The Way of BeautyRebuilding Catholic culture: sacred images

Catholic and Orthodox Christians will be forever indebted to St. John Damascene (8th century) for having defended the doctrinal basis for visually depicting Jesus Christ. Because Jesus entered into the human condition through his Incarnation, he could be depicted in his human nature. The Creator of matter became matter for us and, through matter, redeemed us. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the formless becomes a visible form. The opposing position was known as iconoclasm. Damascene’s “apologia” extends to visual depictions of the Mother of God and of the saints – visual expressions of incarnational theology.

Jesus in Art

No historical figure before or since Jesus has influenced history, culture, science, and the arts in the way he did. Throughout the ages, artists, poets, writers, and composers have depicted him as Lord of the universe in response to the question he asked of Peter, “who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29) The revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ is the singular light for the ages.

We know nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance except by inference. Yet, artists have portrayed him as the God-Man in a way that is always recognizable yet different: a good shepherd, teacher and ruler, healer and miracle-worker, the symbol of human suffering. The best artists portray him with a quiet strength.

Nothing is known about the physical appearance of the Mother of God. In the Latin-Rite Church, her externals – blue mantle, extended arms, and halo, make her recognizable. In the Eastern Churches, she almost never appears without the Divine Child. Mere externals however are incapable of expressing the holiness of figures and their ability to raise us up to their level of holiness.

Observations from Eminent Church Leaders

Romano Guardini, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Thomas Merton, and Pope Paul VI, and others, speak sharp words about the unsuitability of much painting and statuary in our churches. In “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” Guardini observes that “a proof of this [extreme realism] is to be found in the often sugary productions of sacred art, holy pictures, statues, etc. which appeal to the people.” (1930 reprint, 23, n 2)

Similarly, in his fiftieth-anniversary edition, “Testimonial to Grace,” written in 1946, Dulles, then a new convert to the Catholic faith, candidly describes what he found repellent in the faith:

The painted statuary I viewed, not with the eye of one seeking communion with the saints, but with the sternly critical regard of one visiting a museum of art....I positively recoiled from images of the Sacred Heart immersed in flames, and felt a stern contempt for Catholic religious art in general (63-64).

Merton puts it even more trenchantly:

Some of us would instinctively be ashamed to let a non-Catholic friend see some of the statues or stained glass windows that are found in our churches. The deplorable quality and lack of restraint of art, and the sentimental, feminine character of the picture of the Sacred Heart, a handsome Jesus with azure blue eyes, statues of Our Lady, dolled up with lipstick and mascara and who looks like a lovely society lady. All these pervert the truth.” (“Disputed Questions,” 159f)

When he was working with FUCI, the Italian Catholic Action group, Gian-Battista Montini, later Paul VI, cautioned them to avoid churches with too many plaster statues...(Peter Hebblewaithe, “Paul VI: the First Modern Pope,” 115). Visual sacred art is intended to raise us to holiness of life. Nothing less will do.

The Advent of Bad Religious Art and Statuary

Romanesque, Benedictine, Gothic art, and Eastern iconography convey a sense of the sacred, a sense of the otherworldly. Later in this essay, we shall see why.

In the Renaissance, artists humanized images of Jesus, his Mother, and the saints. Depictions of Raphael’s Madonna and Child, for example, with their mere extrinsic accidents of title are not religious works, strictly speaking. The artist remains absorbed in fully exploiting the new Renaissance realism of the human form, in the natural beauty of the human figure, and he fails to make the leap to the transcendent Madonna and Child. This is why Raphael’s depictions, though beautiful art, do not belong in churches.

The last few centuries exacerbated the problem of overly-humanized sacred figures. To this day, paintings and statues emphasize a sweet, handsome Christ who meets with our approval and is brought down to our small and limited dimensions. Makers of kitsch may intend to convey the holiness of a figure, but without skilled workmanship, disciplined creativity, and spiritual depth, excess is near. Whereas some parish churches have rejected unsuitable religious art, others are saturated in it. Images on religions television programs beg for better artistic images.

Thanks to new religious art companies, church leaders and laity are exposed to quality art forms of which we can feel proud. Among people of faith and those of no faith, the demand for iconography is growing by leaps and bounds.

More in The Way of Beauty

The Blight of Non-Quality Church Art

Extreme realism in sacred images “tells a lie” because a depiction of a pietistic Jesus, a sweet Mother of God or the saints “has unfortunate effects on theology, prayer, and worship.” (Kevin Seasoltz, “A Sense of the Sacred,” 54) The presence of non-quality church art forms becomes imbedded – fixed – in our collective Catholic memory. These images are placed in front of the faithful for veneration, but, unless the pastor decides otherwise, they remain a permanent part of church furnishings.

Ugly church images are foreign to genuine Catholic culture; they are aberrations to genuine Catholic culture. The television series “Catholicism,” hosted by Father Robert Barron, proudly proclaims the Church’s culture of visual beauty. Unsuitable images “should disturb religious good taste because they keep the soul tied down and prevents it from soaring beyond the natural. When we fail to pause and behold beauty in creation and in the arts, “we allow ourselves to be passively deluged with all kinds of pious and artistic tripe.” (Merton, 153) It weakens the faith.

Merton compares bad religious art forms “to polluted air which constitutes a really grave spiritual problem...affecting us only slightly at first, but in the long run the effect is grave. Bad so-called religious art is like rotten food; there is a healthy reaction to bad food: you throw it out.” (Merton, 157)

Good Religious Art

The sacred art in our churches is intended, by its beauty, to inspire and elevate those who venerate what the figure represents: “Through God’s gifts, you will be able to share the divine nature and to escape corruption.” (2 Pet 1:4) St. Paul describes our transformation into Christ as the ascent “from glory to glory.” (2 Cor 4:18)

The formality of a sacred art form is its beauty, having sentiment but not sentimentality. The most beautiful is the simplest.

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For religious art to quality as sacred, it must have a familiar component; it must be recognizable in its representation. Just as important is a purified component. To realize this, the artist first removes some familiar characteristics of a form to make it less familiar. This is done by inserting into it a note of strangeness or exaggeration. Symbols too are used.

Changes are made in facial features. To illustrate this point, icons have large eyes that make direct contact with the viewer. Why so? Because sainted people see farther and with clearer vision than most; their integrity is shown in their direct eyeing of the viewer. Pinched lips symbolize that the figures speak little; put colloquially, they do not have big mouths. Still a dynamic balance must be maintained between the human and transcendent, the familiar and the unfamiliar, so that the fullness of the Incarnation will ring true, take off and point to what is beyond the temporal.

The Expressionist painter, Georges Rouault (d 1958), exemplifies transcendence in painting. He paints with a distinctive Christian compassion and social consciousness. Human pathos, fallibility, and hypocrisy are symbolized by clowns, prostitutes, and judges, respectively. (B.J. Douaire, “Rouault, Georges,” NCE 12: 685) His works are often found on the walls of monastery chapels and other rooms.

Liking Bad Religious Art and Passing It On to Our Children

A cursory glance at sentimental images, in churches, in pious magazines, in missals, missalettes, holy cards, liturgical books, and at online catalogues, evokes a vague spiritual uneasiness and distaste. Can this really be our Catholic culture whose church art and statuary have spoken to every age and in every country?

Or, perhaps, worse still, writes Merton, “one likes the cheap, emotional, immature and even sensual image that is presented. To like bad sacred art, and to feel that one is helped by it in prayer, can be a symptom of real spiritual disorders of which one may be entirely unconscious, and for which perhaps one may have no personal responsibility.” (Ibid) Merton concludes: “the disease is there–and it is catching!”

Catholic leaders, educators, writers, and parents should be disturbed at Merton’s comments. It would be much better to discard cheap sentiment in sacred art rather than expose it to our youth and presenting it as sacred and beautiful, worthy of veneration when, in fact, it is ugly and even vulgar. The danger is that unsuspecting Catholics will be pressured into liking such images. Once again, Merton:

The problem, of course, is in the formation of artistic taste, and in developing the capacity to judge between good and bad – an exceedingly difficult problem for some people. But at all events, it should be possible for most of us still in our right minds to agree that there is a certain type of ‘holy’ picture that is genuinely unholy because, if one shrugs off his mental bad habits and really looks at the thing, it will be seen to be in reality a monstrous caricature of our Lord, or of the Blessed Virgin, or one of the saints (157).

Suggested Websites of Suitable Church Images

Readers may consult the following websites to avail themselves of suitable art. (A special thanks to Fr. Peter Ulrich, O.S.B., General Manager of The Printery House, Conception Abbey, MO, who provided the following websites for this essay.)

1. Creator Mundi, a distinguished source for sacred art and gifts. Http://
2. The Printery House of Conception Abbey, MO.   Http://
3. The Abbey Press of the monks at St. Meinrad’s Archabbey,  IN.  Http://
4. Ministry of the Arts by the Sisters of St. Joseph, LaGrange, IN  Http://
5. Monastery Greetings Http://


Apologia for Sacred and Liturgical Art Forms

The sacred arts exert a powerful and formative influence on the daily lives of the faithful and those not of the faith. Inferior art forms exercise an equally powerful influence to deform the faith.

Renewal of the Church’s culture calls for a rebirth of our sacred art forms and an apologia for them. The call goes out to every diocese, parish by parish, to proclaim that beauty is an essential aspect of faith, for beauty protects truth and goodness as their external face. Without comprehensive education, beginning in our seminaries, this goal cannot be realized. If beauty is compromised, gradually truth, goodness, and love, their crown, will follow suit. Worthy painters and sculptors, custodians of sacred art, deserve the support of church leaders, as they did in the past. In this regard, Benedict XVI has led the Church.

Catholic images must flourish as a garden of delight, as an array of beauty. We gasp for that beauty of holiness!  

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