Wisdom on Wednesdays—Art is necessary

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Still Life with Apples, signed “Carl S. 1935” lower left, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

“Art is necessary precisely because life is so filled with duty and routine that an interesting record of life must remind all of us of the importance of our existence.”  (1942)

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“Just look at it!”: Immanent Trinity Decoration (1924)

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Immanent Trinity Decoration, 1924, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
The Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues, Wernersville, Pennsylvania

This painting, along with his Nativity, is among Carl Schmitt’s largest religious paintings, and his most glorious.  It was done during Schmitt’s “tapestry” period, yet, like The Sower, moves beyond that ethos both in terms of artistic accomplishment and religious content.  

The work caught the eye of Mrs. Nicholas Brady, wife of one of the most prominent and wealthy Catholics in America, who purchased it for the novititate house she was building for the Jesuit order in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Brady had already bought a smaller crucifixion Schmitt had done while in Chartres (see image below), and gave both to grace the new house, where they remain to this day. 

Contemporary reviewers of the painting appreciated its glorious color but were were puzzled by its title; as one critic wondered, “why ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person?”  They also noted how odd it was to depict Christ’s crucifixion without the cross.  In this article Schmitt’s son Carl, Jr. ponders  the deeper content of the work, exploring both its title and its portrait of Christ. 

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This is a most perplexing painting. As I’ve said on other occasions, whenever I offered an  explanation of one of my father’s paintings, he would always say, “Don’t make silly theories, just look at it.”

He meant, “If you are in any way attracted by it, look again, gaze at it, think about it, contemplate it. And then maybe you’ll see something more in it—and perhaps you’ll even begin to enjoy it.”

At a first look, we certainly are perplexed.  The main figure seems to be Christ crucified—but certainly not in a guise we are familiar with.  His arms are outstretched as if on a cross and he seems to be dying; but the cross itself is not there.  Wounded he is, but not in his feet, and though he has a halo, there’s no crown of thorns; it is also a bit startling to see his hair almost blond. And though we can see there a Mary, John, the Magdalene, and two angels, the setting itself hardly suggests that “place of the skull” we know as Calvary.

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Crucifixion, 1927, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in.
The first of Schmitt’s works purchased by Mrs. Nicholas Brady, it is one of the few oil paintings he completed during his stay in Chartres with his family.

But the title at least supplies us with a clue: this is the immanent Christ.  This is, to be sure, most unusual, yet we can find its basis in the Gospel itself.  We have seen portrayals of Christ drawn from a multitude of Gospel scenes—all those Nativities and Madonnas and countless other depictions of the Savior’s life through his passion and death to his resurrection, ascension, and glory.  None of these can be said to portray an immanent  Christ.

Schmitt saw Christ in all of those ways, but the basis for his depiction of an immanent Christ can also be found in the Gospel. Christ, for Schmitt, was “true God and true man,” and this he continues to be, now and forever, the absolutely perfect union of the divine and the human.  In Biblical language the word adam means “man,” and for Schmitt, as he often pointed out, it was no  accident that Christ’s favorite name for himself was “the Son of Man.”

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Adam and Eve, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Furthermore, who has not been moved by that passage in the Gospel when Christ refers to a moment in the last judgment when those he welcomes into his kingdom ask, “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or see thee thirsty and give thee to drink?” And the Lord will answer, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”  And Christ gives a like response to those who were condemned.

In effect, Christ is potentially immanent in every man.  Pope John Paul II more than once said that Christ “has united Himself in some way with every man.”  Here is man not just in the universality of a word we use to assert a truth, but in the reality of the Word, which we likewise find asserted in the Gospel.  And likewise who has not heard that we are called to be “other Christs”?  Who has not been challenged by the effort to “see Christ” in others?

Schmitt has written that “The aim of art is to bear witness of the truth.”  He devoted his life as an artist to seeing reality as truly and deeply as he could in order to put it into his work, which he always thought of as simply a gift.  This is perhaps why he asked us simply to look at his paintings, in the hope that we might “in some way” be attracted enough to look again and see more deeply.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2013.

“Just look at it!”: Bread, Wine, and Knife (1987)

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Bread, Wine, and Knife, 1989, oil on hardboard, 7 x 9 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

This painting was Carl Schmitt’s last, done close to the end of an extraordinary life.  Yet it may just be the most ordinary of his many still lifes.

The painting is austere, with little of the stunning beauty of many of his other works.  The bottle of wine, the chunks of bread, and a kitchen knife are ordinary indeed—even stark in their separateness.  Yet this very plainness invites a second look and draws us to contemplate: the painting bespeaks the depths to be found in the ordinary.

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Madonna with Black Head-dress or Dalmatian Mother, oil on canvas, 1926, 24 x 20 in.

The fact that Schmitt gave the work no title reminds me of another painting, discussed earlier here, to which he gave two titles—“Madonna with Kerchief” and “Dalmatian Mother.”  I noted that there was no duplicity in this, because Schmitt’s vision of reality reflected his belief in Christ as God incarnate, one divine person with two complete natures, divine and human.  Schmitt never tired of pointing out how this meant that Christ was fully man in all of man’s created mystery, for the artist must deal with human life in this world—the life Christ shared with the rest of us—showing how human life in its fullest embraces all created reality. It was there, in the ordinary that you and I know so well, that he found the beauty he strove to realize in his art.

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Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930

This is why Schmitt was totally unabashed about inserting the sublime into the ordinary in a most natural and normal way.  Many of his madonnas were really portraits of his wife with one of their children.  His Madonna of the Milk Bottle may well be the only one that ever depicted Mary and her Child in this way.  Years ago, I asked him to paint a “St. Nicholas” for me. He was just finishing a self-portrait and simply painted in a miter and a crozier.  “That’s not St. Nicholas!” I vigorously protested, “St. Nicholas had a beard!”  He answered, “How do you know?  This will do.”  I was happy to get my painting at least, but as I walked away with it, my thought was that perhaps he was trying to tell me something: that a saint can be seen in any man who is striving to be a child of God.

Schmitt discerned the beauty of each of the stages that make up an ordinary life: we have spoken before of how he combined the lyric, epic, and dramatic aspects of life into his art.  He saw the dramatic as the key to the fullness of beauty, for it is there that life triumphs over death.  Schmitt’s faith found the prototype for this most powerfully in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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Loaf of Bread, 1947, oil on hardboard, 12 x 14 in.
A painting from fifty years earlier featuring many of the same motifs as Schmitt’s final work.

What makes this painting special, however, is not simply that it includes all three aspects that mark it as a late work, but that the painting puts that entire story before us.  The knife between the wine and the bread presents symbolically the sacrificial death in which Christ’s body was drained of its blood—almost too dramatically inserting that great “mystery of faith” into the ordinary.

All this I finally saw only when my sister told me it was the last painting he ever did, one he felt he had to do despite his failing eyesight.  It was for him a kind of summation of his life and work as an artist, and if he had given it a title, it might just have been “The Mass.”

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Spring 2011.