Countless articles and letters and speeches have been written about the sorry state of Catholic sacred art in the present day, and the pressing need for its revival. Everybody, it seems, agrees that the Catholic Church needs beautiful art, desperately. Why, then, does the sorry state continue?
Perhaps it is because nobody agrees on what sort of beautiful art the Church needs. Does this art look like a Byzantine icon or a painting by Caravaggio? Does it look like a Gothic cathedral or a Classical temple? But to argue for all of these – the whole variety of artistic forms used by Catholic artists over the centuries – is to ignore the principles that animate these artistic forms, and the significant differences between them.
To advocate one only, and to propose it as a supreme model to be imitated, is also to miss the point. The supreme model of sacred art cannot be an artefact of history, something that came from men; it is, rather, something that comes from God. Catholic sacred art does not have a geographic or chronological centre. Rather, it has two foci, like a planetary orbit. One is the foot of the Cross; the other is the Garden of Eden.
The first focus corresponds to the artist’s duty to hold fast to tradition. Catholic tradition is based on real memories of real events, on things that Jesus Christ said and did and revealed in the lifetimes of the Apostles. It is an all too common error for the faithful in the present day to confuse tradition itself with its legal enforcement by the Magisterium, as though tradition were nothing more than a stack of documents bearing the correct signatures. This is an epistemological absurdity; the bishops who have the task of writing these documents need to know what they know somehow.
No bishop today could possibly know more religious truth than St John the Apostle. The knowledge of the Apostles is perpetuated in the law of worship and evidenced by the agreement of the Church Fathers. These are the bridges between the age of the Apostles and our own.
A Catholic artist who looks to liturgical and Patristic sources to guide him in making sacred art will find superabundant wealth; an artist who looks to documents only will be disappointed.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection