The Human Figure and Contemporary Sacred Art

by Cody Swanson, appearing in Volume 31

“The Beauty of all things in the world as well of architecture lay in proportion, the origin of which may be said is divine; for it derives from the body of Adam who was not only made by the divine hands of God, but shaped in His image and likeness.”1

These profound words were spoken on the second of June 1665 by the great sculptor of the counter-reform, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and they ring true in our own time. The human figure has always had an inseparable role in art and reached its highest summit in the light of the Incarnation. With our rich Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage, handed down to us through the will and piety of great generations past, it is hard to imagine an ancient temple without a crystalline marble deity, or a church without the face of a saint reflecting the light of God. Though, in our current utilitarian hubris we find ourselves in an epoch of confusion where tradition has been abandoned, and the role of the human figure is in dire need of artistic revitalization.

The fall of figurative art and rise of modern secularism, stemming from a loss of moral objectivity, has deep origins; the floodgates of relativism were opened with the Protestant Reformation, and the iconoclasm of Martin Luther and John Calvin toward works of sacred art has had a lasting impact on the subsequent centuries of tributary denominations. The vibrancy of what we now refer to as the Baroque was in part the light of truth in response to heresy, and the radiant language of classical beauty in the service of the Church is as valid today as it was then.

In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger eloquently stated, “The theology of the liturgy is in a special way a ‘symbolic theology,’ a theology of symbols, which connects us to what is present but hidden.”2 Having myself converted from a Pentecostal denomination, I was struck by this truth in the Chigi Chapel of Siena by Bernini. Upon entering this intimate space, one stands before an ancient icon of La Madonna del Voto being supported by angels above the altar. Turning laterally one discovers an effigy of Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome, oriented toward the altar together with the viewer. In the presence of these masterpieces the humble intention of the artist shines forth: more than just skillful figures of beauty, they are in fact a living representation of the saints in adoration of Christ and Our Lady, whom they point us toward and make present. It could therefore be said that these carved figures are a sort of hinge between the militant and triumphant Church, a material vehicle that effects greater union with Christ by “connecting us with what is present but hidden.”

The Chigi Chapel in the Cathedral of Siena

The Chigi Chapel in the Cathedral of Siena. Photo: Wasserman

Our ecclesial artistic tradition is intrinsically bound to us in our unity of faith, and no one can deny that true works of beauty will always resonate with bold immediacy and relevancy. In time God has revealed to us many mysteries of our faith,3 and while the Church’s understanding has developed, the actual mysteries have not changed. Is it not then urgent to seek a conveyance of transcendent beauty, as elevation from the mundane and ephemeral world in preparation for the heavenly Jerusalem? Glenn Gould offers a congruent observation of the music of the twentieth-century composer Richard Strauss, which could be considered an inspiration to modern ecclesial artists:

The great thing about the music of Richard Strauss is that it presents and substantiates an argument which transcends . . . all questions of style and tastes and idiom—all frivolous, effete preoccupations of the chronologist. It presents to us an example of the man who makes richer his own time by not being of it; who speaks for all generations by being of none.4

This pursuit, of course, runs entirely contrary to the philosophy of our mainstream academic “taste makers” and their oppressive rules. Originality has become a cardinal virtue, and the systematic destruction of our heritage is symptomatic of inordinate obsession with progression. In his “Choruses from The Rock,” T.S. Eliot confronts this phenomenon of “new,” born of personal autonomy, with a poetic and revelatory response:

But it seems that something has happened that has never happened before: though we know not when, or why, or how, or where. Men have left God not for other gods, they say, but for no god; and this has never happened before.5

David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1624, located in the Galleria Borghese in Rome

David by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1624, located in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Photo:

This new atheistic development may be the foremost reason for the decline of occidental figurative art. If man says he is not created in the image and likeness of God, and the figure no longer has an essential role in the worship of our Creator, it is inevitable that artistic manifestations will become slowly deformed and unrecognizable.

We have also seen the dehumanized figure used as a vehicle for political propaganda by powerful atheist regimes. These lessons should teach us that when removed from the Church, figurative art will wither and die, just as a branch ripped from the vine of tradition will no longer produce fruit: “We build in vain unless the Lord builds with us.”6

Another hypothesis should be presented to help understand the dehumanization of the figure. August Rodin is widely considered one of the last great figurative sculptors in the western tradition; it is a curious fact that in the beginning of the twentieth century, his “friends were astounded at the things he did not know about contemporary culture, like who Charles Darwin was.”7 It should come as no surprise that this most illustrious master, whose palpitating figures showed us the innermost expression of the human spirit, had not the slightest interest in the theory of evolution. Looking at the posthumous decline, I am convinced that in following Cartesian doubt, the anticlerical French Revolution, and the Enlightenment proponent Immanuel Kant, the final nail in the coffin for figurative art was driven in by Charles Darwin. No great artist had ever been confused about his origin as a species. And what are the results? Science has become largely a religion of first-world atheists, with a vicious backlash toward those with opposing views; their destructive effects on everyday society have been reflected in artistic trends. One need only read these lines from the futurist manifesto of Umberto Boccioni from 1910 to understand their intentional desecration:

Destroy the cult of the past, the obsession with the ancients . . . Elevate all attempts of originality, however daring, however violent. . . . Support and glory in our day-to-day world, a world which is going to be continually and splendidly transformed by victorious Science.8

Consequently, the artistic figurative dilemma of the past century was in fact a highly calculated attack by opponents of Christianity. Today this is linked to the current decline in childbirth, the agenda to change the traditional definition of marriage, and gender confusion. These are many of the reasons why secular artistic and social currents cannot be integrated into the life and liturgy of the Church, and Christian artists have a duty to fight this “dictatorship of relativism” with a sword of truth and shield of moral objectivity, firmly rooted in tradition.

We must also ask prudently, what is the forecast? Perhaps Rodin may have given us the answer in 1911 in Rome, as quoted by the Duchess de Choiseul: “[Rodin] had admired Bernini’s work and everything to do with 17th century architecture, then very much out of fashion—but ‘fashions will change,’ he predicted, and the baroque and Jesuit styles will regain their prestige.”9

In conclusion, I present these ideas about sacred art:

1. Beauty and truth are synonymous, and beauty cannot possibly exist for its own sake, as everything beautiful originates in God.

2. An artist should avoid an arrogant obsession with originality, for there is nothing more original than the perfect Sacrifice of Christ; He is our originality, and He will always “make things anew.”10

3. Christ’s salvation is eternal, and the Church is an immoveable “pillar and foundation of truth.”11 A true work of art should transform us and transcend fleeting superficiality, speaking to all generations.

4. Art cannot be limited to one canon or based entirely upon the quantitative interpretation of nature.12 The iconography of the saints should be formed upon their individual charisms (i.e., Saint Teresa of Bernini is idealized, whereas Saint Philip Neri and Saint Ignatius are often depicted naturalistically).

5. One of the essential characteristics of Truth is clarity; artistic and cultural trends born in opposition to Christ, the Church, and Sacred Tradition are entirely incompatible with the life of the faith and should not be introduced to the Church in any way.13

6. The observation and interpretation of the natural world should always be accompanied by the study of the great masters in the light of our rich living tradition.14

7. Blue jeans do not give a figurative work a modern message. Caravaggio may have used modern dress, though at the time their clothing was beautiful. Just because it worked for Caravaggio does not mean it will work for us. Besides, Bernini said Caravaggio lacked invention!15

8. Jesus and the Blessed Virgin should not look like any ordinary individual. Christ is both human and divine, and Our Lady was born without original sin. They should be composed ideally based upon centuries of successful interpretation.

9. Avoid sentimentality! Seek harmony in proportion and sincerity of expression.

10. Do not lose hope and do not compromise!

Saint Michael the Archangel at Saint Patrick Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, sculpture by Cody Swanson

Saint Michael the Archangel at Saint Patrick Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, sculpture by Cody Swanson. Photo: Cody Swanson

Presentation by Cody Swanson for the workshop Christian Art & the Corporeal at the conclusion of the exhibit In One Flesh at the Opera del Duomo museum in Florence.