It is not hard to find.
Churches resembling space stations. Sentimental plaster saints. Modernist, nonrepresentational adornments. Sacred art is in crisis. The graver crisis, however, is that most Catholics do not realize that sacred art is in crisis. This ambivalence is one of the sad fruit of the crisis: ambiguous art lends itself to an ambiguous church. Meaningful art, on the other hand, glorifies God by reflecting God and imparts sensitivity to the faithful by participating in the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light. If sacred art is to play a role in the restoration of Catholic culture and the new evangelization, it must first be re-infused with meaning.
What is Sacred Art?
Sacred art is any work of art that pertains to things divine and is used in a public or private context for evangelization, contemplation, or education in the Faith. By reflecting on the teachings of Christ—Who is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and the Light of the world—a set of criteria may be determined to identify sacred art. The properties of guidance, truthfulness, and luminosity provide Christians with standards to judge the meaningfulness of any given work.
If a work of art imitates Christ—that is, if it leads sinners toward heaven, is truthful about the holy mission of the Church, and illumines the soul to divine mysteries—it may be considered worthy of its subject; it may be considered meaningful; it may be considered sacred. The aim of sacred art is to illustrate and illuminate the Catholic Faith by means of rhetoric. Transforming what is immediately known and sensibly perceived, sacred art acts as a primary point of access to the mysteries of the Faith. Through imagery, allegory, and song, the dramatic unfolding of the divine mysteries and the history of salvation is revealed: the goodness, truth, and beauty of God.
The earliest known artistic rendition of the Crucifixion is a piece of graffiti, and it provides stark example of the basic principle of sacred art. Discovered in 1857 scratched in a plaster wall in Rome, the 3rd century drawing depicts a human figure with an ass’s head hanging from a cross. Below stands a man raising his hand in salute, with the words Alexamenos worships his God scrawled in Greek. This vandalism purposed to mock Christianity. Ironically, it encapsulates what few works of Christian art have captured since—the graphic ignominy of the Cross. This blasphemy was not intended as devotional, but nevertheless it bears consideration as sacred art because it is significant. Though crude, it is true. Though no magnum opus, it is meaningful, which is the chief purpose of art, and especially sacred art.
The Decline of Sacred Art
Compare maudlin holy cards to the mystical figures of Fra Angelico. Compare mass-produced statuary to the muscular assertiveness of Michelangelo. There is no comparison because there is no compulsion in the former. This compulsion, which arrests and compels a person to engage the work, is the mark of a meaningful piece—an engagement that is born of a deeper significance than mere form. Good art contains concepts as well as contours. Representational art is not necessarily good art. Without meaning there is only bad art. The soft, sycophantic saints and angels that afflict the current scene of sacred art cannot even stand up against a piece of 3rd century street-art made to dishonor God because they are meaningless—which is a deeper dishonoring. Any artistic effort that fails in the reflection of meaningful reality or mystery, fails as a work of art—and no amount of colorful candy-coating can compensate for this shortcoming.
The origin of such deficiencies is rooted in a cultural shift in patronage of the arts. In 1764, the Church ceased its patronage of Jean-Antoine Houdon, arguably the greatest artist of the 18th century. This decision was largely inspired by the societal tendencies of the French Enlightenment, in which—as in any period of enlightenment—emphasis on rationalism, humanism, and individualism de-emphasized spiritualism. The Church not only abandoned its patronage of artists like Houdon who were beckoned by worldly clientele, but also refrained from patronizing art in general. Patrons arose and abounded from secular powers and private individuals, becoming the principal dictators of art and taste instead of the Church. These new sponsors, being products of their age, supported the new fashion in art, which exchanged themes of Catholicism for themes of Neoclassicism—the rhetorical object was changed.
In the resulting trajectory over the next two centuries, the Church developed a taste for poor taste stemming from her lack of patronage for good artists in the realm of sacred art. Much of what is considered sacred art today is immured in that poor taste. Such art is not worthy of its subject because it is not truthful, didactic, or luminous. It is everywhere, though—enshrined in homes and churches. Cotton-candy clouds. Passive poses. Chubby cherubs. Simpering expressions. No proportion. No humanity. No truth.
Sacred Art Imitates Sacred Nature
If sacred art loses meaningfulness, it will not mean much to people. But this meaningfulness comes with risk, as do all worthy things. There is a danger involved in beholding the world honestly, and an even greater danger in representing it honestly, because reality is not always benign. Worthy art is honest and, therefore, dangerous. Security in the Faith can navigate the hazards of art, for it is through blind trust in grace that men may see the mysteries of existence as they subsist in matter. All art—especially sacred art—must surrender itself to what is if it is to capture it. The failure to engage reality seriously and humbly oftentimes results in the sentimentalism that is devoid of meaningful engagement. This type of sentimentality is unworthy of its subject because it tends to be spurious. It is not so much dangerous as it is damaging; and it is this sentimentality that poses a central problem in sacred art today.
Many well-intentioned Catholics take issue with some works of art because they seem to emphasize the here-and-now as opposed to the hereafter. The natural world, however, is worthy of penetration and representation. The aim of sacred art is to be true to the nature it is imitating which will, by some mystery, allow the supernatural to manifest itself on its own terms. The spiritual must be grounded in the material—in art, as it is in the world. The honesty required is not always conservative, but it is always artistic because it respects the divine dimension. Unworthy art, on the other hand, dictates to the divine, forcing it to exist out of context. The result is misrepresentation and meaninglessness.
This movement of detachment, together with the Church’s continuing failure to patronize the arts, has entrenched the trend of insipid art. In the separation of nature and grace, the conception of the spiritual is reduced to an overemotional platitude. The attempt to be moderate actually results in a type of excess where emotions are distorted and distilled into the mawkish. Unlike the Alexamenos graffito, such sentimentalism is an unconscious, unredeemable mockery of innocence and truth.
Catholic culture shepherds people away from harmful art, but not dangerous art. Given our harmful artistic heritage of simplifying and sugaring the supernatural in an effort to isolate it, the renewal of sacred art faces an uphill battle. The battle must, nevertheless, be faced and fought because when the supernatural is reduced to the saccharine and the simplistic, the supernatural is lost.
What remains is meaningless.