A Vast, Immeasurable Sanctuary: Iconography for Churches

The subject of iconography, the creation or study of images with specific narrative or symbolic intent, raises complex aesthetic and philosophical questions for the modern world about the universal legibility of pictorial messages. Are symbols cross-cultural or temporal? Should messages be conveyed by realist, idealized, or abstract art? What messages can we all agree on? This complexity has virtually precluded iconography’s relevance to modernist art. But in classical art, and especially in the art of the Church, it has never lost its relevance, because the messages conveyed in religious pictures speak the same messages that have been proclaimed from the pulpit for almost two thousand years.

In any discussion of creating iconographic images for Catholic church buildings, it is first important to understand what it is that architecture can not do that painting and sculpture can. A helpful analogy might be that architecture is to music as painting and sculpture are to words: like music, architecture can be “affective,” conveying general emotive or spiritual states: solemn, joyful, serene, inspiring. It can also, like music, be stretched to convey certain figurative/anthropomorphic impressions. Paradigmatically for churches, the Latin cross plan not only alludes to the cross but to Christ crucified. The classical orders rhythmically structure space, and each can suggest a male or female reading (ideally the dedication saint of the church). But architecture by itself can not convey specific narrative or allegorical messages. Only the human figure (the timeless, universal narrative “sign”), and a commonly understood symbolic language, can tell a story visually or represent specific characters or ideas.

The Catholic church, born into a pan-Mediterranean, classical Roman culture, having endured three centuries of persecution in Rome, and having inherited that classical Humanist culture after the fall of the Roman Empire, had for almost two millennia (that is, until modernism) seen the visual arts as performing a vital role in sacred architecture. All Humanist art is rhetorical, in the sense that it wants to explain, convince and exhort, and for Catholic Humanist art this is especially true. The Roman poet Horace aphorized the relationship between the visual and literary arts as ut pictura poesis; that is, as in painting so too in poetry. Inevitably, if Horace’s poet is a painter in words, then the painter is a poet on canvas (and perhaps, as Leonardo da Vinci claimed, in fact superior to his literary cousin in his power to “re-present”). Art historians since the early 20th century have tried to recover for the arts this literary/iconographic dimension, which was almost eradicated after the Enlightenment. But only recently have they come fully to terms with the ways painting, for example, presents literary material in a unique way from the text itself. It was Pope Gregory the Great who described paintings in churches as “the bible of the illiterate”; but it has been a relatively recent mistake to interpret that relationship absolutely literally. Artists until the nineteenth century were instinctively aware of the ways in which the narrative possibilities of visual art are both limited and liberated by their two- and three-dimensional media. Most obviously, in literature stories are told sequentially over time, but paintings present only a single or limited number of “scenes.” This apparent narrative limitation of painting is transcended by some of its advantages: simultaneity, or its ability to present many kinds of information at one time (setting, facial expressions, gestures, clothing, etc.); drama, and its attendant memorability; and multiplicity, or the showing of multiple events from a story in a single frame. In a nutshell, paintings don’t tell, they show.

As important as the ways of representing a narrative are, in a Church a related, enriching issue is their disposition, that is, the spatial relationship of one painted or sculpted scene to another. The relationships are usually sequential in the case of a narrative shown in several discreet scenes; but an aspect of choice exists in where the scenes begin and end. In a medieval type of disposition known as boustrophedon (“as the cow plows” in Greek, that is, up and down the field, or left to right and then right to left), the initial scene along the upper portion of the nave wall begins at the pulpit as if emanated from the speaker’s mouth, continues down one side and returns to the altar end on the other. The distributions can also be dynamic, where relationships are established across a nave, for example, or from ceiling to wall to floor. These spatial relationships can create a dense narrative and symbolic web within a sacred space. [figure 1]

The literal narrative sense or story of a painting, relief or mosaic is often fairly easily grasped, in part because we are familiar with the stories themselves, or other painted versions of the same scene (e.g. The Last Supper). Allegory, however, is a more complex problem, in part because the nature of allegory itself has changed much over the centuries.
Allegorical handbooks became popular in the sixteenth century, and one, the Iconologia of Cesare Ripa, became the standard reference through the eighteenth century. To a certain extent, these guides contributed little new to the common repertoire of symbolic images. Their job instead was to collect and codify the development of accepted ways of representing abstract concepts (the Virtues, Grammar, War, etc.) in visual terms over the previous millennium and a half. Unlike a well-known story, allegories depend both on symbols that are fundamental to the idea which almost anyone can grasp, and more difficult imagery that needs to be de-coded. So, for example, the bridle of Temperance, signifying restraint, is a relatively simple symbol to grasp; the clock she sometimes holds (symbolizing a well-regulated life) is less obviously understood. But this is not a defect of the allegorical tradition. Iconographers of the sixteenth century stressed the fact that some effort was not only necessary to decipher the message, it was in fact part of the benefit obtained. The iconographic messages of sacred art should therefore ideally combine an immediate understanding with a deeper lesson understood after instruction and contemplation.

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the history of western art from Constantine until the Enlightenment is virtually identical with the history of Christian art. To the extent that all art of that period shared many of the same aspirations and means, it was an art whose ideas were poetic, whose means were rhetorical, and whose subject matter was figurative. For churches today to recover their traditional use of the visual arts is to recover the value of art as a public, hortatory, eloquent articulation of ideas and values. Hopefully, this conveys the danger of thinking of the visual arts in churches as mere “decoration.” While it can be said that there is a decorative component in what painting, sculpture, and mosaic do for churches, but that is a happy result—not a primary cause—of their presence.

So we must free ourselves from a post-Enlightenment view of art as either documentary or decorative. The nineteenth century’s Ecole des Beaux Arts, with its tendency to systematize and categorize, also left us with a highly restrictive notion of where art belongs in buildings. Essentially, Beaux Arts architects tended to put the figurative arts in boxes: in frames, niches, friezes, etc. Instead, the long history of Catholic art until that time employed highly complex ways to inextricably integrate the arts into architecture. We will spend most of the rest of this article looking at some of the ways that was done.

I have already written of the limited ways architecture by itself can be “figurative”—principally in plan, and by means of the classical orders. But there are ways the figurative aspect of traditional architecture can be amplified. Column capitals, for example, can be explicitly figurated or anthropomorphic (Romanesque examples abound); and the constituent parts of a structure can be seen in metaphorical terms—the ceiling as sky, the floor as the earth, the altar as a table or tomb (or both), and the choir apse as an earthly paradise. To a certain extent, this kind of poetic or metaphorical thinking is necessary before addressing the place of the visual arts per se.

It is with painting, sculpture, and mosaic that truly polyphonic, fugal relationships can be established between art and architecture, between art and the spectator, and between architecture and the liturgy. The following list of how figurative art has traditionally acted compositionally in Catholic architecture is not exhaustive, but rather suggestive:

Many of the techniques listed above have the goal of breaking down the barrier between the spectator and what is represented. This is not a purely baroque phenomena, but the desire of every artist who wants to “explain, convince and exhort”—establishing a rapport, rather than a distance, between art and spectator, so that the message of the work will be felt and understood. What largely changed over the centuries was whether that rapport was physical, intellectual, or spiritual.

The strategies listed above relate to the artist’s job of weaving his or her work into its context. There are, of course, highly familiar “types” of sacred or religious art for churches, that are quickly described: altar painting and sculpture, mural cycles, memorials and tombs, stained glass, and stations of the cross. In addition, all the important elements for the liturgy can be elaborated with iconographical content: the altar itself, the ambo or lectern, the tabernacle, or the baptismal font. Ideally, every decorative detail—patterns, carving, etc.—within a sacred space should have some specific meaning or iconographic purpose.

Materials and color can also have symbolic meaning. An example of the symbolic use of materials is Bernini’s use of red Sicilian jasper column shafts in his chapel for the Jesuit novices of Sant Andrea in Rome to represent the blood of the Jesuit missionary martyrs the novices would be asked to emulate.

The Church over the centuries saw the power of iconography as a profound stimulus to the memory. In the ancient world, in fact, an elaborate memory technique was developed that used visual images as clues to remembering lengthy rhetorical, poetic or even scientific texts. Conversely, someone versed in the tradition of seeing in the mind courtyards, palaces, streets and piazzas as containers for symbols that cue the mind to remember ideas inevitably saw real buildings as repositories for symbols and ideas. A Church could therefore be a kind of memory temple, layered with stories and symbols which embed themselves in the mind and heart, something to sustain the soul when no longer there. I am convinced that the belief in the power of places to contain ideas explains in part the deeply reverential, memorable beauty of the great churches of the Catholic tradition. Recovering the potential to memorialize our faith in painting and sculpture should be the basis for recovering the traditional forms of sacred architecture.

This article has focused on two aspects of sacred art: its meaning and its place in context. It has not tackled issues of “style,” either historical or personal. But it should be evident that, entering into a discussion of a two-thousand-year-old tradition, a degree of the ideal and the timeless is necessary so that what is represented speaks to the future and not just to us. Surely, a degree of humility in the face of our great artistic heritage would demand we avoid novelty or reinventing the wheel for its own sake, and see ourselves as extending rather than overturning our traditional art forms. And one of the best hopes for a successful recovery of sacred iconography is an informed group of patrons. Priests and bishops involved in these projects as informed connoisseurs of our artistic heritage must be vital contributors to the process.

In the end, the timeless messages of sacred iconography still require the reaffirmation of the priest during the liturgy, especially in the sermon. Continually pointing out and explaining the theme of a sculpture or a stained glass window makes it come alive for the parishioners, and an art that isn’t worth reaffirming isn’t worth creating. A mural cycle loved and understood by a parish is a continuous call to prayer and contemplation. Its beauty is a vestigium of the beauty of God, and the beauty of the church building is a foretaste of the beauty of heaven. That is the role of sacred iconography.

The power of the memory is prodigious, my God. It is a vast, immeasurable sanctuary.


David Mayernik is an urban designer, architect and fresco painter who divides his time between the United States and Europe. He has designed the TASIS school campuses in Switzerland and England, and painted frescoes in the US, Italy, and Switzerland (for the church of San Tommaso, Agra). He has a website at www.davidmayernik.com.

Figure 1: Raphael’s fresco of Isaiah above Sansovino’s sculpture of the Virgin and Child and St. Anne, over the family tomb of Johann Göritz, all on a nave pier in Sant’ Agostino, Rome. Doubling of pose and gesture between the fresco and the sculpture create formal links that reinforce their iconographic interconnectedness, as does the “sculptural” quality of Raphael’s Isaiah (something he learned from Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling).
Sketch by David Mayernik.

Figure 2: G. B. Gaulli’s fresco in a pendentive of Sant’ Agnese in Piazza Navona, Rome. Pendentives, in the transitional zone between the square or octagonal crossing of a church and the drum of the dome, being four in number, have always suggested representations of groups of four: the evangelists, the cardinal virtues, etc. In Sant’ Agnese Gaulli, presented with a wider than usual pendentive field, creates four complex groups of cardinal combined with theological virtues, and attendant figures. Here, Fortitude (with helmet and armor) and Charity witness to the cross carried by an angel; Fortitude puts aside her spear to open her arms in a welcoming gesture to the cross, proving that the richness of allegory exists not only in what allegorical figures carry or wear, but in what they do.

Figure 3: Bernini’s design for the altar at Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale, Rome. In the framed painting, “held” by angels, Saint Andrew on the cross looks up to an angelic messenger, who points up and out of the painting to the sculpted angel holding a crown, next to a cherub holding the martyr’s palm, who leads the eye up to the lantern, from which emanates the sculpted light rays and the real light illuminating the altar itself, but also the direction from which the painted scene is illuminated. Elements are constantly doubled and overlapped between sculpture and painting, breaking down the barriers between them but also between us and the events depicted; even the form of the tabernacle in front of the painting repeats the oval plan of the church.
Sketch by David Mayernik.

Figure 4: Fresco by David Mayernik of “The Vision of St. Thomas,” for the church of San Tommaso, Agra, Canton Ticino, Switzerland. The apostle, patron saint of architects, looks up to the lunette panel and a vision of the Trinity and the Civitas Dei; the fresco, on the front of an abandoned ossuary in the retaining wall which supports the actual church above, illustrates a moment in the apochryphal story of the apostle to India’s promise to an Indian prince to build him a palace in heaven rather than one on earth. Therefore, the saint looks up not only within the fresco, but also up and out of the fresco to the church of San Tommaso itself, as a concrete manifestation on earth of the heavenly palace, and so the painting has a dynamic spatial and temporal relationship to its context, “activating” it for its viewers.