The Beauty of Art: Transcending Culture

Family, Individual, Musings with Mother, Parish, Podcasts

Liz Lev, an art historian based in Rome, Italy, shares her thoughts on the influence art has to enlighten the world around us. From Michelangelo and Caravaggio to art throughout the world, Liz finds that beauty in art as something that can ultimately lead anyone to God.

Mother Assumpta: We’re privileged today to have Liz Lev with us. Tell us about yourself and what you’re involved in. 

Liz Lev: I’m an art historian. I come from the most secular of fields where we spend our time hanging around in museums, in a closed little world, and to be remotely considered part of something big; bringing something beautiful to a much larger world.

Mother Assumpta: How would you see that the beauty of art is going to help in evangelization? What can we do in our culture? 

Liz Lev: (Art) awakens a sense of the deeper meaning of things because great art points to something else; that art points to something that is not superficial. A work of art, a Caravaggio with its dark and its light, might reflect a personal struggle that the student is going through, and suddenly the 400 years that separate the painting from the student begins to diminish.

In the museums, what I find fascinating is to stand in a place like the Sistine Chapel and look around and realize there are five thousand people in that room. We come from different cultures. We don’t speak the same language, but we’re all sitting there. We’re looking in the same space for something that resonates. Isn’t it amazing how a work of art made by a Western male 500 years ago speaks to men, women, and children from all over the globe? That’s the power of art.

Mother Assumpta: Do you also see in this a means of catechesis? You see you see the beauty of it, but when you’re taking people through, do you think that brings people back to the practice of their Faith or maybe just a door into their Faith?

Liz Lev: Now when people ask me if I do different tours for different people, I don’t because the story is always going to be the beginning when God separated Light from Darkness; God created Man; the potential He gave to Man; Man fell; Man is waiting for the moment of the Last Judgement. I do a disservice to people assuming they can’t understand. It’s not for me to know or to imagine I should know.

Mother Assumpta: All these people go in and see the beauty. I’m not an emotional person, but Caravaggio brings tears to your eyes. Do you have a favorite work of art in your projects or tours? 

Liz Lev: It’s Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel. Every single time I walk in, I feel like I’m at home. It’s not a feeling of, “what am I noticing today?” It’s, “now I’ve come home.” There are so many artists. Caravaggio is another example. I love the chapel of Sixtus V in Santa Maria Maggiore as well as the mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore. I love San Vitale in Ravenna. There are so many beautiful works of art. There’s the art I can get to immediately and the works that I must travel to. 

If there’s a museum, I will go there; I love to see what people think is worthy of conserving and protecting and holding up as an exemplar of their society.

I am fascinated by Paris because Paris is a city that has made a point of rejecting its Christianity, and yet you see the history of the struggle. Even in their struggle to try to fight it, looking at what they try to produce is fascinating to me. I love Normandy because it’s the exact opposite; it’s a place where you feel deep Christian Roots wherever you go. 

Mother Assumpta: In these countries, such as Germany and France, amidst the turmoil of war such as the French Revolution, has a lot of art been destroyed?

Liz Lev: (During) the Reformation when the first phase of iconoclasm happened in several pockets in France, people began to realize that works of art are vulnerable when there’s conflict. The modern era has shown how vulnerable art is, especially with the developments in warfare and the ability of tremendous destruction, but the fact is there is a greater sensitivity in this day and age to try to preserve the beauty for beauty’s sake. The protection is good, and I’m never going to complain about it, but they preserve it for a sterile reason instead of preserving these works of art because they still have a great voice. 

Mother Assumpta: Do you get into any art other than religious art? Is there anything that you would appreciate in any other type of art such as architecture? 

Liz Lev: I enjoy and am interested in architecture. First, we need to understand the structure, and then we can worry about the decorations. Architecture is (something) I understand tangentially without being an architect. I wish I knew more about music. I do believe that television and cinema are an art form today. I think it’s important to recognize it is a very powerful art form. 

Mother Assumpta: You mentioned the catacombs in passing. Do you have a favorite? 

Liz Lev: The Catacombs of Priscilla. It’s the girl power catacomb. What is amazing about them is you have the oldest Christian art in the world; third-century paintings. Then you go in, and you see the oldest image in the world of the Madonna and Child. The first time it was ever painted is in the Catacomb of Priscilla.

Mother Assumpta: Thank you so much. I’ve heard rave reviews, and I said, “I can’t wait to meet this wonderful woman.” Thank you for doing so much for our culture and the love of art because I’m convinced the beauty of art and music touch your soul, and they’re going to bring so many people [back]. We need to get the Millennials over there to see this beauty. I want to see you sometime when I’m in Rome. I feel like I would have an expert. God bless you.