“I say it again—this Christian crux—this cross of Christ, when carried, will bring an epic poetic impulse (and consequently a heroic era for all art) that will make Greek art seem trivial, as Greek art is the heroism of the stoic and not of the humble cross-bearer.” (c. 1930)
“The crux of all [Christian] civilization is literally the cross of Christ, which is symbolized by the characteristic form of the Gothic—in the diagonals which go to make up the roofs and towers, the buttresses and the very folds of the garments of the carved and painted saints and kings.” (1922)
A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.
These two paintings provide an occasion to clarify a confusion that people commonly have about Schmitt’s art: that it can be divided into “religious” and “non-religious” works. For Schmitt, all of his art was religious, including his portraits and still lifes. Such categories force a division Schmitt himself never made in his art. For Schmitt, beauty in art was fully and exclusively a human matter, portraying purely temporal, visible realities—things we all experience in our daily lives, whether we are religious believers or not.
According to Schmitt, all the arts reflect the mystery of Life only to the extent that the artist captures the fullness of human experience in his work. The great artists, Schmitt felt, were able to “see deeper” into reality—to contemplate it, to see the life of man and of nature in all its depth and mystery.
These two paintings can help us meet the challenge found in almost all of Schmitt’s work. The content of The Sower and Via Crucis seems obvious enough: both are about Christ. And yet this is hardly the whole story.
A first look at The Sower might raise the question: Why is Christ portrayed as a farmer? He was a carpenter and probably never sowed any seed in a field. But this is not simply a picture of Christ. Rather, it represents all of us in our basic human condition, the condition that was not erased, but embraced and perfected by Christ. The artist challenges us, under the spell of beauty we find in his work, to see this fullness of reality.
The image of the sower makes us reflect that all good—any good—is naturally diffusive of itself. Every time we experience anything good in the course of our day, we desire to spread it around, tell it to others, to be “sowers” of the good word. Can we see more deeply still? Is not our love of the good (even the small goods of our daily lives) and our desire to share it a sign of our love for others? The Christ in this painting is each one of us. Even if Christ’s parable has a primary reference to spreading the seed of his word, it builds upon and perfects our natural desire to share the good with others.
We again meet a perplexity upon seeing the Via Crucis. Here, Christ wears no crown of thorns, indeed, there is no blood—nothing to suggest the bowed and suffering servant. Instead, he is shown resolutely striding ahead to his own crucifixion with manful vigor. The contrast with traditional depictions is a bit startling, perhaps even shocking. As with The Sower, we are invited to go deeper and perceive something that is universal to all men.
“Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends”: Christ said this of his own sacrifice on the cross. But consider how every Marine—and not necessarily a Christian—is ready to sacrifice himself to save the life of his buddy under fire. And this readiness to sacrifice is also seen in the many small and loving acts we do for others without a thought of the cost.
The beauty of Schmitt’s paintings stems from his profound vision of human reality. Their beauty lures us to stay and look again. But he considered the beauty of his work a small reflection of the deeper reality—and with it, the beauty and joy—we can find if we but respond to the invitation to learn how to stop, enjoy, and contemplate.
“The Christian carries his cross with cheerfulness and charity. If he does not, he should put down his cross for the sake of charity.” (1963)
A guest post by my late father, John S. Schmitt, written two years before his death in 2012. The painting now hangs in the chapel he built for Trivium School.
On the walls of my home I have a collection of fine works by Carl Schmitt, including two religious paintings. It is one of these that I am proudest to own, to sit before and to think about. It depicts the deposition of Christ, the taking down of his dead body from the cross. Let me tell you some of the things I have delightfully discovered about the composition of this painting and how light reveals the values of the objects in the painting.
At first glance, the arrangement of the composition is circular or, as the artist would put it, lyrical. The huddled figures at the top with their supporting arms, the legs of the body, and the humble figure at the lower right constitute the principal shape of the painting. Looking more closely, we see vertical structural elements, the hallmark of the epic: the arms gently but firmly supporting the weight of the dead body. Finally, the angular forms in the contraposto of the body and the turn of the head, arms, and legs of Christ reveal dynamic or dramatic elements. Thus both the lyrical and epic elements draw the eye to focus on the dramatic figure in the center. The abstract and universal forms embedded in nature—the lyric, epic, and dramatic—are here brilliantly interwoven in a simple unity of mature and masterful composition.
Along with the composition, the artist’s use of light to reveal form draws us into the contemplation of the reality before us. It is light and dark which reveal all form. The artist has delineated the form not only through his simple palette of the three primary colors but also the values of light and dark, most evident in the effulgence of light. This light is truly mysterious. Does it emanate from an unseen source outside the painting, or does it flow out from the sacred body itself?
Once again we are confronted with the mystery of the central figure in the painting. And yet this aesthetically dynamic figure is a dead body! Although surrounded by darkness, it seems to glow with a light beyond the power of nature. As inspiring as the presence of light is in the painting, finally it is through the selective lack of light—what the artist called voids—that, paradoxically, reality is revealed for what it truly is. Like the irony of the drama of the dead body at the center of the painting, the voids —the absence of light—serve an “ironic” or paradoxical function highlighting the significance of what is being depicted.
Thus this masterpiece allows us to glimpse what the physical eye alone is unable to perceive. We realize something of the Grand Reality bodied forth in delightful contemplation of natural reason, faith, hope, and charity: the reality of the Incarnation in truth is represented.