Review of

Istv‡n R‡cz: The Unknown God

Jean Charlot

draft of beginning[1]

Leaving metaphysics aside, this book is about what could be called the shape of God.  

In the same way that a hound uses his nose to follow a trail, man, in his search for God, to detect the divine scent needs bring it within range of his five senses.

Flickering tapers, the taste of the host, the smell of incense, the voice of the flute, harp or zither––nowadays add the electric guitar––all have been put to service in this quest.  At times they helped interpret the answers volunteered by a most elusive but not unwilling Quarry. 

The Unknown God is concerned with the visual arts mostly.  It is not meant to ensnare the reader with honey, but rather to strike a blow in pro of the sturdiest kind of esthetics. 

The cover of the book is impishly crafted to put on edge the teeth of any sane decorator, with its dissonant pairing of an eggplant purple with an avocado green as background for a misshapen goddess.  From then on, millenniums and continents offer their variant crops of god shapes. 

One thing is certain.  None achieves unqualified success.  Michelangelo hardly comes closer to the core of the truth than did the caveman scratching a rock with a rock, or the Pacific islander adzing the trunk of a giant fern with a chipped stone blade. 

The contents of this book are too complex to be safely pigeonholed.  Its authors label it a treatise of anthropology.  I would prefer to refer to it as a book concerned with the liturgical arts, ecumenically and on the broadest terms.  Thus the cleric, leafing through its pages, may learn much that was skipped in his seminary days, if art was at all one of the topics broached. 

Enter a church and look around with fresh eyes.  Plaster saints smile, waving their green palm in greeting.  The little Jesus, with imperial crown and glove, robed in velvet, hair beribboned, holds watch over the collection box.  Marys are everywhere, rouged and gowned in blue satin, little finger curled up, as if chatting over a cup of tea.  For the visually aware, prayer in church is easier done with eyes closed. 

Envisaged as a book of liturgical art, The Unknown God is bound to give a healthy jolt to the many who sheepishly accept as one of the facts of life the distinction between liturgical art and great art.  Man in his search for God is at his most heroic.  Man as he encounters God is at his most epic.  Far from being a hallowed form of art, the average, lukewarm, mercantile church paraphernalia betrays grossly the very things it pretends to witness, falling wondrously short of being either heroic or epic. 



Istv‡n R‡cz: The Unknown God

final version

ManŐs search for God––and at times finding Him––is a common denominator for all times and races.  Thus, in a book that illustrates what could catholically be called the liturgical arts, human unity is emphasized, centered on the one search rather than on that stylistic diversity one expects in a history of art. 

Man the creator shyly offers himself, be it erect phallus or fruitful womb, as a reflection of the Creator.  Prehistoric females, Hindu lingams, suggest a God fruitful to the point of explosion––not just of us, his human creatures, and needed fields and herds––but god of rain forests, elephant herdsÉ 

On our visit to India, housed by friends, I was allowed to enter the family chapel where elephant-headed gods kept watch over the family photographs, where the matriarch of the clan meditated daily facing a panoply of multilimbed statues and polychromed oleographs of blue gods, of yellow gods, and of red gods that channeled her thoughts heavenwards. 

The more awkward, impossible, the image, the more evident becomes the mystery of god.  Granted that His Wisdom is not our wisdom, one should also grant that his shape is not our shape.  The Old Testament had this advantage over the New that this unknowable shape was kept in the shade, veiled by the flames of the burning bush, cushioned by the thunder and black clouds gathered on Mount Horeb. 

The fact of the Incarnation has been turned around to his own praise by manŐs pride.  Instead of emphasizing the fix the Second Person found Itself in, suddenly caught in a fleshy cell, we greet GodŐs enlistment in our ranks as if it were a favor we granted Him.  Only too much of our brand of pious art amounts to a slap on the back of the newcomer.  We deem it flattery to represent him pretty.  The Infant of Prague dolled up in baby clothes according to seasons, the curls and locks on our LordŐs head adorned with ribbons, are there just to prove to him, in case he had any doubts, what an easy lot it was then, his incarnation. 

As we turn the pages of this well illustrated book, deepest meditations come the easiest before some of the most horrid images, those that, not astonishingly, refuse to drop this facet of godŐs work that deals with death and destruction––also those truly primitive ones from Africa or from Pacific islands that mingle deep concepts with the primitive act of adzing the log with stone tools. 

It is not a nice story, even though a heroic one, that the missionaries sent to these fields in the nineteenth century failed to be moved by these native images of the gods.  They branded them obscene and burlesque and, in the Pacific islands, piled them up to be burned in religious auto-da-fŽs.  There lingers an uneasy feeling that the missionaries not only felt they were bringing to the islanders the true faith, but also the one true art.  In Mangareva, a neighbor island of Tahiti, missionariesŐ diaries preserve what they considered touching scenes.  Having destroyed the monumental ancestral art of the temples, the good priests opened their missals and allowed the natives to peek at the pious images between their pages.  And they describe the transports that greeted the sight of such pious cards as that of Ňthe Beautiful Lady that is in Heaven,Ó most probably, given that this happened in the l840s, some debased rendering of MurilloŐs Immaculate Conception, pink-skinned and blue-gowned, carried cushioned upon clouds by naughty naked Cupids. 

It is one of the revelations of the book, a book of many revelations, that the chapter given to Catholic liturgical art is no letdown from those that treat of primitive and of exotic arts.  Every one of the chosen representations of Christ carries the seal of the divine rather than, as so many Christs do, a sense of coziness at cuddling in the flesh, even in that of a baby.  The Byzantine Christ of Majesty uses the human body as a thin veil through which dart with frightening intensity the rays of godhood.  The Romanesque Christ child refuses the plump proportions that the Renaissance adopted and prefigures on a small scale the adult body to be crucified. 

Looking at the plates, an artist finds visual parallels to sayings too often relegated to a specie of moral salve.  ŇBe like childrenÓ applies very well to the fact that, stylistically, the primitive artist, be he Carolingian or Romanesque, by distortions brought to pass by simple tools and na•ve inventions, makes God present more vividly than the sophisticated artist.  Only genius at its highest can match childishness in its conjuration of godhood. 



[1] R‡cz, Istv‡n, 1970.  The Unknown God, text by Carl A. Keller et al.; foreword by Walter Nigg; translated by Simon and Erica Yong.  New York: Sheed and Ward. 

Charlot wrote two versions of the review, which were typed.  Both typescripts are in the Jean Charlot Collection.  The earlier was a draft of the beginning.  CharlotŐs wife, Zohmah, typed a note to Marigold Hunt, editor of Sheed and WardŐs Own Trumpet, the bulletin of the publishing house:

Dear Marigold, Jean says to send you this beginning of his article.  Maybe you can extract the quote you need.  He says wait for the whole article before publication.  He favors the National Catholic Reporter.

The final review was never published.  Edited by John Charlot.