Sacred Art -- Woven Into the Canvas of the Catholic Faith
From the holy card used to mark our place in the missal, to an ancient fresco of the Good Shepherd in the catacombs, artistic images have been woven into our daily lives of faith as Catholics from the beginning of the Church to the present day. Is art worth thinking about during this time of crisis, decline, and spiritual warfare? Yes, as we can see that sacred images have always been with us, no matter the state of the Church or world. Christ Himself made an image on the veil of St. Veronica during the hours of His Passion.
The suffering face left impressed upon the cloth of Veronica has long been considered the ultimate image of faith. Medieval scholars, taking the name of Veronica, connected the Latin Vera (true) with the Greek Eikon (image)—making a “true image” of Christ. Veronica showed great faith, pity, and charity extending her soul towards Jesus. This act resulted in Our Lord giving an image of Himself in return. There is also the Shroud of Turin, and the tilma of Juan Diego, miraculously “painted” by the Blessed Virgin—an image which led to the conversion of a nation. These types of miraculous images are called in the Greek, Acheiropoieta, “Icons made without hands.” Following from these examples given to us by supernatural means, men of faith have in turn attempted to use raw material like stone, mineral, fiber and wood to create images which may in turn help us look towards Heaven, leading us through our senses to contemplate things which are not of the senses, but of faith.
The making of images and their use for prayer and meditation is inherently Catholic, and deeply woven into the faith. We can see the rejection of sacred images by Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism. The Revolution in France, the Reformation in England, and the Iconoclastic movements in the East of the 8th and 9th centuries, as well as the modernists of the Church have all sought to suppress and destroy sacred art, as it is so thoroughly redolent of the true practice of the Faith. It is an inherent tendency of the Church to make images. God grants us talents and intellect to create material objects which serve to contemplate and worship Him. The aforementioned religions have rejected these gifts given to man, while the Catholic Church embraces and has sought throughout her history to develop these gifts and talents to supreme heights, far exceeding the visual arts of any previous culture of the West, as well as pagan and tribal art traditions throughout the world.
Meditative dimension of art
Besides the prayerful and meditative dimensions of art, there are the more earthly, material aspects for a viewer to consider. There is great satisfaction one may experience in simply looking, taking time to drink in an object, absorbing it through the sense of sight. This is a different kind of sensing than when we listen to music, an art which exists and unfolds in time. A painting or sculpture is completely in front of us, all at once—wholly in the present moment. We can take in the overall composition of the picture, admiring the manner in which the artist has chosen to depict his subject, the touch of the hand, and the skillful manipulation of materials. We may also observe the individual artist’s philosophical approach to his subject, and in the case of sacred art, the theological message, as well as the emotional tone of the image.
The Church in her wisdom has always granted artists a wide latitude in their approach to sacred subjects, recognizing the God-given gifts of human inventiveness and the individuality of the soul. This individuality is best expressed when it is aligned with our inherent need to follow tradition and models that precede us. The “relentless cult of novelty”1 in the arts of the last century is a modern affliction, leading to the complete collapse of artistic work and thought. The great artists of the past knew that invention and renewal of their craft came naturally through following tradition and the emulation of what came before them. The apprentice artisan would learn alongside his master for many years before establishing his own workshop. And so, ideas and craft were handed down for centuries, at times changing quickly, at times slowly, always allowing for new pictorial and technical developments (for example the widespread use of oil paint in the 15th century), along with developments in regional stylistic taste. The common glue, so to speak, of the entire Catholic world was the clergy commissioning the art, acting as the guiding hand to keep sacred art spiritually and theologically true. Artists of the past rarely had interest in being radicals, but rather sought to use their talent in the service of the Church or lay patrons in a way that would lead naturally to technical and pictorial innovation.
Tangible treasure of the Church on earth
The variety of form and technique utilized throughout the history of Catholic art is astonishing: The boldly colored force of Romanesque frescoes, the fantastical sculptural flights of Cluny, the grandeur of Giotto and later the mystical beauty of Fra Angelico, the technical sublimity of the Northern Renaissance, the Baroque intensity of Rubens in the North and Zurbaran in Spain, onwards to the pious academic mastery of Bouguereau in the 19th century.2 This wide and deep wellspring of art is a tangible treasure of the Church on earth and though material and made by man, it has in many times and places led to prayer and the conversion of souls. Some may say that many of these paintings and sculptures of the distant past look quite radical, even crude or grotesque to our eyes. This aversion that many may have to pre-renaissance and pre-baroque art is most likely an inherited cultural prejudice, and in fact it is a prejudice of the neo-paganism and classicism of the late renaissance, and the naturalism, realism, and scientism of post-revolutionary times. All of these movements in artistic and philosophical thought tended to exclude that which made art so great in the Age of Faith—the mystical feeling of religion with which artists were able to imbue their works. Think of the stained-glass windows of Notre-Dame de Chartres Cathedral, and the sculpture of its portals. Realism, naturalism, and classical ideals are nowhere to be found in their forms. These works of the 12th and 13th centuries carry with them an intense power of religious expression and a sophistication of imagery that has rarely been exceeded. The intellectual and academic discipline of art history and aesthetic philosophy as we know it today was developed primarily by Protestants and atheists in the 18th and 19th centuries.3 These Enlightenment-minded writers labeled most Pre-Renaissance artworks as primitive, being that they were not based on ancient classical art. Therefore, we got the idea of the Italian Primitives, the Flemish Primitives, the Gothic (read: barbarian) and so on, privileging pagan and humanist ideals while slyly undervaluing nearly a thousand years of Catholic art and architecture of the broader Medieval era.
One such “primitive” artist is Dieric Bouts, who lived in the Netherlands in the middle of the 15th century. His painting of the Resurrection was originally part of a five panel altarpiece, which included depictions of the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the burial of Christ. Bouts’ painting speaks to a culture of great sophistication and to a talent of the highest degree. Primitive he was not. The Western Schism, with at least three claimants to the papacy, ended near the beginning of Bouts’ lifetime at the Council of Constance. Saint Joan of Arc’s victories, trial and execution took place when Bouts was 11 years old. By the time he was born, half of Europe’s population had died from the plague. Various wars throughout the continent dragged on for years. The Protestant revolt boiled up only several decades after his death. Despite the time and place of its making, Bouts’ work is a vision of absolute serenity, certitude and hope.
Within a blossoming green landscape of the breaking dawn, Christ steps out of the tomb at the center of the picture, supremely radiant with confidence. He is clothed in a red cloak symbolizing His divinity. Serious yet gentle, His expression greets us with a direct gaze. His concealed left hand carries a staff with a triumphal cross, and His right hand is raised in blessing us, the viewers. We can see the fresh wounds of the crucifixion and the lance, red with blood. The sarcophagus that He steps out of is not just a tomb, but an altar and a cross. An angel cloaked in billowing white stands atop the stone lid seemingly just alighted, gazing at Christ with devotion while awaiting the women disciples, seen approaching in the distance. Two of the three guards are still sleeping, their heads turned away from Christ, perhaps an allusion to the disbelief of the Jews. One has just awoken, confused and uncertain as he raises his arm as if to protect himself, astonished at the graceful majesty of Christ. The entire picture is composed in a manner that elicits a stilled sense of awe. This painting was made with a form of tempera paint using animal hide glue and powdered pigment from the earth. It is an exceedingly fragile technique and not many works made in this manner have survived from the era. These materials imbue the painting with a soft and radiant glow, mimicking the way light looks in the early dawn—mysterious, quiet, and intensely spiritual. When this painting was originally seen as part of an altar, the Holy Eucharist would have been elevated and held aloft by the priest just inches away. Picturing this, one may begin to contemplate the profound importance of sacred images in the Catholic liturgy. It is a time to seriously think about a resurrection of Catholic sacred art, which has been impoverished and nearly left for dead by two centuries of revolution. Without question, one must first look to the past, wherein lies the way forward. This is a monumental task of rebuilding starting from almost nothing. If artists such as Bouts, and the patrons which supported him were able to produce and provide such rich works for the aid of worship during times of extreme turmoil in the world, should we not be able to do the same now in our time? There is most certainly a power in images whether they be made miraculously through God, or by the hands of man. Bouts’ painting of the Resurrection is compelling and alive now as it was when first installed upon an altar in Northern Europe 500 years ago. After the Crucifixion, the apostles had nowhere to turn, seemingly nothing left and no way forward. The Resurrection changed this. Catholic sacred art has and will continue to resurrect itself, as long as the Church and her artisans choose to embrace the artistic traditions of the past in all of their diversity and richness, while rejecting those formal approaches and aesthetic philosophies which are incompatible with Catholic sensibility and antithetical to the arts, which the Church has birthed over its many centuries.
1 See Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s essay, “The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How It Wrecked The Century”.
2 It is worth mentioning the work of the Nazarene School painters of the 19th century (primarily Johann Friedrich Overbeck). These German artists sought to renew Catholic art by looking back to art of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Rejecting classical and humanist ideals being propagated by the intellectual establishment of the time, they attempted to develop a historically informed Catholic approach to art. Ironically, this was possibly the first avant-garde art movement of the modern era. A Catholic movement, where the path forward was found in following tradition. Similar attention is due to the work of the same era in Paris of Delacroix’s murals at Saint-Sulpice, and Corot’s altar painting of the Baptism of Christ at Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet.
3 However, Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768), the pillar of modern art history did in fact convert—at least initially, as a career move to gain access to the antiquities held at the Vatican. See also, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Schiller, et al.