begin this talk in a contrite frame of mind. My intention was, and is, topay tribute to Étienne Gilson (1884–1978), because we are here to honorhim and, speaking for myself, because, with a fragment by Xenophon of Colophon, his writings suggested a connection to my mind between theproject of self-knowing and religious art as a kind of mirror that makes itpossible for us to see, and know, ourselves. (After all, we cannot see our ownfaces without some kind of mirror.) However, Gilson’s writings offer little onthe subject of medieval art. That is why, incongruously enough, I am offering to the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies a talk that follows whereGilson’s enthusiasms led, to the Counter-Reformation and its aftermathdown to Cubism. At another stage of my life, I might have chosen to celebrate my debt toÉtienne Gilson, the founder of this Institute, with reflections on Augustine,but, this year, I find myself standing on his shoulders and looking into thePromised Land of Art. The study of art ran like a deep and driving currentthrough Gilson’s life. As he recalled in his Mellon Lectures,
Painting and Reality
(1955), his first published work on the philosophy of art, exactly forty years earlier (1915), ignited his “personal evolution ... to the rediscovery of the solid, down-to-earth realm of the classical metaphysics of being asinterpreted by St. Thomas Aquinas.” He hinted at the heights to which hispassionate devotion to art had soared when he wrote: “He who sincerely exposes himself to creative art and agrees to share in its ventures ... will know the exhilarating feeling of finding himself in contact with the closest ana-logue there is, in human experience, to the creative power from which allthe beauties of art as well as those of nature ultimately proceed. Its name isBeing.”
My task tonight is a gloss on a few sentences in Gilson’s MellonLectures. “Religion can survive without art,” Gilson wrote; “it even survivesin spite of the fact that its churches have largely become so many temples
1. Étienne Gilson,
Painting and Reality
(New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), pp. x,299. An essential body of material brought together in this lecture was collectedduring my year as Fellow of the Erasmus Institute, at the University of Notre Dame(2001–2002). I am grateful to the Erasmus Institute for its generous hospitality andfor the intellectual companionship it provided.