The Anatomy of Sacred Art

Presence, Witness, and Transcendence

by Anthony Visco, appearing in Volume 8

“I was there when he laid the earth’s foundation; I was beside him like an architect. I was his daily source of joy, always in his presence— happy with the world and pleased with the human race.” - Proverb in praise of wisdom

As the Old Testament begins with the Creation of the cosmos and the New Testament with the Incarnation of Christ, the Judeo-Christian world is reminded how the act of making becomes central to our faith. The act of imitating Creation and its Creator has been with humankind since the earliest of all recorded forms and images, and so as architects and artists, we recognize ourselves as the “created,” imitating our Creator in this great attempt to pay homage to our God, to our “Cause without Cause.” Thus what is “man made” begins as a small part, a means to seek and find our selves at first as separate from our Maker. Yet the second and greater part is to make in order to seek and find ourselves again within the greater “God-made” whole, our communion. Our hopes are that what we make will fuse with what we believe, and both process and product will bring all closer to our Maker. To imitate Creation is to celebrate the very entry of the Mystery into its own Creation.

To make sacred art is to wed one’s faith with one’s aesthetics in hope, to bring even closer “the created” to our Creator, to shorten the real or imagined gap between “the called” and the Caller. When the artist answers, when this invitation is met successfully, a covenant is formed; the work is sanctified. This covenant is then extended from God to artist and from artist to fellow believers and finally, back to God again. It is this covenant that we wish to explore here. As faith and aesthetic works combine, the work in turn is employed to reflect those beliefs. As culture becomes infused with and by our trust and hope in God, sacred art becomes an indeterminate good, a means by which we may come together and witness the meeting of heaven and earth. Thus, sacred art can never be the same give and take between artist and society as secular art.

As Catholics in America, since the Sixties we have witnessed the wholesale destruction of beauty, of figurative sacred art, in particular classical architecture, statuary, and representational painting. As a result, the reciprocity between our origins and our beliefs seem, all but absent, as if a covenant that once was never existed. These acts, conscious or unconscious, present certain and profound questions not only of aesthetics but also of faith. They now need to be asked and hopefully answered.

First of all, can and did sacred art produce a covenant? What does covenant mean here? How does it differ from the secular “give and take” between artist and society? Does this covenant exist before the art is ever made? Can there be a covenant without value? Can there be a faith without an aesthetic? Can there be sacred art without a willful belief in beauty? Finally, did modernism break the covenant?

All these questions need to be and have been asked in one way or another for the last thirty years. Yet before answering such vital questions, perhaps some discussion of the sacred art of our past and present would help. Although the Church does not have or claim an official style, it has always held that its art and architecture should actively participate in its meaning and its message. Our architecture, sculpture, and painting may indeed be external examples of our faith, extensions of a covenant. Thus, they were never intended to be outside of our worship, at least not until Modernism.

All classicism, with its painting, sculpture, drawing, and architecture, has always been and remains a figurative and representational language. If it is not literal, it is metaphorical as the language of “embodiment.” Our body’s design, reflected in bilateral architecture thus becomes an extension of body Creation. If the Church has or has yet to choose the classical mode as its official messenger, its preference is clear; in sign and symbol, classical art and architecture have always been corporeal and representative. But more importantly, what is the role of this corporeal sacred art in the Church? Why do we choose the body to reveal the invisible? For the Catholic Church the role and reason of using both the body and its corporeal architecture is triune. Combined, it is when and where the denotation, connotation, and implication join in order to embrace the entire faith.

As Catholics, cross-culturally this triune reason has remained the same for these two millennia; it is presence, witness, and transcendence. As guideposts, they together give the church artist the tools to make works that assist the faithful and guide them to the covenant. Much like its matrix architecture, the function of religious statuary in the church is to provide an experience of presence, give a sense of witness, and lead to a state of transcendence. In order to accomplish this, the classical has continually been employed as the best means. The four attributes of presence are:

1. It must be whole, its members inter-related, nothing incongruous, a self-contained entity. 2. It must show a proportionate likeness to what is recognizable, what is knowable about the known. It must have similitude. 3. Its poise, position, and the composition of place must appear to be a result of its thought. 4. It must contain both the average and the ideal.

To be whole, a self-contained entity must have its members interrelated. Nothing appears incongruous as its members and their relativity part to whole have an intelligible proportion. This use of proportion takes on a greater role when and where we find it in sacred art. Everything in Creation is made in proportion to itself along with a proportion to everything else in the universe. As there is nothing without proportion, whether it is matter or void, light or dark, sound or silence, and time, proportion remains an idea in the Mind of Creation.

Alberti speaks to us of “membratura” or the memberedness of a building or body. In representational sculpture and painting, this interrelatedness becomes mandatory. In it we become emblematic of the Mystical Body. We are using the body not only as sign here but also as symbol. Second, a proportionate likeness to what is recognizable gives reassurance as to what is known and what is knowable about the known. In sacred and secular art, likeness or similitude is the desire to have some likeness apparent to which some value has been assigned. Sacred art, perhaps more than any other art form, has for millennia struggled with this concept of likeness and for very good reasons. How do we represent the unseen without making the visible recognizable?

Classical proportion is the desire to know the comparative relationship of one part or member to the whole, and to its other members; in as much as this is resplendent in sacred art and architecture, there can be no better metaphor for the Church itself. How much is this desire of the part to know its whole like the desire of the faithful to know its part within the “Mystical Body.” Thus, everything good seeks to take on a divine proportion because everything has a divine purpose.

Third, poise, position, and the composition of place must appear to be a result of its thought. The placement, arrangement, and composition of sacred art need to reflect their purpose and role in our faith. Just as our liturgy has an order, so must our art assist the liturgy in that order. Here, the physical place has meaning and, through placement, the object helps direct us to the sacred within. St. Ignatius Loyola urges us (Spiritual Exercises, 1548)“to see with the eye of the imagination the corporeal place where the object one wishes to contemplate is found.” He calls this “composition, seeing the place.” However, when and where composition of place is not combined with purpose, when what we place in the center is not central to our faith, then content and context are no longer reciprocal and the covenant is compromised.

Like its secular partner, modernist liturgical art and architecture became overly dependent on place in order to achieve a sense of content. Just as placing sculpture outdoors didn’t make it public art, placing it inside a church didn’t make it liturgical. The abandonment of bilateral symmetry discarded the body and made our architecture non-representative; statues cannot be replaced by non-objective works and still be considered statues. Their content and placement must assist us in finding the order within the work, the sacred within ourselves.

Lastly, all representative painting and sculpture contains both the average and the ideal in varying degrees of proportion, one to the other. The Cimabue crucifix, a Franciscan commission, provided a model for both painters and sculptors alike. This notion of gravity, the sense of human weight, of compound convex forms of its members, reinforced the message of the Poverello that one could find the flesh of Christ in one’s nearest neighbor. But above all, it contained something of the average and the ideal in its form. Commissioned in 1252 by the Franciscans for the church of Santa Croce in Florence, it was a shift not only form the Christus Triumphans of the Medieval model to the Christus Patiens of St. Francis, but also to an anatomical model that opened the door for sculptors as well as painters. Anatomy had remained buried in the antique now to be unveiled and reinvented through Franciscan spirituality.

The need to demonstrate the effect of gravity on body weight, of convex form, of a greater sense of the average and the ideal gave the artists of the Quattrocento a means to depict the Incarnation. For the artist this means that seeking and finding the average and the ideal in every portrayal is a human attempt to imitate the union of the human and the divine. We the average, the human, seek unity with the ideal, the divine, just as God has revealed the humanity of Christ to all Creation.

If beauty is at the heart of the covenant, it not only speaks of a particular saint or scene from the life of Christ in stone or paint but it draws the whole of humanity into itself to witness its covenant. After all, more people have “witnessed” the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the past fifty years than in the past five hundred. Yet the idea of witness was always present in classical church art and architecture. Witness differs from presence in the sense that the interior and exterior are in synch. It is where the internal and external experiences are one. The four attributes of witness are:

1. The work is open and all-inclusive; that is, it does not alienate the viewer. 2. It must look like the action is still with us, still occurring and/or ongoing. 3. It has credible impact on the senses and through the senses. 4. The experience of the subject depicted is internalized in the viewer.

As the Church is open and inclusive, so must be the arts that represent it. They cannot alienate the viewer. From our beginnings, the earliest Christian art was based on and in, for lack of a better term, a “figurative” language used in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Its reasons for choosing an anthropomorphic language were obvious; it was, as it remains a representative language in which the signs and symbols of Incarnation theology could be best presented. Its vernacular is corporeal. It finds its language in scripture, as scripture is resplendent with metaphors placing Christ, his disciples and us in architectural terms, “foundation,” “living stones,” “columns,” “mansion,” “pillar,” and “corner stone,” all have become part of Christian sign and symbol This vernacular remains open and inclusive as figurative art and architecture continue to take on the language of the body, its bilateral symmetry, its frontality, and most of all, its proportions. All lend and will always give a most humanized way of representing and expressing the Logos Incarnatus. Without figurative representation we would lose this sense of inclusive embodiment, this sense of the corporeal, and of ourselves within the Incarnate Christ. There can be nothing bodily alien to us here less it loses credibility to our own sense of body. With it we find our place as “living stones” with Christ as the Corner Stone. Thus our bodies as well as our being become evidence that this covenant to make and to make holy exists before the art is ever made.

If the covenant is to speak, the conversation must be ongoing. It must look like the action is still with us, that this silent drama still speaks. Sacred art must be given a voice by artist and architect and speak for all of us. Yet, what is said must be modeled on the Living Word, that is, the voice that can never be meaningless, never be non-objective, and never be non-representational, a voice that cannot be self contradictory. As Donatello spoke to his sculpture of the prophet Habakkuk, his Zuccone, he didn’t simply hit the statue with his mallet and say “Parla!” (“Speak!”). Better, he commanded it, “Favela! Favela!” (“Tell the story!”) Tell the story in hopes that it, in turn, might speak to others.

All life forms “push out,” that is they are convex, full as well as multidirectional in their cross sections. They have a credible impact on the senses and are realized through the senses. Convexity is a sign and tells us that the form is alive, still living, still growing, still breathing. As the columns of the Orders push out, full with entasis, they imitate the convexities and surface tension of living flesh, of ripe fruit, the fullness of life itself. This idea of fullness has always been a hallmark of the classical order in Western art and architecture. As the figures of the medieval world were designed as integrated elements of church architecture, mainly in relief, in clustered columns, and in portals, the figures of the Cinquecento became entities in themselves, fully developed in the round, many appearing to be the same size and in the same air as the worshippers. There was no sense of alienation here.

Concavities interior within the body’s skeleton make room for convexities and provide an analogy to the concave interiors of Catholic classical architecture. With their domes, their niches, their naves and their sanctuaries, these interiors are designed to be filled with murals and mosaics, sculpture, and reliefs. But more importantly, they are to be filled with us, with our bodies and most importantly, the Holy Spirit, as we are told in the Constitution of the Church, He “fills the Church, which is His Body and His fullness, with His divine gifts, so that she may grow and reach all the fullness of God.” (The Dimensions of the Church, Avery Dulles).

Throughout the centuries, this figurative language has been much more a history of our spiritual evolution than our cultural evolution. It is the language of witness in which the experience of the subject is internalized in the viewer. As we go from early Christian to Renaissance, from Rococo to contemporary classicism, the variety of manifestations have provided us with pictorial, sculptural models from the most static to the most dynamic. The artistic and spiritual goals were to make the best for the Best; the goal always to bring witness. We only have to look at the wall paintings of the first century catacombs and see their resemblance, or lack thereof, to the works of Pompeian frescos. Of course the quality is lacking here but their place never compromised the covenant. The awkward drawing and modeling are crude. Yet we can witness the intention that this was the best offered here. After all, this “underground society” could not employ the best artists of their time openly. But as the early Church was searching for her artists within the flock, the work was to be done by believers, not “hired hands.” There is no sense of feigned naivete in these works, as the experience of the viewed is offered to the viewer.

But presence and witness are nothing and incomplete if they do not lead us to transcendence. For it is here that the cycle, the triune purpose is revealed. It is here where our covenant becomes realized as artifice, and faithful and Godhead take their rightful place. The four attributes of transcendence are:

1. The ability or quality to use the visual to express the invisible. 2. The work should inspire a personal transformation in order to inspire communal transfiguration. 3. A corporeal likeness that is sopra or transmundane in order to show “unlikeness.” 4. Its message is neither depleting nor depleted but ongoing and endless.

As Alberti speaks of “istoria” to mean the sum of our observations and experiences, works that are transcendental take our spiritual memory, our history, and our spiritual experiences and render them new. We see beauty and truth as new because they make us new. The ability, or quality, to use the visual to express the invisible precludes all sacred art. As the Invisible entered its own creation, took on flesh, and became visible, we are called to make visible so that the faithful may return to the invisible again. Here is where what speaks of beauty will speak of truth. If sacred art is to have a moral aesthetic it must have a visual aesthetic. In his address to artists on the function of art, Pope Pius XII recommends, “Seek God here below in nature and in man, but above all within yourselves. Do not vainly try to give the human without the divine, nor nature without its Creator. Harmonize instead the infinite with the eternal, man with God, and thus you will give the truth of art and the true art.”

When we say that a work should inspire a personal transformation, its goal then is to make us feel and realize our place in the Mystical Body. Once this connection to the Mystical Body is accepted by artist and viewer communal transfiguration is realized. From Francis of Assisi on, figures painted and sculpted took on their natural fullness, their biological wonder. Part of this was due to his Canticle to Brother Sun. What St. Francis did was quite different from the pagan anthropomorphism of the Greeks or Romans and beyond the simple personification of the elements. “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Fire,” “Sister Water,”and of course the birds, his “Brother and Sisters of the Air,” were all part of one Creation along with Adam and Eve and most importantly, Christ. Never before had personification in art taken on such impact to include all humankind in one family along with all else created. By renaming them in familial terms, Francis made all Creation one family, something the pagan personification of gods and goddesses could never accomplish, since it was something it could never intend. As Catholics we can experience both the personal and communal transformation. Our “family” is demonstrated, the invisible community is realized through a visual means.

To make a corporeal likeness that is transmundane is to show nothing less than the “Body Electric,” our unlikeness now to our anticipated Resurrection in Christ. As artists, we have discovered and will continue discovering the means and metaphors by which this is attained. The image is a simulacrum and represents the subject’s characteristics though not a reproduction. We make a world that resembles ours but is different from it. Thus our works, our paintings and sculptures become like prayers and perform much like intercessions between the intelligible world and the perceptual world. The human figure although a focal point, becomes a sublime means to a spiritual realm.

If the Poverello of Assisi gave us the inspiration to depict our human body and the Body of Christ as it was created, again it was Ignatius of Loyola who gave us the courage to flex our muscle. If you thought the flesh of the Quattrocentro was bad, take a look at Counter-Reformation art! Like Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius tells us nothing of art but gives us an armature in his Spiritual Exercises. He instructs us, “to look at people with the eyes of imagination, to smell and taste the infinite sweetness of God, to celebrate ornament and buildings of the Church, to celebrate images and venerate them for what they represent.” Looking at the four parts of the Exercises we begin with the contemplation of our sins, on to the life of Christ, the Passion, and finally the Resurrection and Ascension. As the exercises begin in the dark, in tenebrum, we begin to witness secularization of the transcendental in art and vice versa. The theme of metamorphosis becomes central to Catholic art and architecture. But more importantly it is the use of the mundane, the use of worldly body and the senses to reveal the divine: how much is this like the Incarnation itself!

But before religious or devotional art can be sacred, it must be beautiful and true. Beauty and truth here comprise a reciprocal relationship in that what speaks of beauty also reveals truth and what reveals beauty speaks of beauty. Here the visible and invisible validate each other as what has a visual aesthetic gives way to a moral aesthetic. The irrational space of the mannerist meets the rational of the high Renaissance. The null space of the eastern icon meets the tenebrist void of Counter-Reformation art.

Can there be faith without an aesthetic? Can there be faith without a value? Without an aesthetic, without beauty, the covenant could hardly exist. As Genesis tells us, God made it and said it was good. God as Maker, as Artist, sees his creation and places a value on it. It also tells us two things: that work is good and working well is good. This value and this Creation is ongoing. The Master Artist is still at work on his Creation of which we are part. Tommaso Campanella in his “De sensu verum et magia” of 1604 writes: “The world is the statue, the image, the living temple of God, in which He has expressed his gestures and written His concepts; He has adorned it with living statues, simple in heaven, but complex and weak on earth; but they all lead to Him.” This idea of Creation as “art,” as God’s own “living statue,” the earth as his First Daughter, the orb as His favored shape, has always been with us. Now the Imatori Dei is complete. We as artists imitate God as Artist.

In closing, as presence, witness, and transcendence are realized, this covenant made in paint, carved in stone or cast in bronze, becomes a relationship of reciprocity between origin and belief, the continuity of that belief, and the reassurance of that belief in the future. It allows us to project our faith in time, which is hope. These works of sacred art then take their place and simply sit side by side with the history of the Church, with the history of the faithful. As sacred art looks toward the covenant, it is the covenant between the artist, the faithful, the Church, and the Holy Spirit that produces the true soul, the revealed meaning of the work. By means of this covenant, great sacred art continually reveals something about us as it continually reveals something about the mysteries of our faith. Its speaks to us, with us, and for us in our ongoing metamorphosis, our ongoing sacred conversation.