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A Catholic Art Critic

alec vanderboom

"Becoming Catholic" has been a gradual process for me. I have some definative moments, to be sure. But mostly the changes have been slow and steady. I've slipped from the shallow pool of Protestantism into the deep end of the Catholic faith. However, I usually don't notice the dramatic change until I look around from my frantic treading water, notice how far the pool floor is beneath me and think "Wow, never thought I'd be in this deep before."

Going to the swimming pool and going to the beach in Florida was a great time to measure how far my little family has grown up this year. Going to an art museum with my husband for the first time in almost five years without a kid (thank you cousin Suzanne!) was a mark on how far we have both grown as Catholics.

The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida is a collection of European "great names" bought with money from circus tickets. The museum sits in a recreated Italian villia with two wings on each side. The first thing you notice when you enter the museum are 15 foot high paintings done by Peter Paul Ruben. I spent my time mostly in the Counter-Reformation and medival art gallery. For the first time, I skipped over most of the greek revival and baroque art. (Those are just myths I thought, I need to drink in some truth).

I've never been much of a Ruben's girl before. The pudgy angels and flowly fabrics before seemed "a little much." This time I wasn't solely looking through the eyes of art, as if I were picking out a fun sofa fabric. This time I looked through the eyes of Faith.

Ruben's entire collection was a defense of the basic article of our Catholic faith, transubstantiation. This is a mystery which I've been trying dive deeper into this Lent. Sitting in the middle of these huge, huge paintings, I carried on an intimate conversation with the famous painter. He showed me paintings of the early "echos" of transubstantiation, manna from heaven, the food sacrifices from the old prophets. He showed me "defenders of the Eucharist", Saint Clare of Assisi holding a giant monstronce while Thomas Aquinus scribbles behind her with the quill pen. "Doesn't Saint Clare look like an old friend?" I mused.

Sitting with Ruben, I felt calmed and protected. This debate against Protestant hearsay has been going on for over 500 hundred years. The force of the Counter-Reformation is still going on. Yet, Ruben knew the truth. He spent years painting his giant paintings to make sure that the world recognized the beauty of the Eucharist as well. Not initially liking the pearly "flesh" tones on his human figures seems like such a petty reason to dismiss an artist out of hand. We have so much basic theology in common. I look foward into drinking in Ruben, El Greco and Carvaggio this Easter season.