The Myth of Catholic Art: An Unmanifesto

Is there a uniquely Catholic approach to art? What is legitimate Catholic art? How can a Catholic make a significant difference in the artistic community? How should Catholics approach secular art? What might be included in a manifesto for Catholic artists? These questions are direct and compelling. They are also tricky to address because the assumptions behind them are complex and hidden.

It would be better to shift attention from straitened definitions of Catholic art toward something more generous to the arts themselves and more useful to Catholics in the public square. But where to start with questions that lead in different directions?

Taken together, the mix of popular devotion, kitsch, and commercialism seems a persuasive argument for iconoclasm. But Catholics are not iconoclasts—far from it. So, to paraphrase Orwell, we need to be careful what we do with images because of what images can do to us. Art’s expressive power is not necessarily benign; bad art has its own deleterious effect, working on religious sensi­bilities like corrosive salts on a fresco. Images resonate apart from their subject matter.

It would be handy to have a sequel to Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Tri­umph of Bad Taste. Call it “Unholy Pictures: The Triumph of Religious Kitsch.” The enthusiasm American Catholics withhold from music they lavish on images (though not necessarily those of a high order). Not everyone can hold a pitch, but anyone can hang an inexpensive imitation of Juan Gutierrez’s Assumption, with the Virgin borne aloft by choirs of putti.

While mimicking Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting, such things are far removed from the achievements of that age and are, by contrast, a kind of sentimentalized anti-art. They do violence to their prototypes and distort their subjects. Thomas Merton phrased things nicely: “If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His tolerance of the pictures that are painted of Him.”

And of His mother, too.

Buying into the Myth

Catholics tend to embrace imitations of the pre-modern without criticism, especially when it comes to religious items. Whatever most resembles Renaissance realism or the Baroque figuration of the late 16th and 17th centuries is considered more spiritual and more authentic than anything that reveals 20th-century authorship. Too frequently, this means the kind of art rampant on cards in funeral parlors, the visual equivalent of sob songs. Insensibility to issues of quality in art—or disinterest, if you prefer—is partly a by­product of the same sociological factors that Day outlines in his book. But today’s Catholics have moved well beyond the immigrant experience of earlier generations. They have become a significant presence at the highest levels of in­come and education.

So there must be something else afoot. And there is: Pius X’s condemnation of modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” has reverberated in unsuspected ways. The shadow of heresy-by-association blankets the fragmentation and disjunctions of modern art (much of its disillusion a reac­tion to the horrors of war). Since modern art challenged the authority of preceding art, it was itself disdained as an expression of the same heretical impulse.

But this oversimplification is far less interesting than the reality. The entire history of Western art has been a succession of challenges to previous art as well as a story of intricate branching and wandering, with many false starts along the way. People of faith, skeptical toward unnuanced Darwinian hypotheses about the origin of man, neverthe­less accept wholeheartedly mainstream Darwinian views of art history. Following this received wisdom, they surrender themselves to the myth of the supposedly organic structure of art history, positing an unbroken line of progress from classical times to the Renaissance. (Some stretch it to the 1880s and the beginnings of impressionism, but no later.) After that, in the modern era, the presumed ladder of ascen­dancy collapses. Believers jump ship to take up the unsmil­ing game of modernist-spotting.

The volume and scope of art dismissed by this attitude are staggering. Etienne Gilson, Catholic philosopher, histo­rian, and contemporary of Jacques Maritain, sought to re­store balance to the issue. In his 1955 Mellon Lectures, later published under the title Painting and Reality, he argued that modern abstract art, far from being a falling away (from rep­resentation), had actually restored art to its essential dignity. He insisted that, in the wake of the Middle Ages, Western art had become devoted to a kind of literalism—call it em­piricism—that reduced art to imitating the visual world. Ac­cording to Gilson, modern art rediscovered the idea of art as a means of creating forms for interpreting the world, not merely copying what greets our senses.

With characteristic brio, Gilson held that humanity continues God’s work of creation through the arts. The imi­tatio Dei, then, is not a matter of copying but of compre­hending, and finding forms in which to render that compre­hension. Gilson would have had no trouble recognizing the abstract substrate of Byzantine art without insisting that its forms were immutable or inherently sacred.

But even to consider art in the realm of heresy is to adopt a secularist fallacy: the notion that art is a vehicle of transcendence. This last point concerns us most because it capitulates unwittingly to the very secularism that Crisis readers reject. Moses did not come down from Sinai with a code of aesthetics; Jesus, craftsman that He was, kept silent on whether Solomon’s architects were men of taste.

Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. That being the case, it’s poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book, The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as “a man using Art.” He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: “Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.”

Believing this—as I do—the term “Catholic artist” seems precious and self-conscious. It risks becoming one more as­sault against humility, a quality already close to running on empty in the arts. Frankly, it would be an act of mercy to scrap the category “Catholic art” altogether. There is no longer any such entity; there is only art made by Catholics. This might or might not make use of religious imagery; like­wise, it might or might not be successful or praiseworthy. Faith is not the origin of talent and cannot stand bail for it. Neither is piety an index of good taste or guarantor of good craftsmanship. There is only good art and bad art; Catholi­cism is no determiner of either.

Changing Perspectives

Religious feeling and artistic power cannot be conjoined by fiat. Some of the finest religious images of the 20th century have been made by artists across the spectrum of belief and unbelief. One of the few Catholics among them was Graham Sutherland, whose renowned tapestry for Coventry Cathe­dral, Christ the Redeemer Enthroned in Glory (1946), melds Byzan­tine frontality and format with modernist handling. Sutherland was both a convert and thoroughgoing modernist painter.

Stanley Spencer, Sutherland’s contemporary, sought the religious dimensions of ordinary life in a series of styl­ized modern paintings that placed the Crucifixion and Resurrection in his own thoroughly Protestant village of Cookham-on-Thames between the two world wars. Early modernism abounds with haunting religious imagery, much of it by painters making use of a still-extant vocabulary of shared biblical motifs for their own purposes. Max Beck­mann comes straight to mind. His Deposition (1917) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1917) are apparitions of stunning clarity and perception on the eve of World War I. And no one who has ever looked upon Lovis Corinth’s Red Christ (1922) could be surprised by Mel Gibson’s depic­tion of a Roman scourging.

To be sure, it’s a bit late for Catholics to begin cham­pioning the formal principles of high modernism. That was yesterday’s war. Besides, modernist tenets, established in a triumphalist mode, have passed from being novel and threatening to being an accepted mode already weakened and on its way toward demolition. So I’m not at all advocat­ing a latter-day acceptance of the dogmatism of modernist artistic dictates.  But unless Catholics recognize a 20th-century achievements in the arts—and they are considerable—we hamper our ability to engage I conversation with our own so-called postmodern moment.

Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image journal and writing in First Things several years ago, had this to say: “That the aes­thetic language of Modernism in turn became exhausted is not a count against it. Such is the nature of aesthetic change. Postmodernism has its own opportunities and dead ends.” We have to be careful not to emphasize the dead ends—the challenges—at the expense of the opportunities. The virtue of hope demands it. Moreover, the capacity to distinguish among challenges is a component of effectiveness in the public square.

Historical perspective is helpful. It surprises Western Christians to learn that the Orthodox deem all of what we consider sacred art—from Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Arena Chapel to Bernini’s marble Madonna and Child in the Vati­can—to be, in reality, wholly secular. Michel Quenot, in his well-known study of the art and theology of the icon, summarizes the Orthodox position:

The sacred art of both East and West expressed the same realities up to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with an identical impetus that sought to reveal “things invisible.” It was that marvelous period of Romanesque art which unveiled a world beyond the laws of gravity, and even showed us how stone could be spiritualized.

Then came the evocative, more individualistic pictorialism of Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio. Departing from the artistic traditions of the Eastern Church, these three prompted a turning away from hieratic Byzantine depiction and pointed toward the realism of the Renaissance. In the Orthodox view, the desacralization of Western sacred art begins with the very ducento art that we revere. With the drama and humanity of Cimabue’s crucifix—the heightened emotion of its Christus patiens—for Santa Croce in Florence, sacred art begins its descent into “religious art”—which, in the Orthodox tradition, is no more than secular art making use of religious subject matter.

Wide attention has been given recently to the $45 million purchase of Duccio’s masterpiece, the Stroganoff Madonna, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For all the press coverage lavished on the purchase—named after its last owner, Count Gregorii Stroganoff—comment has centered more on its aesthetic value than its cultural significance.

This tiny panel, no bigger than a sheet of stationery, marks a discreet but substantial move away from reigning standards of the time for sacred art. The iconic gives way to the human in the slight swelling of Mary’s breast and the gaze of mother and Son toward each other, not outward toward the viewer. Most significantly, they appear behind a trompe l’oeil parapet, an unprecedented spatial device indicating real—not sacral—space. The panel suggests a human narrative in human time, a spiritual kingdom depicted in terms of a temporal one. Such shift in sacred imagery was a scandal to the Eastern churches and played its role in the division of Eastern Christianity from the West. Yet the icon tradition itself developed out of secular traditions: the pagan icon genre and Roman portraiture.

At this very moment, particle physicists are pondering the existence of perhaps as many as eleven dimensions. Too astonishing to grasp! Is it feasible, then, to insist that a two-dimensional iconographic surface is “more accessible to mystery” (Quenot’s phrase), or that, turning west, Gothic forms come closer to the sublime than modern ones? Mystery is everywhere, our origin and our destiny. We inhabit mystery, breathe, embody, and return to it. Denying our capacity to express a sense of wonder and reverence with the means of our own time seems a sin against the Spirit who murmurs to every age.

We moderns marvel at the carved tympanums, columns, capitals, and crypts of Romanesque sculpture. We delight in the highly stylized depictions of natural or mythological forms that decorate the abbey church of Saint-Denis or the cathedral at Rheims. Yet St. Bernard of Clairvaux dismissed the “ridiculous monstrosities” of his era with the indignation of a modern critic in the bowels of Chelsea or any other art district. He begins with an attack against the immoderate size of churches and moves on to decorative style:

What is the point of this deformed beauty, this elegant deformity? …You can see a head with many bodies, or a body with many heads. Here we espy an animal with a serpent’s tail, there a fish with an animal’s head. There we have a beast that is a horse in front and a she-goat behind…. In the name of God! If we are not ashamed at its foolishness, why at least are we not angry at the expense?

What Bernard disdained, most of us would weep to have for ourselves. Art keeps moving, not necessarily forward but in multiple directions at once, constantly absorbing or discarding influences. Beholders are called to keep up with the dance in order to address the contemporary artistic experience as it affects not merely the eye, but the memory and the spirit as well.

A Form for Our Time

So then, what is sacred art? Inseparable from liturgical function, sacred art is simply that which stimulates worship and accompanies prayer. For us Westerners, function determines sacrality, not style. Decorum, certainly, demands that style be appropriate to the subject. But decisions about appropriateness entail a certain generosity toward our point in history. Charity, then, becomes the motive for acquiring the necessary sophistication to make fitting judgments. Anything less is ingratitude for the gift of this moment.

One of the best recorded instances of Catholic rejection of modern approaches to a sacred subject occurred in 1950. Germaine Richier sculpted a crucifix for the altar at Notre Dame de Tout Grace, Assy, at the invitation of Marie-Alain Couturier, Dominican monk, artist, and founder of the periodical L’Arte Sacré. The corpus was a scream of pain, torn and faceless like a bomb victim. It was a harrowing but vital image to terminally ill French patients in the wake of World War II.

The crucifix created outrage worldwide among Catholics who neglected to consider that the Body of Christ continues to be rent in modern ways. Removed for a time, it was eventually restored at the request of the patients of the hospice served by the chapel. One of them wrote: “Here is a crucifix I can pray to.” What matters is not whether Richier’s crucifix satisfied a traditional canon of forms but whether it succeeded in arousing in the dying a sense of the profundity of the Crucifixion, moving them to prayer. It was never quite clear how much opposition to the work was triggered by the image itself or by public knowledge of Richier’s atheism.

So now, where have we come to along this string of anecdotes and reflections? Only to this: We look to the past with love, and the view graces us in the present. But theological hope prompts us to look toward the future, which calls us from what we are now to what we will become.

We don’t need Catholic artists to recreate the Gothic or bring us souvenirs from the classical rediscoveries of the Renaissance. The Christian mystery was not exhausted by Gothic piety, however much we’re endeared to the art that expressed it. Neither is it summed up in our formal inheritance from the Renaissance. The reliquary prestige of art from past centuries must not obscure the dignity of man’s creative initiative at whatever point in history he finds himself. The essence of classicism lies not in its forms but in its reticence, its respect for the humane potential of balance and restraint.

We need artists who—without affectation or reliance on anachronism—can keep us mindful of that. And we need audiences open to the reminder.


  • Maureen Mullarkey

    Maureen Mullarkey is a painter and art critic for the New York Sun.

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