Religion, Art and Science are branches of the same tree: interview with F. João Sarmento SJ, Brotéria gallery
At the beginning of the last century, it was the natural sciences journal of the Portuguese Jesuits. It went down in history for its relevant research in the areas of botany, zoology and genetics, covering chemistry, physics, medicine, biology and agriculture. On its 120th anniversary, Brotéria is no longer just a publication about Christianity and culture. Today, it is located at number 3, Rua São Pedro de Alcântara, as a multidisciplinary cultural centre in Bairro Alto, an artistic-cultural landmark. This attentive house, where spontaneity and discussion coexist, does not want to surprise, but rather to reassert itself through the questions it explores, in relations between Christian faith and contemporary urban cultures.
There is a library, a gallery, a bookshop and a café, exhibitions, seminars, performances and workshops, and the route is natural, with the door always open. This allows those interested to enter and its members to walk, exploring what is happening culturally in Lisbon and beyond.
Mafalda Ruão – The history of the Portuguese Jesuits covers a cycle of entries and expulsions in the country. Resilience is in Jesuit blood. How does Brotéria reflect this?
F. João Sarmento SJ – In Portugal the Jesuits were expelled three times. After the first expulsion and several similar episodes in other European kingdoms, a fierce anti-Jesuit wave grew, which led to the suppression of the order itself. However, in the second expulsion, the Jesuits were not alone: all religious orders were extinguished in Portugal. And the goods were confiscated by the national treasury. There were bishops and clergy left in the different dioceses, but religious orders were considered incompatible with the Enlightenment of that century.
Pombal, Liberalism and the First Republic reacted to the threat of the power and social influence of these human groups. Today, in a democracy, we have a different view on self-determination and freedom of worship and teaching. However, history is always much more complex than what we can say about it now. Today, in many parts of the world, these mismatches and intolerances continue to happen in violent ways.
Resilience is the ability for us to recover from something traumatic. I don’t think that’s the term. Perhaps the blood of the Jesuits has more the capacity to reshape than to recover; an appropriation of events, allowing oneself to be contaminated and remade by them. I believe that in that blood runs the effervescence of Christianity, constantly subversive. Always the same and always new. This is reflected in Brotéria, because we do not believe in the stagnation and crystallisation of models. Still waters putrefy.
MR – Fighting against inertia, and as coordinator of the Brotéria gallery, Father João has a long career in Philosophy, Theology and Sculpture. Do you consider yourself a man of philosophy, of priesthood or of the arts?
F.JS – Being many things is part of life. A composite of mixed natures. A Jesuit is no different. Since its foundation in 1540, the Society of Jesus has always stimulated polyhedral thinking, a longing for the logic of humanism. An idea of universality, of a knowledge that is as integral and comprehensive as possible. Besides formation in philosophy and theology – and so many other non-academic experiences – everyone can be educated about the movements particular to each period. In this sense, I am a Jesuit priest when I make sculpture, when I organise an exhibition, or when I celebrate any Christian ritual. But I do not define myself as any of these things. In fact, I am João.
MR – What is the relationship between religion and faith and art today?
F.JS – Faith and religion are forces of history in multiple cultural expressions, resisting the changes of the ages, with surprising mutations. So is art. Even against the announcement of its end, or in the face of the rise of merely technicist or scientific thinking, it persists. Art and religion are twin sisters, as Tomás Maia explains in Persistência da Obra II – Arte e Religião: “Art and religion are twins because they respond to mystery and only respond for it, but they are not identical because they have different responses.”
Beyond the dogmatic constraints of the different religious systems, we can find a deeper meaning in religion as religare. A power that reconnects what is separate, establishing a broad, open connection between that which is different. This seems to assume a very similar structure to that of aesthetic experience. Today, the relationship between art and religion is a phenomenon that, while maintaining the full autonomy of both, finds enormous sympathy in the principles that nourish them.
A certain artistic production has principles opposed to spiritual or religious intention. Some aim to confront or criticise these same principles. This is due to the healthy secular autonomy of these fields. However, even these works leave open possibilities for our appropriation. Even against expectation and intentionality, it can be a religious experience.
MR – Deepening this relationship, and quoting Brotéria, “There are dynamics in Christianity and spirituality that, implicitly or explicitly, mark the disciplines and languages of contemporary arts…” Can culture and art connect theological theories, political decision-making and current global problems?
F.JS – It always depends on the art and culture we are talking about. I believe that the cultural universe and the art that interests us are flows that form a privileged place for this connection. A thought that converges in a culture of encounter. Where the diverse come together. A safe space for the conviviality of dissent, for trial and error.
Theology, like philosophy, wants to investigate all human activity. So contemporary dramas, like those of old, are raw materials for thought and action.
By contrast, the culture of alienating aestheticism is consumed at scrolling speed. It sucks up time, capitalises everything. Thinking becomes a response to haste, tendentially biased.
When we say that there is spirituality, implicit or explicit in contemporary culture, we are recognising a kind of theology of the eye, because our hermeneutic sees God in all things and all things in God (as St. Ignatius of Loyola said). I do not consider there to be two spheres – the theological and the other realities – touching tangentially. But reality as something manifold. Filled with contradictions, absurdities, dissonances and other surprising processes. A world “in labour”.
MR – If Brotéria’s will is “to develop theological and aesthetic languages that contribute to the spiritual growth of the ecclesial communities…”, what is the relationship with other communities?
F.JS – When we say ecclesial communities, we mean the many communities that make up the Catholic Church of which we are a part. Brotéria is a space open to all those who, even though they are part of other communities, are invited to feel at home. This has often happened.
Another side is the relationship with the different non-ecclesial communities, with whom we maintain relations and promote encounters. Be it the local community of Bairro Alto, neighbours or shopkeepers, or communities associated with other areas that come to us.
MR – After 120 years, how can Brotéria surprise and stand out in Lisbon?
F.JS – Brotéria magazine turned 120 years of uninterrupted publication in September. However, it opened in 2020. The mission of the magazine of Christianity and Culture has changed significantly, it has become an expansion in a more integral space of cultural action. The magazine has always been surprising, having started with botany and zoology in a pedagogical environment of a college, passing through literature, politics or genetics. It tells the story of an intellectual history through the problems studied by the Jesuit community of each period and which have formed our library. Today it is a magazine about contemporary culture and its concerns in an eclectic way. A silent and dense body that requires slowing down. A thought unsatisfied by knee-jerk responses.
However, I believe that we do not have the ambition to surprise. We do not want to make a difference as a value. In our programming and activity, I believe that our desire to deepen the questions our identity poses is visible: what is or how can we bring the Christian faith to meet contemporary urban cultures? The seminars, workshops, talks and exhibitions prove this.
On the other hand, we always like to enjoy what is happening culturally in the city and outside of it.
MR – For those who still don’t know Brotéria, how can we present it and encourage them to visit?
F.JS – If you manage to read this entire interview, I’ll buy you a beer here in Brotéria’s courtyard.