The Allure of Catholic Aesthetics

‘Mother Joan of the Angels’ offers one of the richest portraits of religious imagination

Jack Hanson

Roman Catholicism, like poetry, seems to be news that stays news, at least in the United States. It might seem strange, at first glance, that the country’s largest religious institution should be an enduring source of curiosity, but with a thoroughly Protestant cultural and political patrimony, an aversion to all things European, a willful ignorance of the Global South, not to mention a civil religion that demands total devotion, the American fascination with and suspicion of Mother Church seems (forgive me) preordained.

That said, as with any American phenomenon, it is a particularly American Catholicism that dominates discussion. As historian Piotr H. Kosicki recently argued, the Catholicism that enjoys outsized representation in the halls of power is in fact a nativist authoritarianism that is more properly aligned with ascendent Rightist movements across the globe (some Catholic, others not) than with the Vatican or, more to the point, than with past generations of immigrants and workers who suffered from the anti-Catholicism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

This provincialism posing as historical representation dovetails nicely with the other hot topic in the ongoing discussion of what, exactly, is up with the whole Catholic thing, namely, the largely online merging of trad and transgressive — or trad as transgressive — aesthetics. Neither preoccupation with tradition nor loathing of bourgeois religion is anything new in the history of Catholic cultural revivals (though this time around is looking a little thin: a century ago in France they got JK Huysmans, Charles Péguy, and Raissa Maritain — who do we get?); it is nevertheless remarkable to read claims about the ultimate superiority of the Tridentine Mass put forward in the half-frenetic, half-lethargic idiom of shitposting.

This convergence has not occurred overnight. Right-wing Catholics dissatisfied with contemporary culture have long been evoking 17th-century norms and customs as modernity’s escape hatch (even if this is often filtered through a certain rose-colored, 1950’s glasses), while only a few years ago the Met Gala took Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination as its theme. If there is some incongruity between, say, Jared Leto “channeling Gucci Jesus” and earnest reactionary nostalgia, when these two forces come together it becomes clear that they share a fixation not with being right but with being on the right side. At the risk of belaboring the point or stating the obvious, between celebrity media and quasi-traditionalism is a common desire for power, to be the winner of the historical moment, even one as grim and enervating as our own. But like all desire for power, it is also an expression of terror at powerlessness and craving to just be rid of the confusion of responsibility and care. To claim allegiance to the past in the long-lost synonymy of throne and altar (which, of course, was never the stable unity that is often portrayed or imagined) in alliance with the glamorous representatives of capital, who seem destined to control the future, this combination of reactionary and transgressive Catholicism must seem to offer an escape from history itself.

A Catholic myself (albeit a silly, backsliding example of one), I find this is a distinctly unappealing development, as well as more or less alien to the best of what the religion offers. Apart from any particular position, I love the Church’s multiplicity, its many histories, that for every nefarious bureaucrat and right-wing hysteric there is a truly selfless eremite, a tireless worker on behalf of the scorned and the oppressed, to say nothing of the artists and writers, even in our time, whose work represents a genuine reckoning with the demands of faith. Catholicism at its deepest, its most capacious, offers a medium of passage, an idiom in which apparent oppositions might be comprehended as elements of the same cosmic unfolding. It makes for a profound strangeness, where holiness and sinfulness tarry with one another, at times becoming almost (if not quite) indistinguishable, converging, to borrow a phrase from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, like radial lines toward a central point. If anything in Catholicism still constitutes a genuine challenge to the prevailing order, it starts in this plurality, which resists reproduction and weaponization, slipping through the fingers of those who try to wield the faith, whether as an instrument of state violence or as a special toy with a setting marked “sedevacantism,” to name two examples at random. This is, in a sense, pre-political as well as pre-aesthetic, but it is difficult to locate in any of the authoritarians or shock-artists who have ever claimed to represent the true Church.

Strangely enough, a modern example of this kind of Catholic idiom can be found in the horror genre. In certain of these films (admittedly few and far between), lavish aesthetics act only as an outward indication of deeper indeterminacy, in which the apparently correct path might lead you to ruin, and the fool or the sinner might be the unacknowledged harbinger of redemption. Most films that tap into this idea eventually give up on it, opting instead for narrative closure or else exploiting it as a useful, surface-level device (I seem to recall some HBO miniseries in which a well-meaning anthropologist on a remote island refers to the local cult practices — which, of course, turn out to be murderous — as “no stranger than Catholicism.”) One film that sees this uncertainty through and bears it as its primary aesthetic principle is the 1961 Polish “nunsploitation” film, Mother Joan of the Angels, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz. Set in the 17th-century in Loudun, at a convent famously beset by demonic possession, the film follows a priest, Father Suryn, in his attempt to face down the forces controlling the convent’s Mother Superior, who is most possessed of all, a task which has already led to the death of his predecessor. Kawalerowicz, who was an active member of the United Worker’s Party, Poland’s ruling communist party, considered the film a criticism of the Church as a force of sexual repression, but in its commitment to inhabiting the world of its subject, Mother Joan offers a rich portrait of the intricacies of the Catholic imagination, especially striking in its foreignness to much of what passes for Catholic today.

The events of the film begin just following the famous incident of Father Urbain Grandier, the libertine priest whose arrival at the convent coincided with the beginning of the possessions, and who was eventually blamed and burned at the stake for the nuns’ suffering. This episode has come to represent a signal moment in early modern history, in which the standing social order topples under the weight of new ideas, new assumptions, new desires. It is the subject of, among others, a famous study by French Jesuit historian Michel de Certeau, a novel by Aldous Huxley, an opera by Krźystztof Penderecki, and a film, entitled The Devils, by Ken Russell. This latter contribution, starring a wild-eyed Oliver Reed as Grandier and a stuttering, traumatized Vanessa Redgrave as Jeanne des Anges, is among the more lurid films to ever receive wide distribution.

Mother Joan, by contrast, is shot in a stark black and white (which, to be clear, is its own kind of lavishness). Camera movements alternate between dead-on confrontation and a kind of graceful forbearance, which serves to saturate the already highly-textured images with knowledge of the unseen, the intimated being at once terrifying and alluring. In an early scene, when Father Suryn first meets Mother Joan, the two confer respectfully, almost affectionately over his plan for her exorcism. It is a scene marked by stillness, which in these first few moments seems to shimmer with an almost amorous anticipation. But then, though the silence persists, it takes on an entirely different character: what was a sumptuous vibration is now a cold, forbidding absence, which only fear seems able to penetrate. As Mother Joan begins to exit, she stops and turns, revealing a genuinely terrifying leer. She slinks along the walls, eyes directly on the Father Suryn and, since the camera occupies his position, us, the demons within her taunting the priest’s powerlessness. With a strangled “Apage, Satana!” from Suryn, Joan collapses, but the brief triumph is undermined when the scene cuts to an overhead shot of a dozen nuns twirling into the convent’s courtyard, clearly possessed and dancing to music unheard by the priest and the viewer. With so much unspoken yet palpably conveyed, it is clear that it is not the nun’s music which is illusory, but our silence.

However much the fools and drinkers may express their contempt for the convent, they can’t help but be drawn to what goes on there.

The film comprises mostly this kind of alternation, not so much leading from anticipation to fulfillment as oscillating between possibilities of each, neither corresponding directly to the other and sometimes even contradicting each other. But out of these contradictions a world emerges that seems to precede the social conditions that divide up the film’s inhabitants, while nevertheless feeling fresher, more in touch with reality, a truth both older and younger.

The primary opposition of the film is in the setting itself, that is, between the convent and the town outside its walls. We first encounter Father Suryn at prayer in his room at the local inn. When he emerges to eat, he is met by the kinds of characters one expects to meet in such places: some buffoonish, others world-weary, still others at once menacing and alluring — human complexity in the form of a roll call. They discuss the possessions with a similar mixture of feeling, common people viewing the cloistered with almost equal parts derision and awe. They are wholly ignorant of the nuns and their lives, and yet they seem also to know something about the convent that perhaps those living there do not.

This sense only grows as the film progresses, the boundary between the two worlds revealing itself more and more to be utterly permeable, if not false. Many scenes that take place in the heart of the convent include a window that opens up onto the town, the agony of the priest as he fails to exorcize the nuns juxtaposed with the townspeople in lively discussion, the contents of which can only be one thing. In other instances, those same people enter the convent to witness the public exorcisms and it’s easy to imagine why. However much the fools and drinkers may express their contempt for the convent, they can’t help but be drawn to what goes on there. The possessions, for them, are only a heightened instance of the character of the place, that is, a site where cosmic battles are played out, where the hidden truths of the universe are contemplated, where God is not a distant star but a daily companion.

But Mother Joan dramatizes with equal force travel in the opposite direction. A nun is seduced by a visiting squire and leaves the convent to be his wife. Father Suryn, at his wits’ end, goes to visit the local rabbi, who is played by the same actor (an unnerving stroke of genius that in hands less able than Kawalerowicz could easily have turned ridiculous.) The confrontation between the two religious men plays like a concentration of all the film’s contradictory energy, two equal forces converging on a single point and yet unable quite to come together. This failure sets in motion the concluding events, in which the squire abandons the former nun and Suryn commits several heinous murders, reasoning that only by offering himself to the demons will they release the nuns. The final scene shows Mother Joan weeping as a dark bell sways under a blank sky.

The catastrophe of Mother Joan’s finale is so affecting in large part because it is a grotesque reflection of the deep need for reconciliation that the rest of the film so beautifully evokes. It shows, in short, the spiritual consequences of neglecting the passive element of faith, the patience and humility and openness to surprise, without which religious adherence slides all too easily into dogmatism and imperiousness, to say nothing of the more dire possibilities we see actualized with shocking regularity. This is what makes the use of religion by opportunists of all stripes so grating: no matter the truth of one’s belief or skepticism, the human drives and dramas that arise are real, carry enormous risk, and are very rarely in our control.

Jack Hanson is a writer living in New York.