(above) St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church New York
Martin Mosebach and the Madonna of Lourdes
By Dr. Alexander Kissler
How can you recognize a conservative revolutionary? What would he have to do not to be a mere historical phenomenon? He would have to stand in contradiction to the “spirit of the times” from carefully thought out reasons. He would have to love the Present so much that he wants to overthrow it with the means that the Past offers. He would have to have been saturated with that which he opposes and to yearn for that which once was – and therefore speak more or less like Martin Mosebach did on the “Artists’ Ash Wednesday” in the Munich Muffathalle.
The Cardinal Archbishop gave the invitation. Artists, employees of the diocese and PR-people had come and stood at bar tables in the hall which is usually used for pop and rock concerts. There were pretzels, bread, sandwiches and water. High up on the walls of both sides of the hall were TV screens which later showed a stream of dark colors with blue dominating. Up front were chairs for the invited and sometimes aged clerical VIPs. In front of them was the stage and above it a screen. It offered a film about ten minutes long which recorded how a dance troupe threw ashes on the floor of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Munich – and then danced on them.
When the lights came back on in the hall, Mosebach presented his “In Praise of Our Lady of Lourdes”, a daring undertaking. The Madonna of Lourdes doesn’t have a good reputation among those “educated, art-loving and literate people” precisely “in our circles” which Mosebach now identified as his own background, and which was probably that of the majority in the hall.
The “West European liturgy experts of the Twentieth Century” – criticized by Mosebach in his lecture – and the “higher levels of the hierarchy, papal councils for the arts and similar venerable institutions” – likewise criticized by Mosebach – have also passed judgment. The Madonna of Lourdes is kitsch and should be repudiated.
Mosebach did not dispute this judgment but took it seriously. Yes, that could very well be so. But how is it then – so runs the author’s cunning reflections – that the same experts and councils and hierarchs don’t have any problem with other forms of kitsch? For example, with the “barren,” the “sour” and the “green” kitsch, with the kitsch of “concern” and that of “authenticity?”
Hardly a single contemporary expert in art and/or ecclesiastical art flies into a rage over “concrete churches.” Rather, among them it is the “small, sweetly made up doll face” of the Madonna of Lourdes that becomes the symbol of resistance. The “believing people” rise up with her against the imposed “individualism and subjectivism” to which modern art has been abandoned. With the Madonna of Lourdes popular piety rebels against compulsory abstraction and thus practices a powerful “re-iconification” from below. The Madonna of Lourdes is the icon of the West.
What distinguishes an icon? That it does not owe its existence to the invention of an artist, that it doesn’t even want to be art at all, but rather is of divine origin. So it is with the icons of the East that derive from the “cloth of cloths” with the countenance of Christ. So it is with the icon of the West which originated with the visions of Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Since then, wherever the Madonna of Lourdes stands there is the Catholic Church. In the face of such power of assertion – and how gentle is this force! – every judgment of taste regarding her shrivels away to highly petty, personal feelings of attraction or repulsion.
Moreover, in the East an icon is always made according to “strict laws;” it is “always another and yet always the same.” It banishes all that is contingent in favor of fixed forms and accordingly has a downright anti-subjective character. The Madonna of Lourdes is the same. These icons are revered by the people as a conscious renunciation of individualism, but are regarded with suspicion by the theologians and artists of the West.
In this way, according to Mosebach, Our Lady of Lourdes heals a break in cultural history. A thousand year old “special path” (Sonderweg) of the West – the renunciation of the “Tradition of the images of the Ancient Church” – ends with the white woman in the attitude of prayer, bearing the rosary over her folded hands. One can therefore conclude that the so often ridiculed Madonna of Lourdes anticipates a unity which does not (yet ) exist theologically. She is the pledge of the hope for a reconciliation of the Western and Eastern Churches of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and ultimately its preemptive real presence. Spe Salvi!
But doesn’t the fact that she is the industrial product of the assembly line speak against this smiling lady, who is usually made of plaster? Mosebach concluded his talk with this utterance of crystal: Yes, she, the Madonna of Lourdes, is indeed a mass produced image, but “who dares to assert that we deserve anything better?”
Translated by Stuart Chessman. By kind Permission of Dr. Alexander Kissler. Original of 03/05/2012 HERE.