March 18, 2009

What is the future of Catholic Art?

By Hamilton Reed Armstrong *

If there is to be a genuine Renaissance of Catholic art in our times, rather than ape the convolutions and idiocies of the secular art world, we must turn to our own past and build on the foundations of the Faith, “once and for all handed down to the saints.” (Epistle of St. Jude)


When one enters a church of the ancient Byzantine tradition, either Eastern Orthodox or Catholic, one is struck by the multiplicity and variety of icons or images. These icons, often hauntingly beautiful, have deep theological meaning. They are windows through which the imagination can be brought into the presence of those whom they represent in the heavenly court. Their placement in the church building is not arbitrary. The plan follows and reflects the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Christ, Pantocrator, lord of all, looks down from the gilded cupola and blesses the faithful. The Blessed Mother stands in the apse offering her prayers along with ours to her Son, and the saints stand guard in adoration on the altar screen, Iconostasis, placed before the sanctuary or Holy of Holies.


This imaginative tradition was nurtured in the West. Between the years 1140 and 1280 some 80 cathedrals were built, most within a hundred-mile radius of Paris, the then center of Catholic learning. These cathedrals were not built as architectural masterpieces to delight the eyes, nor were they built as graphic Bibles for the illiterate peasants. They were, as Irwin Panofsky points out in his seminal work Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism, the visual compendium of a complete medieval Catholic worldview. They were a sort of "Summa Theologiae" in glass and stone, filling the imagination just as the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas filled the reasoning faculties of the mind.


More recently, following the ravages of Neo-Platonic Humanism and the Protestant Reformation, magnificent Baroque churches were erected as visual expositions of traditional Catholic theology, again in harmony with the Thomistic philosophy approved at the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563). In this case, the genius of St., Ignatius of Loyola realized that the Faith could best be re-established by an appeal to the imagination. At the Gesu church in Rome, as in most Baroque churches, sculpted and painted images of saints and angels sweep upward along the walls in a hierarchical ascent toward the blue painted sky where a tromp d'oeil door opens to the transcendental realm of heaven. But, as Jeffrey Chips Smith, a non-Catholic, tells us in his book, Sensuous Worship, Jesuit art was decidedly not meant to numb the intellect with a bewildering display, but to engage the eye progressively towards a cumulative goal. Indeed these churches were designed to allow laymen to "participate," albeit in a deeply interior and Ignatian way, in the liturgy. "Everything was predicated on the active participation of the individual" visually, intellectually, and spiritually. As Mr. Chips Smith points out in his book, this approach, fomented by St. Charles Boromeo and his fellow Jesuits, was largely instrumental in the conversion and re-catechesis of tens of thousands of German Christians after the 30 Years War.


This integration of Faith, Reason, and Imagination is sorely lacking in our Catholic culture today. Of late, following Pope John Paul II encyclical, Fides et Ratio, there has been renewed interest in restoring the harmonious balance of faith and reason. Little has been said, however, regarding the imagination. Since the time of the Second Vatican Council our churches, for whatever reason, have been stripped of their imaginative elements.  While this trend appears to be waning and images are being restored, a lack of discernment as to quality and suitability remains. It would appear that "anything goes because nobody knows."


This is not to say that what is needed in religious imagery must be didactic or propaganda "poster art" that is superficial and uninspired. Neither should we fall into the trap of nostalgia and produce copies of copies from bygone ages. As maintained, artistic movements within the Church spoke of the Faith in the idiom of the faithful of each age. Innovations in the visual arts most often followed the insights of the great councils: Chalcedon and the true human nature of Christ; Nicea II and the veneration of images; Florence and the flioque; and Trent’s emphasis on the sacramental content of the Church. The wine of true doctrine was not changed but placed in newly decorated skins. Nor, again, is the simple pursuit of beauty an end in itself.  For those of us involved with sacred art, it is not enough to paint or sculpt beautiful images of our own fancy. While they must indeed conform to the highest standards of excellence, they must also be rooted in the sensum fidelium, -- i.e., "The Faith once and for all handed down to the saints," -- as well as to the traditional symbolic structure allied to this Faith. 


But for the artist it is not a mere technical ability, intellectual knowledge, and assent to the Faith that is needed. It must go even deeper. The imagination operates and communicates at a preconscious level and it does not lie. The poet, the painter, the playwright, and the prophet are all of the same guild. They are purveyors of visions. To fill and to form the Catholic imagination, we need genuinely gifted individuals who can bring us sublime visions of Faith and of Truth based on a compostio loci or genuine encounter with the glory of creation and above all, the Mystery of Salvation. Who knows what the future will bring, but in the words of Paul Claudel written at the start of the twentieth century when the upheavals began: "Even today, in this age of iron or, let us say, white metal, the Temple of Solomon and the Cathedral of Chartres have not exhausted all the possibilities of getting back to God. There is still something to be garnered from those people with plaster in their hair and fingers full of paint."



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

Mr. Armstrong was born in 1937 and studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with internationally recognized sculptors: Carl Iluva, Walker Hancock, and Fredrick Shrady.

Much of Mr. Armstrong's work was produced during an extended stay in Spain, where his work was extolled by noted critics Raul Chavari, and Cecilio Barbaran as a revitalization of the Spanish mystical tradition embodied in the work of El Greco, Zurbaran, Alonso Cano, Pedro de Mena and Martinez Montañez.  Mr. Armstrong's work is also reproduced in the UNESCO Encyclopedia of World History (Edicion Planeta 1977, Vol. II).

Mr. Armstrong has taught art history for Christendom College, Front Royal, VA; studio art for the Magi Center at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC; and presently teaches with The Height's School, Potomac, MD, as well as the distance learning program of the International Catholic University, Notre Dame, IN.

Mr. Armstrong's work may be seen in private collections, churches, public spaces in the United States, Europe, and Africa as well as many museums including the Dansforth in Framingham MA. Recent commissions include: the commemorative medal for the Victims of Communism Committee, Washington D.C.; a portrait bust of H.H. Pius X for the papal memorial chapel, Riese Italy; a portrait bust of H.H. John Paul II for The John Paul II Cultural Center, Washington D.C.; the Papanicolas memorial Chalice for St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church, Washington D.C.; and he is presently working on a series of monumental sculptures for the Ave Maria School of Law, Ann Arbor, MI.

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


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