500 years of the Reformation (1517-2017) the two first symposiums of Paris and Strasbourg

Reports in English

- The same text in French.
 About the 5 Symposiums :- in French ;- in English
 J. Cottin’s lecture at Orleans, Mass. (Community of Jesus) : - in French ;- in English

Summary of the Congress in Paris (may 2017) : Artistic Creation and the Theology of the Holy Spirit : From Coming into Being to Taking Flight

Affiche du colloque de Paris

Preliminary Remarks

I would like to begin with three preliminary remarks.

1. When we organized this colloquium in five stages almost two years ago, in December 2015 in Florence, we decided to take up the question of the relationship between the arts and theology. We emphasized that this question could cause an immediate epistemological problem since the arts directly involve matter, sensitivity and imagination, while academic theology is done through conceptual, discursive and argument-based thinking. The arts and academic theology belong to quite different fields and have consequently sometimes been in opposition. However, they are not that foreign to each other. They can maintain common interests and question each other in a mutual and close way. Furthermore, the arts in their experiential, tactile, emotional and cognitive dimensions can question theology about its own approach and research. Reciprocally, theology can bring its own perspective to the arts. With this in mind, we expressed the general issue of our colloquium with a question : Theology at the Risk of Artistic Creation ?

2. Our colloquium had a foundational ecumenical dimension from the beginning. This option immediately enriched our approach to questioning the relation between art and theology. It also demonstrates the importance of the arts in ecumenism. This colloquium seeks to reaffirm the ecumenical dimension of the arts and theology.

3. The different sites that compose our international colloquium sessions are not just a juxtaposition of unrelated meeting places. They correspond to the phases of our research that aims to take each site’s particular geographical, historical, cultural, religious and ecclesial characteristics into account. In other words, our research seeks to take how our approach to the question emerged into account. How our approach emerged has internally conditioned the question, inevitably given it different configurations and opened up a wider diversity of possible answers. The question of the relation between art and theology is framed in different ways in Paris, at a Roman Catholic Faculty of Theology, in a context marked by secularization ; or in Strasbourg, in the context of the commemoration of the Reformation ; or in Florence, a city with an important history of Christian iconography. Evidently, the question is framed very differently here in the artistic, cultural and religious context of the United States.
The diversity of themes chosen for each site reflects this :
  Paris : “Artistic Creation and Theology of the Holy Spirit : From Appearance to Flight”
  Strasbourg : “The Contribution of Reformation to a Theology of the Arts”
  Florence : “The Theological Vocation of Artists”
  New Haven : “ Sacred Arts in North America Contexts ”
  Orleans : “Art, Music and the Contemplative Life Today”

Each session of our colloquium has been organized around its own central theme that highlights certain aspects of our initial question. Our choices result from clear decisions, but are also probably influenced by elements that have not been thought about or by our own presuppositions that should be explained. This is why it seemed important for us to evaluate what happened at each session and to get feedback on what has been accomplished step by step. The last two steps we are going to experience will help us have a more comprehensive perspective and a much wider and diverse understanding of the relation between art and theology.

Evaluation of the Colloquium at the Catholic University of Paris

I would now like to retrace what we accomplished at the inaugural session of our international colloquium. First, as a reminder, the Faculty of Theology at the Catholic University of Paris, the Theologicum, chose to add the question of the arts to its field of research by founding the Institut Supérieur de Théologie des Arts, the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Theology of the Arts (ISTA) in 1995. The creation of this institute confirmed that these two fields, albeit distinct, have something essential in common and that theology needed to consider the fundamental dimension of human, religious and Christian expression that is art. In a highly secularized context, the art we wish to consider is not only religious, liturgical and Christian, but also art in general. Indeed, modern and contemporary creation, in its diversity, can give rise to human questioning where genuine spiritual seeking is in action.
For our session in Paris, we chose to approach relationship between art and theology through a more precise issue, the relation between artistic creation and the theology of the Holy Spirit, with a particular focus on the figure of the bird. This issue is a direct result of an ISTA research seminar, and we continued to develop this line of questioning during the Paris session using a specific methodology. Indeed, through our analysis, we observed that the bird, far from being a simple object or image, is in accordance with the act of artistic and poetic creation in an essential and intimate way.

In his 1943 essay “Air and Dreams,” Gaston Bachelard observes that the bird’s beauty is in its flight. He emphasizes that the image of the bird in flight is primary, as it expresses a fundamental symbolic force – lightness, vivacity, youth, purity, gentleness, freedom. The bird is made of the air that bears it and the movement that carries it away. The “world of the bird,” or its existential identity, is first of all the call and the desire to fly, the song that makes itself heard, conversion and transformation, towards the light, an intimate communion, a new space to reach. Yet, the world of the bird also refers to the density of matter and the body, to finitude and the limits of those who dream of the bird, those who hear, look at and recognize the bird. This is why we added the subtitle “From Coming into Being to Taking Flight” to the title of our Paris session, “Artistic Creation and the Theology of the Holy Spirit.” In its internal creative dynamic force, its dimensions of inauguration and achievement, in all of its profound resonance, the world of the bird has touched many artists at the heart of their creative experience ; so much so that the bird has become an essential figure of this experience. We thus saw the significance of the bird in George Braque’s painting and, in a different way, in Brancusi’s sculpture. Likewise, we observed the significance of flight and birdsong as a creative resource in music. In poetry, we saw how the bird never ceases to call the poet and invite him to write, even more so when he questions or doubts his own act of writing.
Our approach to the “world of the bird” in the arts and artistic creation gave even more relevance to the dove as a metaphorical figure of the Holy Spirit. In the biblical narratives of Christ’s baptism, it is not a question of a dove, but rather a question of “asa dove.” Scripture scholar Jean Radermakers emphasizes that these texts do not relate the appearance of a bird, but rather the manner in which the Holy Spirit acts in Jesus. The “world of the bird” thus reflected questions of pneumatology, the issue of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying and creative action in the universe, Jesus Christ and humankind.

The various contributions on the theology of the Holy Spirit confirmed this connection. In the thought of Irenaeus of Lyons, in the liturgical and sacramental practices and the first artistic works of the early Church, in the richness and diversity of Florentine iconography, in contemporary theology, the Holy Spirit appears as One who creates and generates, who creates desire and elicits groanings, who transforms and unites, who moves and illuminates, who raises and lifts up, who opens the way to universality and communion. Furthermore, a specifically Christian pneumatology cannot separate the Holy Spirit and the human body : indeed, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary’s body, the Spirit of Jesus Christ is born of his crucified body and open wounds, the Holy Spirit constitutes the ecclesial body of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of Resurrection raises up humankind to its spiritual existence.
The rapprochement of the “world of the bird” in the arts and a theology of the Holy Spirit demonstrated how the arts and theology could be in a dynamic relationship. We organized two workshops on this theme expressed by two questions : How does art question, motivate and nourish theology ? What are the links between the artistic and theological spheres ?
I still need to emphasize that we chose to start the Paris session by two fundamental and complementary contributions. Each explained an analogical relationship, resemblance in difference, in its own way, between creative and artistic experience on one hand and the experience of faith on the other.

Through the Merleau-Pontian notion of style, the first analytical contribution developed an analogy between the artistic experience of works of art and the experience of faith in Jesus Christ. Insofar as the experience of art necessitates a spirit of openness to diverse works and their contexts ; insofar as it implies accepting a certain self-transformation and conversion ; and, insofar as it is an invitation to live differently in the world, the artistic experience is analogous to the Christian experience of discovering Jesus Christ, which also necessarily implies self-transformation and a new way of life. This contribution highlighted how the plurality of styles in the arts invites us to recognize and accept the plurality of styles of Christian life. In conclusion, it showed that if the critical role of art is to help its audience or readers enter the world of art, the role of theology is also to be, in its own way, a herald for the world of revelation.
In a more poetic and narrative style, the second contribution developed the significant similarities between the artist’s condition in the act of creation and the condition of the believer in Christian life. It began by quoting Psalm fifty-four, verse 7, “Had I but wings like a dove.”

In conclusion, I would like to comment on the theological option we enacted during the Paris session of our colloquium. Our approach consisted in takinginto account the creative, artistic and aesthetic experience linked to the figure of the bird on its own terms. This experience unveiled its own richness and depth. We attempted to bring words, an initial type of discourse, to this experience, while being aware that this language could not exhaust the aesthetic, emotional and semantic richness of the creative and artistic experience. Bringing words to the creative and artistic experience of the bird opened fields of meaning and understanding that resonated with our theological and pneumatological questions. In other words, our analysis of the figure of the bird in the arts had a heuristic value for the research on the theology of the Holy Spirit, inviting it to reinvest in its own resources. The articulation of artistic and theological research fundamentally rests on both the difference and unity at the heart of symbolic and conceptual knowledge. Such difference and unity can only exist in a relation of vital tension.

I would like to add a final reflexion. I was very interested in reading the text of the opera “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I discovered that at the end of the pilgrimage, just befor the final step, a bird appears. Precisely, it’s not so much a bird that appears as the voice of a bird. The voice of the bird announces and accompanies the pilgrim in his ultimate step. The poetic world of the bird is thus again present, in this spiritual and deep text. It is present as the inaugural moment of the ultimate passage of this pilgrimage. The theme of the first stage in Paris of our international and ecumenical colloquium is thus joining the last stage in Orleans (Mass.){}, at the Monastery and Church of the Transfiguration.

Denis Hétier, director of the ISTA, ICP, Theologicum, Paris.

Summary of the Congress in Strasbourg (may 2017) : The Contribution of the Reformation to a Theology of the Arts.


Cranach, Jésus bénit les petits enfants (détail), 1537
Marie-Odile Lafosse-Marin, Maitre et serviteur, sculpture

1. The two works of art that are reproduced [violet][/violet] on the poster for the congress in Strasbourg represent in and of themselves an apt summary of the theme in question (both works of art were « « projected » » onscreen)
  A painting by Cranach from the 16th century and
  a contemporary work from the21st century (The Artist, Marie-Odile Lafosse-Marin, is present with us for this Conference)
Also a narrative painting depicting a Biblical scene, and a work that fits more under the category of “signs”, of symbols, which depicts emptiness and absence as the trace of another form of presence. The first is representative of Lutheran esthetics, whereas the second reflects Calvinist or Reformed esthetics.

2. The following points were highlighted from the era that preceded the Reformation in the Germanic sphere, in particular along the Rhine River :

  The Reformation means return to the Biblical texts, including those of the Old Testament. The Old Testament (OT), places value on “seeing God” : in the OT, as in the rest of the Bible, what is visible is valued as forming a part of the human dimension, but is claimed by God as well as a means for revealing Himself. And yet “seeing” in the Bible does not always lead to esthetics, but rather to ethical behavior.
  Rhineland mysticism (Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Henri Suso, Hildegard of Bingen) played an important role in introducing the ideas of the Reformation and of pietism, the latter having greatly influenced the art of German romanticism (K.D. Friedrich),on the one hand, because of the value it placed on sentiment (image substituting for concept), and on the other hand by favoring a sort of “mystical union” between God and the believer, and finally by being attentive to the believer’s internal mental images. One must “pass through the images to get beyond them”. Johannes Tauler said, with regard to mysticism, “it doesn’t see anything ; it sees God”.
  The city of Strasbourg was one of the most important cities of the Reformation. It was located at the crossroads of three sources of influence : German (Luther), Swiss (the reformers of Basel, Berne and Zurich) and French(Calvin, who spent 3 years in Strasbourg). The primary reformer of Strasbourg was Martin Bucer, a former Dominican priest and humanist, whose ideas were particularly open.

3. The Reformation and the arts. Three perspectives were emphasized :

a) Strasbourg was a very important city with regard to the development of printing. A great number of printers reproduced not only texts (Bibles and theological treatises), but also artwork, in particular in the case of anti-Catholic pamphlets, which were sometimes very virulent. Woodcut images played an important role, and were produced by major artists (Baldung Grien, Vogtherr).

b) Lutheranism did not condemn the visual arts, but rather put them to the service of teaching and catechism. The same was not the case for the Swiss and French Reformation(Calvin), which adopted a much stricter attitude on the question of artwork. And yet it was Calvin, the “mystical theologian”, who first developed a theological esthetic : for him, it is possible to contemplate traces of the presence of God in the works of creation ; mean while the invisibility of God is nonetheless visible for those who possess “the eyes of faith”. Hence, Calvinism gave rise, paradoxically, to a very rich artistic tradition (Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mondrian, Le Corbusier).

c) Finally – and more widely known – Protestantism gave rise to a rich musical tradition, both within Lutheranism (with its chorales and cantatas) and Calvinism (the Psalter of Geneva).

4. After the Reformation. Once again, three areas were explored.

a) Baroque Art, very heavily marked by the Council of Trent, which was to a certain extent a response to the Protestants. This art form highlighted what the Reformation had refused. However, baroque esthetics cannot be reduced to this aspect alone. It possesses its own language, which values the body and sensuality, staging and theatricality.

b) In the English-speaking sphere (the UK and North America), Calvinist esthetics, under the influence of the Puritans, was not conveyed by an emphasis on empty space (albeit empty in appearance only), or on nature, literature or poetry.

c) Finally, we must not forget the specificity of Anglican esthetics, typical of its via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, as it swung alternately towards the former and the latter. In England,William Blake, an atypical artistic figure of the 19th century, played an important role in the development of a modern spiritual esthetics, emancipated from dogma and from the Church, of which traces can be found in the video art of Bill Viola.

J. Cottin