Three Ways to Approach Sacred Art for the Beginner

By Andrew Latham

From the foundations of the world men have caught sight of His invisible nature, His eternal power and His divineness, as they are known through His creatures (Rom. 1:20).

Imagine that on three successive days in Rome, you visit three historical churches—St. Peter’s Basilica, the greatest of the Roman Catholic churches; the Basilica di Santa Sofia a via Boccea, mother church of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Italy; and the Catacombs of Priscilla, one of the earliest places of worship in all of Christendom. Excluding twentieth century brutalist constructions and Cistercian minimalism, one would be hard pressed to find three churches more visually distinct in the way they portray sacred art. Indeed, the story of both diverse Catholic liturgical praxis and Catholic universality are reflected in the nearly infinite stylistic choices of liturgical artists. But regardless of the genres, figures, and changing tastes of the times, it is good for us to reflect, What is sacred art for? And on an even more vital question, How are we as faithful supposed to read this art?

Why Does Sacred Art Exist?

St. Thomas Aquinas states, “In the Divine worship it is necessary to make use of corporeal things, that man’s mind may be aroused thereby, as by signs, to the spiritual acts by means of which he is united to God.”1 He asserts later that “all ways” of analogy are valid as is the imagination in coming to “unity with God.” Thus, the written or oral word, art, and architecture are all valid tools in coming to know God as well as in transmitting Tradition and mystery.

Councils, particularly Second Nicaea and Trent, spoke strongly about the importance of sacred art in the liturgical life of the faithful. Some inspiring and quite orthodox teachings on the vitality of sacred art even came from the Second Vatican Council—and have lamentably not been taken seriously by modern churchmen. In Architecture in Communion, a book that strives to curb the modern desolation of churches and uses the Second Vatican Council as a defense of traditional architecture and art, Steven Schloeder writes,

On a more practical note, since during the course of the Mass one’s mind and eye may wander, it seems better to give the eye a sacred image on which to rest and contemplate—even if not directly pertinent to the Mass, it is still a part of communio sanctorum—than to leave one wandering in an image-free wasteland where the mind could turn more easily to profane subjects.2

Another recent author, Michael S. Rose, says, “The soaring heights of its [the church] spaces speak to us of reaching toward heaven, of transcendence—bringing the heavenly Jerusalem down to us through the medium of the church building.”3 Accepting Schloeder’s, Rose’s, and countless others’ argument that sacred art is vital, that the eye of the faithful should have sacred art to rest upon during this prayerful communication, we are left with the question:

How Should We Read Art During Our Worship?

In the modern age, we are bombarded with an endless stream of images, GIFs, electronic billboards, flashing indicator lights in our cars, and notifications on our wrists (not to mention television and smartphones that all vie for our attention in increasingly “vital” ways), but always in shorter and shorter durations due to our deadening attention span. Individuals have, in a very real sense, lost an ability to imagine through the visual and rarely engage the imagination. Too often they react as robots to marketing messages and symbolic content. Students, when asked to read a book for an assignment, often counter, “But I’ve seen the movie.” Any educator or parent knows immediately the flaw in this rebuttal. There is a vital part of the literary process that is lost in watching the film adaptation. The reader’s engagement of the imagination—the process of conjuring images, scenarios, and painting the story in the mind—is the most enjoyable, and dare I say, important part of taking in a good work of fiction or history.

Art, since the early twentieth century, also has morphed into the film adaptation of its previous self. Art has become a consumable good with little or no value—its main purpose is to be different than the previous generation’s works, to be edgy, shocking, and unique. But the thing about shock value is it typically only works once. Here is an analogy: a scream is shocking. The second time it is unleashed, it is weird. By the third time, it is annoying if not infuriating. Modern art is much the same: a scream, a cry for attention, among so many other cries for our attention throughout the day. And art, instead of being inspiring, beautiful, thoughtful, has become as vapid as the neon strip-mall sign asking us to pawn our gold.

Presumably, most readers of The Angelus would agree with the above, albeit without considering the subliminally deleterious effect these images have on them. People are surrounded by disposable imagery to such an extent that we have lost the practice of contemplating art—or anything for that matter. Consequently, people reject—or simply pass over—sacred art and architecture because these objects require the viewer to think and reflect instead of simply to react. According to author Andrew M. Greeley, “A full comprehension of the Catholic tradition requires respect not only for its proposition dimension but also for its imaginative dimension, especially since religion seems to originate in and draw its raw power from the imagination.”4 And, while he feels propositional religion is necessary, he asserts Vatican II has created a “beige” Catholicism which allows itself to be shaped by the prevailing culture rather than shaping that culture itself.

To fight against the culture of being “beige” Catholics, even if our traditional chapels are (hopefully) not, we must learn to read sacred imagery and engage with it. How? It depends on what we have been given.

Ecclesiastical art generally falls into three broad categories: catechetical (symbolic), devotional, and decorative. Depending on the art in any given space, the ways in which we interact with it, utilize it for meditation, and immerse ourselves in it while we contemplate the mysteries of the Faith vary. Each takes time, practice, and due attention.

Catechetical / Symbolic Art The earliest ecclesiastical art was symbolic in nature. In the burial places of the early Christians in Rome, the walls of the catacombs were painted with signs and symbols, recognizable as Christian symbols only to the adherents. Loaves and grapes represented the Eucharist but were also common pagan Roman decorative elements. Images of peacocks could be found throughout the villas of the powerful Roman elite, but came to symbolize Christ Himself in the catacombs and on sarcophagi of some early martyrs. And perhaps the earliest depiction of Christ, in the person of the Good Shepherd, is famously found in the Catacombs of Priscilla. Again, a young shepherd boy painted on a wall would not raise the eyebrows of Roman authorities, who themselves decorated their homes with equally bucolic subjects. In these three examples, we can see a throughline. The Christians valued catechesis in liturgical spaces, though during this period the symbols were not heavily allegorical because it was necessary to avoid undue attention.

Over the next 1,800 years, the education of the faithful was a near constant in the decoration of churches, and over time with further complexity.

To illustrate this progression in just one example, one would find a wealth of symbolism in a seemingly simple stained-glass window called “The Assumption of Mary” in St. Mary Catholic Church in Dayton, Ohio, completed in 1906. It would be easy to pass by this window, or glance at it and say “well, that’s pretty.” To do so is a disservice to our conversation with the divine mysteries. The center panel focuses on the Apostles’ discovery of Mary’s empty grave and Assumption. The author Maureen Tilley provides an important insight to the history of the window:

…while the feast [of Mary’s death] was broadly celebrated, it was not until 1950 that Pope Pius XII declared that at the end of her life Mary was taken to heaven body and soul. This mounting of this window precedes the proclamation of Pius XII by many years and testifies to a long and popular devotion to Mary’s Assumption.5

But while the main thrust of the scene is obvious, the viewer is rewarded the longer he meditates on the various aspects of the scene.

The Apostles are prominent in the scene, reminiscent of—while also contrasting with—Our Lord’s Resurrection and the empty tomb which did not have a single witness. It is further evident that only eleven of the Apostles are present, presumably representing the original number, and not including Judas’ successor, Matthias. This is also contrasted to Our Lord’s Resurrection, where the holy women were the first to be at the tomb, even though John and Peter arrived later.

The white drapery laid over the tomb and the lilies are easy to recognize as symbols of Our Lady’s virginal purity until the end of her time on earth. But a detail that may be easily overlooked here is St. John gently resting his hand on this emblem of purity—St. John, whose youth, purity, and innocence was especially loved by Our Lord.

Doctrinally, the image is sound regarding the divinity and humanity of Our Lord compared to the humanity of Our Lady. Our Lady did not ascend of her own will as Our Lord did, but was assumed by the Trinity—so where is this indicated in the glass? It is an easy “miss” upon the cursory glance, but the rays of light behind Our Lady’s head are subtly in the shape of a dove—representing the power of the Holy Ghost. It is He, through His power, raising this most pure of creatures.

There are three other symbols within the scene useful for our catechesis. First, faintly evident under Mary’s foot is a ribbon of water. One can make several constructive connections regarding water as necessary for life and about the human need for cleansing and sanctification. Next, Mary’s hands are outstretched towards the viewer reflecting the devotion of Mediatrix of all Grace, as one who can and will intercede with God on one’s behalf, through her motherly love. Finally, there is a ring of twelve stars around Mary’s head denoting her as the Queen of Heaven, but further connecting her as the Queen of both the Old Testament (twelve tribes of Israel) and the New (twelve Apostles of the Church.)

As one can see, a seemingly simple stained-glass window in Ohio can provide hours, days, months of reflection upon the various teachings of the Church regarding Our Blessed Mother. But it takes effort, time, reflection, and real attention to grasp even portions of its meaning.

Devotional Art The second category of liturgical art shifts from a more complex catechetical motif to the visually forthright; from the investigative to the immersive. These works require less an intellectual observation and more a spiritual contemplation, a deepening of Faith, an introspective consideration of divine mystery. The best examples of these can be found in both the writing of and praying with icons, a practice which began in the Eastern churches, and was adopted in the West preceding Duccio and Masaccio in Trecento and Quattrocento Italy. What makes the icon different from liturgical imagery more familiar to Roman Catholics has to do both with intent behind its creation, and the way the devotee views or reads the image.

First, let’s look at the icon as it is. The iconographer, only after prayer, prepared a canvas on a wooden board—or prepared a board directly with a chalky or alabaster substance. For the subject, he was guided by a pre-existing collections of models, or in a rough translation of Russian iconographers, podlinnik—“authentics.” While some freedom was allowed for his own interpretation and minor stylistic creativity, such as some minimal color variations, or the amount of highlight and shading, he was to remain with the tradition. Then the outline and paint were applied, cross-hatching was done with gold leaf or light-colored paint, and the icon was named, again according to an inscription already given to the podlinnik from which he based his work. It was at this moment, after the naming of the work, that the painting became an icon.

More importantly, it was here that the icon is linked hypostatically—or even substantially—to its prototype. The iconographer was sometimes spoken of as a writer of an icon. The writing refers to the naming of the icon, and to the lesson that the icon teaches us, which is meant to be an aid, along with Scripture and the liturgy, to our theological development and meditation.

Now that our iconographer has completed the image, it is our turn. This is the second main difference between Eastern and Western liturgical art, and between catechetical and devotional images: How are we to read the icon? It is meant as an instrument of contemplation through which our soul breaks free of our sensible surroundings and enters the world of divine illumination.

Yes, there is symbolism in iconography. St. Peter is portrayed distinctly from St. Paul, with symbols that give us the stories found in the Gospels. But these are, at the most, secondary, if not purely incidental to the icon. These symbols, far from being “real” symbols, are theological in nature, with the individual character swallowed up by the theological essence their existence is expressing to the devotee.

Additionally, the body counts very little in icons. One is struck, when comparing icons to Western realism, by the two-dimensionality of the image. The body vanishes under the flatness of the robes, with only hints given of the corporeal depth beneath by series of simple diagonal lines. It is the head—really the face—where the soul shines through; that is the focus of the image. Early icons portrayed skin in light pinks, which changed over time to a nearly golden ochre, perhaps a representation of the triumphant sanctity enjoyed by the subjects.

The features across icons are strikingly consistent as well. The forehead, the seat of wisdom, is prominent. Our attention is immediately drawn to the almond shaped, larger than normal eyes, framed by arching eyebrows, attenuated by a long slender nose. And the mouth is always closed. Why these distinctive characteristics? In Paradise, all is consumed by the vision of the Divine. The eyes, large and intense, are subsumed by the Beatific Vision. Their mouth, closed, seems almost not to dare to speak in the presence of the Creator.

Nature is not portrayed with exactness. While the backgrounds are very often plain, the trees, landscapes, houses, and rocks defy gravity. There are no laments of the holy women as we see with Giotto, no angels breaking into praise as in Fra Angelico or della Robbia. Light casts minimal shadow, and perspective is not important; it seems to bend in the greater force of the face beholding the Divine. The truths of faith are indeed radiating out from the icon to the viewer—the vanishing point is not one of physics, but of theology, with our gaze meant to vanish into the face of the subject.

In the stained-glass window we saw above, we were meant to look upon the image and discover the truths within. In the icon, the action is reversed. Yes, we look upon the icon first chronologically, but we are meant to allow the icon to discover us. Instead of our intellect penetrating the stained-glass window, the line of force extends from within the icon towards us. Material, natural, and created light itself becomes shadow when compared to the intelligible, uncreated light that radiates from the face of the icon, radiating from the ultimately unknowable God.

So, in all practicality, how are we meant to view an icon? By gazing upon it, yes, but in a different way than we in the West may be used to. We are meant to be patient with it, and to open ourselves to it in a meditative way—in short, to spend time with the icon, as if we are in the presence of something divine. This may be daunting to us, with our 21st century attention spans, but even secular artists are seeing the value of simply being present with art:

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of the history of art and architecture at Harvard, thinks she has a fairly simple solution to help her American art history students appreciate the act of focusing: They must pick any painting, sculpture, or object made by an American artist and stare at it—for three hours. “They’re usually skeptical at first,” she told me, “but afterward, they tell me the process was really astonishing, enabling them to see things, make observations, and develop original ideas about the work that never would have occurred otherwise.”6

If it can be useful for art history students—and it certainly is—how much more so can it be for us as a practice of devotion to simply sit with a work, and “read” the theological truths, not literally, but with a profound spirit of meditation?

Decorative Art The third and simplest of the three forms of liturgical art is the easiest, since it requires little in the way of intellectual pursuit, yet it has been among the most important parts of constructing our churches, basilicas, and chapels. Here we can point to the Roman style of mosaics that still adorn the floors of the great Roman basilicas: serpentine, jagged, diagonal with sharp, contrasting darks and whites, porphyries and marbles. Glancing up in the Duomo di Siena, black and white marble punctuate the piers, leading the eye to the graceful Corinthian capitals, then finally to the wine-dark blue of the ceiling pierced with gilt stars.

While there is some symbolism in each of the items mentioned, their main purpose is not to catechize, nor to inspire us with mystery, but it is meant to break us away from the outside world. Terribilis est locus iste we are called to repeat—this is a place of awe and wonder.

We Are Meant to Read Sacred Art, Not Just Look

The unknown architect of Glastonbury Abbey in England wrote, “I want to build a church so beautiful that it will move even the hardest heart to prayer.” Indeed, scores of conversion stories stem from the beauty of sacred art.

But as practicing Catholics, do we allow sacred art, even the simple copies of that art which is affordable for home altars or small mission chapels, to inspire us? We don’t need to travel to Siena and gaze at the Duomo, or sit in front of an icon for hours. All we need, truly, is a print from our local bookstore, or a $30 canvas print of our favorite sacred artwork from an online printer, and the willingness to meditate upon and experience the work. Better to be immersed in one of these reproductions than to walk through St. Peter’s Basilica with a selfie stick.

Experiencing sacred art in full takes practice and patience, just like reading great works of literature. And once we cultivate this habit, it can bring us closer to the Divine, like the subjects of the sacred works we contemplate.


1 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: (II-II, q. 81, a. 7).

2 Steven J. Schloeder, Architecture in Communion: Implementing the Second Vatican Council Through Liturgy and Architecture (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 40.

3 Michael S. Rose, Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again (Sophia Institute Press), 230.

4 Greeley, God in Popular Culture, 57.

5 Tilley, Wagner, and Hohl, Tour of St. Mary Church Iconography, 19.

6 Why You Should Stare at a Painting for Three Hours,

TITLE IMAGE: Basilica di Santa Sofia—Credit: Francesco Perilli.