Beauty of Art: Transcending Culture

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Liz Lev, an art historian based in Rome, Italy, shares her thoughts on the ability of art, especially religious art, to influence and enlighten the world around us. From Michelangelo and Caravaggio to the catacombs outside Rome and art across the world, Liz Lev finds that the beauty in art is something that can ultimately lead any viewer to the Lord.

Mother Assumpta

We’re privileged today to have Liz Lev with us. Tell us about yourself and what you’re involved in. 

Liz Lev: 

I’m an art historian. I come from the most secular of fields where we spend our time hanging around in museums and a closed little world and to be remotely considered part of something big bringing something beautiful to a much larger world, I’m the one who is honored to be here. I am an art historian. I studied art history in college. I first fell in love with art history in high school. This is the difference one teacher can make. I had an English teacher who knew I liked to read and that I was a little off beat as a kid, and this teacher offered a month-long course in art history. I took it. I picked up my book, The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich. I realized this is who I am. 

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Mother Assumpta:

That is wonderful. I cannot think of any more wonderful field that’s needed in our day. How would you say that the beauty of art is going to help evangelization? What can we do in our culture? 

Liz Lev: 

I visit the Vatican Museums close on to every day of the week, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s a little nerve-racking when there’s a lot of visitors. I teach sophomores often traveling for the first time abroad at different universities’ Rome campuses, so I see young people who are in the thick of the moment trying to figure out where they fit in, very often somewhat distant or completely ignorant about faith. On the other end of the spectrum, I see the 20 to 30 thousand people walking through the Vatican Museums every day, and often I’m accompanying them. I’ve noticed a few things about art. In the case of many students, it awakens a sense of deeper meaning of things because great art points to something else. Maybe the student doesn’t immediately see art as pointing to the Lord, but they do see that art points to something that is not superficial. A work of art, a Caravaggio with its dark and its light, might reflect a personal struggle that the student is going through, and suddenly the 400 years that separate the painting from the student begin to diminish. In the museums, what I find fascinating is to stand in a place like the Sistine Chapel and look around and realize there are five thousand people in that room. We come from different cultures. We don’t speak the same language, but we’re all sitting there. We’re looking in the same space for something that resonates. You hear them all, “It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.” Isn’t it amazing how a work of art made by a Western male for a room filled with Western males 500 years ago speaks to men, women, and children from all over the globe? That’s the power of art. It’s very striking to be part of that. 

Mother Assumpta: 

Do you also see in this a means of catechesis? You see you see the beauty of it, but when you’re taking people through, do you think that brings people back to the practice of their faith or maybe just a door into their faith?

Liz Lev:

I think of it like this. I don’t expect it will ever be my privilege to see someone look at a painting and say, “Where have you been all my life?” but the way I would answer your question, is that as I grew closer to the faith while doing these tours. At the beginning, I kept one tour more straight art history information, and the other one I would do with people who were Christian. I would start to explore the things I was noticing that seem to have a connection to a higher spiritual power. Now when people ask me 20 years later if I do different tours for different people, I don’t because at the end of the day I have confidence in the story I’m telling. The story is always going to be the beginning when God separated Light from Darkness. God created man. The potential He gave man. Man fell. Man is waiting the moment of the Last Judgement. We’re supposed to be heroes. The story is always going to be the same, so there’s no reason to hide that. I do a disservice to people assuming they can’t understand. I’ve found over the years that I might emphasize certain kind of Doctrine, but I don’t try to do one tour that removes religion. I find that has become infinitely more successful. I don’t know if these people go home and say, “I’ll be sure in my faith. Let’s rethink our lives.” It’s not for me to know or to imagine I should know, but in every single tour I try to sprinkle that mustard seed which is the beauty of that art everywhere. If it grows, so much the better. 

Mother Assumpta:

I had the privilege of being over there for Paul VI’s canonization, and so there were so many people there. I get excited. All these people go in and see the beauty. I’m not an emotional person, but Caravaggio brings tears to your eyes. Do you have a favorite work of art in your projects or tours? 

Liz Lev: 

It’s funny because there are things that I always go back to and work on with pleasure. My raison d’etre is the Sistine Chapel. It’s Michelangelo’s work. I do a lot of study on that with pleasure. Every single time I walk in, I feel like I’m at home. It’s not a feeling of “what am I noticing today?” It’s “now I’ve come home.” There are so many artists. Caravaggio is another example. I love the chapel of Sixtus V in Santa Maria Maggiore as well as the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore. I love San Vitale in Ravenna. There are so many beautiful works of art. There’s the art I can get to immediately and the works that I must travel to. 

Mother Assumpta?

Do you do much traveling?

Liz Lev:

If there’s a museum, I will go there, to the distress of everybody in my family. 

Mother Assumpta: 

In different countries, you just go to the different museums. 

Liz Lev: 

I love to see what people think is worthy of conserving and protecting and holding up as an exemplar of their society. I think it’s a beautiful thing. 

Mother Assumpta:

Is Italy still your favorite?

Liz Lev: 

Yes. I love France very much. I go every year. I take people every summer. I am fascinated by Paris because Paris is a city that has made a point of rejecting its Christianity, and yet you see the history of the struggle. You meet the most amazing Saints, and the art that they produce in their churches. Even in their struggle to try to fight it, as the French try to make their way without faith, looking at what they try to produce is fascinating to me. I love Normandy because it’s the exact opposite. Normandy is a place where you feel deep Christian Roots wherever you go. 

Mother Assumpta:

In these countries, such as Germany and France, amidst the turmoil of war such as the French Revolution, has a lot of art been destroyed? Were they able to preserve it? 

Liz Lev: 

You can back up a little further to the Reformation when the first phase of iconoclasm happened in several pockets in France, which is when people began to realize that works of art are vulnerable when there’s conflict. There was a very strange situation in the French Revolution. There was a huge amount of destruction of churches and Church art. At the same time, they were sponsoring the academies to create a secular art, and then on top of that, they were looting Italy in particular to bring in all of our 16th and 17th century religious art to hang in the new museums. The modern era has shown how vulnerable art is, especially with the developments in warfare and the ability of tremendous destruction. Especially in preparation for World War II, there was a great movement to protect as many works from England to France to Italy. Of course, many got lost or destroyed, including some very famous Caravaggio works, but the fact is there is a greater sensitivity in this day and age to try to preserve the beauty for beauty’s sake. When you read the story or see the movie of Monuments Men, which is the most famous example, we see we are saving the Ghent altarpiece or the Bruges Madonna because they’re beautiful, but they don’t understand fully what makes them beautiful. The Ghent altarpiece, that image of the Lamb that people have worshipped in front of for 400 years, that youthful Michelangelo who drew this image of the Madonna watching her little boy take that first step away from her arms, which begins the journey that will eventually take Him to the Cross. The protection is good, and I’m never going to complain about it, but they preserve it for a sterile reason instead of preserving these works of art because they still have a great voice. 

Mother Assumpta:

Do you get into any art other than religious art? Is there anything that you would appreciate in any other type of art such as architecture? 

Liz Lev:

I enjoy and am interested in architecture. One of my principal classes is Baroque Art and Architecture. You can’t separate Baroque art from its architecture. The two are very intimately connected.  I also teach a class called the History of Christian Art in Rome. We go through art from the catacombs to the Baroque. It’s a survey course, but one of the most important things they have to discover is that when the Christians figure out the architecture of our churches, for example in St. John Lateran, the oldest legally built Christian church in the world, then they can decorate the church. First, we need to understand the structure, and then we can worry about the decorations. The Dominicans in the 13th century, instead of going straight to creating great painters such as eventually Fra Angelico and Fra Bartolomeo, they went first went for architecture to create spaces where they could gather people together and revitalize them. Architecture is a hugely important thing, which I understand tangentially without being an architect. I wish I knew more about music. When I was in college, my best friend was a music major, and we tried to understand disciplines from each other’s perspective. I do believe that television and cinema are an art form today. You have talented people who make beautiful things which convey very powerful messages. I think it’s important to recognize that even though we see cinema as entertainment, it is a very powerful art form. 

Mother Assumpta: 

You mentioned the catacombs in passing. Do you have a favorite? 

Liz Lev: 

That’s a no-brainer. It’s the Catacombs of Priscilla. It’s the girl power catacomb. It’s the most amazing space. I know Saint Peter and Saint Paul were at the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, and Callistus is very ancient and was run by a future pope, but the Catacombs of Priscilla were given by a very wealthy laywoman. What is amazing about them is when you see the art in there, you have the oldest Christian art in the world. There and Callistus are the two catacombs that have 3rd century paintings. You have a room and painting dedicated to a wife and mother. She’s standing in the center with her arms raised in the gesture of Salvation. She wears a veil over her head, so it’s called La Veilatta, the veiled woman, and on the left and the right, you see what it is that brought this woman salvation. You see her being married on one side and her bearing her child on the other. This is an eighteen or seventeen hundred-year-old image holding up this iconic wife and mother. Then you go a little bit further in, and you see the oldest image in the world of the Madonna and Child. The first time it was ever painted is in the Catacomb of Priscilla. This catacomb was run by Benedictine sisters. Unfortunately, there were no more left, and it’s passed into the hands of a new religious order, but these sisters ran these catacombs. You would be down there with little Sister Francesca, and she will be talking about this discovery on one of the walls and you would say, “Who discovered it?” “Oh, I did.” What anamazing testimony to women in the church then and now. St. Philomena was buried in there. I can’t get enough of it. 

Mother Assumpta:

Are they still discovering new archaeological findings? 

Liz Lev: 

There were some interesting discoveries along the Palatine Hill recently. They start to be a little bit less dramatic. Pompeii-type sites are less frequent. There are several catacombs that have been discovered but not fully explored, so there’s still more to come and to know. 

Mother Assumpta:

I hear you can’t even hit the Scavi tours.

Liz Lev:

They have become very famous. 

Mother Assumpta: 

Thank you so much. I’m sure that they’re going to have other questions. I’ve heard rave reviews, and I said, “I can’t wait to make this wonderful woman.” Thank you for doing so much for our culture and the love of art because I’m convinced the beauty of art and music touch your soul, and they’re going to bring so many people [back]. We need to get the Millennials over there to see this beauty. 

Liz Lev:

Thank you for inviting me and giving a place to an art historian who stepped off the secular camp, which is very tricky thing to do in art history and you feel a little lost and you don’t have any friends, so to be welcomed here and to find that the little work I do has some meaning somewhere is tremendous encouragement. 

Mother Assumpta

I want to see you sometime when I’m in Rome. I feel like I would have the expert. God bless you.


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