Last year, Vatican art restorers were surprised to find new art treasures underneath the soot and grime from centuries of candle wax. As it turns out the hidden treasures were done by landscape artist Paul Bril in the sixteenth century. It seems that Pope Sixtus V commissioned 40 artists of the period to paint landscape scenes near the Scala Sancta which is near the private chapel of the Popes in the Vatican Palace. According to Vatican historians Pope Sixtus V had a great appreciation for the visual arts and commissioned over 18,000 square feet of artistic endeavors during his reign. He was reported to enjoyed landscapes and other pastoral themes.
It is really an amazing thing that the Church has been such a consistent patron and advocate towards the development of the visual arts. In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council promulgated in chapter 7 that the Church had a unique relationship with artists and their arts. It enjoined local bishops to establish and maintain sacred art academies and schools to better educate artists regarding the importance of sacred art. At the same time, such an institution would enable both faithful believers and artisans the opportunity to learn about the intense relationship with all of the arts the Church has enjoyed for centuries. It is most likely one of the most disregarded mandates that came out of Vatican II in 1963. We are 40 plus years since the end of the Council and sacred art still does not have a domestic United States academy for its study and development. Since the close of Vatican II hundreds if not thousands of Catholic churches have been renovated, renewed, restored or even ruined by a disregard for their architectural and artistic integrity. Today, the Church is on the threshold of a restoration of the Tridentine Mass as a viable option to the Novus Ordo of Paul VI and our Catholic Churches have been quite literally looted and vandalized.
It was common practice in the post-concilliar period to completely remove old altars, renovate the sanctuary of most churches and “modernize” the architecture. Great examples of craftsmanship and artistic expression were frequently just “ripped out” and destroyed, or placed in storage. In its attempt to streamline and simplify it’s liturgical celebration of the Mass, quite often parish communities were completely rebuilt with little or no regard for the architectural and historical integrity of these sacred spaces. So here we are on the possible eve of a restoration of the Church’s ancient form of celebration and the requirements of Vatican II have not even been accomplished.
To the best of my knowledge there is no sacred institute for liturgical arts in the United States with artistic education as its primary purpose. From any experiences I have had, artists that focus on liturgical and sacred arts quite honestly don’t even have a national organization. However, they exist. Most of these artisans, experienced in all mediums of artistic representation(such as marble carving, bronze casting, wood carving, painting, iconography and so on.) seem to survive and proclaim their artistic interpretation of God’s creation without help or support from anyone in the hierarchy of the United States Bishop’s Conference. There are of course a few exceptions, and some bishops utilize American artists for domestic church projects. For the most part though, religious art for public exhibition in our Catholic Churches is confined to ordering iconoclastic images from religious supply catalogues or contracting with some foreign workshop to construct sacred art and images.
I really do not understand the notion that in order for ecclesial art to be of any significant value or importance there is a misconception it should be made in some Italian quarry, or some Spanish woodcarving factory. As an institutional Church, we are committing a grave injustice aimed at craftsmen and artisans that labor right here in our American Catholic Church. Instead of utilizing architects and liturgical planners that love to “skirt” off over the Atlantic, we should be scouring each American diocese for the existence of qualitative sacred artists. It is time for the American Bishops to provide for the mandate of Sacrosanctum Concilium and establish a school for the development and the preservation of the sacred arts.
Quite frequently, I have witnessed new architectural projects that are going on in Catholic Churches, even Catholic Cathedrals…and priests and bishops have engaged artisans and materials from European sources. Now quite realistically, I am not promoting architectural and artistic isolationism. I am promoting patronage of native talent when projects are conceived and implemented. The United States is no longer a foreign mission of any European Catholic Church. It is only appropriate that artisans that are part of our own worshiping community be given the opportunity to provide artistic expression in our Catholic Churches. In a period when the Church is advocating a new appreciation towards good stewardship of natural resources by all of the faithful, an excellent place to start appreciating these resources is within our own talented artistic community.
Sometimes when Bishops and priests consider projects that involve casting of new statues, or renovation of sacred spaces they immediately rule out using local artisans. The reason is usually quite simple, they mistakenly believe the local artist or craftsman is too expensive for the project’s budget. As a result, we have neglected as a Church to appreciate our own gifted Catholics that worship God through their artistic expressions. At the same time, the responsibility for creation of liturgical and sacred art is consigned to companies that mass produce religious articles for hundreds of Catholic Churches throughout the world. As a result, we frequently see the same portrayal of images of Jesus, Mary and the saints with just subtle differences throughout the United States. It does not seem that Sixtus V, Paul VI or any pope for that matter intended for cookie cutter art throughout Christendom.
In addition to the initiation of a school for sacred arts, perhaps every parish community would be best served by trying to incorporate local artists into all of their projects. It seems that the notion of community also involves appreciating the fields in which all of our parishioners labor. It really would not be that hard for the local parish priest to invite individuals of all crafts and trades to provide services to the local parish community. That is not to say these services should be offered without compensation as well. Catholic social teachings from Leo XIII to John Paul II have always made it clear that individuals should be compensated justly for their services and in fulfillment of their jobs. This teaching applies to the Church as employer as well.
There are many facets that one might discuss regarding the use of local artisans and craftsmen in local Catholic projects. The most important facet I believe is the openness of the Church to include these creative and talented individuals into a closer working relationship with their parish communities. Education of priests and faithful would not be a subject that should be overlooked. Sacrosanctum Concilium also recommends that clergy and future clergy be educated in an appreciation of all of the arts. This is not something that the Fathers of the Council considered optional, it was promulgated as part of the declarations of Sacrosanctum Concilium. I know from my own seminary educational experiences over almost eight years I only had one course in art appreciation while I was in college. During my theology studies, the priest entrusted with our education in liturgy and its practice was quite often seen as a John the Baptist figure. His message of liturgical quality and integrity in relationship to the sacred arts was always maligned and misconstrued as a “necessary evil” in order to fulfill the requirements of Vatican II. However his courses have provided me with inexhaustible resources over the years as well as a constant deepening of my personal appreciation for visual and sacred art.
It would also help a considerable bit if parish communities were involved in a catechesis regarding the importance of quality in our liturgical and sacred arts. Quite frequently, in our post-Industrial society that prides itself on the expediency of just about everything. It would be an enriching insight for parishioners to understand the difference between mass produced religious materials, and the essential quality and dignity of handcrafted articles destined for sacred expression. Rarely in our modern United States do we place a high regard on artistic craftsmanship that included material quality. This disregard for humanly created things quite honestly is reflective of the secular humanism dangers that present themselves to Catholicism. An individual’s essential value and worth at times get neglected for more collective goals and the dignity of a human person’s life and work sometimes get disregarded.
In a time when more is best, biggest is better, most expensive is best and mechanical engineering is superlative perhaps we should pause and rethink our Catholic appreciation of human labor. Sacred Art in our liturgical activities is reflective of man’s deepest desire to pursue an understanding of God. Sacrosanctum Concilium implied there is a symbiotic relationship between art and religion, the Church and the Artisan, and the Artisan with the Church community. It is an appropriate time in the 21st century to revisit the Church’s appreciation of artistic expression with a manner of material integrity. We have had enough of mass produced religious art, inferior representations of quality materials and the exclusion of Catholic artistic talents. It has been 44 years since the Holy Spirit through the Second Vatican Council inspired Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is time we implemented and paid attention to its significant message. If we don’t take the responsibility seriously a few centuries from now, historians will be uncovering not only artistic works from the time of Sixtus V, but they will be trying to piece together the artistic fabric of post-Vatican II. It really is our responsibility and obligation that they uncover and understand that this era was a true Renaissance of artistic quality and merit.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.