One of my favorite texts of all time is Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists. What I read in this beautiful letter presented me with a deep call to foster artistic talents in myself and to be confident in recognizing that to be an artist is an essential part of who I am and who God has created me to be.
The letter was presented on Easter Sunday in 1999, on the threshold of the Third Millennium, and was addressed “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these gifts to the world.”
Here I want to share with you 8 incredible quotes contained within the letter!
I love this first quote and how it shows that from God, as the Creator ex nihilo, artists are to be the “craftsman” in this world, to communicate God’s essential art as they participate in His creative power. It is this participation which presents to the artist a deep and privileged sense of the image in which he has been created.
The artist is presented by Pope St. John Paul II as the image of God the Creator by the way in which he can experience a glimmer that shines in his eyes as he admires the work of his inspiration, “sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation”.
This second quote speaks of how, although not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term, everyone is still to live a life which reflects that beauty which they perceive. Of this, Josef Pieper says that “while not everyone is an artist, everyone is invited to participate in beauty in order to be fully human.”
Through our Catholic faith, we see that this human activity – of crafting one’s life – is the way in which each person can walk with God as they mold oneself and form one’s personality in such a way that they become a reflection of God, an image, a masterpiece.
This quote is one which hits home. The extended quote adds that the artist is to put their talent “at the service of their neighbor and humanity as a whole.” Artistic talents are gifts, precious gifts. But they are not simply for “me,” nor are they simply for “you,” but they are for all – they are for “us.”
Pope St. John Paul II here also speaks of the “divine spark”; it is this “divine spark” which helps us to see that the artist’s talent is not simply a natural capability which he has gained by purely his effort, rather it is given as the spark of God.
So often artists are portrayed in our culture as unnecessary, redundant, and in need of a “proper job.” But here Pope St. John Paul II helps us to see how very necessary they are in each and every culture! They offer an “artistic service” which is for the “life and renewal of a people.” This shows that we need more people who, recognizing their artistic talent, are boldly willing to offer it for all.
This line finishes off an incredible two paragraphs on what Pope St. John Paul II saw as the task of the artist – of those “men and women who have given [their] lives to art.” This task, promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II, is no less than to “enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man… to declare [through your art] that in Christ the world is redeemed”.
What a mission! What a task! Undoubtedly it is a task of both great importance and great difficulty, but by the grace of God, artists are called to engage in it with all their creative ingenuity.
In this quote Pope St. John Paul II captures the essential condition of the artist. Other writers have expressed it in similarly beautiful ways; Maritain speaks of how the artist “hears the passwords and the secrets that are stammering in things… [and] he captures like a spring-finder, the springs of the transcendentals”. And Pieper speaks of the need to perceive and contemplate the “core of all things, the hidden, ultimate reason of the living universe, [and] the divine foundation of all that is.”
But it is this “gap” that many have particularly focussed upon, Pope St. John Paul II goes so far as to call it the “torment” of the artist, “to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable”.
Throughout the Letter to Artists is the beautiful and captivating call to bring ever more closely together the artist and the Church, and to see how much each has to offer one another.
Pope St. John Paul II wonderfully describes the Church’s need for art, but also the artist’s need for the Church. Why? Because “artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things” and we find that in the Church is a “great source of inspiration” where “the most vital personal questions are posed”.
This is one of three closing lines at the end of the letter which speak of the ultimate destination of the artist – indeed of every person – “that Ocean of beauty.” For “beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savor life and to dream of the future”.
Pope St. John Paul II in writing this letter has called attention to the need for the artist’s work to help “affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal”.
It is a truly incredible letter and one of great importance for anyone who wishes to understand the artistic vocation more. What Pope St. John Paul II has called the artist to by this letter is indeed very exciting for each and every Christian artist.
You can read the “Letter to artists” here.
I will also recommend, for anyone who wishes to have a bit of further reading, Josef Pieper’s “Only the lover sings” which is a short but very powerful read.
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