The Crisis of Contemporary Sacred Art

“This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration!”
Closing of the Second Vatican Council: Address of Pope Paul VI to Artists

What is the state of sacred art today? Not surprisingly, many of us see it as mediocre, impoverished, or in crisis. Yet does not the Church (and I mean you and me) bear some responsibility for the limited quality of religious artwork? When was the last time you visited a church to see a contemporary altarpiece or statue? The low state of sacred art—and I would submit of art in general—is due in part to the limited number of sacred commissions, the fees we are willing to pay artists, and our unwillingness to take responsibility for the arts.

When you commission artists to create original art for the Church, you change them. You give them something they are longing for. Artists are always looking for content; without a clear direction they try to create their own content, often through self-referential narratives. According to John Paul II, “That is why artists, the more conscious they are of their ‘gift,’ are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.”

To commission a work of art, whether it is a portrait of a family member or a Madonna, is to become a patron. We, as the faithful, need to embrace the role of patron once again. It is rewarding though hard work. Certainly, you can find many examples of original art done in the last decades that are not beautiful. Yet this should not stop us from attempting what we used to be quite good at.

Because we do not want to take risks with artists or spend much money on artwork, what do we do? We buy pre-manufactured art or copies of famous images. This is the bane of art connoisseurs and modernist architects, as it should be, but it is worth knowing why we do it. Copies are recognizable, reasonable, and safe (even if boring). With pre-manufactured art, we know what we will get before we purchase it. Copies of famous paintings, even if mediocre, seem acceptable because of the association with the original. It is hard to believe that we could find an artist that can paint as well as Raphael or sculpt as well as Michelangelo. But this is true in part because we are not giving contemporary artists the opportunity to develop in the way these masters did. Could this help to explain the success of the icon, which is meant to be a stylized image of a saint? In fact, many devotional images have become so “iconic” today (i.e., the Divine Mercy, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or Our Lady of Grace) that we simply want a plaster reproduction or even a photograph of them, rather than commissioning an artist to reinterpret them for us anew.

So given the pitfalls, the economics of it, and the risks of failure, why should the Church commission original art? First of all, to commission art is to acknowledge the importance of art as a living tradition. In patronizing art we speak to modern man through the vitality of the arts. We try to touch hearts and minds through beauty and originality. Portraying religious subjects in art can be likened to a sermon in paint or bronze. Rather than simply reading a classic sermon by Saint Augustine, the priest makes it personal, local, and timely by writing his own sermon (perhaps inspired by a previous text). The process of writing and delivering the sermon will, at times, lead to insights not otherwise thought of. In fact, original art is simply the manifestation of the creative act that all of us seek to participate in, whether it be in writing, cooking, music, or athletics. We seek to do all of these things at a high level, while bringing in a personal aspect.

There is a great need for the faithful, for parish committees, for pastors, principals, and bishops to reclaim their role as patrons of the arts. We can start with sacred art, realizing that it can influence the other figurative arts. On the one hand, patronage means building a new cathedral with an iconographic program like Our Lady of the Rosary in Cleveland and artwork of the quality of the Gesù in Rome. But patronage also means commissioning a marble statue at a side altar or a painting of an Assumption in the sanctuary. Perhaps our family can only afford a new stained-glass window in honor of a loved one, or a new and more appropriate baptismal font. The first step in patronage is generosity towards mankind and towards the Church. The second step entails finding the best artists. The third is pushing the artist to do his best work. Like any other great task, art patronage requires great love and commitment.

Editor’s note: This editorial first appeared in number 27 (Spring 2015) of Sacred Architecture and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a photograph of the Gesù in Rome.

Duncan G. Stroik

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Duncan G. Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame where he helped implement a new curriculum in classical architecture in 1990. He played a central role in the revival of interest in sacred architecture that led to the formation of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and the journal Sacred Architecture, of which he is editor. He is the author, most recently, of The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal (2012).

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