May 14, 2010

Lessons from Sacred Spain: How to Bring Faith to Life

By Rachel Ross *

Twenty-five years ago, in an interview that Vittorio Messori titled The Ratzinger Report, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed the following sentiments:

“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell” (p.129-130).

It may seem astonishing for him to have given art equal mention to personal holiness in the evangelization of the world. But art, like holiness, is a dynamic manifestation of the faith, a making real of the love of God in one’s own life.

Beautiful sacred images can certainly be effective in communicating the faith in a compelling and sometimes irresistible way. Many have been drawn to the Church by the beauty of her art; I, for one, came into the Church my final year in college after four years of study in art history. Numerous other cases throughout the history of the Church prove that art can be as powerful in winning over souls as an authentic witness of Christian living.

For many, this power is enhanced by the care an artist takes to portray reality in his figures, in conjuring a figure that seems truly to occupy our own reality.

Sacred Made Real

If you live in the Washington, D.C. area and haven’t yet visited the National Gallery’s “The Sacred Made Real” exhibition, a trip to see it before it closes on May 31st will be well worth your effort.

Curated by Xavier Bray of London’s National Gallery of Art, the exhibit contains much of the cream of the crop of 17th century Spanish sacred painting and sculpture. It took Bray years to convince some of the works’ owners to lend their pieces, many of which were still installed in churches and monasteries in Spain and are still used in the liturgical life of those congregations. London was blessed with the complete exhibition; Washington’s version contains 22 works.

A more fitting title could not have been selected, for many of the works in the exhibition seem truly to spring to life. The sculpture of Saint Ignatius Loyola, for example, was modeled with the saint’s actual death mask, meaning that the facial contours, features, and even the expression of the saint were truly his own. Christ as the Man of Sorrows is rendered with sensitive and remarkable detail: from the lashes made of human hair, to the deep and sorrowful eyes that glisten from the application of egg white, to the layers of paint which give the impression of welts, bruises and wounds all across Christ’s back. The painting of Christ Embracing Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (shown at right) recounts the instance when Christ came to life and reached down from his place on the Cross to embrace Saint Bernard, who was praying at the foot of a sculpture of Christ Crucified. We are led to wonder that, when approached in prayer, these very works before our eyes have the potential to do the same.

The pains the artists took to craft these works in so lifelike a way continue to bear fruit, even today. True, I had no insight into the spiritual lives of those who visited the exhibit when I was there. But I was astonished by the atmosphere of reverence -- of prayer, even -- in those small galleries as people lingered before the works. Visiting the exhibit, talking to others who had, and reading a number of exhibition reviews brought me to the conclusion that the force of these images comes chiefly from their believability, their reality, their materiality. In a truly Catholic way, these artists have fused the worldly and the heavenly, using material methods to convey realities that encompass and yet transcend the purely material.

A Modern Master

Happily, the tradition of Spanish sacred art didn’t die in the 17th century, and it shows particular promise of revival in the work of Raúl Berzosa, a young Spanish artist active today. Worth particular notice is his 2008 trio of works for the Oratory of Sorrows in Málaga, Spain: The Glorification of the Name of God, The Triumph of the Church over Sin, and The Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry.

Berzosa’s work captures strong echoes of the Spanish Baroque alongside distinctly current elements, which are evident, for example, in his painterly modeling and the contemporary “look” of the figures. In these works, realism is blended harmoniously with an artistic vision that conveys supernatural reality, accomplished in radiating light, in dynamic composition, and in meaningful juxtaposition.

Upon entering the Oratory, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the sculpture of Christ on the Cross which occupies the wall of the sanctuary (and calls to mind the works in the National Gallery exhibition). Compositionally and thematically, the Crucified Redeemer is the center of the artistic work in the Oratory.

Soaring in the vault above the Crucifix is a mural of The Glorification of the Name of God. In the center appears a glowing triangle (a symbol of the Blessed Trinity) containing the name of God in Hebrew. The clouds of heaven have parted around it to reveal this name, which emanates rays of brilliant light. A host of tiny cherubim gather in worship, some looking to the Godhead above, one gazing down in wonder and emotion to the sculpture of Christ below. This image emphasizes the centrality of this moment captured in time: though Christ dies in agony with a feeling of abandonment by His Father, the Godhead is in fact united at this moment and the Father presides over and illuminates the events unfolding below.

The two paintings on the side walls flanking the Crucifix highlight the Body of Christ: the Church, His Mystical Body, and the Eucharist, the True Presence of His Body.

To the left is the Triumph of the Church over Sin. The Church, personified as a woman (perhaps the Blessed Virgin Mary), wears the stole of priestly authority and the fisherman’s ring, symbol of Saint Peter and the papacy. She also receives the papal tiara from an angel above her. At her feet is a man who represents all sinners. He is bound and incapacitated by Sin, shown as a serpent hissing at the Church. The man wears a blindfold to signify the blinding effect of sin, and he grasps upwards but is unable to see. In response, the woman gazes down at him, holding the cross and pointing to the Crucifix, the source of his freedom from the sin that binds him. The sinner is constricted by the serpent; however, the folds of the Church’s garment wrap around his foot, and he even grips it between his feet. Even in the throes of sin, the sinner is not untouched by grace nor out of the saving reach of the Church. His feet and his foundation are planted in the Church.

The faces in this work are delightfully individual, and expression is rendered with great detail and sensitivity. Look, for example, at the little angel on the left: he places the papal tiara on the head of the woman with childlike intense concentration. His companion on the right stares in the direction of the Crucifixion, with the fixed attention that seems universal to children captivated by some person or event.

At the right is the Triumph of the Eucharist over Idolatry. The Blessed Sacrament, held within an ornate monstrance and resting on a shelf of cloud, bursts with light. It is the focal point of the painting. A man devoted to worldly pursuits turns as an “adolescent” angel (sporting the current adolescent haircut) who directs his attention to the Eucharist as the One worthy of worship. This is his moment of conversion: the man lets several gold coins slip from his hand to join the scepter and coins -- symbols of earthly power and love of riches -- already at his feet.


The Church endorses no single artistic style as the style of Christianity. She does, however, offer guidelines which provide fruitful boundaries for artists working in sacred themes. I’m partial to the Baroque -- the dynamism, clarity and emotion in so many Baroque masterpieces succeed in uniting the natural and the supernatural in, well, a natural way. Nonetheless, the answer to the scarcity of sacred art today is not simply to copy a style from the past. The Church is alive and active in every generation. She responds authentically to the shifting needs and concerns of each age. However, a realistic quality in art can have a powerful impact on every generation, especially upon today’s jaded post-Christian society, which dismisses Christianity as superfluous, irrelevant, mere allegory. Christ was and is true God and true man. The saints were and are real men and women. And each of us is also called to live holiness in the reality of our own lives.

Some critics of this tradition of art categorize it as overly dependent on emotion. While emotions alone are not the meat of the spiritual life, they can be formed and directed to help us deepen and animate our response to the God who loves us. The works of art discussed above take advantage of that capacity; they stir our hearts and awaken our senses to God’s action and God’s call in the midst of our everyday reality.

To view more of the Berzosa’s work, visit

This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.

Rachel Ross is Curator of The Foundation for Sacred Arts in Washington, D.C.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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