The Feminine Genius in Art

women in art

On a rainy May afternoon I ducked out of the drizzle through the double glass doors of the Mistlin Art Gallery in the city’s historic downtown to join an intimate gathering of local opera lovers. Patrons gathered around mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz, artist, performer, and remarkable stage presence for a solo recital titled, “Women & Matters of the HeART.” The theme allowed Printz the opportunity to select and perform those songs closest to her own heart.

What are Women’s Matters of the Heart?

Printz began with, “Neruda Songs,” a series of sonnets written by Pablo Neruda and set to music by Peter Lieberson.

Romantic love, its devotion and emptying out in self-gift comprised the sonnets’ core matter. Their haunting quality affirmed immediately the otherworldliness of love, taking us beyond time and space. Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence.” (Deus Caritas Est, 3)

That man is made of body and soul presents the call to elevate love beyond eros, a “divine madness” that comes with a gripping passion neither planned nor willed. We know too well in this world that without discipline and elevation of spirit, love can degenerate into something misguided or tragic at the influence of original and chosen sins, falling short of the lofty vision, leading the broken-hearted to pronounce, “this isn’t what I thought love would be.”

Falling in Love

Within or without religion, the notes of falling in love and total self-gift sound throughout history in music, literature, theater, and art. We hear of the desire to melt into the beloved. We witness the heroic acts in the name of love. As teenagers, we dreamt on our beds, emoting to music, praying someday our prince would come.

The listener traveled with Neurda through the seasons of love, from love’s awakening to the realization of what loss could mean. These songs echoed the Lover’s search in the Song of Songs. As the music grew in vibrancy spellbound listeners heard the tale of love opening the beloved up to the world, as if the world was only then transformed into color. The possession of love allows one to see life as it really is, as good and complete as it really is, as vulnerable as it it really is.

Such a longing opens the soul to the divine and to true discovery of the beloved. Pope Benedict defined the ecstasy of love and transformation as “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God: ‘Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Luke 17:33)” (Deus Caritas Est, 6)

Printz translated the final act: “If you die and I don’t, let’s not be sad because we will find each other in every plane of existence…” Neruda wrote, “Oh little infinity! We give it back!”

Love Opens the Door

Love indeed opens the lover up to infinity, to the eternal, to God.

It cannot end with romantic love. It must go beyond.

For woman was not meant to exist only in relation to man, only for romantic love. Feminism proposed such a notion; Christianity defined it; entertainment neglected it. Thus we see, recent experiments in cinema with themes like sisterhood, female friendship (without a boy to fight over), motherhood, and aging easily garner popular praise among female viewers who themselves have learned there is more to life than boys.

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My playlist (that is, self-recorded cassette tapes) was once the soundtrack to the life I imagined in which the boy realizes he loved her all along. After my own meet-cute, dating, and marriage, the drama moved from in the relationship to the world surrounding the relationship.

Romantic love was no longer the quest. It was a source of companionship, as we faced the challenges brought to us by life, the world, and the bearing of children. The discovery of the beloved prepared us to openness and the discovery of our children.

Sadly, none of these themes arose during the recital. The second half took the listener on a tour of the effects of original sin, too often the case in modern art and entertainment. We paint with detailed strokes the act of falling in love and quest to possess the lover. Broad strokes or an abrupt ending follow once the mendacity of marriage sets in.

A Reduction of the Heart

Too often we reduced the heart to romantic love alone. All other loves must be interpreted through that. The reduction of a woman’s heart to only romantic love fails society because in order for woman to continue on the path of her heart, she needs female companionship, spiritual or physical motherhood. She must face the prospect of aging when she moved out of society’s spotlight.

The need to address these matters presses upon her during early motherhood, in times of transition and crisis. We so often seek it, but no longer know where to find it. Our early education in romantic love did not prepare us for this.

The Feminine Genius in Art

Catholic art offers a counterpoint to this tendency (see Elizabeth Lev’s How Catholic Art Saved the Faith). The Virgin Mary is depicted in reference to God, from the sisterhood shared in the Visitation, to the motherhood of nursing her Infant King, to relative old age as she stands beside the Cross supported by John the Beloved.

In a love that goes beyond romance, to the trial, to the Passion, to the Cross, we find the most beautiful and glorious art, beyond hints of the depth of love, beyond the little eternity, to Love Himself, infinite and unchanging. We find the place where the beloved is swept up to Heaven, made complete in a self-gift in which the giver never dissolves and the gift is never exhausted. There, we find those matters that concern and compel a woman’s heart.

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Kathryn Anne Casey is a freelance writer in Hughson, California, and author of Journey in Love: A Catholic Mother’s Prayers after Prenatal Diagnosis. Find out more about her here.

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