Thursday, 11th May 2023: An opening Address by Archbishop of Malta Charles Jude Scicluna for the European Cathedrals Malta Conference on ‘The Equilibrium between Conservation and Spirituality’. St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta.
Address by Archbishop Charles Jude Scicluna
Your Eminence Cardinal Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See
Your Excellency, Archbishop Hon Tai-Fai, Apostolic Nuncio to Malta
Hon. Bonnici, Minister for the National Heritage, the Arts, and Local Government
President of the Opera della Primaziale Pisana
President, Council members and staff of the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation
Your Excellence Mr Zammit, Malta’s Ambassador to the Holy See
Ladies and Gentlemen
In today’s world, our cultural heritage and its aesthetic beauty and spirituality are facing the challenges of degradation, temporality and contingency. The science of art conservation has emerged precisely to prevent damage to the legacy of physical artefacts and fabrics that are inherited from past generations, to be maintained by us and passed on for the benefit of future generations. Conservation methods and techniques ensure that artistic beauty and its spiritual mediation continue to be enjoyed and experienced without the risk of losing them forever.
However, while acknowledging that contemporary cutting-edge technology, chemicals and laboratory tests that are employed routinely in conservation processes have contributed immensely to the long-term survival of cultural heritage, the danger that spirituality, transcendence, admiration and enchantment connected with artworks go into oblivion is now a real, serious and disturbing phenomenon.
The true identity and mission of conservators is that of being vigilant guardians of artistic beauty and of the spiritual sentiments that artwork evokes. One might raise the question: Why should beauty be preserved and maintained for the enjoyment of generations yet to come? The Russian writer Dostoevsky said that mankind can live without science, it can live without bread, but it is only without beauty and spirituality that it could no longer live.
The classical Greek philosopher Plato answered the pertinent question concerning the human need to experience beauty by claiming that beauty encourages the human spirit to rediscover its path, to raise its eyes to the horizon, to dream of life worthy of its vocation. Plato believed that forms, such as beauty, are more real than any object that imitates them. Though the forms are timeless and unchanging, physical objects are in constant change of existence. Whereas forms are unqualified perfection, physical objects are qualified and conditioned. Plato thought that our contact with the World of Ideals through forms, such as beauty, harmony and the good, is a vital condition for internal fulfillment. Forms, such as authentic beauty, invigorate us to draw us out of ourselves, open afresh the eyes of our heart and mind, give us wings to be carried aloft, and unlock the yearning of the heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. Indeed, art is an appeal to mystery.
When the late Pope Benedict XVI met artists and conservators in the Sistine Chapel in November 21, 2009, and addressed them in an extensive speech, he referred to the platonic idea of beauty to illustrate how artistic beauty touches us intimately, wounds us, opens our eyes, provokes us to rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence, the profound Mystery of which we are part. It is from this Mystery intuited in the beauty of artwork that we can draw fullness, happiness, and the stamina to engage ourselves resiliently in everyday life.
In his erudite address to artists, the late Pope Benedict XVI acclaimed artists and conservators as “custodians of beauty” and curators of spirituality”. He remarked to artists and conservators that beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, opens up and broadens the horizons of human awareness, directing us beyond ourselves, and bringing us face to face with the abyss of infinity. Beauty opens the path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate Mystery, towards God. Art makes perceptible the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.
These profound reflections on artistic beauty and spirituality articulated by the late Pope Benedict XVI lend credence to the importance and relevance of the theme of this two-day European conference. May your reflections and deliberations on the equilibrium between conservation and spirituality contribute to cultivate in conservators and restorers a sense of ethical sensibility to keep alive the spiritual and religious dimension of our cultural legacy. It is commendable to note that many codes of ethics for the practice of conservation and restoration assert that professionals in this area are duty-bound to act as advocates of the intrinsic values and “well-being” of a given cultural object with respect to both its tangible and intangible significance.
I would like to draw a parenthesis. I would like to thank the foundation of the Co-Cathedral, their staff for bringing to completion the project, which has been going for some years of the restoration of the famous tapestries. It is an extraordinary example of a community that becomes an advocate of the intrinsic value and well-being of a cultural object, which is also an object of faith, an expression of faith.
Faith, therefore, is not an obstacle to professional conservators and restorers. On the contrary, it exalts them and nourishes them, it encourages them to cross the threshold and to contemplate with fascination and emotion the ultimate and definitive goal of their profession, namely, the safeguarding of both physical and spiritual beauty of our cultural legacy. Faith illuminates and gives meaning to the history of art. The history of Christian art is a history of a witnessing of faith and spirituality. Conservators are thus called to learn the art of spiritual discernment in their conservation practice in order to guarantee that the path of profound inner reflection and spirituality embedded in artworks remains wide open, vibrant and appealing to current and future communities.
When I visit cathedrals, I try to understand what holy place I am meant to be visiting. I do the tourist bit and listening to the explanations, both of them give me lots of technical and historical information, which I appreciate, but also learn about the narrative that has inspired the arts. That is something that should always be present when we’re trying to express the beauty but also the narrative behind the expression of art.
In his exhortation Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis notes that there is an inseparable bond between beauty in art and spirituality. “Every expression of true beauty,” Pope Francis wrote “can …be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” (EG 167). The “via pulchritudinis” is an integral part of the Church’s mission to pass on through artwork an experience of faith that mediates spiritual feelings of the Divine. In his theological writings, Thomas Aquinas also referred to art as craftsmanship which is directed to the “service of gratifying the soul”. Works of art “speak the unspeakable.”
It is indeed unimaginable that conservators would remain oblivious of the spiritual significance of cultural legacy! In a world dominated by a postmodern and post-truth culture which values the fragment over the whole, the spiritual significance of artistic expressions cannot go into oblivion in the process of conservation and restoration. People’s spiritual feelings and religious sentiments cannot be ignored. It is beauty that brings joy to one’s heart.
The “path of beauty” is at the same time an artistic, aesthetic journey and one of faith. This symbiotic relationship between artworks and spirituality has been articulated by the twentieth-century monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton (whose parents were both artists, and who was himself a notable poet, calligrapher, and photographer). In a letter written to Boris Pasternak in October 1958 he remarked that: “I do not insist on this division between spirituality and art, for I think that even things that are not patently spiritual if they come from the heart of a spiritual person are spiritual.”
The great theologian, Hans von Balthasar, has also taken beauty as the fundamental point for his theological reflections. He saw beauty as a joyful experience that calls us out of ourselves to connect with others, and most importantly to connect us with the Other. Beauty is a bridge to God and art is a means of cooperating with the divine creation. According to the Swiss theologian, when we see a beautiful work of art we are confronted with the mystery of its otherness. In beauty we discover the face of God. Christian sacred art can for this reason be considered as a sacrament that unites the human with the divine.
The Catholic Church in our islands is taking very seriously the responsibility assigned to her by the Cultural Heritage Act of 2002 to safeguard its rich patrimony of religious, artistic and historical cultural assets. In conformity with an agreement between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, the cultural property belonging to the Catholic Church falls under the exclusive regulation and superintendence of the Catholic Cultural Heritage Commission which is appointed by the President of the Malta Episcopal Conference. Article 69 of the same Act includes provisions dealing exclusively with the Religious Cultural Heritage which in Art. 4 (2) is defined as “indispensable for a balanced and complete life.” Submissions to the Catholic Cultural Heritage Commission for conservation and restoration projects are scrutinised carefully by a board of experts to ensure that the Church’s cultural patrimony retains its artistic beauty and spiritual significance in order to draw its viewers to the contemplation of divine realities and continue to serve and enrich the liturgical celebrations of the Christian communities.
Conservation of artistic religious artefacts and church fabrics, which are expressions of faith, cannot ignore the religious and devotional sentiments of our communities. When faith, as celebrated in the liturgy, encounters art, it creates a profound harmony because both can praise God in their own way, making the Invisible visible. The Church in Malta ardently desires that our sacred spaces and their rich artistic collections be not only regarded as opportunities for cultural enrichment but above all as moments of grace.
I would like to thank the President, the Council members, and the executive and administrative staff of the St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation for organizing this important event in collaboration with the Opera della Primaziale Pisana.
I sincerely augur that this high-level European conference would stimulate a healthy discussion and look forward to follow the proceedings that will eventually be complied and made available for wider diffusion.
✠ Charles Jude Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta