The Virgin and the Heavenly Hosts

Is There a Conflict between Liturgical and Devotional Art?

by Denis McNamara and Duncan Stroik, appearing in Volume 14

Duncan Stroik: A reader of the Zenit News Agency liturgy column asked whether the image of Divine Mercy may be hung behind the altar, if it is against liturgical rules. Fr. Edward McNamara answered:

While it is not forbidden to display an image of Christ, Mary or a saint behind the main altar, in modern churches this is usually reserved for the church’s patron. At the same time, the apse may be decorated with murals and mosaics figuring several personages. Therefore, I would say that the image of Divine Mercy would not normally be set up behind the main altar unless the church was dedicated to this devotion.

How can one say you should not have an image of Christ behind the altar? What do you think?

Denis McNamara: It seems to me that there is some distinguishing going on between a devotional image and a liturgical image. The Divine Mercy image is a devotional image. The heavenly liturgy as described in the Book of Revelation is liturgical. Typically, having the patron saint behind the altar seems to be to only one part of the liturgical imagery. Salt Lake City Cathedral of the Madeleine is a good example. There the whole heavenly ensemble is present, and then Mary Magdalene appears over the altar, emphasized since she is the patron of the church, but understood to be part of the larger whole. To have her alone would be a sort of contraction or minimalism of imagery. To have some other devotional image there would be a mistake because it puts devotional imagery in the area that is meant to be primarily liturgical. They work together but are not interchangeable.

Salt Lake City Cathedral is a good example of the liturgical image ... the whole heavenly ensemble is present ... Mary Magdalene appears over the altar as the patron of the church, but understood to be part of the larger whole. Photo: Sufian Mohammed Asib

So to have Christ seated on the throne surrounded by angels and saints is fine behind the altar. The imagery is of the heavenly liturgy, of which the earthly liturgy is a part. Therefore there is no conflict. A devotional image, however, should be in a devotional area and not be set up so as to “compete” with the liturgy and its appointments. A subtle distinction, but a very important one, I think.

Duncan Stroik: I think what you say is a well-reasoned argument and I believe a good way to develop the iconography of a church. On the other hand, I am not sure that there is or should be a tension or division between the liturgical and devotional when it comes to the art of a church. It gets back to the either/or viewpoint and overemphasizes the church building as liturgical in my mind. Philosophically, I have difficulty with that. It is interesting to bring up the Madeleine at Salt Lake City because I would think having a prominent patron above the altar would always be problematic if one wants to emphasize only the heavenly liturgy. Doesn’t she get too much attention? In my view, no, but I like Chiesa Nuova and Sant’Ignazio in Rome, as well as the many Marian churches, such as Santa Maria in Campitelli where the small devotional image of the Virgin gets enshrined in a large baroque altarpiece.

In many Marian churches such as Santa Maria in Campitelli the devotional image of the Virgin is enshrined in a large Baroque altarpiece. Photo: visto nina volare

Are the images of saints and founders up high in St. Peter’s devotional or liturgical? The four doctors, the floating cathedra, and the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s? The four evangelists under a dome? Does the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel seem to reflect the heavenly liturgy? I guess it does. What about the painting of the Nativity below the apse mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore? What about the painting of St. Andrew’s crucifixion and statue ascending in Sant’Andrea al Quirinale? Most high altarpieces from the Renaissance and the baroque; images of the Assumption above a high altar; the Gesù with its painting of the circumcision and statue of Christ in front of it (seems to have been removed and replaced with the painting these days); most side chapels, which we today think of as devotional but were also built for the liturgy, albeit normally private.

Rather I think that these themes can be seen as congruent with, if not part of, the liturgy. Stations of the Cross connect us with the Passion, which we celebrate in a small way every Mass. The saints worship with us. We come to honor them during and outside of Mass and ask for their intercession. I have no problem with people who bring prayer cards or a rosary with them to Mass. Likewise, it is very nice when praying outside of Mass to have the altar, ambo, and tabernacle present. I do not even mind when people come in during Mass to light candles at side chapels. It was the experience of this that supposedly caused Cardinal Mahony to ask Rafael Moneo to have the devotional hallway before and separate from the nave at the Los Angeles Cathedral.

To me it is one of the glories of the Western Church that we have such a variety of ways of integrating iconography into a church, unlike the East, which has tended more to having a regula or formula, albeit an elegant and clear one.
Do any of the great Renaissance or Baroque churches of Europe follow your schema? Don’t most of them do something else? Is it more of a Byzantine or early Christian view that gets expressed at other times and particularly in the twentieth-century liturgical movement? I guess one of my other concerns is that the labeling of devotional art has been used by the modernists to strip the churches of imagery.

Denis McNamara: I don’t see an either/or distinction between devotional and liturgical art except to the degree that they are in different categories of art. I think a church should, indeed must, support both, but properly speaking, liturgy is primary and devotions are secondary. I don’t mean that devotions are unimportant, but in the proper ordering of things, the Eucharist comes before any novena or devotion to St. Lucy. The devotions flow from and return to the liturgy. The church building is not liturgical only, but it is liturgical first. I am completely sympathetic to your points, as I hope you know. I’m the last person in the world who wants to banish devotional areas from churches.

So in art, the heavenly and cosmic dimensions of the liturgy I would see as primary. We can group ten thousand angels and saints in a mural behind an altar without it being foreign to the liturgy because it is the liturgy in its invisible dimensions and communities. It is public, theocentric, and completes for us visually what we could not see otherwise.

The apse of Santa Maria Maggiore with the Nativity of Christ, and the Dormition and Coronation of Mary. Photo: Anthony Grumbine

However, putting a painting of Christ in the carpenter shop behind the altar would not be, properly speaking, a liturgical image. Singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a nice devotional hymn on the Nativity, but it can’t replace the Credo or the Kyrie, which are liturgical texts. In that sense, devotional hymnody is important and helps to sustain the Christian life of the community, but it is secondary compared to the texts of the Mass.

At the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Mary Magdalene is shown in a big image above the altar with her hands up interceding for us, looking up to the heavenly liturgy. So in a sense, she is bridging that gap between the earthly and the heavenly liturgy. She is emphasized because of the church’s dedication, but no one would be going to that image to pray in the way that people go to Our Lady of Guadalupe, for instance.

Sant’Andrea al Quirinale is another good example. Behind the altar is St. Andrew being crucified, but then he is also presented as sculpture sitting up on the entablature in the heavenly realm. So the heavenly, liturgical St. Andrew is up high and the memory of his life and crucifixion is down low. Here’s a great both/and situation.

The heavenly, liturgical St. Andrew is up high and the memory of his life and crucifixion is down low. Photo:

The baroque period provides a situation where the individual saint does begin to stand out more from the heavenly whole, I think in response to Luther et al. But you always see the Trinity and angels in those sculptural groups unless they are purely devotional. Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy leans more toward the purely devotional, a place for meditating on one particular aspect of God’s work in the world. The big Apotheosis of St. Ignatius in the Gesù, with all of its Ignatius-centrism and relatively narrow focus, still has the Trinity sitting at the top and angels everywhere—but it is primarily about Ignatius and venerating him.

The Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel is not really liturgical in my eyes—in a sense it is sacred history (or prophecy)—a meditation on our Last Things. It does not really show all of creation praising God. The Cathedra Petri in St. Peter’s I would describe as devotional as well, albeit with a strong didactic role. It is a giant reliquary to the chair of Peter, a place for meditating on the role of the Petrine office. The big saints in the crossing piers at St. Peter’s do both—they are the “pillars of the Church” (Gal 2:9) whose attention is fixed on God, but they can also serve as devotional. Compare them to the bronze statue of Peter that everyone rubs, which is clearly devotional.

The statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is clearly devotional. Public Domain

In the Middle Ages, like the Merton College chapel reredos (or St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue), you see all the saints piled up in their orderly heavenly arrangement. This is liturgical as well.

The mosaics at Santa Prassede are deeply liturgical. So are the ones at St. Paul Outside the Walls (the one seated surrounded by an emerald rainbow) with the white robed elders surrounding Him. Anywhere you see the imagery from the Book of Revelation about the one seated on the throne, you can pretty much be sure there was a liturgical emphasis (the Wheeling, WV Cathedral is a perfect example). Then other walls in the churches might have devotional or sacred history images on them. Side chapels are the perfect place for devotional imagery—and, of course, there can be altars in them. They all work together, but I would think they are not interchangeable. The symphony can sound good, but the first violinist is not the conductor and the melody (liturgy) will be more important than the harmony (devotion), even though they work together.

Of course all of these things are different facets of the same God, and all give him glory. Having a devotion to a saint is a way of coming to God. So there should not be an either/or understanding in any of this. It is about clarifying the proper role and place for each wonderful thing.

The reason that I care about this is that there are two fundamental problems with imagery these days. One is that people who think of themselves as traditional sometimes think that the liturgical minimalism of the “Mary on one side, Joseph on the other” is enough. Why not give them the whole heavenly liturgy instead of two statues and a crucifix? And then on the “progressive” side, people think that all imagery is devotional and therefore deserves to be banished from the sanctuary. By recapturing the notion of imagery as liturgical, it allows a theologically based justification for rich murals and imagery that are part of the liturgy itself, and therefore not to be banished to the side chapels in favor of cream drywall and a few palm trees. I see this distinction as a way to protect the proper role of imagery as well as to give people something as rich as the whole heavenly assembly to imagine as they come to Mass or prayer.