A Muslim’s “Turning Point” Standing Before Michelangelo’s Pietà
The Pietà by the young Michelangelo is one of the world’s most recognized and priceless works of art. This past Lent and Holy Week, I’m sure that you’ve seen many images of the Pietà which depict that moment when the pierced and blood Body of Jesus is placed in Mary’s arms. As the literal name for this most lamentable scene implies, many people’s reaction is “pity” or “compassion”.
I remember taking the photo above when I made a pilgrimage to
Catholic Disneyland Rome last October. Sadly, upon seeing this famous sculpture, I am ashamed to admit, that my first reaction was not one of pious devotion. Rather, I was a little annoyed that so many people were gathered around the small chapel (next to Bl. John Paul the Great’s tomb) where the Pietà is displayed behind bullet proof glass. As I maneuvered my way through the crowd of tourists, all I was focused on was getting the shot. Once I got to the front of the crowd, I was struck by the great cultural, historical, and artistic significance of this piece. Then, I was moved by the broken, lifeless body of Christ held in the lap of His Mother. With her left hand, Mary tenderly bears the Savior of the World, and with her right hand, she raises her palm up to heaven, every ready to accept and follow the will of God.
While still basking in the joyful light of the Resurrection, I cannot help but see Michelangelo’s Pietà as an image of the Church: our ancient but ever youthful Mother who embraces the cross and presents the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ.
For us Catholics, art is more than church decoration, something pretty to look at. Art can provide us with an encounter with God who is the source of all that is True and Good and Beautiful.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI addressed a group of artists in another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, his incredible Sistine Chapel. Before the Last Judgement and under the Creation of Man, our Holy Father—a great lover of beauty—spoke these very poetic words:
Unfortunately, the present time is marked, not only by negative elements in the social and economic sphere, but also by a weakening of hope, by a certain lack of confidence in human relationships, which gives rise to increasing signs of resignation, aggression and despair. The world in which we live runs the risk of being altered beyond recognition because of unwise human actions which, instead of cultivating its beauty, unscrupulously exploit its resources for the advantage of a few and not infrequently disfigure the marvels of nature. What is capable of restoring enthusiasm and confidence, what can encourage the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of a life worthy of its vocation — if not beauty? Dear friends, as artists you know well that the experience of beauty, beauty that is authentic, not merely transient or artificial, is by no means a supplementary or secondary factor in our search for meaning and happiness; the experience of beauty does not remove us from reality, on the contrary, it leads to a direct encounter with the daily reality of our lives, liberating it from darkness, transfiguring it, making it radiant and beautiful.
Indeed, an essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy “shock”, it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it “reawakens” him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft. Dostoevsky’s words that I am about to quote are bold and paradoxical, but they invite reflection. He says this: “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.” The painter Georges Braque echoes this sentiment: “Art is meant to disturb, science reassures.” Beauty pulls us up short, but in so doing it reminds us of our final destiny, it sets us back on our path, fills us with new hope, gives us the courage to live to the full the unique gift of life. The quest for beauty that I am describing here is clearly not about escaping into the irrational or into mere aestheticism.
Too often, though, the beauty that is thrust upon us is illusory and deceitful, superficial and blinding, leaving the onlooker dazed; instead of bringing him out of himself and opening him up to horizons of true freedom as it draws him aloft, it imprisons him within himself and further enslaves him, depriving him of hope and joy. It is a seductive but hypocritical beauty that rekindles desire, the will to power, to possess, and to dominate others, it is a beauty which soon turns into its opposite, taking on the guise of indecency, transgression or gratuitous provocation. Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the Mystery of which we are part; from this Mystery we can draw fullness, happiness, the passion to engage with it every day. In this regard, Pope John Paul II, in his Letter to Artists, quotes the following verse from a Polish poet, Cyprian Norwid: “Beauty is to enthuse us for work, and work is to raise us up” (no. 3). And later he adds: “In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, the artist gives voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption” (no. 10). And in conclusion he states: “Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence” (no. 16).
These ideas impel us to take a further step in our reflection. Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, precisely because it opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, pointing us beyond ourselves, bringing us face to face with the abyss of Infinity, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art, in all its forms, at the point where it encounters the great questions of our existence, the fundamental themes that give life its meaning, can take on a religious quality, thereby turning into a path of profound inner reflection and spirituality.
An example of the powerful effect of beauty is Ilyas Khan, a British philanthropist, soccer team owner, and former Muslim. In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Khan describes how Michelangelo’s Pietà, a piece of art over 500 years old, helped to bring him home to the Catholic Church.
Were Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI also influential? Both have been described as so-called Balthasarians.
That’s a really good question. I’ve never been asked that question before. Yes, well, Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope, definitely qualifies as being “Balthasarian,” and Blessed John Paul II raised Balthasar to becoming a cardinal. Obviously, John Paul II was an influence beyond his regard for Von Balthasar — how could one not be influenced by such a great man? Like a great many people, Balthasar himself was not just a gigantic intellect, but also articulated how the mystery of faith is central to our lives as Christians. And, in that regard, the single most moving moment for me happened when I was in my mid-30s. I was walking past the Pieta in St. Peter’s, and I remember being literally arrested in my tracks by a combination of four or five things all at once. You asked me about my relationship with the Blessed Mother of God — well, that moment in time was really important. That can be described as being the turning point.
Was it the beauty of the Pietà that struck you?
Yes — and the context. This is God, I thought. This really is God. You must remember that one of the big things when we look at traditional Islam is the heresy — in their opinion — of equating the mortal Jesus with God. And if there is ever an obstacle that a Muslim convert has to contend with, intellectually and emotionally, more than anything else, that is it. At that moment, in front of the Pietà, I realized, through sheer emotion, that the truth of our religion is so simple and so direct.