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Catholic Activity: Art in the Christian Home

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I am not an artist, nor an art teacher, nor even a craftsman skilled in any special field. What then is my qualification to speak to a gathering like this one? I have been worrying about an answer to this question, and what I found sounds commonplace to you: Homo sum—I am a human being. Did not the One who created human beings implant in them the ability to make, love and rejoice over “lovely things?”

But there are specifications to my being a human being: I am a Christian, charged to be passionately interested in whatever is serving the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Further, I am a mother, weighed down and elevated at the same time with the vocational task of making a home where my children would grow up to a healthy and happy and virile Christianity. And the making of a home, according to Father Vann, is an art.

I have been "brought up on art." The home in Cologne, where I grew up, was full of fine pictures, statues, old furniture— some of them inherited, some added through the years. My father’s recreation—and I do not mean hobby!—was nature and art. Many a Sunday forenoon he spent in a museum and we children were proud to be taken along. Rainy Sunday afternoons were preferably spent visiting the many beautiful old churches of Cologne. "You youngsters must learn how to see, how to use your eyes," he used to say. He would do anything to encourage our drawing and painting at home. "It is a shame to let a talent, however, small, go to waste. The One who gave it to you has a right to expect that you do something about it."

Mother had a soul ever hungry for beauty. Through the conventional painting lessons of her youth, she had acquired an admirable technique in oil painting. Father would provide her with worthy projects and kept urging that she use her skills systematically. My most vivid pre-school memory is of us children crowding around her easel listening to her fairy tales.

Now, since I am married and we are bringing up our own children, things we had long taken for granted take on a new value. The debt we owe to our parents we must pay to our children. And in this endeavor we met with the Catholic Art Association, and we are confident that you will be sympathetic with our ideas about art in the home.

The parents "make" the children; first of all and always by what they themselves are, but also by what they do and have. Because, if they are noble, sincere, wholesome, these traits will naturally express themselves in their surroundings, appearance, actions; just as much as dishonesty, superficiality and pretense will show through what a man owns, wears and does. "It would take an unusually strong character," wrote H. Goldestein in Art in Every Day Life, "to remain true to high ideals of truth and sincerity, if dishonesty were the keynote of the home surroundings. Through his clothes, his house, his pictures, books, furniture and other accessories, a person proclaims himself; his sincerity, or insincerity, his egotism or his modesty. Such things as imitation fireplaces, cheap wood painted to imitate costlier wood, imitation leather—all these would be avoided if their significance were understood."

Is there still some way out? Only the few can afford to have a good cabinet-maker make an original piece of furniture for them, and fewer still have a nucleus of heirlooms with which to start their home. But we all can make up our minds that nothing is to invade our home which we do not really need and which we do not really love, or that we cannot make our own by loving.

All we need then is fortitude to stand by our resolution and patience to wait for the right “find”—often enough by odd coincidence: at second hand stores we happen to pass by, sales or auctions we drop in to, often without any special purpose, or a chance to pick an unfinished piece of furniture “from stock.” Now starts a glorious period of “creating” shared by all members of the family: taking off layers and layers of thick varnish, dirt and again varnish until the original beauty of the grain and the structure is uncovered. Or, in the case of the unfinished piece, going over and over in many hours of toil with sandpaper and oil and wax until the thing is as near to perfection as possible. And then we really can say: this is our chest, our table, we had a part in making it.

If we thus build up the furnishing of our home we shall not only establish a lasting relationship to the things that surround us and our children, we shall, more over, develop in our children a sense for beauty, a feeling for workmanship, an interest in and knowledge about the right treatment of different materials.

Our first concern as Christians is a good and worthy depiction of the sign and fact of our redemption. A crucifix should be the first thing to be carried into a new house, the first thing to be moved from one house to the other. We cannot be too strict in our requirements, too enduring in our search. If necessary, we may put up temporarily with a simple home made wooden cross.

We all know that holy pictures are often very far from being holy; they may, as Father Vann says, “represent the holy but glorify humanity apart from God.” We all know, but we are only a small group against the millions who have been brought up to believe, that the holy subject depicted in a work makes the product itself holy and as such exempt from any criticism or evaluation.

We, in our home, have solved this problem by a strict resolution not to compromise. If we cannot afford originals we look for first class reproductions, photographs, etc. In the “seven lean years” we did not hesitate to take good prints from magazines and even out of our books, and mounted them ourselves. And, if others might consider it sheer luck that every once in a while we made a good “find”—we are convinced that Providence is with us. We are still hunting, however, for a St. Joseph that could be a model for a modern pater familias, and we are still wondering whether an artist of our times will ever have the vision and strength and faith to create a Sacred Heart representation with all the virility and majesty, awe and high-priestly dignity necessary to check the disgraceful and deplorable sentimentality and “hollywoodism” that seems to prevail in the attempts to represent this highly spiritual and inaccessible mystery of our faith. With Maritain, we feel that here lies a “source of distress to sound theology.”

All that has been said of religious art in the home is also true of so-called profane art. Whatever we choose to adorn our home should rejoice our heart and uplift our mind. The vision and experience of the artist, out of which the work is born, must be worth our effort to penetrate and reexperience. When beauty is expressed in our surroundings, it gradually becomes part of our life and personality.

Up to here we have considered only our attitude to things made by others, and how we may appreciate their qualities, love them and make them part of ourselves. But man is made in the likeness of his creator and meant to be a maker himself. We must therefore go further and consider especially the field of making in the home, and how this influences personality and forms character.

There are needs and needs. I do not mean now the bread that needs making, and the coat, although these too belong to the art of making a home. However, I shall restrict myself to a narrower group of needs. There is, for instance, the dining room which is in need of something to give it a sacred character, the necessary connection not only with the “upper room,” but with all the loving and merciful miracles God’s Son worked with human food, all foretelling the eternal banquet to which we are invited. One could paint it in symbols on the wall; but walls have a way of being left behind when roots are pulled up again and again. And we believe in heirlooms: precious family belongings cared for lovingly and handed from generation to generation, things so far above all change of fashion that they always will be “in style.”

The need of the dining room was in our minds ever since we moved in, but it was the remark of a visitor that scared us into action: “You ought to have a good Last Supper by Leonardo, as other good Christians do.” Like an inspiration it came to us that our spe cial Sun day mealprayer, a modern poem, which we love dearly, has all we were looking for. One only needs to put down the text and illustrate it with the fitting symbols. It was not quite as easy as that, but with competent help we now have a beautiful wall hanging, wool embroidery on burlap, to give our dining room its face. The process of tracing the design and of embroidering was—of course—a family affair. Even those who could only watch and wonder had their share.

There are many more needs that can be filled by the family’s handiwork: a feastday table cloth or table mats; embroidered or stenciled small gifts for friends, to do away with the stereotyped knick-knacks, bath salts and stationery boxes; stenciled handkerchiefs, bandanas, hair ribbons, painted flowerpots, woven coin purses, prayerbook envelopes made out of leather, and so on. These are only a few examples of things that need to be made, made lovingly and beautifully so that they honor the maker as well as the recipient and bring back into our mechanized and de-personalized lives the thrill of creating and a little culture of giving.