St Alphonsus Mary Liguori: Artist of the Gospel
by James Wallace, C.SS.R.
One of the most touching moments at this past spring's Oscar award ceremony occurred when Christopher Reeve suddenly appeared on stage in his wheelchair. He was alone, and his mere presence brought the audience to their feet. But his words are also worth remembering. He asked Hollywood's producers, directors, actors, and other artists to spend more time and more money making movies that mattered, ones that addressed the real concerns and social issues of our day. Saint Alphonsus would have approved. But Alphonsus would have gone even further.
Alphonsus recognized that the arts of his day could serve the highest purpose, the glory of God. For him, the arts were not ends in themselves but were to be used to help spread the gospel and to lead men and women to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Although we are most familiar with Alphonsus as the patron of confessors and moral theologians, the "doctor of prayer," and the preacher dedicated to spreading the Good News to the poorest and most abandoned people, we can, in this age of entertainment, also consider Alphonsus the artist.
Alphonsus the musician
Music intoxicated Alphonsus. He writes that as a young man, he went to the theater "to enjoy music and it absorbed me entirely and I thought of nothing else." Perhaps it was in his genes, for his father, Giuseppe, a naval officer, was a lover of music who arranged for his son to study with Gaetano Greco, one of the great music teachers of that time.
Giuseppe insisted Alphonsus practice three hours a day; to ensure this, Giuseppe often locked both his son and the teacher in the music room. Rather than turn the young boy against music, this heavy dose of enforced practice instilled in Alphonsus a great love for it. He became an accomplished player of the harpsichord, an instrument similar to our piano.
As a priest, Alphonsus composed many popular hymns and taught these to the people during parish missions. Sometimes he used the familiar melodies of his day but added words that turned the mind and heart to God. Long after Alphonsus lived, the great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi said, "Christmas would not be Christmas without Tu scendi delle stelle", Alphonsus' delicate hymn "You Came Down From the Stars." During his fifties, Alphonsus wrote the lovely "Duet Between the Soul and Jesus Christ." To really understand Alphonsus the musician, we must hear his words.
In "Duet," the voices sing to each other:
"Where, Jesus, are you going?
"I am going to lay down my life for you."
"So, my dear God, you are going to die for me. I also want to come with you to die with you."
"No, you are to remain here in peace and experience the love I have for you, and when I am dead, remember me."
It's true that in his old age, Alphonsus cautioned his nuns that singing could lead to vanity and also to a waste of time, but he firmly stated that "singing in church is a good thing: it is praise of God." Even when he was in his eighties, Alphonsus could easily be persuaded by his seminarians to play the harpsichord for them in the house of studies at Pagani.
Alphonsus the artist
The saint's childhood schooling also included an introduction to painting, sketching, and architecture, with the famous artist Francesco Solimena as his teacher. Alphonsus' art was influenced by what he saw around him as a young man. In Alphonsus' day, the paintings and statues of the suffering Christ were rendered in a very bloody, even gruesome, manner; such works were even displayed in the galley ships owned by Giuseppe.
When he was twenty-three years old, Alphonsus painted his own 'Christ on the Cross." Most copies of this painting shock viewers when they first see this picture, with its bright red patches of blood. However, one of Alphonsus' biographers, Father Rey-Mermet, says that the colors frequently depicted in copies are not true to Alphonsus' original painting, which is more subtle and nuanced. But the power of the painting comes across. Alphonsus had depicted the death of Love itself, brought about by the sins of men and women. His work tries to capture both the horror of that death and the divine love that motivated it.
Visitors at the Redemptorist house at Ciorani, Italy, where Alphonsus wrote his Moral Theology and The Glories of Mary, will find a painting, done in black watercolor, of the corpse of Alexander the Great. The body is decomposed and surrounded by rats; the painting is accompanied by a few lines from one of his spiritual songs: "This is where all grandeur ends, All the pomp of this earth, all beauty." For Alphonsus, all the successes of this life end in the grave. To ensure his students' realization of this, Alphonsus had painted this "picture sermon" for them.
A similar one hangs in the dining room at Iliceto hardly a sight to enhance the appetite. But Alphonsus did not exempt his community from serious thought-not even at mealtime.
In a totally different vein is the young Alphonsus, picture of the Madonna, painted at the same time as his Crucifixion. Here the romantic impulse of his soul catches fire in the peaceful, gentle features of the woman who won his heart. Surrounded by twelve stars, she is the portrait of divine beauty enfleshed. During his life, Alphonsus painted other portraits of the woman he referred to as "Mamma Maria," including one when he was bishop of St. Agatha. He was so caught up in his effort that he could not stop gazing at it, saying, "She is so beautiful, so beautiful."
When he was an old man, Alphonsus drew pictures of Jesus and Mary and had them engraved on copper so they could be reproduced and distributed. The artist never signed them. All that was important to Alphonsus was that his art draw others into thelove of Jesus and Mary.
Alphonsus was only an amateur painter but a virtuoso in engraving, which he continued to do all his life. Above all, his art was a way to lead the men and women of his day, rich and poor, to know the surpassing riches of the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary. His works were vehicles of grace for many, the power of the image touching their souls. One wonders what shape his art would take if he were drawing today.
Alphonsus the poet
We live in a time of the "bestseller," yet how many of today's top ten will be remembered five years from now? You may be surprised to learn that Alphonsus has been a publisher's dream and remains one of the great bookstore successes in publishing history.
During his lifetime, he published numerous works ranging from short pieces just five pages long to extensive works of fifteen hundred pages. Shakespeare's works have been translated into seventy-seven languages; Alphonsus'works are available in seventy languages. And over 20,000 editions of his work have been printed, compared to 10, 600 editions of Shakespeare's! Of course, what really matters is the subject Alphonsus wrote about. He was a poet of the soul's longing for God. He provided words that all others to express their sion for their Creator a their Redeemer.
Alphonsus gave people a language in the most basic sense. During his time, the Italian language as we understand it today did not exist. Instead of a common, standard Italian vocabulary and pronunciation, there were different dialects.
Those from the Piedmont area spoke Piedmontese; those from Calabria spoke Calabrian; and those from Naples spoke Neapolitan. A specialized written-not a spoken-language called Tuscan also existed. Alphonsus took this language-used by and for intellectuals only-and he refashioned it. He took the lofty Tuscan of the law courts and the literary specialists and turned it into a popular, lively language, useful for wooing the hearts of God's people.
Who were his readers? He was neither a writer's writer nor a scholar's writer in most of his work. Alphonsus disdained literary values, warning his young preachers not to get caught up in fancy phrases and literary embellishments. His goal was to be popular in its original sense; he wrote for the populus, that is, for the people.
Certainly, the priests, nuns, and religious of his day-many of whom were not highly educated-turned to his spiritual writings. Alphonsus wrote in a way that was understandable to them and to anyone with a basic education. He wished to be understood by the person on the street. Alphonsus would have been most surprised to learn he would one day be declared a Doctor of the Church; he saw himself simply as a catechist.
On winter evenings in Alphonsus'time, the people in the villages often gathered around a fire in someone's house. While the women sewed and the men repaired their farm instruments, someone read aloud by candlelight, sometimes a book on gardening but more often a catechism or stories about the gospels or the lives of the saints-things that nourished their faith and helped them to pray. Alphonsus' works were popular choices at these wintery gatherings; his storiesand his meditationsfed their souls. His writings reflect his greatest concern; he wanted to encourage peopletochangetheirlives by giving themselves wholeheartedly to God.
The great theologian Karl Rahner wrote that the poet is entrusted with the "great words," the words "pregnant with meaning," words that not only point to but make present the reality of which they speak. In this sense, too, Alphonsus was a poet. He dealt with the great words salvation, redemption, prayer, death, and grace, to name but a few. In works like The Love of Christ Jesus, The Passion of Jesus Christ, The Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, The Great Means of Salvation, and especially The Glories of Mary, Alphonsus provided people with reading that would inflame them with love.
And in the many hymns and spiritual songs he composed, Alphonsus gave people a language that not only made God's love present to them but provided them with words with which to sing and to pray with their hearts to God. The weather of the human heart can be quite changeable; Alphonsus provided for all occasions.
The composer Schumann wrote that the obligation of the artist is to send light into the darkness of our hearts. For Alphonsus, art had no other purpose than to see that the Light of lights would not only shine ever more fully in our hearts but would take up permanent residence there. Because Alphonsus was first and foremost an artist for the sake of the gospel, perhaps we can most accurately call him an "artist-preacher." He used his artistic talents composing music; painting and engraving pictures; and writing lyrics, pamphlets, and books--to preach the gospel to men and women, especially to those who were the poorest and the most neglected. This is the glory of Alphonsus. And we who celebrate his life will want to acknowledge this.
(This piece was published in the August 1996 Liguorian, the Commemorative Issue celebrating the 300th Year of St Alphonsus Birth; reprinted here with permission).