Listen to “The Catholic Vision of Carl Schmitt” on SoundCloud

If you missed my talk on Carl Schmitt last month in New York, the audio is now available below and at SoundCloud.  It’s part of “Art of the the Beautiful” lecture series hosted by the Catholic Artists Society.

The talk explores Schmitt’s vision connecting the Catholic tradition to the seven fine arts and to the life of the artist himself.  As a young man, Schmitt saw what he had to do to realize this vision: a struggle for what he called the mystical virtues of purity, poverty, and humility, corresponding to the lyric, epic, and dramatic stages of his artistic development.  The fruit of this journey was a clear vision of things seen in the masterworks of his maturity.

You can follow the close discussion of some of Schmitt finest works by downloading the images here.

“Just look at it!”: Anno Domini 1941 (1941)

CSF10208 - corrected

Anno Domini 1941, 1941, oil on hardboard, 18 x 23½ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Carl Schmitt painted this still life for an exhibition in New York in 1941.  The invited artists were asked to comment on the imminent possibility of the nation’s entrance into World War II, already raging in Europe and the Far East.  The exhibition itself featured paintings showing  a variety of attitudes toward war in general and the issues the artists felt were at stake in this war.

I suspect that my father found the decision of what to paint for this exhibit an unusual challenge.  His whole artistic drive had been directed toward representing a view of man and his destiny in fundamental terms.  He strove to capture the beauty of things in his art, and this meant seeing reality in all its mystery.  The result is another of his wonderful still lifes which, like all his paintings, he left for others simply to enjoy and find in it what they may.

Anno Domini 1941 detail and Botticelli

Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist (detail), tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The “comment” in the painting  can be found in the way the two model airplanes partially obscure the Madonna and Child in the triptych.  But the two planes themselves also suggest that Schmitt had in mind a larger cultural context than the Second World War: one is indeed a war plane, but the other is not.  Together they may be taken as representing our culture’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of making things, which in turn is done for the sake of making money.  This is the true devotion that characterizes our culture, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.

Schmitt didn’t object to producing “useful” things; they serve great social needs.  But alongside social values stand two more important ones: family and ultimately the person.  In Schmitt’s triune vision of reality, these three are seen in terms of origins, means, and ends—the family dealing with man’s origins, society with the means, and person with ends.  The person is paramount, for ultimately only the individual person thinks and loves, thereby making the choices that lead through family and social life to his true end.


Still Life, c. 1947, oil on hardboard, 10 x 12 in.
Carl Schmitt was reluctant to explain his work, writing in 1922, “the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression.”

This painting, then, encompasses Schmitt’s triune vision in a single beautiful work that “comments” on our current cultural situation.  Schmitt saw our culture as so devoted to the means that origins and ends are lost sight of: we thus find it difficult to maintain what family can be and what role the individual person might play in our culture in a fully human way.  Schmitt summed up his attitude in his essay “And / Or” from 1943: “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued at the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, and when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.  For only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”

Although Carl Schmitt painted this work in response to a specific request as to its content, he did something more. In characteristic fashion he produced a painting of quiet and intriguing beauty.  If the viewer looks at it and then ponders it more deeply, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

anno-domini-corrected - SIGNATURE

Reprinted from the CSF News, Summer 2012.

“Just look at it!”: Deposition (c. 1933)


Deposition, c. 1933, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in.

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.

CSF22005 snapshot from Flip

Study for Deposition, pastel on paper, approx. 9 x 13 in.

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.

Deposition - Gates Moore - Cropped and color corrected

Pieta, 1922, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.
A work inspired by the old masters both in its composition and in its use of contemporary dress, the latter unusual for Schmitt in a religious painting.

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.


Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.  This painting was also featured in a post on the blog The Way of Beauty.

Thinking in Threes—Beauty in the beheld

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Have you ever come upon one of those discussions about whether beauty is objective or subjective?  Carl Schmitt went beyond dichotomies of this kind, seeing in them our culture’s tendency to get stuck in “dualisms.”  He favored what he called “trinal thinking” as the only fully human way for man to deal with the realities that confront him and to order his life in a truly satisfactory way.


Carl Schmitt, Annunciation. Oil on canvas, c. 1922, 20 x 24 in.

Trinal thinking involves more than going from one to two to three: the “three” incorporates one and two.  It finds application when we experience reality outside of ourselves.  When I say, “That rose is beautiful,” it is the “I” as a subject that perceives the beauty, yet the beauty is found in a something that I actually see.

Trinal thinking credits both sides, raising the subject/object dualism to the level where we see what beauty is in itself.  Along with Beauty, trinal thinking applies to Truth and Goodness as well: all three involve going more deeply into the realities we encounter every day in our drive for meaning and happiness.

In the case of Truth, the intellect proceeds through the triad of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom.  While we can always pile up more and more knowledge, it is more important to accompany this with understanding.  The insights gained from understanding then lead to wisdom, by which we are open to what transcends and encompasses all reality. There is another triadic progress involving Goodness and the will, how we choose and order our loves.

Carl Schmitt, Annunciation, and Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), “Cestello” Annunciation, c. 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Beauty is special in that, though it deals with reality as does truth and goodness, it never leaves behind the material aspect of reality, either in its subjective or objective levels.  On the subjective level, beauty as perceived by man involves his senses and imagination right along with his intellectual powers to know and love and choose—and this gives rise to feelings and emotions as well.  On the objective level, the material and spiritual unity in the beauty of the object itself gives rise to the mystery of reality.

When a man says, “Look at that attractive woman,” the person he’s speaking to may caution, “Be careful; her beauty is only skin deep.”  Man is capable of seeing more deeply.  And if he pursues it (or her) and gets to know her better and can start to appreciate many qualities she has, he may come to realize that “She really is a very beautiful person.”  Even the tiniest experience of beauty can gently remind us of—and even confront us with—the mystery of reality, in both the object and the subject.  Beauty, in short, is always mysterious.

Anno Domini - corrected

Anno Domini 1941, oil on hardboard, 1941, 14 x 18 in.

Schmitt strove to create works that would be beautiful, to place that mystery of reality before us.  The painting shown here, entitled Anno Domini 1941, stands as a comment on our modern culture.  The two airplanes in the painting may be seen as representing our devotion to the pursuit of knowledge solely to produce things that make money, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.  This painting is certainly a beautiful still life, yet if the viewer continues to gaze and ponder it, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

Anno Domini 1941 detail and Botticelli

Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Further commentary on Anno Domini 1941 can be found in the Summer 2012 issue of the CSF News.

Mysticism on Mondays—“Everyone is a mystic”

“Mysticism is of no value if it is an escape into unreality.  It is unfortunate that the word mystic suggests mist. Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”  —Carl Schmitt, c. 1931

For Carl Schmitt, mysticism was not a daydream, an ineffable reaching for a spiritual unknown.  He saw this kind of quest as a hallmark of the philosophies of the East.  “The Eastern Nations have stressed the dream, desired too much, and have tended to eliminate the active. The desire is an opiate and is mistaken constantly for mysticism.”

Far from being an attempt to escape reality, mysticism is an active search for the real.  Indeed, “mysticism begins with the desire to experience reality.” In this sense, “everyone is a mystic,” as everyone seeks to experience reality.  This search is not limited to our sense experience, and in fact, must go beyond it if it is to get at the deepest reality of things.  “Mysticism should be a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

CSF10004 - NEW

Eggs and Copper, oil on hardboard, 12 x 15 in.

We tend to think of mysticism as a religious phenomenon, and Schmitt certainly acknowledged this side of it.  But as an artist he also recognized an “aesthetic” mysticism—one of the imagination—which paralleled the more familiar “spiritual” mysticism. This was based on his insight that “materiality or art or imagination is the exact symbol of spirituality.”


Untitled, conte crayon on paper

Seeing this parallel between religious mysticism and aesthetic mysticism, Schmitt made an intensive study of the former as the basis for his thought on the latter.  The path taken by the religious mystics, one based on what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of poverty, purity, and humility, finds a close correspondence in the journey of the artist along the path to full aesthetic vision.  From seeing merely the appearances of things (what he called the “lyric” stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in time and space (the “epic”), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their form (the “dramatic” vision).


Tagliacozzo, pen and ink on paper, 1939, 20 x 15 in., signed “Carl Schmitt”, lower right.
Schmitt stayed in this town in the Abruzzo region of central Italy while recovering from tuberculosis in the late 1930s, capturing its beauty in a series of memorable drawings and paintings.

We have seen that this development must be complemented by the maturation of the artist himself, in his capacity to “see” more and more deeply into the things he depicted in his art.  Schmitt called this full development “personality,” the “potential of form.” In the coming weeks we will trace this development, which, as we have written in previous posts, is based upon Schmitt’s own account of the “three realities of the imagination,” the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  As with all of Schmitt’s thought, the material and the spiritual, the senses and the soul, sight and vision, art and religion, while not interchangeable, closely parallel each other and must be understood together if one is to grasp the full truth of things.


Eggs and Copper, detail