That’s Dante, in grim Florentine profile, standing next to the blind Homer.
Raphael’s “Parnassus” fresco in the “Rafaello Room” in the Vatican Museums, captures one of the central features of the Catholic artistic tradition: the way in which it gathers into itself whatever is valuable in what other artistic traditions have to tell us about the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Raphael’s fresco shows us that the Christian Dante is part of a fraternity of poets with the pagan Homer and, as we see in Dante’s Divine Comedy, with the pagan Virgil (for more on this fraternity of poets, see Inferno, Canto IV). Raphael even has the poets meet upon Mount Parnassus, the traditional home of the Muses in pagan mythology.
And it’s not just works of pagan antiquity that the Catholic artistic tradition seeks to engage with. The Catholic tradition also looks to build bridges with contemporary writers and artists.
The point is this: the good, the true, and the beautiful can be discerned, at least partially and obscurely, by any artist willing to submit himself or herself to both the gift and the demand of reality. That the Catholic, by faith, sees more of reality does not diminish the value of what the non-believer does see.
For this reason, the Catholic artistic tradition is a broad and inclusive one.
Catholic artists, let’s meet our friends on Mount Parnassus.
* The image above is my own photograph of the “Parnassus” fresco, taken on a trip to Rome with my family in 2011.