Why We Need Sacred Art

The great schism that divided Western Christendom into Catholic and Protestant camps had far-ranging consequences. Across Europe, religious and political leaders, at the local and national level, viewed their nation's religious association with Rome as a hindrance toward true independence at a time when nationalism was on the rise. Many political leaders objected to a foreign pope asserting sweeping authority and demanding broad allegiance over all the faithful in their realm.

The cultural and religious bonds that had held the Continent together throughout the Middle Ages were gradually loosening. The potential for national greatness was enticing and quite often lofty religious platitudes were issued by both Catholics and Protestants to justify wars for territorial expansion and consolidation. While most of Europe ultimately remained Catholic, some regions and some entire countries broke their ties with Rome.

One of the first things victorious religious revolutionaries did upon wresting their domains from the Catholic Church was to accentuate their status as independent churches and nations. Church property was swiftly confiscated and absorbed into the state to erase any vestiges of "papist" influence. Such acts of appropriation were a common occurrence in England and the Netherlands. To parallel the theological and doctrinal "simplification" they believed they were returning to via Protestantism, Lutherans and eventually all Protestants made it a point to simplify their houses of worship. In churches, paintings were reduced and statues eliminated. The expansive cathedrals of the medieval period, with their dark corners, vaulted ceilings, stain glass windows and nooks and crannies, were gradually replaced by houses of worship with much less aesthetic reference to the divine. Catholic terminology — "altar," "Sacrifice," "Sacrament" — was replaced with more horizontal language — "table," "meal," "faith community" — with the flattened language matching the flattening of once soaring religious buildings.

A friend of mine who has roots in England related to me that, even to this day, old churches in that country reveal centuries-old displays of Protestant theological reeducation. Ely Cathedral, located near Cambridge, contains a special chapel known as The Lady Chapel, originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. After the English Reformation, the cathedral became a Protestant church. The Lady Chapel is filled with dozens of statues of various saints and the Virgin Mary. So far, so good, right? Well, my friend told me that the heads of the statues had been smashed off by Protestant "reformers". So this beautiful and ancient chapel, which still functions as a Christian house of prayer, displays dozens of decapitated statues. Touring the Cathedral, my friend assured me, is something of a surreal experience as people go about their business of prayer and worship surrounded by these desecrated statues. The tour guide who led my friend and her family through the cathedral briefly commented on the statues in an insouciant, "matter of fact" style and then continued on with the tour. That Protestants chose centuries ago to leave these disfigured statues in place after their conquest of the cathedral, perhaps as a future reminder to Catholics, was and is disturbing. My friend assured me that examples such as Ely Cathedral are abundant in formerly-Catholic England.

 Sadly, Catholic behavior in this regard has not been beyond reproach. There are many examples of Catholic-incited desecration of sacred places. Crusaders plundered Jerusalem and sacked Constantinople, while a renegade band of Catholic and Protestant mercenaries succeeded in ravaging Rome mercilessly in 1527. So terrible was this act that one contemporary lamented, "In Rome, no Masses are celebrated and no church bells ring." Tens of thousands were slaughtered, and the city itself was gutted of its treasures. Such acts of desecration such as these were committed by Catholics who had clearly wandered from the path of righteousness. It has never been a part of official Church policy, at least in the West, to destroy sacred images. (For an extended discussion of the history of the history of this issue in the Church go click here.) In addition, there is no paucity of severe papal condemnations against Catholic perpetrators of violence.

Contrary to early Protestant aversion to sacred art, it has been the norm of Catholic teaching and tradition to promote religious art and music. The Counter-Reformation called for artists to tap into their God-given talents to inspire the faithful through an appeal to beauty. Painting and sculpture were seen as excellent ways to educate the illiterate regarding the truths of the faith. But the Church's appreciation for art also had a deep theological and anthropological strain to it. The Church teaches that creation, especially the human person, is in its essence good, albeit wounded and weakened by Original Sin. Christ's Incarnation elevates the created world and the dignity of the person to an even higher level. He is "like us in all things but sin", so in a very real way, He is more authentically human than the rest of us, since sin has no part in His human nature. Of course, sin was not part of God's original plan for humanity; we chose it freely. So in light of Christ's perfect human nature, it is easy to see how He shares a unique participation in the world, which was after all, created through Him. Creation itself is thus understood as graced and elevated supernaturally beyond measure. This means that there is a certain sacramentality to the created world, especially the human body. Thus the artist's attempt to represent the noble, even divine, thread found in the created world is to be encouraged and applauded.

We understand, then, how Protestant theology cannot appreciate art in the same way. For Luther and his disciples, creation was irreparably mangled as a result of sin. Christ's redemptive act didn't change this reality but covered it over. "Like snow on a dung heap," is how some followers of Luther summed up his conception of forensic justification (a kind of legal fiction, in which God declares someone righteous without actually making him so). There's nothing laudable about human nature, thoroughly corrupt as it is, so why attempt to depict it theologically? Why deceive people about the "dignity," much less "glory," of the human body when it is precisely that body and its lurid passions that lead us astray? Holding that the veneration of sacred art smacked of the same degenerate paganism that brought down ancient Rome, Luther's followers bucked the 1,500 year-old Christian tradition of venerating religious images and icons, some of which still appear on the walls of the early Christian catacombs. The destruction of the statues in The Lady Chapel in England, and elsewhere across the "reformed" Christian world, is merely a reaffirmation of Protestant theology and anthropology.

Catholic Europe rejected the misplaced scruples of Protestant Europe and wholeheartedly embraced the celebration of art and the beauty of the created world. In Rome and Florence especially, great artists like Michelangelo, Bernini, Bramante and Raphael, among others, executed representations of Christianity's most revered people and memorable events. In Italy, sumptuous churches abound, housing some of the most stunning gems from the world of art. It goes without saying that you will not find anything comparable to Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in your nearby Dutch Reformed Church.

With the discovery of the New World, the Catholic tradition of promoting art made its way across the Atlantic as well. In the United States, from Baltimore and Milwaukee to San Diego, resplendent Catholic cathedrals and basilicas, reflecting their European patrimony, are in abundance. The Church understands that sacred art speaks to us; it elevates our thoughts, helping us in our quest for union with God. It is for this reason that the Catholic Church has been the world's greatest advocate of authentic art. Correctly understood, sacred art is not an obstacle or distraction but a window and a doorway.

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  • Guest

    I've said it before, but it bears repeating:  it is tragic that beautiful city churches with traditional sacred art are closing, while ugly, modern suburban churches are popping up all over the place.  The church I go to is completely uninspiring;  it was built in the 60s and has that modern look to it.  At least, thank God, it has a crucifix, stations of the cross and kneelers (unlike many of the churches in my diocese).

  • Guest

    My husband and I were blessed to be able to visit Italy a year ago.

    Upon returning to the States people asked me about my favorite thing in Italy.  I contemplated this question and decided that the most impressive quality of Itlay is that throughout the entire journey I lived in the heart of Jesus, Mary, and the Church!  A 500 year old mosaic or fresco of Mary or Jesus or a saint could be found on almost any obscure building's corner panel niche.  Every church, including personal home chapels contained sacred art which caused my soul to soar and unite with its Creator.  Every church was a theological lesson in virtues,saints,doctrine, and scripture.I  felt like                                                                                                                                                       felt like my entire journey was a spiritual pilgrimage! 

    I returned home to the depressing sterility of materialistic fast food and department store boxes.  I have yet to enter a local church that compares in beauty and inspiration to ANY of the ones in which I prayed in Italy.  (St Mary in Greenville, SC and Our Lady of Hope in Fairfax, VA being exceptions.  But, the pastors of those parishes have embraced the fullness and beauty of their Catholic faith, culture, and tradition.)

    The Catholic Faith has always recognized the Truth that we are creatures Body and Soul.  It is in and through our bodies that we come to know, love, serve and give glory to God.  In eternity we will do so in Glorified Bodies!  Catholic art is a natural consequence of the correct understanding of man.  In a sense it is part of JP II's Theology of the Body.

    Thanks for the great ARTicle!


  • Guest

    I have heard there is a lot of biblical art at the Getty museum in LA and was thinking about travelling there.  As a cradle Catholic, I honestly never thought about what was Catholic biblical art vs Protestant biblical art.  I would like to be a lot more aware about this.  I did get a glimpse of this with people pointing out particularly Catholic things in Mel Gibson's movie, such as Veronica.

    Do you know if any of the Getty art is particularly Catholic?

  • Guest

    Ameyer asks:

    Do you know if any of the Getty art is particularly Catholic?

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    I remember going through this museum and rejoicing that I was able to touch and experience items that were created before Jesus walked this earth as well as the early Church. There is a wealth of manuscripts done by the early Church with the art work that accompanies them.

    It is an awesome experience to go through this museum with Catholic eyes.

    St John Vianney, "Do not try to please everybody. Try to please God , the angels, and the saints. These are your public. If you are afraid of other people's opinion, you should not have become Christian."

  • Guest

    eileen breen

    I recently attended Mass at Our Lady of Victory on Isabella St. in Boston, MA.   It is the most beautiful church that I have seen in a very long time   With its wonderful statuary and impressive altar, it inspired in me a profound spiritual uplift and joy.  The more modern "plain and simple" church can't hold a candle to this kind of church.
  • Guest

    I do not disagree with these posts, but let's remember that the "church" is made of of US, not buildings.  We are to serve people, not morter.  I too love the old European cathederals — but find it sad that they are more mueseums than sancturaries to most. 

  • Guest

    Yes, dwcrago, but people are not well-served by ugly buildings and they are well-served by beauty. If the European churches are becoming museums, it is not because Europeans forgot to serve one another; it is because they forgot to serve God.