“I know what I like, and I don’t like that!” is the usual response by hoi polloi when faced with modern art. When the modern art is in church the response is even more visceral and vicious: “It’s horrible! It’s disgusting! It’s a blasphemy!”
There are few more obscene contradictions in our modern world than the absurdity of modern art. Produced by radicals who pretend to be counter-cultural advocates “of the people and for the people,” their art is the most elitist, inaccessible, over priced, and over valued junk ever produced. When modern art is combined with modern architecture in an ecclesiastical setting, the result is almost always a disaster.
The difficulty, however, is real and I have faced it during the construction of the new church in our parish. How does one commission sacred art in South Carolina at the beginning of the twenty-first century? What makes art “sacred”? Can abstract art be sacred or must it be representational? Must the work of art be original, or will mass-produced statues and stations out of catalogs suffice?
With modern technology, we have access to more high-quality imagery than ever before. Print technology provides not just posters, but photographs printed on canvas that look just like paintings. Statuary is available that is carved from wood and marble, but it is carved by a computer aided robot and hand finished by humans. Stained glass windows are available in high-quality plastics, and you can snap them in and out of your window spaces according to the liturgical season. For that matter, why not use wall mounted flat screens through which you can project an endless array of beautiful, sacred images? If you are repulsed by such ideas, why? Is there any virtue in out of date artistic technology simply for its own sake? Are you an artistic Luddite?
One must return to first principles.
The first question is, “What is sacred art?” The answer is that sacred art is essentially an icon, and the word “icon” means “image.” If it is an image, then it represents something other than itself. The idea of the image is integral to Christian theology for Jesus Christ became the “Image (icon) of the unseen God.” (Col. 1:15) Therefore, an icon is a sub-incarnation inasmuch as it is an image in some way of some aspect of the incarnation. As such it is arguable that purely abstract art could be spiritual or symbolical, but it cannot be authentically sacred in the Christian sense.
Furthermore, following the theology of Eastern iconography (in which all Christian sacred art has its roots) the icon is more than a representation of a saint or an illustration of a Bible story. It is also a window into the spiritual realm. It is something which is beautiful, good, and true through which we can glimpse that which is eternally Beautiful, Good, and True.
What follows is that the work of sacred art should not draw attention to itself. It should not draw attention to itself either because it is so exquisite or because it is so awful. Like a saint, the sacred art should be humble. It has a master. It serves a greater purpose.
On this basis, one might rightly criticize a maudlin and lurid portrayal of the “Mother of Sorrows” painted on black velvet with a glistening silicone teardrop, but one might also presume to criticize Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” Both, it could be argued, fail in their aspiration to be sacred art. The first because it is so bad and the second because it is breathtakingly wonderful.
Therefore, the sacred artist is attempting to produce a work of art that is beautiful enough to attract, but not so exquisite that it is flashy. A beautiful woman who is demure is more attractive than a starlet.
The third principle is that Christian sacred art, like Christianity itself, must be at once transcendent and down to earth. An icon or statue of St Therese of Lisieux must communicate the fact that she was a beautiful young French girl, while also communicating the truth that she is now a stellar being, radiant and glorious beyond our comprehension. The portrayal of a saint or a holy scene must be, therefore, ordinary without being vulgar, and supernatural without being spooky.
The fourth principle is that Christian sacred art must be within the great tradition without being bound by it. With classical and traditional icons (like “Our Lady of Guadalupe” or Rublev’s “Trinity”) excepted, we do not need more reproductions of Leonardo’s “Last Supper” and posters of Salvador Dali’s suspended crucifix. Sacred art must be deeply rooted in the 2000 year tradition, but the artist must always bring his or her own experience and context into that tradition, renewing it from within to produce a work that is modern and yet grounded in the past.
Fifthly, the art must fit into the overall architecture of the church. Statues, stations, stained glass, and icons must complement the architecture so that as a whole the worshipper is drawn into an encounter with the sacred.
Which leads to the function of sacred art. The unknown architect of Glastonbury Abbey in England wrote, “I want to build a church so beautiful that it will move even the hardest heart to prayer.” The final function of sacred art is not to inform or entertain, but to inspire. Art in church is not mere decoration. Wallpaper can do that. It functions to draw the viewer into an encounter with Jesus Christ through the sacrament of the church, and the sacramentality of the church building and the art itself.
With these principles in mind, it seems to me that it is suitable to mix both original artistic commissions with good mass produced items and fine original art that has been salvaged from closed churches.
Thus, in the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church, we have commissioned a sculptor to produce original work for the tympani over the West doors, but we have also purchased mass-produced statues of saints—antiques where they were available— and new images of modern saints.
We have salvaged a set of forty-seven stained glass windows by America’s top stained glass studio from the 1940s and commissioned an artist to restore and re paint our antique stations of the cross. We have also purchased set of antique mosaic stations and discovered a beautiful, five-foot crucifix painted in England in the nineteenth century in the style of Duccio.
Little of the art is new and original, but I believe all of it works. Each piece illustrates the faith humbly and draws the worshipper from the art to the Everlasting Artist himself.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.