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.
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.
(Column continues below)
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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!”