A large swath of European art history may feel inaccessible to museum visitors because of its Catholic symbols. Perhaps the 2022 lull in museum attendance demonstrates that without blockbuster shows whose organization the pandemic stalled, the public is not enraptured by revisiting the obscure saints and scenes from Christ’s life in most museum’s permanent Old Masters collections. If only more people had read a primer like Suzanna Ivanič’s new book Catholica: The Visual Culture of Catholicism (Thames & Hudson, 2022), they might feel more of a spark.
This knowledge gap, which Ivanič sets out to fill in Catholica, revealed itself comically during my recent visit to the San Diego Museum of Art. Beholding Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s ravishing interpretation of Mary Magdelene (1650–1655) stirred within me a few audible moans of excitement. I acquired this naughty habit when I interned for art dealer Richard L. Feigen during college, who enjoyed old paintings that much and gave me permission to approach the Old Masters hedonistically — ready to writhe. A young queer man at the museum in San Diego wondered what the hell had me so excited. Was it really a painting of a saint? Flirtatious motives and cruising dynamic aside, it became evident to me as we chatted that when I start a gay finishing school, Ivanič’s book on Catholic art will be required reading. The point is not to master Catholic trivia, the goal is to feel something in front of an Old Master picture. Don’t you want to possess the working knowledge to be in on Murrilo’s joke?
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For example, pages 76 and 77 of Ivanič’s new book go into enough detail about the symbolism of Mary Magdalene that a diligent reader could recognize her at any museum without the wall label. Naturally, I would have taken it further. It always comes down to the question of how much sex appeal to give Mary Magdalene in painting. Of course, Murillo made her beautiful with his soft brushstrokes and dulcet luminosity. How could she not sin when she looked that good? Make her irresistible to Jesus — that’s the scandal under the surface, to which a Thames & Hudson book can only allude.
The diagrams are the best part of this primer. For example, “Decoding the Last Judgment” is a two-page spread that guides readers through all the symbols and allusions in Hans Memling’s masterpiece now on view at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland. So much of deepening our relationship with art history comes down to what we can immediately recognize with our eyes and feel in our guts without reading the wall label. Ivanič’s book is a great tool for getting more from this experience. The short chapters introduce various facets of how Catholicism intersects with art history, but she doesn’t get bogged down in the minutiae. Catholica is a smart addition to the library of an art enthusiast who wants to get a firmer grip on the Catholic symbolism that — for better or worse — pervades our museums.