Jean Charlot

Reading Version[1]


I understand that this memoir is to take its place in a symposium.  Personalities with widely different interests must have been picked to bring variety to the volume.  I suppose that my apport should stand for the position of the plastic artist startled into articulateness as he suddenly realizes, thanks to the letter from the Editor, that he still is part and parcel of the Catholic Church.  So as not to mar the preconceived plan, I will obediently, if not enthusiastically, try and define the obvious. 

Being a traveler of a kind, I have experienced physically this universality of the Church.  To use François Coppée’s quaint addition to the English language, my trot‑globing has made me intimate with the national slants of at least the French, the Mexican, and the American churchmen, so that when I speak of the Catholic Church, besides the homogeneous if somewhat abstract spectacle that it evokes in faith, I am confronted with a polyglot Babel of tongues and a miscellany set of pictures, hard to bunch together as being the facets of a single architecture. 




The French, I should say the Parisian, I experienced as a youth, and the priests who taught my catechism managed, besides the French lucidity of their introduction to dogma, to live on a most democratic footing with even the bookish and proud brat that I was then.  They were my friends in spite of the difference in age, and when in the glory of their liturgical vestments, they would lift the Host and proceed with the Transubstantiation, this power seemed to me as natural, though more sublime, as the power I had of scribbling match men in the margins of my school books.  This first training opened to my reasoning powers and analytical mind the field of religion as other teachers had introduced them to mathematics and geometry, and my prayers of the “French period” were tinctured with a cold and clear investigation not unlike that attendant on scientific research.  The brain seemed the best instrument of prayer.  My personal contact with the Parisian clergy removed me forever from considering priests either as black-robed hypocrites or living Buddhas. 



If my contact with the Church had been all French, my vision of the militant Church would be as clear as that I fancy of the suffering and of the glorious Churches.  But my life from twenty to thirty was lived in Mexico, and though it be the same church in name and faith, the racial applications are vastly different.  Where I had known French churches to be harbors, their cool, somewhat austere setting helpful to concentration, the Mexican church offers a bedlam of shapes and colors, addresses itself to the bowels rather than to the head.  The stress is on bloody martyrdom and flights of ecstasies, taking the place of Gallic ratiocination.  Whereas the Frenchman believes in a sanctity to be attained through a kind of everyday gentlemanly patience, a sanctity which Huysmans compares in the case of St. Francis of Sales to a lace handkerchief fraught with a whiff of patchouli, the Mexican usually proceeds to it by a hound’s leap from the pit of mortal sin, his safest way being, instead of the too wobbly path of moral righteousness, the much safer imposition of martyrdom.  The priest in his pulpit denouncing both himself and his herd as sinners arouses a passion for God that warms the same veins and accelerates the same heartbeats as does physical covetousness.  The door that leads to the fold is Love, and though its object be God, the manifestation of it is as hot-blooded and as high-pitched in its pageantry as the more sordid pomp of Satan.  The words of the Spanish mystics to describe their passions match what the discreet Frenchman calls the oriental exaggerations  of the biblical turn of phrase.  The biblical images––the dust to dust, the thirsty fawn––have meanings that do not need a gloss to reach a Mexican.  The castles of the soul, the dark night, need the Spanish redundancy of rhythm, a soul keyed to a hot blood of Hispanic, or Moresque, or Indian origin.  The unrolling of the Apocalypse is neither too rich nor too strong to suit the Mexican faith. 

Contrasted as this national brand of church was to the French, I did not feel an incompatibility between them.  Rather did this operation of the affective will complete the operations of reason.  Part of the magic was due to plastic facts.  How could a painter’s eye resist the sight of a varicolored clergy whose pigmentation ran from the pink of the Spanish hidalgo to the green of the Tarahumara, passing by all shades of reds, coppers, and bronzes.  A high mass with those metallic faces and hands emerging from the gold and silver of surplices could silence in its statuesque plastic whatever scruples against faith would arise in the artist.  A sermon delivered by Indian lips as sharp and as defined as Egyptian sculpture edified through the eye as much as through the ear. 

To the young soldier just come back from the wars, the Mexican church was also an answer to questions raised by violent death and physical sufferings.  Here perhaps a French outlook, in its serene insistency on the metaphysical, would have proved insufficient.  A French faith was hard put to reconcile, otherwise than in a syllogism or a mental vacuum, spiritual goods and the sight of those men, bloated, retching, dying, after a gas attack, this experience of maneuverings and of calculations to send a shell to explode where it could wreck more living flesh.  The good Mexican martyrs pictured in churches, beheaded, disemboweled, or crushed, were a comforting parallel to this still vivid experience.  The physical descriptions of flames and worms in Purgatory and in Hell made by comparison seem casual the intermittent hardships one had just passed through. 

As a painter, to whom all things in both the inner and outer world come to be figured in physical, paintable terms, the Mexican devotions, with their kind of animal insistency on tactile things, dovetailed to perfection with my craft.  The Indian that comes home from a pilgrimage wears around his neck the medidas or measurements of the saint he went to visit.  Those are ribbons of many colors with which the pilgrim, like a tailor with his tape, has taken the measure of hips, shoulders, neck, and height of the miraculous statue.  In such a literal way have artists through the ages searched through mathematical proportions for what is spiritual and permanent at the core of human beauty. 

In the Church of Guadalupe, the pilgrims squat on the floor, covering their bare legs, arms, and heads with the dust kindly overlooked by the sloth of sextons.  Here again their devotion and my horse sense agreed.  I have always had a horror of well scrubbed people, a respect for this kindly film of mother earth that identifies us with other fellow creatures and with our end.  It is pleasant to think that God uses today the same unhygienic accessories for performing miracles that he used in biblical times, be they dust, saliva, or mud. 

Rome wisely decrees that local customs, however peculiar, should be respected if their end be devotional.  Thus in the pilgrimage of Chalma, after the mass confessions and communions, the priest retires, leaving the nave in possession of the “Arab” dancers, who could be described by the tourist, if there were any there, as huge and ugly devils, masked and horned.  They perform a noisy and sweaty dance in front of the miraculous crucifix that seals and entombs in his own cave Tezozomoc, Lord of the Caves, a mighty daemon himself, who was addicted, before he was put on a leash, to child sacrifices.  Such physical prayer, well able to infuriate or petrify a metaphysician, gibes well with the artist, who receives and gives through his senses, whose working at his art would remain futile if it were less than a manual prayer, his hands performing, as it were, the work of the Lord, as do here the Indian legs and feet.  




St. Thomas Aquinas makes it a rule of convincing reasoning that besides stating the reasons in pro of a thesis one knows to be right, the objections should also be stated in full so as to silence in advance any possible opposition.  This first part will be dedicated to list the frictions that I have experienced as a Roman Catholic which, though not painful or essential enough to impel me out of its orbit, are enough of a rash to keep me awake in church. 

However, where salesmen have outdone themselves is in the ecclesiastical art business.  Parishes that can afford it look like Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, a nightmare in Technicolor.  While bad architecture is bound to collapse, there is no such penalty for sculpture and painting.  It seems hard to intend the full meaning of the word as a segregation from God with penalties attached when one speaks of mortal sins against aesthetics.  And yet when we think of the innocent wonderment that characterizes the vision of our Lord as it does that of the greatest artists, it is hard to forgive the cleric for his obtuseness in the matter, for his blindness to the fact that the flowers of the field are clothed in more splendor that Solomon in all his glory, for shunning their grace and simplicity.  If Catholic art would only respect the nature of the material, stop disguising its infamous plaster into marbles and gold.  A wooden statue that would exhibit the facets made by the axe in the carving process would have the virtue of humbleness, of truthfulness, that would make it a virtuous act.  A stone saint that would remain boulder shaped or block shaped would have a kind of physical righteousness that would make its obeisance to God’s designs on its matter.  Thus the style could blend with the story to edify us. 

The photographic art that churchmen accept today as good art is a negation of style, which is to the subject matter as the soul to the body.  That is why this forest of statues one finds in churches is like a great reunion of corpses, their souls unredeemed.  They are also petty, as distracting as the china dogs that an aunt of mine used to pile high on her whatnot, the altar cloth completing the illusion with its doilies of antimacassar lace.  Those saints, who were the salt of the earth, have in this artistic rendition suffered more than a loss of taste, they have become sugar.

Though I cannot speak with authority on musical matters, the same despicable love of gaudiness at the expense of beauty seems to be the fashion.  The wealthier the parish, the bigger the scale on which it dispenses its harmonic torrents.  New York’s St. Patrick should be singled out for its lavishness.  At the Elevation, when all heads are bowed, the organist distracts the whole congregation with a mixture of belly dance and military march.  Its rhythm evokes thousands of houris on thousands of camels whose cloven hoofs clatter on the bent skulls of the parishioners as on a pebbled road.  Our Lord in His Transubstantiation tries in vain to divide our attention, the organist wins each time. 

It is said of yogis that they can dissociate their souls from their bodies and choose a new carnal abode.  Hermit crabs are also liable to lease a foreign shell.  I feel sometimes, as must the yogis and the crustacean, that this body of the U.S. church militant is not wholly my own.  I was not born to its brogue.  It is afflicted with homitosis (bad taste in furniture) and is liveried in what a Brooklyn parish paper proudly calls the Franco victory colors.  It has a lore and a lingo to which I was not adequate, being one of the “Gentiles”! 

This slight uneasiness is, however, not much more than the awkwardness with which I associate with my own body.  It often surprises me as a comical stunt to watch my feet burgeoning into toes.  My flame-like soul, long and lean as an el Greco, feels small familiarity with the barrel-shaped carcass that my mirror reflects, Don Quixote living inside Sancho Panza.  Yet soul and body push along in a kind of amicable compromise, which I hope will be strengthened into positive affection, come eternity, if bodily resurrection is to prove a success. 

The questionable aspects of the Church military or militant are after all no more than a shifting appearance conditioned by a rare accident of history and geography.  What is worthy in it gathers into permanency in the Church suffering and the Church triumphant, both of which have in me a most enthusiastic rooter. 



As this story should contain a plot, this plot will be my conversion.  When I was a very young boy, perhaps some ten years of age, I experienced a temptation that could have taken me out of the Church.  The priest, before preaching, went to the side of the altar to remove his chasuble, and my eye, already that of a painter, gathered forcefully the contrast between the vermillion of his flesh and the white of his surplice.  He became a ridiculous figure of an old man with a nose enlivened by alcohol, his surplice a nightshirt of the old-fashioned French style.  A great desire to laugh shook my small frame at the idea that this absurd fellow was receiving the homage of those kneeling parishioners.  It seemed impossible that the doctrines that he embodied could hold an ounce of truth.  I had also the feeling that if I left that church then, there would be no incentive to come back.  I somehow weathered this mental storm and followed the mass to the end.  I have never experienced any trouble of faith since.  I am in fact within the limits set by the church a fundamentalist; the whale of Jonah, the apple of Eve, the sun of Joshua do not make me bat an eyelash of doubt. 

It is the physical that attracts and edifies me most within the religious.  The visual and the tactile that He merely humored according to St. Thomas are also my channels towards adoration.  It pleases me that our Lord would mix mud and spittle to cure the sick instead of a more elegant imposition of hands.  His choice of a horde of swine to house the devils that he exorcized clothes those devils with a shape, weight, and odor, without which my belief in Satan would be lax.  Relics are my truest link to saints, and the old repartition of their bounties, each to a peculiar sickness or a given trade, adds the particular to their universal.  The introduction of water and wax––the Holy Saturday services, my meat––of fire, of bread and wine in the ritual, are a solid anchor for my faith.  I am grateful that I was not born into those sophisticated, refined denominations, more philosophical than religious, where sacraments have withered, where images are taboo.  Rather than be one of those metaphysicians, I would embrace idolatry.  

This pleasure in the concrete carries me without jolt from the visible to the invisible as with an artist’s absentmindedness, I never could put my finger on the borderline.  There is a story told by Bloy of a man who confessed that he believed in the Holy Spirit, but only in a spiritual way.  There are men for whom the spiritual, lacking the definite attributes of what is physical, remains a vague terrain to which belief can attach as to a mystery, but that lacks the sharpness characteristic of an individual portrait.  If we try to put ourselves into the other fellow’s skin (I should perhaps say feathers), this physical realm, close as it is to us, must be to the angels of a similar aloofness and vagueness.  Their taste of a man must be first of the soul, its vastness, illness, or idiosyncrasies becoming a clue to the man’s height, weight, the color of his eyes and hair.  Poe has a story of the devil in the guise of a chef, discoursing on the taste and nutritious qualities of souls, as a dog licks its chops at the expectation bones.  Though no Satan, I bring to the spiritual such a realistic point of view.  My spirits are no floating ghosts or evanescent lights but just as characterized as matter.  

It has been my privilege to know two saints, to use the word in its broader meaning, one of whom at least, the founder of an order, stands a good chance of being canonized.  In both of them, holiness had performed tricks with the material laws which proved it a superior force to the bounds of space and the law of gravity.  Having known the spiritual to outweigh the material makes me treat it, even in this world, as a matter-of-fact reality.  Coming from the generic to the particular, it is good to know of a few unpublished and humorous miracles, like that of the angel who gave a holy nun a message to be relayed to her bishop, all the while mimicking His Grace’s voice and delivery, which was from the nose and loud.  That unitive vision does not destroy such tomboy characteristics, makes paradise somehow more appetizing a place than if it were, as some dream it to be, a place full of milquetoasts and whitewashed pharisees. 

Some may reason their salvation from good books.  A doctor may be edified by admiring the inner structure of the bodies that his scalpel opens.  Others may laud God in finding an orderly creation replete with his gifts.  Others are hounded by pain and illness into this last refuge of Isaac’s bosom.  My own way of remembering God is not reason, science, plenitude, or sorrow, but optics.  The man who could copy the world as is, would testify to the oecumenic truth.  One may believe the fact that each action of man, casual as it may be, takes its place in a pattern, agglutinates fruitfulness to a larger gesture planned by God. 

But objective vision gives us the absolute proof that the accidental plays its role into a permanent fabric, that unrelated objects collaborate, unperceived by each other.  Cast shadows cement together the object and its habitat.  The branch of a pine tree will complete a pattern started by a range of mountains miles away.  The blush of an apple echoing the tone of a faded tapestry will create beauty.  A rose and a star furnish an accord.  The same shape under shifting lights assumes new meanings.  A logic more subtle than our own offers up spectacles in accord with aesthetic laws, bracing like dough all visible things, expounds in its “tableaux-vivants.”  All that the artist has to do is to read this book of Nature.  It is as if a musician would experiment with nature’s noises as being a complex following all rules of composition.  This reliance in the exercise of one’s art on God as expressed through natural vision results in a good dose of humility, for He is in the most direct sense a teacher.  It seems that without this capstone of Faith, this ordered vision––physical as it is and indispensable to the painter––would disintegrate into a successive and meaningless grasp of separate objects.  It seems that without faith, man can attempt only the worst kind of academic art. 

I have a special devotion to St. Veronica who, brushing the kerchief to our Lord’s features, branded it with an excellent likeness.  Both she and I use canvas as the screen on which to project the image.  Both she and I are impelled to paint by looking at the Divine Face, she directly, I through this thin veil of His orderly creation.  Her creative action was made possible because of the emotional intensity that acted through her body to the fingertips.  All the planning, all the craft, all the knowledge to be found in a work of art would also be null if they were not qualified by passion. 

Truly religious art expresses passion and is bound to show also departures in style.  It is paradoxical that church architecture should be as a rule Gothic, church painting photographic.  Even the modern typesetter, setting the religious section of the newspaper, picks in a discarded box the black type Gothic font.  This pious disguise of things religious into an obsolete masquerade refuses to take into account the religious emotions of today, begging for an original mold into which to pour themselves as did in their time the emotions of those others, dead now. 

Passion goes hand in hand with originality.  The church of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance sponsored infallibly the great original artists that were at the same time breaking with and fulfilling tradition: Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo.  The great artists of today, even those like Rouault who are essentially religious artists, are sniffed at with suspicion.  Why such a degradation of culture in men that preserve and preach this body of truths which is the very source of culture!  The Catholic dogmas are so precious that it is preferable to have faith and to be an ignoramus or even an iconoclast concerning art.  It is still better though to have the faith and the frills too.


[1] Edited by John Charlot.  See the version with endnotes for bibliographical and textual information.