Sacred Art is the Triumph of Beauty and Truth

Elizabeth Lev is a Rome-based American-born art historian.

After finishing her studies at the University of Chicago in 1989, Elizabeth moved to Northern Italy to do graduate work at the University of Bologna.  She moved to live in the Eternal City in 1997 and, today, with her family, lives just minutes from St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.

Shortly after her decision to live in Rome, Elizabeth began giving guided tours, soon passing the official licensing exams.  In 2001, she began teaching Art History at Duquesne University’s Italian campus where she continues to be a faculty member to this day. After teaching Renaissance Art at John Cabot University for five years, she has since joined the teaching staff at the Pontifical University of the Angelicum in Rome, as well as at Christendom College.

She is the author of three books — The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici; Roman Pilgrimage: The Station Churches with George Weigel; and A Body for Glory: Theology of the Body in the Papal Collections with Fr. Jose Granados. She has written for multiple media outlets including: First Things, Sacerdos, Inside the Vatican, and Zenit News Agency.

A sought-after public speaker, Lev has given a TED talk on The unheard story of the Sistine Chapel”. She has appeared on various television networks including: ABC, History Channel and EWTN.

Recently, Catholic Exchange caught up with Elizabeth at her home in Rome to ask about her latest book, her views on art and the Church, and how Catholic art brings souls to Christ. 

How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art is not just a great read on Catholic art but very much a placing of that art in its historical context, namely, the world of the Counter Reformation. Why did you write it in this way?

The great awakening for me as an art historian came when I realized how much context matters to a work of art. Even more than technique, medium, or style, it is the circumstances, the elements of its terroir, if you will, that make a painting “come alive.” While the works of Caravaggio have great resonance on their own, with their stark compositions, naturalism and dramatic light, discovering how they were made to affirm Church teachings makes them even more powerful.

Studying the context of great religious art was a large part of what brought me back to the faith, and I hope that amplifying the Catholic voice of those works that spoke so persuasively to me might draw others closer to the Church as well.

Your book is wide ranging, not so much in timescale as in featuring so many artists and the various artistic schools they represent. How did you go about marshaling so much information into such a readable book?

A friend of mine recently called the book a “lizlev-curated museum” and I can’t deny it. I chose artists I know and love and works that I had lectured about for many years. Lavinia Fontana, for example, is an artist that I have admired since grad school and who was groomed to become the first professional female painter for the Catholic Church. Niccolo Tornioli’s Cain and Abel is an astounding painting that leaves my students speechless every semester.

I am indebted to my students for their questions and their sincere efforts to get a handle on Catholic Restoration art. Those young men and women, coming to Italy often for the first time, are very receptive to beauty and they have inspired me find a way to arrange the massive amount of information into something people could understand and relate to.

How would you define ‘Catholic art’?

A tricky question, as the definitions range from art made by self-professed Catholics featuring an evidently Catholic subject for a Catholic purpose, to the idea that there is no such thing as Catholic art. The period of the Catholic Restoration exhorted artists to produce works that were easily understood, faithful to the scriptural or hagiographical theme and that would “stimulate the viewer to piety,” which was pretty challenging to interpret for the contemporary painters. I am inclined to follow Father Andrew Greeley’s idea that Catholic art is fruit of the Catholic imagination, which sees everything in creation as pointing to the divine, infused with the presence of God and drawn to perceive the potential for redemption.

How long did it take you to write How Catholic Art Saved the Faith?

In one sense I have been writing this book since I wrote my thesis on Catholic Restoration art 25 years ago. The structure of the book was then developed over 16 years while teaching Baroque art at Duquesne University’s Italian campus, where I came up with a systematic way to process the hundreds of paintings we saw each semester.

But the immediate catalyst for these pages was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017, when I realized how the ignorance and confusion about sacraments and saints that marked the Reformation era was very much present in our day as well, along with the same kind of polemical language. So I wrote a series of articles for Aleteia about how the Church used art to affirm Catholic teachings in a pleasing and less litigious manner. The great folks at Sophia Institute Press saw the articles, proposed a book project, and here we are today!

Given the upheaval brought about by the Protestant Revolt in 16th century throughout Christendom, did you find immersing yourself in that world put today’s difficulties both within the Church and society at large in perspective?

I was particularly struck by how a glut of information disoriented people in the Reformation. The printing press put out millions of pamphlets, among them new religious teachings, overwhelming the faithful. The population of Europe, often poorly catechized and at times ministered to by under-educated priests, were, for the first time, expected to choose their faith – whether to follow Luther, Zwingli, Calvin or the Catholic Magisterium. The Catholic Church was mired in scandal, both financial and sexual, making it hard for the faithful to know which way to turn… Sound familiar yet?

Furthermore, the tone taken by the Reformers (and at times the Catholic clergy) was often very harsh — invectives, insults, accusations — making it near impossible to discern the gentle words of Jesus’ call to holiness above the din. So Catholics turned to art, silent and beautiful; it delighted to the senses, but also conveyed Truth.

Do you see contemporary parallels with how art was used by the Church in 16th century with our world today?

Creative art has not lost its power, it has just been harnessed by different, more problematic forces. The efficacy of painting and sculpture in communication has diminished, but cinema and television have filled that void.

Those media, however, are often used at present to teach lessons contrary to the Catholic faith. Pre-marital sex is the norm in virtually all television relationships, even in figures that are otherwise virtuous, and moral relativism resolves virtually every ethical crisis in a storyline. Even Disney is constantly assailed to produce a homosexual lead to inculcate appreciation or even idealization of that lifestyle in children.

Catholics no longer lead in art, producing images, stories or music that point to the divine, that bear witness to Christ’s salvific entry into human history and how that event left an enchantment still present in our world today.

We as Catholic have the “rights” to the greatest, most beautiful, most transformative story in human history, yet we stare at screens filled with tawdry scenes reflecting post-modern cynicism.

What role does art play in the life of the Church?

What the Catholic Church still possesses and hopefully will continue to conserve, is its magnificent artistic legacy: radiant stained glass, dazzling mosaics, stunning frescoes and exquisite sculptures, recount centuries of commitment to beauty as a means of conveying Truth. Most of these works were produced in ages that experienced war, plagues, famine, poverty or tyranny, yet instead of focusing on the ugliness of the post-Fall world, these works aspired to give people a glimpse of the sublime.

And what role do you see art playing in evangelizing the world?

The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio

Taking people on tours every day in Rome, I have the privilege to see how art still affects people. People ask questions, they want to know about meaning, and they are touched by beauty. 20,000 people a day shuffle into the Sistine chapel and there they stand, of different faiths, ethnicities, political leanings, and social classes, all gazing upwards, transported. Their differences are forgotten for a moment, as they are united in this beautiful manifesto of glorious humanity and divine truth.

If you were to pick just one artwork from How Catholic Art Saved the Faith as a summation of all you have written what would that be?

Caravaggio’s Entombment. Painted for the Oratorian church of Chiesa Nuova in 1604, this work was done when Caravaggio had mastered his innovative style. The viewer is accosted by six life-sized bodies against a dark background — it is a work that demands attention, almost a clarion call to prayer.

The figures lowering Jesus into the tomb look like regular people — Mary is portrayed as a grief-stricken older woman, the other figures seem like local workers or the like. In the midst of this deceptive “realism,” Caravaggio inserts an arresting beam of light that slices through the shadowy scene.

There is no natural source for the light; it is something supernatural, meant to guide the viewer in contemplation. It illuminates the weeping woman gesticulating in the upper right and draws the eye across the different faces to the heavy, unwieldy body of Christ. The scene is transformed from the burial of a corpse into something else. Jesus is suspended above a stone slab that appears to jut out toward the viewer. This slab evokes both tomb and altar. Underneath, a dark, blank space yawns. In its original placement above an altar, the gaping void in the work would be filled by the celebrant.

This painting awakened the faithful, made the Gospel seem close to everyday life, pointed towards the supernatural, illustrated the Real Presence of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, and demanded the participation of the clergy in the sacrament. Striking, instructive, imaginative and persuasive – that is what Catholic Restoration art is all about!

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Lev’s How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art is available from Sophia Institute Press and your Catholic bookstore. 

image: Stefano_Valeri /

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KV Turley writes from London

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