I came across Katrina Fernandez’ column panning this piece of art, titled Haute Sphere, installed at the Cathedral in Los Angeles this month. She identifies it as a Nativity scene, and concludes it is profoundly inadequate.
I clicked through to read the writeup in the SoCal Catholic paper, where it is described actually as a “Nativity artwork”, which is not quite the same thing as a Nativity scene.
“Haute Sphere” is a geodesic dome hand-crafted of 48 triangular panels of bisque porcelain with stars made of porcelain with platinum finish affixed to its interior and measuring 12 feet in height. Its impressive central feature is an engraved circular porcelain disc “aureole” with 24-carat gold finishes that rests on a bed of sand.
The piece has variable lighting that dramatically illuminates the scene and is enhanced by pre-recorded chants in Aramaic…
What strikes me about this piece is that it seems to render the Nativity in the key of a very high Christology, one that emphasizes the divinity of Christ and underplays his humanity. It is the Nativity as presented by the prologue of the Gospel of John, which incidentally was the gospel for Christmas morning Mass this year. Unlike Matthew and Luke (which we heard at Midnight Mass), John does not give us Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, animals, angels, or shepherds. Instead, John gives us Creation:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
This artwork, it seems to me, peers through the flesh of the Incarnation to show that which eyes of faith profess to see: God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, in the very moment of coming down from heaven to dwell among us. Instead of a baby in a manger, the artist shows us Light from Light.
The problem, of course, is that without the “flesh” part of the Incarnation, there… well, there is no Incarnation, is there, seeing as “incarnation” means “became flesh.” And that’s what drives Fernandez’ dismissal of this piece.
The dual-nature Christology embraced by most Christians as orthodox lives in the tension between two heresies, and can easily slip into one (considering Christ either fully human and not at all divine) or the other (fully divine and not actually human). One might argue that this piece fails by committing the latter error: there is no humanity in Haute Sphere. (Although I find both the sand, with its allusion to the connotation of “pitching one’s tent” possessed by the Greek term that is translated as “dwelt”, and the Aramaic chant to be hints in that direction.)
Personally I find it rather apt that this piece made its American debut at the same time as the new translation of the Roman missal. In fact I was tempted to title this blog post “A Consubstantial Nativity.” There are those who think this very high-church language properly renders the ineffable mystery that we profess; and there are those who find it so far distant from our ordinary human experience as to be incomprehensible and irrelevant.
Both in language and in art, I believe we need an abundance of both kinds of images, rather than trying to find one perfect happy medium. Both high and low Christology, both high and low diction for our prayer, never excluding either. Would I want Haute Sphere in my church instead of a traditional Nativity scene? No. Alongside it? Absolutely.
Debra Dean Murphy does a lovely job reflecting on Luke and John held together, and I’ll give her the last word:
Luke chapter 2 can easily be reduced to Christmas pageant nostalgia; John’s prologue can leave us bewildered by a form and formality hard to warm to. But together, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the full picture of salvation history comes into view: the familial and the philosophical; the provincial and the universal, the personal and the cosmic. And we find our place in a story that at once traverses the dusty roads of Nazareth and the farthest galaxies of the heavens. For unto us is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord: in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
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