“Critics comfortably off and cosmopolite tell me that it is fatal for me to live alone in the woods and paint, that I must not separate myself from humanity, reality. . . . Humanity? Is there anything more human than ones own children? Reality? Is there anything more real than poverty with a family? (except death, which is also tasted each day)?” (1931)
“We are so much in the habit of dichotomous thought that it would shock us to hear ‘Christ is a myth’ or ‘The Eucharist is a symbol.’ And yet these are two phrases are true. What should be added is that final phrase ‘as well as a reality.’ For a thing can be both a symbol and a reality at the same time. When one thinks as a Christian.” (1958)
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.
“Reality is the keynote to life and art. To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive.”
“The past is permanent, a myth and therefore aesthetic—and real. A beginning.
“The present is temporal, scientific, expedient, and therefore real. A means.
“The future is eternal, a revelation and therefore spiritual—and Real. An end.”