The Anatomy of Sacred Art: Ad Quid Venisti? Quo Vadiums?

by Anthony Visco, appearing in Volume 9

Christ at Tiberius, detail, Anthony Visco. Photo by Anthony Visco

“You are also God’s building.  Using the gift God gave me, I did the work of the expert builder and laid the foundation, and another man is building on it.  But each of us must be careful how he builds.  For God has already placed Jesus Christ as the one and only foundation and no other foundation can be laid.” — St. Paul, 1 Cor. 3:10

The foundation of the cross shelters all who are homeless.  “I was a stranger and you received me into your home.”

We live in a time in which it is more likely to run into difficulty for doing something well than doing it poorly. Both Church art and secular art have reached an all time low. It is as always easier to understand how this can happen to secular art, but how did it happen to sacred art as well?

As the Church’s desire to become relevant culturally between the two world wars grew, the Church in America found itself in a peculiar situation.  On one hand it still had what it saw as its second-hand European hand-me-downs of art and architecture.  It also had to differentiate itself from Anglo-Saxon Protestant society so prevalent in the US. We became suspicious of our own works as if it were the art under the scrutiny of the Reformation. 

Our own nudity and all of its metaphorical meanings have all but disappeared from civic and ecclesiastic art, in particular Catholic art. We have returned to the bushes, shaking, unable to answer God’s question as to who told us we were naked. It’s as if we had forgotten that by the time Ghiberti had completed his second set of baptistery doors, the four types of nudity established in Church art were being expressed throughout: nuditas virtualis, such as the young Baptist casting off his garments to demonstrate his abandonment of worldly goods; or nuditas temporalis conditional nudity as in the Susanna at the bath; nuditas criminalis, in the expulsion from the Garden, or the drunkenness of Noah; and nuditas naturalis, as in the Creation of Adam and Eve, all took their proper place and role in church art.  However, with political correctness abounding, subjects such as the nudity of Noah would not be permissible and would be considered counter-symbolic since it is insensitive to a person’s dealing with substance. Theologically, we have remained Catholic.  Culturally, we have become Protestant with overtones of iconoclasm. But as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger so aptly puts it, “Iconoclasm is not a Christian option.”

The study of human anatomy was thrown out of the curricula in art schools; and drafting the classical orders was being eliminated from the schools of architecture. Just as the American Renaissance had placed its classical architecture; classical sculpture and painting were to have followed had not both been interrupted by the Second World War.  From 1950 onward, the figurative languages of both artist and architect, the “anatomy” of both, had become useless tools in the inept hired hands of the modernists.  As modernism needed flatness to express nihilism, it was unable to use human anatomy and the orders properly; thus, they were kept from students who wanted to use them. Conversely, the modernist jargon of non-representational flatness became as equally burdensome to Christians as artists of the Incarnation. Yet there were many who believed that this was the new way of the Church!  Under the weight of modernism, anatomy, the sense of “embodiment” in both ecclesiastical art and architecture, became all but impossible to find in the American church.  Architecturally, when we abandoned bilateral symmetry, we abandoned the body. Sadly, the Catholic Church followed the hired hand of the modernist into fields where the flocks literally were scattered and the good grass was trampled and the waters muddied. 

 We have learned much by looking to other artists who have heard the call from Eternity and responded as contemporary artists throughout time. If we listen, we can perhaps gain a better idea of ourselves as the created as well as what the Caller asks of us now. Yet we must be mindful that the masterpieces of the past, present, and future are like the stars in the heavens. They can indeed give us our location but we must wait for the darkness and hope for a clear night in order to see them better. Perhaps our darkness was indeed modernism; perhaps our clear night is arriving. Then, once our location in the Third Millennium is learned, the greater question for the maker of sacred arts will be where do we go from wherever we are?

How Modernism Broke the Convenant

As modernism spoke only of the self, it became a gift to self rather than a gift of self.

There were two attributes of modernism that violated the covenant as it was governed by two major conventions of thought. First, there was “traditional modernism,” the need to sacrifice, to omit, to discard something in order to make something unique and novel. But to sacrifice does not mean omit.  It means to make holy. Just as a contract is not a covenant, a sacrifice is not an omission. The second attribute of modernism, “conventional modernism,” was when a risk must be taken, no matter how needless or fruitless. Combined they were to make something “original,” something that hadn’t been done or seen before. 
Quality thus came from novelty and replaced beauty with “new” formalist

 With originality as its goal, modernism sought to invent its own language; it took metaphor and replaced it with irony. In its need to sacrifice, it took the alphabet of all classical art and architecture and threw out the vowels. In its need to be original, it took this new alphabet without vowels and only consonants, and made words illegible, unintelligible, and unpronounceable,
a language that could mean anything, and called it “untitled.” We soon came to realize that “untitled” was very much indeed a title. If modernism spoke at all, it said, “I will not serve.”

Modernism had convinced an entire populace to expect nothing great from art or artists. Now used to avant-gardism, the public has grown suspicious of themselves if confronted with art they can understand. For Roman Catholics in particular, the modernist collision happened in the sixties when the secular art form, the “pop,” the “folk,”  and the avant-garde styles were adopted and mingled with a most misinterpreted version of the Vatican II message encouraging the use of contemporary art and music in liturgy. Contemporary was never meant to mean modernist; it never meant non-representational.  For the first time in history, instead of leading the secular art world as it had done for centuries, the Church now followed it.  For the liturgical artist and architect, for the painter and sculptor of religious works, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Its outcome was already being foretold in 1964 by Pope Paul VI, a global advocate for the entire world of sacred arts, in his meeting with artists in 1964:

We can say at times we have placed against you a leaden burden; please forgive us!  And then we have abandoned you.  We have not explained our things; we have not introduced you into the secret cell where the mysteries of God make man’s heart leap with joy, hope, happiness, and exaltation. We have not had you as students, friends, interlocutors, so you have not known us.  Thus your language for the world has been docile, yes, but also tied up, labored, incapable of finding its voice.  And thus we have felt this artistic expression unsatisfactory… We have treated you worse, we have turned to surrogates, oleography to works of art of little value and less expenditure, also because we did not have the means to commission things which were great, beautiful, and worth being admired. 

Things seemed to changing in 1976 at the 41st International Eucharistic Congress hosted by the Exhibition of Liturgical Art in Philadelphia. Both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Catholic patrons alike commissioned several works with the centerpiece of the Congress being the commission of one permanent sculpture. It became a standing bronze Christ to be made by Walter Erlebacher and placed in front of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. It is an Apollo-Christ, clearly reminiscent of our early Christian world in which a beardless young man with the physical attributes of an Apollo are fused and brought to realization in Christ. It is the Eucharistic Lord, the Second Adam, reborn, as he stands young and old, virile and effeminate, living and dying, with arms extended, still bleeding form his costal wound while offering to all his broken bread. As it was and still remains counter to church renovations of its time, it was definitely contemporary but not modernist. 

Yet with its many commissions given to  some of the country’s most popular gallery artists of the day (all in storage now), the show itself was a hodge-podge of styles of art about art, art for art sake, art about the artist, with only a smattering of that which was truly religious or liturgical.  This disdain for quality, for the utilitarian, for the classical, was further echoed in the exhibition’s catalogue liner notes as they went on to denounce the Quattrocento: “In fact, what historians might indicate to be the apex of Church art and art in general may actually signal the real decline, possibly the decadence of sacred art in the West … the Renaissance.” 

This argument that the Greco-Roman and the Renaissance periods were pagan in origins and therefore unsuitable or unworthy for contemporary church art and architecture has long needed to be put to rest.  Countless Christian attributes predate the birth of Christ, as the Mystery entered Its own creation from the beginning.  As we are called on to acknowledge the “anonymous Christian” in those who have not heard the teachings of Christ yet lead their lives in the spirit of Christ, so are we, along with the Church, called to acknowledge the anonymous Christian in art and architecture. The truth is that Christianity has more classical structures than pagan antiquity has ruins. 

To follow this anti-classical logic through would call on us to not show our God as having taken on human form, to not show that the Mystery became flesh. After all, the idea of anthropomorphizing one’s god was not primarily Christian, as it can be found in both pagan and nature religions predating the Incarnation. Yet it is ironical that these same critics who despise the use of the classical for its pagan origins or “political incorrectness” seem to have no problem in appropriating the designs of other pre-Christian nature religions for our churches.  As Stonehenge replaces the altar and sanctuary, and “medicine wheel” seating replaces the nave, our “worship spaces” becomes theaters in the round. When the corporeal reality of place is lost to bad art and architecture, the spiritual reality of place is lost with it. The true freedom to make something beautiful for the Church and its faithful is placed in exile and its faithful with it. 

The beauty due in sacred art and architecture cannot be subject to political correctness as if it were a matter of political rationing. Beauty contains the measure of gift within itself, not the percentage allotted in the art budget. Modernist art and architecture will not be catalogued by some future Vitruvius.  There will be no Brunelleschi and Donatello traveling to a modernist Rome to measure its proportions. If modernism broke the covenant, it did so simply on the basis of not giving. When faith and aesthetics do not share a common goal, both are degraded. When aesthetics’ affairs are so ordered as in modernism that there is no recognition of either the moral or visual aesthetic, there can be expected a belittling of the faithful. The faithful have a right to a response from the artist and architect that is a reflection of their beliefs.  Wherever, whenever, and however this right is dislocated, the very notion of a serving aesthetic is sacrificed, omitted, for the santitiy of individualism. Thus, so-called sacred art will have no meaning other than that projected by the artist’s ego. There can be no covenant when the goals of the art are separated from the goals of the faith.  Sacred art without the faith and faithful being served is a parody and an injustice. The covenant is broken.  

The Disregard of Representational
Sacred Art

Even with his work among our best religious paintings of the twentieth century, Salvador Dali goes unrecognized for his contribution to sacred art. His “Last Supper” is hung as to not be seen or read as it is placed on a stairwell going to the basement in the National Gallery in Washington DC. Ironically, just as the Christ it depicts, it holds the place of embarrassment, a “stumbling block” that the modernist curator cannot explain to his visitors, that the art historian would rather her students skip over. Yet Dali holds a place for the extension of Catholic art.  His was and is the art of ongoing conversion.  However it neither received proper notice from the Church officials or the art critics. For the sake of Dada, art history prefers and needs Dali to be its “bad boy” and would rather not be reminded of his slips into religious art. 

 In his “Discovery of the Americas by Columbus,” sometimes called the “Dream of Columbus,” Dali depicts the discovering of the New World out of time and place. Here he presents “Christo-Foro,” the Christ Carrier who brings the Ship of Christ with all its crosses as well as his Church to the New World. But simultaneously he, the man, also arrives and discovers this New World found in the Resurrection of Christ. As this Christoforo emerges from the waters of Baptism, he pulls his ship, his cross, to a new shore never to return to his point of departure, never to leave his new discovered true home in Christ. Here this pictorial discovery gives evidence that neither the works inspired by Franciscan or Ignatian spirituality belonged to a certain period of art or Church history.  Sadly, in our anxiety to be relevant, this art became unintelligible to us as we allowed modernism to appropriate our Catholic language.

Now through what is called postmodernism, we may have learned that religious, sacred, or liturgical art cannot serve the art community as art does the secular world. The artist of religious work is usually self-educated in the signs and symbols, the forms, the colors and geometry and proportions of sacred art.  When we meet others like us, it is the smaller if not the smallest circle of artist friends.  Once installed, our commissions are not visited by curators or reviewed by any art reviews.  Our works are often reproduced on holy cards, church calendars, and in books, yet we remain “anonymous.” Artists and architects may be called “church ministers,” but too often, they remain nameless, something that Paul VI knew in the long run hurt the Church more than her artists. If we have learned anything from modernism and our history, we know that religious art does not receive notoriety for being novel, from being ironic, or being clever. To have one’s work be such an attraction in the secular world is to be a success. To do so in the religious sector is to have failed at your mission.  Obviously this is not work for those without a calling.  The paintbrush or chisel in the hand of the “uncalled” is as worthless as the crosier held by the “hired hand.”  The former would open windows that lead the flock nowhere, while the latter would simply close or renovate our churches and leave the flocks to scatter.  We are left with the question as to how people find us.

Yet despite the efforts and arguments made by art historians, critics, galleries, museums, and teaching institutions, as well as those within the Church hierarchy, classicism, like the Church, the Bride herself, cannot be chronologically framed.  It, unlike modernism, is not a linear fashion of one style begetting another and another.  Here the modernist view would like us to think that Michelangelo if alive today would be a “liturgical mime performance artist.” 

At best, our recent past can provide us with a sense of where we may find ourselves today.  By the end of the second millennium, American artists had been working alongside, if not within the secular, thus being both modernist and puritan: the modernist believing that the artist was freest when not tied to the burden of representationalism and the puritan needing to believe all art is by nature superficial, controversial, and always to appear out of place.  By their combined definitions, modernism and Puritanism produced an art from what was only acceptable if and when it seemed shocking, if and only when it was inappropriate, and if and only when it was non-representational, all of which sacred art cannot do if it indeed accepts the Incarnation. Should it be any wonder why the tympani reliefs of Creation for the National Cathedral in Washington DC by Fredrick Hart went unnoticed by both the art world and the religious world alike when unveiled in 1984? 

Our Lady of the Eucharist, Anthony Visco. Photo by Anthony Visco

The Church as Bride, Daughter, Mother, and Sister of Christ

 But if our works are to find themselves in beauty, that must be centered in love. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “… I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you together with God’s people may have the power to understand how broad, and long, how high and deep is Christ’s love.” If we take these dynamics and apply the dimensional aspects of the Christ’s love for us in his Church as his Bride, as Daughter, as Mother, and as Sister, we can then apply these same dynamics to our works as artists in Christ.

 As Bride she is forever erect, upright. She is always dressed, with her lamp lit and ready for action. Her stature demonstrates her being His chosen. Her height tells of her devotion. Attentive, she is never squat. As she patiently awaits her Master, she wears her veil in the form of a façade. Its design gives us hint to her inner beauty, of her true face, which she takes on as she meets the Groom at the altar. As the Bride of Christ she must be adorned with the finest furnishings, moldings, and ornaments fitting for the holiest occasion. Yet all that she wears from her vaulted ceilings and domes to her tiled floors, points to whom she awaits. In all, she must be well suited for that place where time and eternity meet and heaven and earth kiss.

As the Mother she is the great breadth of the Church as she is also the seat, the cathedra in which she holds the infant Christ Child as well as the Pieta holding her dying Son. Yet as mother to all she is also womb, the place where we are all born in Christ, a chair, a cathedra in which she cradles the Christ child as the Incarnation and as the mother of her crucified Son. As Mater Ecclesciae, all her forms wrap around her children in stone, in words or images, all are durable, substantial, made of the finest materials possible.  She would give us nothing less, nothing artificial even as part of the meal or portion of our nourishment.

As Sister with her nave as the deck, she is the length of our ship as she accompanies us on our journey to meet our Brother in Christ. Her spires as masts, her stained glass as portals, she is a mighty ship prepared to take us on this journey and provides us with the proper sacraments and sacramentals. This ship, she says, can take the entire city, no, the entire world along with her.  

As Daughter, in her depth she remains in the loving care of the Father. She is the first born of the First Born of the dead. She is the product of the loving will and therefore houses all that was done with loving will. Her artists and artisans listen along with her to the Holy Spirit, and as the New Eve, she with them in turn cares for the Father as He provide for his other children, giving them the works for His family in us. 

The Bride Church is a labor of love and faith of the Groom Christ in and for us, His creation. So in kind, our art works, our labors must be of love and imbued with faith if they are to reach others.  Like Bride and Bridegroom they must bear the resemblance of the lover and the beloved. If art does not serve the Creator, how can it serve his creation?  Conversely if it cannot or will not serve His creation, how can it serve Him? 

Does the Church need a Renaissance?

As Meister Eckhart states, “To be properly expressed, a thing must proceed from within, moved by its form.” Here form means pure idea. This could be easily seen as absent in modernist works as they became more obtuse and self-centered.  Yet they did nothing less than mirror our contemporary liturgies. As the translation of Et cum spiritu tuo, “and with your Spirit,” became “and also with you,” our art began to imitate our liturgy.  Our salutation to the Holy Spirit within each other as community became an individual greeting to the celebrant’s ego.

We have learned now that when faith and aesthetics do not share a common good, as happened in modernism and puritanism, sacred art and architecture degrade the faithful and deprive them of any higher vision.  Their view remains no higher than the naked physical properties and processes of the works. The art work fails to rise with the faithful to its higher capacity. Like galleries and museums, many churches still cling to solutions that modernism could never afford, nor was ever willing to give to Ecclesiae. American churches have grown lazy in their search for the best. In many cases, with its order of iconography, it clings to a model that trivializes spirituality, placing catalogue Mary and catalogue Joseph on either side of the altar (or block) as if they were the salt and  pepper shakers for the Lord’s Supper.  The statuary is most often purchased from catalogues for prices beyond the cost of a commission,  to have all done by the day of dedication. The only comforting thought that we must continually allow ourselves is the fact that the Church is never complete in time and space. Nor should it be.

As we leave the laboratory of modernism, we face new problems. Like a pickled lab frog connected to the batteries of museums, galleries, and magazines, modernism doesn’t know that it’s dead, that its kicks are not real. How do we pull the plug?  We will have some problems here. Modernism tried and to some extent succeeded in trying to make beauty untrustworthy. As a result, we live in a time whereby we are more likely to run into difficulty for doing something well than for doing it poorly. Thus, conviction and faith must pervade the painting and sculpture of religious art if it is at all to succeed in its mission. 

Great sacred art should point to our expectations.  In this it remains forever contemporary in its ability to point and lead us to our higher goals. Here, art history and fashion can and will be put aside as the faithful become willing once again to submit to and trust the influence of willful belief in beauty. The only reality for the true artist is true beauty and the only true beauty is God.

The American Catholic Church longs for a renaissance; not a renovation. It longs for a renaissance, not as an art movement to be replaced with another, but a rebirth of its qualities that reflect the covenant. Like our architecture, our painting and sculpture need to bring us closer to and include us in the mysteries of our faith. Their mission, their message cannot be withered and wasted by the desire to be novel or the fear of borrowing from within our own traditions. To deny our qualities is nothing less than a denial of our transfiguration. 

Of course the greatest aspect of transfiguration, of transformation, is still the liturgy, is still the ongoing work of the Church.  As such, sacred art remains the work of the new in that it is the work that can always be reborn and, like the Church, extend itself. It is an inclusive and open form that allows for rebirth both within and without. Yet if sacred art and architecture are to function as guide posts along the way, then they must point in a guided direction, not a misleading one.  If our destination is Eternity, it is inevitable that a renaissance will occur. For now we must wait for the Church to wake up from the slumber of modernism, to regain its ability to distinguish the difference between novelty and renaissance.  We may then ask, does the Catholic Church need a “renaissance”?

Ultimately, the answer is always “yes.” The Church needs renaissance because the Church is renaissance.