the transmission of faith through art

The following article appeared in Communio 28 (Summer 2001) © 2001 Communio: International Catholic Review

The Transmission of Faith through Art

by Hamilton Reed Armstrong

In his article titled "Creative Spirituality" from the March/April issue of Books & Culture, Robert Wuthnow asserts that "many Americans are now turning to artists for spiritual guidance," and that "contemporary artists speak more comfortably about spirituality than about organized religion." He concludes that "spirits are as much uplifted by the concert on Saturday night as by the sermon on Sunday morning." That the artist should replace the priest as pontifex between the terrestrial and transcendental orders gives serious cause for reflection. Unfortunately, the disintegration of the bond between the Faith and the arts is a disturbing reality of our times. The Gospel message of Salvation, it would appear, does not fire the imagination of the twentieth century artist as it did in the past. It has been largely replaced by ecological awareness, revolutionary and hedonistic utopias, or by "New Age" (old gnostic) dreams of the immanent spiritualization of man and the cosmos.

As modern man turns more and more to the creative artist for visions of transcendence, so the Church seems to be turning away from the portrayal of its own unique view of earthly reality and man’s heavenly goal. In many, if not most of our new churches, visual images that point to the vertical dimension of our faith have all but disappeared. Churches are built, or renovated, as community service centers where Christians gather to celebrate God’s great deeds in history and share their hopes for a better and brighter future where justice and peace for all will prevail. As a result, increasing numbers of the faithful, having lost their rational and visual focus, flee to more spiritually and emotionally satisfying cults or fundamentalist sects that, at least, still speak of virtue and vice, heaven and hell. This seems especially true of Latin American immigrants who come to the United States from cultures steeped in a piety grounded in the imaginative glories of elaborately carved and gilded "santos," colorful festivals, and stately processions.

In some parts of Europe the situation is still more alarming. The glorious churches of past epochs serve as lucrative sites for the tourist trade, or form exquisite backdrops for musical events during the week, but remain virtually empty on Sunday, when and if Mass is celebrated at all.

But first --before delving more deeply into the present and the possibilities for a future apostolate of the imagination -- an overview of the traditional integration of intellect and imagination, which has been espoused by the Catholic Church in her presentation of the Gospel message.

From the very beginnings of Christianity, in the early burial sites of the Roman catacombs, can be found an enormous variety of images that serve to present and transmit the Faith. Flowers, birds, animals, and natural settings extol the goodness of creation. Sacred symbols and scenes from mythology and the Hebrew Bible are shown as well. Some of the most striking pictures portray Our Lord and the apostles. These include scenes related to the celebration of the Eucharist such as the painting of the Last Supper in the second-third century Capila Greca. All of these images in their complexity and catholicity were the manifestations of a faith that, while it esteemed the beauty of this world, placed all its hope in the next.

Then, as now, there were those who opposed the use of images for ideological reasons. These were mainly based on the Biblical prohibition of graven images found in Exodus and Leviticus and was especially true among Jewish converts to the new faith. The quarrel over images reached its peak in the great iconoclast schism under the Isaurian emperors, Leo III and Constantine V, between 730 and 780, but mainly it affected only the Eastern (Byzantine) branch of the Church. The matter was dogmatically settled in favor of the use of images in 787 at the Second Council of Nicea. The formula of St. Basil the Great, that "the honor rendered to the icon reaches the prototype" was accepted, and Pope Hadrian could write: "By means of a visible face, our spirit will be carried by a spiritual attraction towards the invisible majesty of the divinity through the contemplation of the image where is represented the flesh that the Son of God deigned to take for our salvation."

In the Eastern Church, the "icon" with its heavenly golden background and its hieratic figures emerged as a key element of Byzantine worship. Icons, in fact, were given a status equal to Sacred Scripture. As St. Theodore Studite remarked, "What on the one hand is represented by ink and paper is represented on the other hand in the icon, thanks to the various colors and other materials." This harmonious union of intellect and imagination was based on the incarnational theology that had been officially promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. In the words of St. John Damascene, it came down to expressing with the elements of matter, the One who "deigned to dwell in matter and bring about our salvation through matter."

From the eighth century Second Council of Nicea II to the present, the Eastern Church has emphasized the veneration of icons " timetike proskynesis" literally "the prostration of honor." Through the icon the viewer visually places himself in the presence of the heavenly reality of Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the saints and gives honor to the person or persons depicted. This devotion of the imagination combined with the recitation of verbal prayers is fundamental to both Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. This is especially true in the Divine Liturgy, which represents in Eastern theology, a presentation of the heavenly Jerusalem brought down to earth to be experienced through all of the senses.

The Western Church, although generally more practical and less mystical than its counterpart in the East, just as eagerly espoused the use of images. In this vein, St. Gregory the Great wrote in the year 596 to Serenus, bishop of Marseilles that, "Images are to be employed in churches, so that those who are illiterate might at least read by seeing on the walls what they cannot read in books." St. Thomas Aquinas amplified this position. In his view there is "a threefold reason for the institution of images in the Church: first, for the instruction of the unlettered, who might learn from them as if from books; second, so that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints might remain more firmly in our memory by being daily represented to our eyes; and third, to excite the emotions which are more effectively aroused by things seen than by things heard." While St. Bernard of Clairvaux warned against the excessive luxury of adornment used in churches, there was no serious iconoclasic movement in the West until the Protestant Reformation with its dictum of "Sola Scriptura." The first real desecration of an image took place on May 31, 1528, Pentecost Sunday, when the statue of the Virgin Mary was found headless and mutilated by the Huguenots, near the Porte Saint Antoine in Paris.

While the Reformers smashed images and emphasized the "word of God" as revealed in the Bible, the Catholic Counterreformation, relying on the articles of the Council of Trent, reemphasized the efficacy of images in bringing souls to conversion. In fact, the Catholic evangelization of the Americas was effected largely through the distribution of holy cards, estampitas. Although the indigenous peoples might not understand the intricacies of the new theology brought by the Spanish and Portugese missionaries, they clearly understood the pictures that showed how a loving Savior died on the cross for their salvation, or those that showed a holy mother in heaven who interceded for them before the heavenly throne. The greatest estampita of all was the image of Our Lady of Guadaloupe imprinted on the cloak of Juan Diego in 1531. This miraculous picture brought eight million natives of Mexico into the Church.

Meanwhile in Europe, profusely illustrated books of meditations produced under the auspices of the Franciscans, Jesuits, and Carmelites were enormously popular. The pictures served to provide the compositio loci, or placing oneself at the scene, so that by meditating in this manner the mind might ascend from image of terrestrial things to the God above. In the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, "In contemplation or meditation on visible things, as in contemplating Christ Our Lord, who is visible, composition (compositio) will be to see by the eye of the imagination a physical place where that thing is found which I wish to contemplate." According to Antonius Sucquet, author of one of the most popular of these devotional books written in 1630, "These [images] will be able to help everyone, since the mind is arid and dull; but it will especially help simpler folk to concentrate their attention and to meditate more usefully. For he who uses this method will easily overcome those two things which tend to make meditation difficult and even fruitless. The first is the instability of the imagination: after the sin of Adam it became wholly unbridled; the unstable mind was made to wander over the whole course of the earth, and was not allowed to stick to pious thoughts. In order to restrain it, it seemed appropriate to fix it, as it were, by means of pious cogitations and by images. The Blessed Ignatius approved of just this when he wrote to Nadal that he should publish the Life of Christ represented by beautiful images, for the specific convenience of the meditator. Experience teaches us how true this is; and the Holy Church, which makes considerable use of images, confirms this by its authority."

While the Church, then, continued to promote the use of holy images for the private devotion of the faithful, just as in the Eastern Church, sacred art was even more extensively used as an indispensable element of liturgical worship.

One of the most beautiful examples of Counterreformation imagery that was used in conjunction with the liturgy is in the Benedictine Abby Church at Kloster Weltenburg on the Danube River in Bavaria. Built and decorated by the Asam brothers, it represents through elaborate pictorial and sculptural motifs the ascending order of the mystical states of prayer -- meditative, contemplative, and uniative prayer – propounded in the writings of St. Teresa of Avila. Incorporated into this three-tiered mystical ascent are visual allusions to the essential unity of the Church suffering, the Church militant, and the Church triumphant. Behind the high altar is a superbly crafted figure of St. George slaying the dragon of concupiscence to remind the monks of their daily struggle with base nature. The entire structure reflects a harmonious architectural and pictorial integrity as did the great Gothic and Romanesque churches of the preceding centuries.

Throughout its two thousand-year history, the Church has adhered to and promoted a consistent Gospel : that through the mystery of Christ’s Redemption, God’s elect might attain salvation and see Him face to face; and live happily with Him, the Blessed Mother, the angels and the saints for all eternity. This, the Faith, "once and for all handed down to the saints" (St. Jude I, 3), has not changed. The documents of Vatican II simply place this Gospel in the context of the freedom and dignity of each and every human person, and stress the universality of the call to holiness. In regard to the arts, both the documents of Vatican II and the subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church, reaffirm the role of the arts, concretely the visual arts, in the service of the Church and its mission, especially in Divine worship. This is clearly evident in Article 122 of Vatican II’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium which addresses the arts as follows:

"The Fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man’s genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is equally emphatic. Article 2502 even more clearly states the evangelical possibilities of art, specifically "sacred art."

"Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,’ in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’ This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the Angels and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier."

. The Holy Father, John Paul II, in his 1987 Apostolic Letter Duodecimum Saeculum ‘The veneration of Holy Images’ is even more emphatic. "Art for art’s sake, which only refers to the author, without establishing a relationship with the divine world, does not have its place in the Christian concept of the icon [holy image]. No matter what style is adopted, all sacred art must express the faith and hope of the Church.… The artist must be conscious of fulfilling a mission of service to the Church."

The role of the artist is the same now as it was in the time of the Catacombs -- to bring man to the vision of God through inspired works of beauty. (In the words of John Ruskin, "All great art is praise.") Any artist who eschews the seduction of mere self-expression, and genuinely seeks to portray the beauty of the created order, is in his own way seeking God, for, "from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator." (Wisdom 13:3,5)

Thus the Holy Father, in his 1999 Apostolic Letter to the Artists of the World exhorted all those involved in creative activity to "bring forth ever new epiphanies of beauty." He did, however, remind the artists of the world that true beauty can not be divorced from the good.

This brings us back to the dilemma posed at the beginning of this article: the growing distance between spirituality and faith, and between the artist and organized religion.

Although the Vatican guidelines on art are abundantly clear in their ultimate focus, there has been since Vatican II a call for dialogue with the world, its concerns, and the aspirations of modern man. Some in the Church have attempted to "baptize" or to accept on its own terms the "spirituality" of "modern art." The Rothko Chapel in Houston Texas comes to mind. The 14 formless quasi-monotone dark panels lack the symbolic link to any particular religion. Yet a distinguished Dominican could write of this site, "Because all the images of the past, including the images of modernity, seem to have undergone a total kenosis of meaning, an artist like Rothko, deeply religious by temperament, knew that in our pluralistic post modern times an ecumenical chapel could only be a place for meditation in silence which would be receptive of every word, human or divine, because it had no message to convey, but only the question." Unfortunately, it is impossible to reconcile this type of art with the Catholic vision, first because our faith does have a message to convey -- salvation in Christ Jesus -- and second, because this type of art does have an alternative message. Mark Rothko killed himself upon the completion of this work. Anielle Jaffe, writing in Carl Jung’s seminal book, Man and His Symbols makes this abundantly clear: "But it must be realized that what these artists (Jean Arp, Klee, Mondrian, etc.) were concerned with was something far greater than a problem of form and distinction between ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract,’ figurative and non-figurative. Their goal was the center of life and things…Art had become mysticism. The spirit in whose mystery art was submerged was an earthly spirit…alien to the ‘heavenly’ spirit. Indeed, it was Christianity’s dark adversary that was forging its way in art.… In the religious language of Christianity it is called the devil…Lucifer – literally the light bringer."

This view is not unique to Carl Jung. It is echoed in the 1986 catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled The Spiritual in Art, Abstract Painting, 1890-1985. In this volume are listed virtually all the prominent artists of the twentieth century (including Mark Rothko). The source of spiritual inspiration for these artists, according to innumerable illustrated scholarly articles, is quite simply, the occult. From the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky, "Isis Unveiled" to the writings of Swami Vivekenanda, "No books no scripture no science, can ever imagine the glory of the Self, which appears as man- the most glorious god that was ever was, the only god that ever existed, exists or ever will exist. I am to worship, therefore none but ‘Myself’."

The view of man as autonomous creator of his own "spiritual" reality pervades our prestigious secular art schools and is coupled with revolutionary goals as its corollary. The director of the Rhode Island School of Design, once the flagship American art school, wrote in1988, "[The role of the artist] is to force us to rethink our most cherished assumptions about every issue in life, from religion to politics, from love and sex to death and afterlife."

Unfortunately, many in the Church in their desire for relevance and acceptance have adopted without discernment some, if not all of the above views. Not only have some attempted to tap into the "spirituality" of the consecrated figures of modern art, but also to replace the image of the "saint’ in his humility and abnegation with that of the "revolutionary" and his supposed quest for "freedom." In some Catholic bookstores it is easier to find icons of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, or even Harvey Milk, than an image of St. Anthony of Padua. While individual and collective freedom is a legitimate and worthy goal, it is not an end in itself. As the Holy Father has so often reminded us, the freedom of the sons of God is to find and choose Christ.

The description above of the ongoing trends of modern art is not meant as a condemnation, but to point out the reigning confusion over the role of the arts in the transmission of our faith. While some seek to serve the perennial mission of the Church through contemporary models of spirituality, others cling to old models and styles, such as Romanesque or Gothic as being more authentic to the Catholic tradition. These, however, tend to be merely copies of copies for the old styles, though authentic visual expressions of the Faith were tied to historical periods with their concomitant philosophical and cosmological outlooks. Unfortunately, most "traditionalist" art is mass produced and peculiarly sentimental. It reflects less a visual manifestation of the mystery of faith than a longing for the comfort of the lost childhood of both the individual and the Church. As the great Jesuit Poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins pointed out back in 1879, " That the poetic language of an age should be the current language heightened, and unlike itself …but not an obsolete one." The visual artist must follow the same path – to speak, via the image, of immutable truths of man and his destiny in a heightened visual vernacular.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of painters, sculptors, print makers, ceramists, glass manufacturers, and artist of other types in this country who sincerely wish to serve the Church according to her wishes. Although the guidelines of Vatican II are clear and concise about how art can serve to the Church, little effort has been made to form the artists both technically and spiritually. This has been left to the secular institutions cited above, and the "wanna-be" art departments of our Catholic institutions that slavishly follow the latest trends.

This was not the wish of the council. Article 127 of Sacrosantum Concillium had this to say regarding the formation of artists. "It is very desirable that schools or academies of sacred art should be founded in those parts of the world where they would be useful, so that artists and craftsman may be trained,"… "Bishops should take pains to instill artists with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy. This they may do in person or through suitable priests who are gifted with a knowledge and love of art."

Along with such academies that the Council Fathers wished established to foster the formation of artists, we would all do well to reacquaint ourselves visually with the art of past epochs dedicated to the glory of God and the spread of the Gospel. To this end, Art History should be taught in all Catholic seminaries, not simply as an academic discipline, but as a means of formation. This would enable future priests not only to discern what constitutes sacred art that is suitable for worship, but instill in them the courage to defend their position against hostile influences.

At an even more basic level, art textbooks for parochial primary and secondary schools should be developed. The texts generally now in use are secular in nature and tend to extol revolutionary concepts, primitivism, sexuality, anxiety, despair, and the culture of death that pervades our society.

Finally, the Church and the artist must acquire the same habitus, or disposition toward the production and promotion of art that truly reflects our Divine affiliation. Every Church council, from Chalcedon through Trent, by refining Catholic theology, brought forth a proliferation of visual art that imaginatively gave glory to God and reinforced doctrine.

When the true faith, not susceptible to change ‘not even by an angel of light’ refined by the insights of Vatican II, begins once again to inspire the artists of this age, there will be a true renaissance in both secular and sacred art.

Until this happens, the transmission of faith through the arts will be sporadic at best. Poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, or a writers such as Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percey come to mind. The same can be said of such visual artists as Georges Rouault, or the sculptors Ivan Mestrovic and Frederick Shrady. All of these individual artists were availed of the gatia gratis dati of artistic genius as well as a deep love of the Catholic tradition. None of the above would be called Catholic "propagandists," but all, in their search for beauty grounded in faith, were involved in the apostolate of the imagination.

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