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Friday, January 14, 2011

The Feast of Artists

I am a little late for Epiphany, but I was struck the other day, in reading one of the letters of Evelyn Waugh, by his reflections on Epiphany. The letter is one written to his wife Laura on 9 January 1945, just after the publication of Brideshead Revisisted when Waugh was in (then) Yugoslavia:

Have you ever considered how the Epiphany is the feast of artists. I thought so very strongly this year. After St. Joseph and the angels and the shepherds and even the ox and the ass have had their share of the crib, twelve days later appears an exotic caravan with negro pages and ostrich plumes. They have come an enormous journey across a desert and the splendid gifts look much less splendid than they did when they were being packed in Babylon. The wise men committed every sort of bĂȘtise—even asking the way of Herod & provoking the massacre of the innocents—but they got there in the end and their gifts were accepted (The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Armory, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1980, p. 197).

It’s a wonder just what Waugh means in associating the Magi with the artist. It seems to have something to do with their late arrival to the scene of Our Lord’s birth…one of Waugh’s biographers takes the exotic caravan, the pages and plumes, as metaphors for the lush style that Waugh displays in Brideshead… the gifts the Magi bring would seem to be the works that the artist offers to God....I had to look up bĂȘtise—it’s a work of folly, a mistake made from bad judgment, ignorance or inattention. The artist’s foibles and sins….

The adoration of the Magi signifies the pagan world’s attraction to Christ. Perhaps Waugh sees the artist, even the Christian artist, as largely immersed in the secular world (a world in which the artist-celebrity is ever increasingly “king”), yet still called by the beautiful “star” of the faith. It also may be the case that Waugh, a convert, felt a special affinity with these first Gentiles who responded to Christ’s call, however late they may have arrived at the scene. The artist’s gifts, meanwhile, like the gifts of the Magi, while splendid in one sense—gold, frankincense and myrrh were gifts most valued in the East—are as nothing compared to the splendor of the Babe in the crib. Still, on account of the Magi’s faith, their gifts are accepted and they are given space to adore the Christ. The artist’s call, by the beautiful light of the star, is toward this adoration of the Beauty of Christ. It is interesting to recall that the word beauty, in its Greek etymology, literally means a “call.”  

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