The Beauty of Faith: Sacred Architecture and Catechesis

On the Solemnity of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Pope Benedict XVI presented a Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the Universal Church. The “mini catechism,” among the first publications of this pontificate, contains some fourteen works of sacred art that will be included in subsequent language editions of the text. In introducing the new Compendium, the Pope drew attention to the catechetical significance of works of sacred art. “Sacred images,” he noted, “proclaim the same Gospel message that the Sacred Scriptures transmit through words and they help reawaken and nourish the faith of believers.”

In recent decades, as Catholics in this country witness a diminishing, a stripping of sacred images from cathedrals, churches, and chapels, attempts to speak of the catechetical value of sacred art and architecture are sometimes deemed wasteful, extravagant, or irrelevant. Against that backdrop, the inclusion of sacred images in the new Compendium is all the more significant, as it invites architects, artists, catechists, pastors, bishops, parents, and teachers to reflect anew on the relationship of art and catechesis. Leaving aside the vital issue of what constitutes genuine sacred art, the placing of sacred images within a catechism raises specific questions that this article seeks to reflect on: What is the catechetical value of sacred images? Why is sacred art and architecture indispensable to full instruction in the faith? Might sacred images serve as powerful means of evangelization and catechesis in our own day and age?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that sacred art is true and beautiful when “its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God—the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,’ in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’… Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier” (CCC 2502).

The catechetical function of sacred art and architecture, affirmed in this passage, is to lead the faithful from seeing to contemplation to adoration of God. From a pedagogical standpoint, a sacred image of Christ, the Blessed Mother of God, or a Christian saint provides an earthly glimpse into eternal realities, a “head start to heaven,” so to speak.

The Catechism elsewhere describes the goal of “liturgical catechesis (mystagogy) … [as] aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the ‘sacraments’ to the ‘mysteries” (CCC 1075). Instituted by Christ, the sacraments are the privileged means by which the faithful participate in His saving mystery through the ministry of the Church. Within this sacramental economy, sacred architecture and images, which predispose one to the sacramental presence of God, serve as a “pre-sacrament,” a phrase used by Pope John Paul II to describe the sacred art and architecture of the Sistine Chapel.
To limit the function of sacred images then to mere decorative or aesthetic representations of socio-cultural ideals is to miss a high note in the liturgical symphony that is in fact composed of sacred images, architecture, music, and rites. For sure, sacred images express human, social, and cultural realities and add aesthetic value to the interior and exterior spaces of cathedrals, chapels, and churches, but they are also an indispensable means to instruct the faithful in the content of divine revelation and to reawaken and nourish their faith. With the aid of sacred images, catechists, preachers, and teachers of faith echo the divine pedagogy of salvation history in which the witness of divine “words” and “signs” or “word” and “image” are inextricably linked.

Pope John Paul II drew attention to the pedagogical value of sacred images in his 1999 Letter to Artists when he wrote that “in a sense, art is a kind of visual Gospel, a concrete mode of catechesis.” That is to say that each Sunday as the faithful hear the truth of the Gospel proclaimed and respond by professing their faith in the words of the Creed, those very truths of faith take the form of the beautiful in the sacred images that surround them. Church teachings and doctrines condensed onto a page of a catechism find complementary forms of expression in sacred art and architecture. In this way, sacred images—paintings, mosaics, stained glass, sculpture, sacred music—become a “visual Gospel” by which the faithful see, hear, and touch the mysteries of faith so as to incarnate its truths in holiness of life and Christian witness.

One of the first to affirm this role of sacred images was Pope Saint Gregory the Great. In a letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles in A.D. 599, he wrote, “Painting is employed in churches so that those who cannot read or write may at least read on the walls what they cannot decipher on the page” (Epistulae IX, 209). The movement from seeing to contemplation to adoration of God is realized through written or spoken words and through sacred images.

It is rightly suggested that appreciating the meaning of sacred images depends on one’s ability, however minimal, to “read” the signs and symbols expressed. Consequently, some have justified a diminishing of sacred art and architecture with the assertion that the faithful lack familiarity with Christian symbols. The person in the pew, they would argue, cannot be expected to understand, let alone be instructed, through sacred images. In other words, since sacred images are meaningful only to those who are intellectually equipped to “read” them, the artistically uninitiated cannot gain much by way of formation in the faith from sacred images.

For centuries sacred images were aimed precisely at illiterate faithful. For sure, the appropriation of signs and symbols in sacred images relied on effective preaching and teaching in communion with the “seeing faith of the Church,” but the whole pedagogical point of a sacred image is not to engage viewers in an intellectual or didactic exercise alone. Rather, it is to lead them to awe and wonder, perhaps even to a ravishing of the soul by a glimpse, a hint of divine beauty, in the hope that they entrust their lives to the beauty of faith. The whole point is to lead the faithful to perceive the Invisible in the visible, to learn a new way of seeing and hearing that leads to contemplation, worship, and adoration of God.

Chartres Cathedral. Photo: wikimedia.org/Robin Poitou

Whether or not the person in the pew fully understands the symbolic elements in a work of sacred art and architecture depends on a convergence of multiple factors. But the very presence of genuine sacred images that convey through the senses the content of Christian revelation draws the faithful into a distinct catechetical mode. And blank walls have an equally potent pedagogical message plain even to the most uninitiated!

Pope Gregory’s assertion would take distinct visible form in the outpouring of Christian art and architecture of the Middle Ages. A Gothic cathedral like Chartres served, in effect, as a catechism in stone, a homily in stained glass, expressing for the faithful in art and architecture the faith they professed in the Creed and heard proclaimed in the Scriptures. As medieval craftsmen set stone upon carved stone, visible from miles away and luminous through colored glass, they were, in fact, sculpting and painting the saving message of Biblical history—explicit and beautiful as their faith. A pilgrim entering Chartres Cathedral was not only drawn into a “reading” of Biblical history made visible in sacred art and architecture, but was, through his seeing and hearing, at the same time inserted into a sacramental present fully realized in the liturgy.

While visiting Chartres in the 1950s Soetsu Yanagi, the father of the Japanese crafts movement of the early twentieth century, stood long and silent before its great stone façade. Then turning to a Christian friend he simply said: “That is what you have lost today.” He went on to observe that perhaps the West stood in need of a new teaching of the Gospel such as was expressed in the eloquent craftsmanship and beauty of Chartres.

Can works of sacred art and architecture serve as fresh catechisms and means of evangelization today just as they did for past generations? Or to return to our starting point, what catechetical purpose is served by inserting sacred images in a Catechism? To provide a framework for such a recovery I offer some reasons for the indispensability of sacred art and architecture as “concrete modes of catechesis” today.

A first defense for the catechetical role of sacred images is, of necessity, theological. Saint John Damascene, defender of sacred images against the iconoclasts of the eighth century summarized it well: “In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who worked out my salvation through matter” (On the Divine Images, 17).

Saint Paul sums up the incarnational principle that inspires genuine sacred images when he writes: “Christ is the image (eikon) of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). When God acted in human history in the person of his Son, Christ entered our sensible world rendering it transparent to Him. Images of beauty, through which the invisible mystery of God becomes visible, are now an essential part of Christian worship. As Pope Benedict XVI notes in The Spirit of the Liturgy, “The complete absence of images is incompatible with faith in the Incarnation of God.”

Blaubeuren Church. Photo: wikimedia.org/Uoaei1

Secondly, there is the witness of history, cumulative and undeniable. From the art of the early Christian catacombs to Romanesque basilicas and Byzantine iconography, from the soaring Gothic to the creative torrent of the Renaissance, from the age of the Baroque and beyond, the history of Christianity is inextricably linked to its artistic heritage built up over centuries. For sure, this historical wealth of previous centuries reflects past artistic styles, social and cultural worlds. Yet educators, artists, pastors, and even nations (as evidenced in recent debates over the Preamble to the European Constitution) who overlook or altogether ignore this accumulated treasury of Christian artistic and architectural history fail to resound with the most basic of human experiences —that of imagination rooted in memory.

Thirdly, there is a human or anthropological basis for the use of sacred images in faith formation. The Catechism speaks of faith as a response of the whole human person, engaging intellect, heart, senses, emotion, memory, and will. A systematic formation in faith may lead one to notional assent (in Cardinal Newman’s terms) to the mystery of the Incarnation but it does not and should not stop there. Effective catechesis and evangelization is directed to real assent that encompasses intellect, heart, will, senses, and emotions. Sacred architecture and art engage the senses so that catechetical formation involves and moves the whole human person toward lifelong conversion and discipleship.

Saint Thomas Aquinas outlines this rationale when he writes in the Sentences: “There were three reasons for the introduction of the use of visual arts in the Church: first, for the instruction of the uneducated, who are taught by them as by books; second, that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints be more firmly impressed on our memory by being daily represented before our eyes; and third, to enkindle devotion, which is more efficaciously evoked by what is seen than by what is heard.”

Times Square, New York City, Photo: Terabass

A fourth and final reason for genuine sacred images placed at the service of catechesis and evangelization is a cultural one. Few will argue that we live in the midst of a global culture in which multiple images dominate, shape, and define people’s values and identity. Television commercials, billboard advertising, the Internet, blogs, video games, all of these visual media express, reflect, and communicate in sensory forms the content and values of culture, for good or ill. This sensory culture daily presents fragmented images that subtly and not so subtly trivialize and denigrate the dignity of the human person, create superficial and consumerist needs, and estrange us from spiritual realities. To effectively engage the faithful who are shaped by this sensory culture can the Church afford to dispense with sacred architecture and images as tools of catechesis and evangelization?

In an interview given decades ago, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger cut to the heart of the matter when he observed: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in communities of believers … if the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection?”

Jem Sullivan, Ph.D., Visiting Associate Professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, contributes essays on art to Magnificat.