I try not to listen to the radio when I'm in the studio painting icons but on Friday afternoon I had taken a break to run some errands in the car, so I was listening to the radio when the first reports of the terrorist attacks in Paris were being reported live on the air. Events were still unfolding but it was evident that many innocent people had been killed and wounded by gunmen all over the city. Like everyone else, I'm in shock -- horrified, angry, very, very sad.
This morning, predictably, the Daesh (who call themselves the Islamic State) claimed responsibility and declared that Paris had been targeted because it is a center of "prositution and obscenity". Which is absurd, given that the Daesh label as prostitutes any women who aren't wearing burkas, force Yazidi and Christian women into sexual slavery and jubilantly celebrate the truly obscene violence they routinely inflict on helpless, innocent people.
But it doesn't surprise me that they would have a particular contempt and hatred for the French and for Paris, which they rightfully understand has been a major center for Western art for centuries and is the city where French artists and artists from around the world have lived and produced masterpiece after masterpiece.
The Daesh have denounced as idolatrous any depiction of human or animal forms, and they have demolished with fury the great monuments of Assyrian and Hellenistic art that have fallen into their hands in Mosul and Palmyra.
The museums of Paris feature not only images of human beings and animals, but are filled with sculptures and paintings of the nude (mostly, but not exclusively female) figure. Which is not surprising: since the Renaissance, the great masters of French (and European art) have celebrated the human figure. Certainly, painters such as Chardan, Corot, Pissaro and Cezanne primarily painted landscapes and still life, but in a humanist culture such as France's, the figure, which is to say, the human body, has pride of place.
A humanist culture that is, as in any human enterprise, not without faults, false directions, contradictions and of course, sin, yet a culture, deeply rooted not only in classicism but in the Christian faith and in Catholic culture. That is to say, it is a culture engaged in a profound search for beauty, goodness and truth in human life and human relations, which are an intimation and reflection of God, who is ultimate Truth, ultimate Goodness and ultimate Beauty.
Christian art is an intense reflection on the mystery of Incarnation, on how the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. which means that at its heart, Christian art is iconic: depicting the work of grace in human history and in human beings. For in the person of Jesus, who is at once divine and human, the human person is fully realized and revealed to us.
In their own search for ideal form and beauty in the human form, French and other artists pay tribute in their own way, to the breathtaking beauty and grace of men and women made in God's image, a beauty which is at once something we all hold in common and yet is unique to each person.
Every person is the supreme work of the Divine Artist, made for eternal life and infinitely loved by God, and thus, of infinite value and dignity. Our works of art, however irreplaceably beautiful and valuable, are but a reflection of the infinitely greater worth of every human person, even those who degrade themselves with these evil acts which we witnessed on Friday.
As I pondered these shocking events in Paris, what came to mind was this sweetly delicate drawing by Henri Matisse, a reminder of both the beauty and vulnerability of each of us, the "soft targets" of these new barbarians, these savage neo-iconoclasts.
They shall not pass!