Art & Liturgy: The Splendor of Faith

This essay originally appeared in the October 1998 edition of Crisis Magazine.


Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Thirty years after the close of the Second Vatican Council, liturgical reform remains one of the most contested topics of Catholic debate. The subject, most often discussed from either the dogmatic or historical perspective, leaves little time for the powerful role played by visual imagery in worship.

Although it is universally conceded that the visual arts have played a vital part in both Catholic and Orthodox liturgies throughout history, many contemporary writers on liturgical reform, tainted by a strain of iconoclasm, view liturgical art as decoration, or even worse, an unwarranted distraction. Yet, rightly understood, imagery is inseparable not only from the theological expression embodied in the liturgy, but also the doctrinal development of the Church throughout history.


The Roots of Liturgical Art

The use of images in liturgical worship dates to the earliest days of Christianity. In the second and third century catacomb known as the Capilla Greca, for example, you can see a clear depiction of “The Last Supper” painted above the altar. More than simply a decorative element or didactic tool, these images are an integral part of the liturgical life of the primitive Church.

Irwin Panofsky, in the introduction to his Studies in Iconology, describes the three levels of understanding while viewing a picture. The first or primary level is that of the natural subject matter. At this level the viewer identifies certain perceptible configurations in the painting as natural objects—human beings, animals, plants, and so on. At a secondary level the viewer is aware that the conventional subject matter identifies iconographical motifs, for example, a group of figures seated around a dinner table can represent the Last Supper. The third level brings the viewer closer to the deepest message of the art work, what Panofsky calls “intrinsic meaning or content.” This level of meaning “is apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion—unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work.” Thus the painting of the Last Supper over the altar in the Capilla Greca is more than a decorative motif or tool of instruction; it is a genuine manifestation of the very core of Catholic belief and prayer—the Eucharist.

In manifesting the underlying principles of the Catholic faith, liturgical art is integral to both the lex orandi (mode of prayer) and the lex credendi (mode of belief) of the Church. The age-old axiom lex orandi, lex credendi originated with the solemn pronouncement of Pope Celestine I, legem credendi statuit lex orandi, regarding the definition of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God. Then, as now, the liturgy of the universal Church praised Mary as the “Mother of God” and Pope Celestine called the Nestorians heretical for challenging an article of faith that was so deeply ingrained in the prayer life of the Christian community. His words implied that the liturgy of worship is a chief instrument in the perpetuation of true doctrine. Many centuries later, Pope Pius XII, in his 1947 encyclical on the liturgy, Mediator Dei, pointed out that the reverse is also true: Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi (the true faith must establish the mode of prayer). In short, what the Church believes and how she prays are intrinsically one—and the liturgical arts form a part of this union. Once the doctrine of the Divine Motherhood of Mary was proclaimed at Ephesus, art came immediately into play. When the Basilica of Santa Maria Magiore was raised at this time in Rome, it was adorned with mosaics depicting the life of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother in accordance with the then-defined doctrine.

By the High Middle Ages, the churches were a visual lesson in medieval theology: The cruciform church, its exterior covered with scenes from both the Old and New Testaments and the lives of prophets and saints, reached its zenith in the Gothic Cathedral. To quote again from Panofsky, the task of the cathedral builder was “. . . to make reason clearer by an appeal to the imagination; [he] sought to embody in stone and glass the whole Christian knowledge, theological, moral, natural, and historical, with everything in its place and with all that no longer found its place suppressed . . . a Summa Theologiae to be visually apprehended.” Between the years 1140 and 1280, some eighty of these magnificent structures were built and dedicated to the Most Holy Virgin, as had been the great Basilica of Santa Maria Magiore in Rome in the fourth century.

Of all these medieval cathedrals, perhaps the most perfect is the cathedral of Chartres, southwest of Paris. At this shrine to the Queen of Heaven and Earth, the visual fusion of the mode of prayer and the mode of belief is complete. The two towers, God and creation, stand stage right and stage left as in a Byzantine icon. Between them is the Rose Window—Mary, the Rose (perfection) of Creation. From the entrance which is dominated by Mary, the eye is drawn along the aisle right up to the sanctuary where Christ is offered up daily in the Mass. Henry Adams, a non-Catholic, looked up at the Rose Window of Chartres and exclaimed:”[It is] a jewel so gorgeous that no earthly majesty could bear comparison with it . . . Never in 700 years has one looked up at this Rose without feeling it to be Our Lady’s promise of paradise.”

On the floor of Chartres cathedral, a forty-foot labyrinth is engraved in the pavement. Contrary to some modern speculation, in medieval times the labyrinth was a symbol of the dark forces ascribed to Hell. This certainly holds true for the labyrinth at the great Marian Cathedral of Chartres. At the center of this configuration an inscription, now lost, read: “This stone represents the Cretan’s Labyrinth. Those who enter cannot leave unless they be helped, like Theseus, by Ariadne’s thread.” The analogy was clear to the medieval mind: To escape the entrapment of the bestial demons, one must place one’s destiny in the hands of the Woman, Mary.


The Glory of Creation

With the advent of the Dominican and Franciscan renewal in the 13th century, a subtle shift occurred in the mode of belief that affected both the mode of prayer and the art of the Church. In contrast to the Byzantine and early Medieval traditions, Sts. Francis and Dominic saw God’s glory in all of his creation. Francis pointed out that through the Incarnation nature itself might be transformed and elevated to a new level. Artists of the period, starting in Italy with Ducio and Giotto, infused their art with this new spirituality. Instead of painting Our Lord, the Blessed Mother, and the saints on the golden background of Heaven, artists depicted them with a new psychological depth in a natural setting bathed in sunlight and a blue sky. Although the perspective was altered, the truths remained the same and churches generally continued to be in the cruciform or basilican shape; the art continued to be both didactic and beautiful to the beholder.

High Renaissance art, albeit with some heretical aberrations based on extrinsic influences such as Cabala and pseudo Egyptian lore, developed a Catholic tradition with its own unique perspective. While the scales tipped in favor of the contemplation of beauty rather than dogmatic representation as a means of ascent to the divine, even an aesthetic masterpiece such as Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel have a powerful theological message reflecting the hopes of the Roman papacy of that time. Building on Dante’s On Kingship and following the speculations of Egidio Cardinal da Viterbo—that the tenth age of the world and the ultimate triumph of the Church was at hand—the Sistine Chapel was decorated to prefigure this event. Michelangelo thus went about painting the history of the world from the Creation up to the golden age of Christianity centered in Rome. Michelangelo painted his terrifying Last Judgement after the Protestant revolt of 1517 and the sack of Rome by the Emperor Charles V, which temporarily destroyed all hope in the Roman hegemony.

The Council of Trent was convened in 1545 in response both to the deteriorating situation provoked by Renaissance unorthodox speculation and to the Reformation, and it continued off and on until 1562. The philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas was reestablished as authoritative, the nature of the sacraments was defined, and the authority of the hierarchy and Magisterium was affirmed.

In order to implement the decrees of the council, the Church, led by the Jesuits, launched the Counter-Reformation. Meanwhile, St. Ignatius’s insistence on compositio loci—placing oneself visually in the presence of the divine events of salvation right up to the beatific vision—gave rise to a new style in art now known as Baroque. The term, originally meaning irregular, contorted, or grotesque, was coined as an epithet by 19th century Anglo-Saxon Protestant art historians. It was used to denounce the rich ornamentation of the style in contrast to the supposed purity of High Renaissance and neoclassical art.

The Baroque style, in fact, expresses the spirit of the Council of Trent in art and architecture, affirming the goodness of nature arranged in a hierarchical ordered ascent. The ceiling frescoes in the church of Sant’Ignatio depict the skies opening to the heavenly realm, which grows organically out of the church structure itself; the church is filled from bottom to top with saints and angels. The Church, embodying a renewed and sanctified nature, is presented analogically as the antechamber of heaven.

Pushed to the limits of decorative embellishment, the Baroque reached its final form in the 18th century as what is known as rococo. The Wieskirche of Bavaria, finished in 1757, is one of its most spectacular achievements. The walls that present the antechamber of Heaven are painted pure white. The nave is filled with gilded statues of the saints and angels of the heavenly court. On the frescoed ceiling are the gates of heaven separating the blue sky of this world from the transcendental world of God. Just as in the Byzantine East—where the portrayal of the salvific mysteries continued to be expressed by Christ as Pantocrator, Lord of all, bringing the vision of glory down to earth through the Divine Liturgy—so in the Baroque West, the earth was raised up to the opening heavens through the Mass. It was to be the last definitive statement of a universal Catholic liturgical art. Although individual artists have produced innovative and personal expressions of faith, there has been no movement in art since the Baroque that can be said to have an overall Catholic impetus. Indeed, since the time of the French Revolution and the secularization of culture, all Catholic churches were built in one of the aforementioned styles until the middle of this century.


Art and the Modern World

The new ecclesiastical art and architecture of the mid- to late 20th century show clearly that there has been a dramatic break with all past Catholic artistic and architectural traditions. The churches that were built and decorated since the 1950s display an unfortunate turn in theological reflection, though there seems to be encouraging movements recently.

Prior to World War II there began to emerge ideas about grace and nature that would broadly become known as the nouvelle theologie, or the new theology. The discussion returned to the Reformation debate on the nature of supernatural grace. The Protestants denied the ability of grace to operate in and through human nature due to original sin; some 20th century Catholic thinkers reopened the issue by positing the idea that, through Christ, grace not only can operate in the natural order, but is in some way intrinsic to it. In the most extreme example—the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—Christ thus became not the Redeemer of fallen man, but the ideal model of man’s perfection and self-transcendence. Christianity, as a result, came to be seen not as the sacramental incorporation into the Body of Christ through baptism and the Eucharist but as an explicit reflection of what man really is by nature. Pope Pius XII formally denounced this view of grace in Mystici Corporis: “[T]here is a false mysticism creeping [into the Church], which, in its attempt to eliminate the immovable frontier that separates creatures from their Creator, falsifies Scripture[—]a distorted idea, a false teaching, impious, and sacrilegious.”

Some of these theologians nevertheless went on to become leading figures in the post-conciliar Church. Professor Richard McBrien stated much the same here in the United States: “There is now a radical capacity in nature itself, and not superadded to nature, by which we are ordained to the knowledge of God. Thus all dualism between nature and grace is eliminated. Human nature is already graced existence.”

The effects of this new “lex credendi” have been seen for some time in art and architecture. If man already lives an “engraced” existence naturally, and the sacramental union with Christ is ontologically superfluous, a mere symbol of entrance into a “faith community,” then the altar rail (iconostasis, the rood screen) that separates the natural world of the faithful and the supernatural world of the Divine mysteries must go. As Christ is already present in the community, the sacramental presence of Our Lord in the tabernacle is now superfluous and can therefore be removed from the sanctuary precinct. With the traditional concept of the Mystical Body obscured, the images of saints and holy mysteries, a tradition going back to the catacombs, are removed in favor of a single figure of the “Risen Lord.”

The rebellion against tradition and the glorification of subjective creativity were the central tenets of both new theology and modern art.

Like the new liturgists, the promoters of much modern art and architecture are iconoclastic and wary of tradition. But contrary to popular belief, virtually every movement in modern art, from Bauhaus to Surrealism, is steeped not in materialism but in a type of gnostic spirituality—the unlocking of the divine in the human. Walter Gropius, director and leading light of the Bauhaus, the influential school of architecture established in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, is generally remembered for his dictates on form and function in the modern machine age. Underlying these premises was a belief in a utopian future based on the assumption that after the misery of the times, “spiritual and religious ideas” (based on oriental theosophy) would find their “crystalline expression” in a “great cathedral shining its light into the smallest things of everyday life.” This “cathedral of the future” would be built by artists of all classes and backgrounds as a “secret lodge” dedicated to the “new, great, world idea.”

Contemporaneous examples help us to understand more fully this fusion of modern art and liturgy. The chasuble designed by Matisse for the Dominican chapel at Vence, save for a small cross, has no symbolic point of reference to the sacramental action of the Mass. Likewise, Le Corbusier’s groundbreaking design for the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp is totally unrelated to the developing but unbroken tradition of Western church architecture: It is simply a project built to his own satisfaction in celebration of his own creative genius. The Italian modernist thinker Benedetto Croce summed it up: “And the Christian God is still ours and our refined philosophies call him the spirit which takes us over but which is always us, ourselves.”

Fortunately, the faithful, having not altogether succumbed to these strange and alien ideologies, are looking outward once again. Just as in the defense of the Divine Motherhood of Mary at Ephesus in the fourth century, the traditional Christocentric prayer of the faithful is being heard, led by writers such as Msgr. Robert Sokolowski and Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who have brought fresh insights from phenomenology and psychology to our understanding of the Eucharist. So, too, the practice of traditional devotions is spreading rapidly, and with it, innumerable conversions.

As the true faith returns with vigor the liturgy will be revitalized—and with it fresh visions from the artists. With this in mind as we enter the third millennium with the trust and hope so dear to the Holy Father, let us echo the words of Paul Claudel written earlier this century when the upheavals began:

Even today, in this age of iron or, let us say, white metal, the Temple of Solomon and the Cathedral of Chartres have not exhausted all the possibilities of getting back to God. There is still something to be garnered from those people with plaster in their hair and fingers full of paint.

  • H. Reed Armstrong

    H. Reed Armstrong is a sculptor and Professor of Fine Arts with the International Catholic University, Notre Dame, IN. He has written articles and reviews for Crisis, Communio, Latin Mass, The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, and most recently, the Review of Metaphysics. Much of his sculptural work and writings may be seen at his website: A.G. DEI Art.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack

Share to...