Sacred Art of Today: Is It Art and Is It Sacred?

Born in Denmark in the 1950s, I came of age in 1960s society, surrounded by all the clichés of liberal atheism that resulted in my experience of a spiritual void. This void was not filled until I converted to the Catholic faith many years later at Westminster Cathedral in London. Being in the arts and having been deeply involved in the staging of a large exhibition on the Jesuits and the baroque, I came to realize the importance of the sacred image in proclaiming the faith, so vital today, especially given the prevailing absence of intellectual inquiry and reading among the young.

Turning from the seventeenth century to our own historical period, I perceived that we are now faced with so-called Catholic art that more often than not states what Christ is not, rather than what He is. It is an art form (if one can call it “art”) where often the tragic, the absurd, and the rejection of the true Christ become their own new and perverse trinity. This has become a pseudoreligion of its own, in which the atheist, humanitarian “artist” has been elevated to the role of dogmatic priest.

As a response to the recent crisis in vocations, I have started, with the support of various priests, to use my artistic knowledge to create a book, which will published in several languages, entitled The Catholic Priest: Image of Christ Seen through Twenty Centuries of Art. Through 550 works of art of all periods since the days of the Catacombs, this book seeks to explain the priesthood through the visual image with the hope of attracting vocations to this most important and beautiful ministry. Needless to say, the dilemma quickly arose as to which works of art should be included to represent our own times.1

Study for Station VI of Via Dolorosa by James Langley, USA. Series commissioned by St. Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida and installed in February 2009.

To understand why the great majority of Catholic art over the past half century has been a monumental failure, one has to understand not only how society has evolved, but also how this change has been reflected in what is termed “contemporary art.” Two recent books that address this issue are Christine Sourgins’s Les Mirages de l’Art contemporain (La Table ronde, Paris 2005) and Aude de Kerros’s L’Art caché (Eyrolles, Paris 2007). The latter provides a good description of how contemporary has emerged and developed:

The dominant movement today is conceptual art, which nominates itself as “contemporary.” It is not an art form in the traditional sense of the word, but a named ideology based on the statement by the artist himself that “this is art,” all confirmed and approved by the establishment. This has been baptized “contemporary art,” fruit of the arbitrary, and does not pretend to have an essential or truthful character. However, this infinite diversity does exclude one specific element: art. Contemporary art is strongly based on several forbidden key elements: the use of hands to modulate and transform materials with its positive metamorphic outcome; the articulation of the form and meaning in an organic unity; the beauty and its mysterious manifestation: “aura,” the glory of sensitivity. Most people still believe they are in the continuation of the “avant-gardes” of modern art and have not perceived the reality of the situation.

Ordinatio by Neilson Carlin, USA, 2008. Commisssioned for the book “The Catholic Priest” by Steen Heidemann.

In France, but in various degrees also elsewhere, contemporary art has become the official and only acceptable form of expression. This is in the secular as well as in the Catholic sphere. This “art” is part of a commercial mechanism in which the often poorly informed and politically correct opinions of government bureaucrats determine the allocation of funds for the purchase of artworks esteemed by intellectual and fashionable art critics, ignorant nouveau riche investors, and trendy, predominantly Anglo-Saxon, mondialistic art galleries. It is a totalitarian system, where art has become another financial commodity with which to speculate. The concept of art serving nothing but itself has been born. There is no transmission of knowledge, no recognition of the past, and there is certainly nothing for the art student to learn, given the perceived risk that learning might “de-nature” his spontaneous talent. Contemporary art is a cultural vacuum, but anyone daring to speak up—like the little girl in the story of the emperor’s new clothes who realized that the emperor was naked—will be either ignored or regarded as ignorant. It is a money racket that has little to do with art and has nothing to do with the transmission of Christ’s message.

Contemporary art offers no reference to beauty, truth, or goodness; and thus can have no idea of a moral aesthetic. It can have no place in the Church, not just for aesthetic reasons, but because it was conceived with the intention of serving nothing other than the fallen ego. In fact, much like the corrupted angels, the motto of contemporary art could easily be “non serviam.” This tension was already visible in the nineteenth century, when some of the most skilled artists, especially in France, turned their talents away from sacred art. The secular took control and has not let go since. Impressionism gave way not only to a style of painting, but also to a philosophy of life.

Even within the Church, at a time when she is in particular need of artists able to convey Christ’s message clearly, one senses a marked lack of a philosophy and theology of art. Without most people realizing it, two thousand years of Christian art have been quietly, but firmly, pushed aside. It is a silent apostasy that Christine Sourgins describes in terms of a pseudoreligion:

Priest, prophet, artist of contemporary art, he is also king. But his kingdom is that of passions, which is the distant, but direct, inheritance of the age of Enlightenment. For contemporary art the passions are the spiritual. The transgression that enables us to go above our ordinary perceptions of matters, is for contemporary art a true transcendence. One is, as a conclusion, confronted with an inverted religious, who still thinks as a religious.

For most contemporary art there is no resurrection and nowhere is the Redeemer to be found. Contemporary art results in a mental castration, or perhaps, quoting George Orwell in 1984, “the prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity.” And what contemporary art ultimately constitutes is an attack on the Christian faith, which is the foundation of our society and its culture.

The priest who sees himself in Christ’s image, by Rodolfo Papa, Italy.

The current anti-aesthetic principles and the new orthodoxy of provocative iconoclasm in artistic circles have not only brought to museums and fashionable galleries such blasphemies against Christ’s message of truth and beauty as Andres Serrano’s crucifix in a vat of urine and the Austrian Hermann Nitsch’s mockeries of the Catholic Mass (to take only a few examples), they have also created an ambience in which a lack of form and the expression of mental and spiritual twistedness have gained respectability. It is as if beauty and truth had been replaced by ugliness and perversion as the medium for depicting the sacred! Contemporary art is supposed to be “contextual.” It is the context that often crowns the “artwork,” and its revolutionary transgression becomes sacred or meaningful. A toilet shown in a fashionable London gallery becomes immediately an artwork, while seen in a place of public amenities it remains what it is. So-called “real” artists in the world of contemporary art may express themselves spiritually, but only if they show that they have second thoughts about religion, especially the Christian religion. Hence ambiguity and/or irony are much welcomed elements. The New Age icons of Alex Grey constitute an “ideal” reply. The smashing (some years ago) of Michelangelo’s Pietà perhaps offers an emblem of a world bent on destroying the true, the good, and the beautiful and supplanting Christ with an agenda steeped in the culture of spiritual death. It is interesting to note that Salvador Dali’s Last Supper and Crucifixion are the only two twentieth-century paintings of a religious subject that have won universal acclaim. They are still seen in all poster shops around the globe. No contemporary art painting of a Christian nature has even come near these in status.

The Obscure Night of St. John of the Cross, by Philippe Lejuene, France.

A good Christian artist, especially one who expresses himself figuratively, is to the media a dead artist, an object at best of pity and fit to be placed in a museum as merely folklore. Two years before Andy Warhol died, he created a work entitled Repent and Sin No More! The question arises as to where we are to turn from here in order to express Christ’s message artistically in a way that the ordinary faithful can comprehend. There are artists who have had the courage to stand out and create artworks where Christ’s message is clearly and attractively represented without a ten-page “written supplement” to understand them! Their work is what Aude de Kerros terms “the hidden art.” The media simply ignores them, as if they did not exist, or rather as if they were mere decorators, and certainly not “artists.”

According to Aude de Kerros, there are indications that in America contemporary art has been largely accepted for what it is, a sort of merchandise, and what one would term real art retains its own place. However, as she concludes, one will have to wait until a semantic distinction is made separating contemporary art from real art. One could then start to evaluate non-conceptual art and each individual artist. This is important in general, but it is vital for the Church to clearly mark the boundaries.

Were this milestone to be achieved, what would it mean for Christian art? The first consideration would be to realize that art cannot be produced in the same way in which one orders a car or a piece of contemporary art. It is a kind of gift that cannot be had through materialism. It requires the gift of faith. Wherever that presents itself, Christ’s message as expressed in art finds its proper expression. It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into a detailed and profound discussion on Christian art, however, I should like make some suggestions, the first articulated well by Rodolfo Papa, artist and teacher at the Pontifical Academy for the Arts in Rome:

The Church does not have an artistic style of her own, because it is not important how to say something, but it is important what you want to say or communicate; it is easy to know what to do: “Rem tene, verba sequuntur” [Grasp the subject, the words will follow]. I think that only figurative art is able to speak about Christian mysteries. Catholic art has expressed itself in many various styles in the past, but all of these are figurative.

St. Alphonso Liguori, by Giuseppe Antonio Lomuscio, Italy.

Some will argue that the abstract can be used beneficially to depict aspects of the truth that are not specifically narrative. In fact the non-figurative can underline the mystery of the infinite and the mystical with an intensity that no other form can accomplish. The danger, however, is that, if totally abstract, the artwork can quickly lose its Trinitarian sense and quickly become an image that might just as well adhere to New Age concepts as to Christian realities. Painters, for example Giovanni Battista Gaulli (“il Baciccio”) have in the past tackled this subject with success, combining the flood of light with Christian figurative symbolism. Some recent examples are included here, namely, works by Philippe Lejeune and Agnès Hémery. One may have a preference for the sober monastic expressions of the Middle Ages, the exuberant baroque, or some of the more sentimental works of the nineteenth century, but a Catholic welcomes all these forms of expression as part of the same unity centered on Christ. The problem arises when contemplating recent works of contemporary art where the underlying spirit has been destroyed.

The Baptism of Christ, by Sergio Ferro, Brazil

Christine Sourgins writes that “the visible becomes worthy of God for the reason that God made himself visible; this could be the basis of Christian art.” According to Sourgins, the figurative painter needs faith and knowledge of the truth to execute his or her art. At one of the largest exhibitions held in recent years to focus mainly on Christian topics (National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, 1998), a work was displayed that depicted a woman as a crucified Christ. Such blasphemous images cannot orient the faithful, as Sourgins suggests, toward prayer, devotion, or an authentic sense of Christianity in line with the teaching of the Church. Many an excellent artist in the past has been a great sinner, but their faith permitted their works to embody the divinity of the Trinity. An artist need not be the perfection of sanctity in order to be a good Christian artist, but faith does bring about a transformation. During the nineteenth century Christianity still represented something of a social foundation that, despite its shortcomings, did animate society in general and did have an underlying influence on many artists dealing with sacred themes. Though often not masterpieces in a spiritual sense, some paintings did retain a certain Christian “aura.”

However, one has to conclude that this is no longer the case. The best one can hope for in most artists in the twentieth century is a kind of cosmic mysticism. Many intellectuals dealing with this question have forgotten that the Christian artist can be the instrument of divine grace. Fra Angelico is reputed to have stated that “To paint Christ, one must live Christ,” or as the American artist James Langley sees it:

The ultimate point of reference for the Christian artist is neither contemporary culture nor one’s self, but rather the discovery of beauty in the encounter with Christ. Proceeding from the experience of the radiant God-man as clothed in the Divine Liturgy, the Catholic approach to the making of religious art is grounded in the common experience of a received tradition to which one’s own contribution is humbly added. To accept that tradition implies a study and appreciation of how other artists have seen the image of God. Art forms that hold originality and self-expression as paramount begin with a disordered understanding of the freedom of the children of the children of God. As such they risk producing art, as we have seen in recent decades, that distorts and is literally irrelevant to the Christian experience.

It can of course be argued that hope and faith can find expression even in contemporary art. The argument might follow that we now live in times when the direct Christian approach is no longer viable and that the Christian message can only be perceived in the absurdity and the despair of contemporary art. And yet, while it is indeed challenging today to be a Christian, the last two thousand years have shown many other periods of direct or indirect persecutions; one must not lose courage to stand up and be counted. Contemporary art typifies an anti-Christian counterculture, in which one may contemplate the Crucified Christ but not His Resurrection. As Christ stated “He who is not with me is against me” (Lk 11:23). A compromise between Christianity and contemporary will inevitably lead to paintings as in the aforementioned Australian exhibition, where the image of the Trinity is hidden by the absurd, the tragic, and nihilism.

Is it possible, then, to still look toward contemporary art as a possible place to find art forms that will serve Christ’s message? As Anthony Visco has written, “Would you look to devil worshippers for liturgical consultants on the rites and rituals of the Church? Would we look to atheists for prayer advice on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius? Why then look towards contemporary art that has decidedly made itself not serve the Church and wonder how it might fit in?” Some Catholics deem themselves “courageous” when they commence a dialogue with contemporary art, but however well-intentioned they may be, their efforts can never bear real fruit, as the roots of the tree are rotten to the core. They argue further that contemporary art will encourage a new spiritual search and hence a deeper understanding of the truth. For them, people should be adventurous and try to understand the new and unconventional. Intellectuals may have a field day arguing this, but will their arguments make any sense to the ordinary faithful? Some Catholics will then continue the debate saying that many an artist such as Giotto was revolutionary in his day, and so why should contemporary art not be accepted in the Church? This is obviously a point that for all the reasons stated in this article does not require an answer.

Verbum caro factum est, by Ugo Riva, Italy

The Catholic and universal Church longs for a renaissance, not to be confused with a simple renovation. Some will argue that to question contemporary art and to look for an alternative would lead to a triumphal type of neofascist propaganda. This is to take the easy and comfortable stance and not to confront the reality of Christ’s message of going out and converting the world. The Church has faced difficulties before, and she will find a new way forward where Christian art will again serve the word of Jesus in a pedagogical, intelligible, and effective fashion: a manifestation of hope and promise, as Pope Benedict XVI’s recent encyclical Spe salvi describes. One will have to distinguish between religious, sacred, and liturgical art, but overall one should not be afraid to recognize those art forms that best express Christ’s various messages as well as the devotional needs of the faithful in different cultures and parts of the world. A work of art in Spain will obviously not meet the criteria of a person in Armenia, but the underlying spirit should be the same. The Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in a letter of November 25, 2008, to Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Commissions for the Cultural Heritage of the Church and for Sacred Archeology, expressed the necessity of relaunching a dialogue between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty, truth, and goodness. Indeed, a Vatican pavilion is being planned for the 2011 Venice Biennale, a major international festival of contemporary art.

At the heart is a need to return to the Eucharist as the wellspring of artistic expression. In the words of Anthony Visco, “The reality of the Eucharist must be reaffirmed in our world today. With Christ, the Eucharist is still ‘a scandal, something to get over.’ Without this, all art becomes mere decoration or ornament of the ego.” In order to be missionary, the Church needs to re-incarnate in art the mystery of Christ in a clear manner and expose it courageously to a world that has apostatized. Though sacred art can not effect salvation, nor contain the reality of the priesthood or the Mass, it can show the way. It should render service to the faith, to understanding of God, who has spoken to man through Holy Scripture. The semantic difference between “renaissance” and “renovation” urgently needs to be addressed. We are beginning to see a renaissance, as some bishops have comprehended the issue and have had the courage to commission architects and artists worthy of their name. Further encouragement might also be gleaned from the fact that this year’s famous New York autumn sale of contemporary art was a financial flop; this might prompt collectors to reassess what real art is all together and transfer the center of attention away from this American city, where over the last few decades money and current ideologies have been the only criteria. The work of some promising new artists has been illustrated here, to show that real art is beginning to rise out of the ashes. A true search has commenced.

A native of Denmark, Steen Heidemann was educated in England earning degrees in art and architecture at Oxford and an MSc in management from Reading.  A convert, he later married a French woman.  He currently organizes international art exhibitions.