A Chorus of Praise

Authentic Beauty in Sacred Art

by Uwe Michael Lang, appearing in Volume 22

Art and the Crisis of Beauty

At a recent occasion, Pope Benedict XVI has called artists “custodians of beauty,”1 as his predecessors Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II had done before him. This title is significant, not least because in the Catholic tradition beauty is understood as a philosophical and ultimately theological category. It was the Franciscan theologian Saint Bonaventure who first numbered beauty among the so-called transcendentals: beauty is considered a property of being itself, along with truth and goodness. This refers in the first place to God, who is being itself, and hence truth, goodness, and beauty itself.

Art, therefore, as the expression of the beautiful, is capable of revealing reality to us; sacred art in particular has the ability of manifesting to us the beauty of God. There is a remarkable passage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that sums up this theological concept of beauty (nos. 2500-2503). Here I would like to refer to the very concise version found in the Compendium of the Catechism published in 2005. In the section on the eighth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” question no. 526 reads: “What relationship exists between Truth, Beauty and Sacred Art?” The response is: “The truth is beautiful carrying in itself the splendor of spiritual beauty. In addition to the expression of the truth in words there are other complementary expressions of truth, most specifically in the beauty of artistic works. These are the fruits both of talents given by God, and of human effort.” In this passage, the intrinsic relationship between truth and beauty is affirmed and particular attention is given to works of art, which are born from the divine gift of human creativity.

Last Judgment by Stefan Lochner, 15th century

Modernity has contested precisely the transcendent dimension of beauty as expressing or revealing truth and goodness. Beauty has been detached from the order of being and, in a radical turn to subjectivity, has been reduced to an aesthetic experience or indeed to a matter of feeling. This has been part of an intellectual revolution, the consequences of which are not limited to the art world. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has seen this very clearly. He dedicated several volumes to what he termed “theological aesthetics,” recalling the idea the Catholic tradition has taken up from classical Greek philosophy, especially from Plato, that truth and goodness attract us because they are beautiful. Thus, what is good, in other words, what ought to be done, becomes self-evident. However, Balthasar notes, when beauty is disconnected from this intrinsic link with truth and goodness, when it becomes totally autonomous, then the good loses its force of attraction and becomes simply a matter of choice, one possibility among others.2 We are not concerned here with the moral result of this intellectual revolution, but rather with its effect on art. One result of this isolation of beauty from being, or truth, has been a phenomenon described by the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei as the “apotheosis of the ugly.”3

By this is meant an aesthetic theory and practice that rejects anything that appears to be beautiful as a deception and holds that only the representation of what is crude, vulgar, and low is capable of expressing the truth. No doubt, the ugly is present in the classical tradition as well, but it serves as a contrast, a backdrop to the beautiful. We may think of images of the Last Judgment, where the devil and his angels are painted often in the most grotesque and monstrous way, to highlight the contrast with the beautiful reality of heaven. However, what Bodei means by the apotheosis of the ugly goes much further. Beauty itself is suspected as being deceptive. And the consequence is that beauty is no longer sought. Such an analysis of the state of the arts in the modern world is shared by some critics of renown, such as Jean Clair, who made an outstanding contribution to the “Court of the Gentiles” of Paris on March 25, 2011.4 This initiative promoted by the Pontifical Council of Culture in the name of the Holy Father evokes the Temple in Jerusalem, which had a court for the gentiles who were at some distance from the sanctuary, but still related to it. They were not quite ready to cross the threshold, but they were not completely removed from it either. This idea of the Court of the Gentiles includes a re-launch of the dialogue between the Church and the arts. At this occasion, Clair published a very remarkable analysis of the state of the arts in the contemporary world especially with regard to the sacred and does not spare his criticism for certain forms of artistic expression that have been admitted into churches. A similar scrutiny is presented by the American critic Roger Kimball in an essay published in First Things in 2008, with suggestive title, “The End of Art.”5 There is a crisis of culture, at least in the West, and at its core there is a rejection of the very concept of the fine arts that is ultimately grounded in a transcendent vision of beauty.

Ever since the turn to the subjective which results from Enlightenment philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant, and the Romantic movement, it has been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to restate the metaphysical foundations of beauty. I consider a recent and very fine book by the philosopher Roger Scruton on beauty an excellent example of this aporia. Scruton is also aware of the need to recover these metaphysical foundations that were eroded in the eighteenth century, when “aesthetics” became a separate philosophical discipline, but in the end, cannot do so and must limit himself to the judgment of taste.6 Certainly, an education of aesthetic taste would go a long way, but, in the end, de gustibus non est disputandum. In other words, taste cannot provide foundations that would be stable enough to rebuild the metaphysical grounding of the arts today.

A Theological Response

I am not competent to provide a philosophical response to this burning question. Instead, I should try to present some elements of a theological response drawing on the Catholic tradition. There is a general tendency in Western thought, going back to Plato, that alternates between exaltation and deep suspicion of art. As Kimball observes, “if beauty can use art to express truth, art can also use beauty to create charming fabrications. … Instead of directing our attention beyond sensible beauty toward its supersensible source, art can fascinate us with beauty’s apparently self-sufficient presence; it can counterfeit being in lieu of revealing it.”7 The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky in his novel The Brothers Karamazov of 1880 has his protagonist Dmitri Karamazov say, “Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man.” On the other hand, the same Dostoevsky, in an often quoted passage of his earlier work The Idiot of 1869, puts into the mouth of his Christ-like hero, the Prince Mishkin, the famous words: “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” Not any beauty is meant here, but the redemptive beauty of Jesus Christ.

As a cardinal, Benedict XVI published an essay on this subject, beginning with a meditation on Psalm 45(44), which is a praise of the king at the occasion of his wedding, and a lyric exultation of his bride. In the exegetical tradition of the Church, this psalm has been read as a representation of Christ’s spousal relationship with the Church, and in fact has recognized Christ as the fairest of men and where the psalm says grace is poured upon his lips, it points to the beauty of Christ’s words, the glory of his proclamation. Seen in the light of God’s revelation in the New Testament, it is not merely the external beauty of the Redeemer’s appearance that is praised here, but rather the beauty of truth that appears in him. This beauty captures us with the wound of love and makes us to go forward, as the psalm describes the procession of the Mystical Bride of Christ, which is the Church, to meet the Bridegroom. It is the same Christ, however, to which are applied the words from Isaiah, “he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). The beauty of Christ is a paradoxical one, which embraces suffering and even death, and is revealed in the disfigured image of him crucified, when he shows his love to the end for his heavenly Father and for humanity. This redemptive beauty of Christ, crucified and glorified, which shines forth with the splendor of the saints, is also reflected in works of art that the Christian faith has generated; works of art that have the power to lift our hearts to higher things and to lead us beyond ourselves to this encounter with God who is beauty itself.8

The present pope has more than once expressed his profound conviction that the predicaments of today’s world call for a “widening of the horizon of reason.” Ever since the Enlightenment, and to some extent already before, reason has been narrowed to mere scientific and technical rationality: its sphere is only that which can be counted or measured. Benedict XVI is confident that religion can make an essential contribution to opening up this limited conception of reason, and the arts have an important part to play in this. He even sees in the beauty that the Faith has brought forth the true apology of Christianity. Rational argument remains important and indispensable, but the encounter with the beauty of God, especially through the arts, can today speak with much greater immediacy and effectiveness.9 In other words, there is a tremendous treasure in the Catholic tradition, which can help the search for beauty that has become disoriented ever since its metaphysical foundations were eroded.

Beauty and the Sacred

When it comes to beauty and sacred, I should like to begin with the Second Vatican’s Council Constitution on the Liturgy, which dedicates its seventh chapter to “Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings.” The opening paragraph of this chapter contains a concise description of the Church’s understanding of sacred art (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 122), and it introduces a subtle, but important distinction between religious art and sacred art. Religious art is characterized by the artist’s personal approach to a religious theme, and precisely because of its strongly subjective form of expression, a work of religious art may not be accessible to everyone. Sacred art, on the other hand, is born from the artist’s engagement with and reflection upon a positive or historical truth of a given religion. In addition to the subjective element, which will always be present in the artist’s creative work, sacred art has an objective quality that transcends the individual’s form of expression, and for this reason can be appreciated by anyone who is familiar with its religious theme. In other words, sacred art aims at a visible translation of a reality that goes beyond the limits of human individuality: the narration of a scene from Holy Scripture, or from the lives of the saints, or the meditation on a mystery of the faith.

Incarnation by Piero di Cosimo

The above-mentioned passage from the Compendium of the Catechism (no. 526) continues to say: “Sacred art by being true and beautiful should evoke and glorify the mystery of God made visible in Christ, and lead to the adoration and love of God, the Creator and Saviour, who is the surpassing, invisible Beauty of Truth and Love.” Sacred art is always oriented towards the liturgy because it is explicitly destined for the sacrum, the sacred, which in the Christian sense is not to be understood in some vague or generic sense, but as referring to worship of God. This carries implications for its forms of expression, as Benedict XVI observes in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy: “No sacred art can come from an isolated subjectivity.” Catholic sacred art, then, requires the readiness to think and feel with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia), the universal communion of the faithful, which is the true subject of faith. “Without faith there is no art commensurate with the liturgy,” the present Holy Father concludes this reflection.10

The Church has been a great patron of the arts, especially of sacred art, and the many, much-visited historic monuments all over the world speak eloquently of this fact. However, the crisis of beauty, of which I have spoken in the first part of this talk, has deeply affected sacred art as well. Pope Paul VI, in his homily to artists in the Sistine Chapel on May 19, 1964, already lamented the rift between the Church and the arts, which he thought had adopted “the language of Babylon” and were no longer capable of expressing the sacred.

Incarnation and the Image

The crisis of sacred art is, I believe, above all a crisis of the sacred image. At its root the present pope identifies a materialism that comes out of the domination of the material world that has never been achieved before. This unprecedented mastery over matter we enjoy today, however, has also led to blindness to the questions of life that transcend this material realm; Joseph Ratzinger even speaks of “a blindness of the spirit.” On the one hand, we live in a culture of images, which have become far more influential and powerful than words, but on the other hand these images remain on the surface of appearance, that is, they do not go beyond that which can be immediately perceived by the senses, whereas the transcendent dimension, which is so important for the sacred image, is no longer understood.11 In this cultural predicament, where are sources for a renewal of sacred art to be found?

One obstacle in the search for such a renewal is the often-heard objection that proposing criteria for art, architecture, or music that are drawn from the Church’s tradition would place limitations on the artist’s creativity. As already mentioned, in the sphere of sacred art, such limits are legitimate, and they are necessary. They even help artistic creativity to widen its horizons. Artists who used to have important commissions from bishops or popes, such as Michelangelo Buonarotti in Rome, entered into relationships with their patrons, which could at times become difficult. However, such tensions proved to be immensely creative, and opened up depths of artistic expression that otherwise may not have been reached. In other words, the Church has always nurtured artists and has brought out greatness in them, which may not have manifested itself otherwise. Today, the Church has become very timid in this field, for reasons that have something to do with her more recent history. Many ecclesiastical patrons seem to have lost the confidence to nurture, to build up, and occasionally to correct artists when they enter into the sacred. And yet, proper patronage is also required for a true renewal of sacred art.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, much in the same way as Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (November 20, 1947), affirms that contemporary art “shall be given free scope in the Church” and that it should be allowed to flourish in order to express the sacred. At the same time, both documents use a telling metaphor: contemporary forms are meant to join the “wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith” which is the Church’s patrimony (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 123). This metaphor presupposes an existing harmony into which new voices should be inserted, as well as the possibility that certain voices will be cacophonous and therefore not apt to become part of this chorus of praise. If you approach sacred art, you insert yourself into a tradition, be it iconographic, architectural, musical, or likewise.

In his chapter on the question of images from The Spirit of the Liturgy, the present pope proposes principles of an art ordered to divine worship. These principles cannot be discussed here in any systematic way, and so I shall limit myself to the first one, which seems absolutely essential: “The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the incarnation of God. God has acted in history and entered into our sensible world, so that it may become transparent to him. Images of beauty, in which the mystery of the invisible God becomes visible, are an essential part of Christian worship. … Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.”12 The Word has become flesh; God has become visible in Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Son of God. Christianity is an incarnational religion, and the image is indispensable for its religious expression. Hence sacred art in the Christian context is, or at any rate should be, essentially figurative. There is also place for nonfigurative art, for instance in stained glass, but primarily it should be figurative art, which make perceptible the mysteries of the faith and narrates the history of salvation. It follows from this principle that the presence of abstract art in so many Catholic churches built more recently needs to be questioned.

New Hope

While the crisis of sacred art today is a reality that needs to be addressed as such, there are also very promising developments. The gestures of protest and provocation, which opened the modernist movement in art and architecture, are not innovative or ground-breaking anymore. Kimball notes that such gestures are mere repetitions of what Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists did a century ago. On the other hand, there is a reappraisal of certain artists of the twentieth century that have been passed over in the standard manuals, and there is also a return to figurative painting and sculpture. These phenomena are by no means limited to sacred art, and in fact patronage in the ecclesiastical world sometimes gives the impression of lagging behind in appreciating them because of the fear to appear out of touch with modernity. However, a renewal of sacred art needs artists who follow their calling outside the commercial centers as much as enlightened and courageous patrons. While teaching in Rome, I was delighted to meet a group of young artists from the Anglophone world, who had studied at small private academies in Florence how to paint and sculpt figuratively. One of them, the sculptor Cody Swanson, has recently contributed to the outstanding project of the resacralisation of Sioux Falls Cathedral.

Angels by sculptor Cody Swanson grace the baldacchino canopy at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 2011. Photo: Diocese of Sioux Falls

As the present pope observes in The Spirit of the Liturgy, echoing the voice of the French author Marcel Proust: “The great cultural tradition of the faith is home to a presence of immense power. What in museums is only a monument from the past, an occasion for mere nostalgic admiration, is constantly made present in the liturgy in all its freshness.”3 When the Church’s liturgical tradition is experienced in its authentic beauty, it will also lead to new inspiration for sacred art. I am convinced that Benedict XVI’s decisive steps to renew divine worship will bear fruit in this field as well.