sign or at best a prophecy” that can find its full stature only in the fullness brought by a Christian understanding of reality.

“When will we realize that the Fine Arts are a Christian creation?” Carl Schmitt asked.  To him, the “fine-arts are uniquely Christian.”  To be sure, non-Christian civilizations have cultivated the arts, but in Schmitt’s view, “That there is a system or hierarchy of seven fine arts [which are] symbolic expressions of spiritual realities” is “beyond [the] capacity” of these cultures.  What did these other cultures lack?  What has Christ brought that makes the fine arts possible?

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Carl Schmitt, Nativity.  Oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 25 in.

Christ brought the fulfillment of what these cultures strove for but did not, indeed, could not achieve.  It was in this sense that Schmitt called Christ “the perfect myth”—He summed up and made real all the longings and dreams of the ancient peoples.  “We forget that Christ came not only because man needed hope for eternal beatitude but that He was also the historic concrete answer to the desire of the wildest imagination: the appearance on earth of a God-man.  History united to myth.”

The arts of these peoples, embodying as they did their yearnings and strivings for the transcendent—for God—were not complete, but awaited their perfection in the full revelation of Christ: God visible, God in the flesh.


Carl Schmitt, Resurrection.  Oil on hardboard, 1941, 24 x 20 in.

The appearance of the invisible God was not simply a “religious” event, but the fulfillment of an aesthetic ideal: in Christ, symbol and substance, appearance and reality, sign and signified, are perfectly joined.  Only now that this has come about in the world can man acquire the vision to join these in permanent form in art, in what Schmitt paradoxically terms a “substantial symbol.”  “Hard as it may be for our time to understand, the Western and unique Fine Arts were only made possible through [the] radical power of Jesus Christ.  Only by means of his Incarnation and death was it possible for man to have a substantial symbol and ‘exterior sign which is but the figure and yet in reality contain the substance.'”

Giotto - Michelangelo

Giotto (c. 1266 – 1337) The Kiss of Judas, 1304–06, fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Libyan Sibyl, 1511, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The development of the fine arts has not come about immediately; even in the Christian era we can see a progression in the arts toward their full flowering: “The progress of Christian Art (European Art, the Fine Arts) has always and steadily been toward the progressive freedom of form.”  In Schmitt’s understanding, this freedom involves  seeing things in all their dimensions, in what he calls “three planes.”  Aesthetically, “seeing” means that the artist’s vision must develop from the “picture plane” to movement “around a central axis.”  “The Oriental art (from which it springs) has always been quite static, i.e. ‘glued’ to the picture plane (if painting), ‘glued’ to the wall (if sculpture).  Practically all movement in Oriental applied art is confined to the superficial movement which two dimensions admit.”

Greek Temple - Pantheon 2

Temple of Concordia, c. 450-440 BC, Agrigento, Sicily
Giovanni Paolo Pannini or Panini (1691-1765) Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, oil on canvas, c. 1734, 50⅜ x 39 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The unfolding of three planes has been particularly marked in the fine arts of painting, architecture and sculpture.  Schmitt points to Giotto “with his two planes and Michelangelo with the three planes” as milestones in the  full development of painting.  While the ancient Greeks perfected the exterior of the temple, architecture since the Romans “must primarily be a matter of interior space.”  And in contrast to the single perspective offered by the sculpture of the ancient Egyptians, “sculpture, since Michelangelo, must move in three planes around a central axis.”  

Egpytian sculpture - Michelangelo

King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen, greywacke sandstone, c. 2500 BC, 56 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Michelangelo, Florence Pietà, marble, c. 1547-53, 89 in. high. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
Carl Schmitt considered this one of the great works of sculpture: “Form was freed, was felt to be able to move most fully with Michelangelo, and at the greatest degree with his last Pietà, the one in Florence” (1952).

Even now, however, the fine arts have not come to their full fruition.  “Christianity will have no great art until death enters consciously into the picture.  The Christian drama has yet to be realized.”

2 thoughts on ““The unique miracle of Christian culture”

  1. Pingback: The “nostalgia” of modern art | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  2. Pingback: Fine Arts on Fridays—the arts as “the sacraments of a natural religion” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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