Art and the Catholic faith
by Fr. R Taouk
"Blessed are the eyes that see the things which you see." - Luke 10
In General –
Art or if you want, the image has had an impact of man from the beginning of time. It is almost instinctive part of man to want to draw or paint so as to express himself. Art then has always been as a manifestation of the human spirit and for us as Catholics we can say that religious art is nothing other than an extension or embodiment of Our Holy Catholic Faith. It is something that is part of that sacred patrimony that belongs to us as a great gift that has been handed down to us by our great forefathers in the faith who have gone before us, and who well understood that art is one of the ways in which man is allowed to worship his creator and by means of it have a glimpse of that creator by creating a master peace for him, so as to help us direct our hearts and minds to Him.
Artistry in this sense then always has it’s core a reflection of a high beauty, of something that is higher and beautiful which is reflected in the created object.
Pope Pius XII “The function of all art lies in fact in breaking through the narrow and tortuous enclosure of the finite, in which man is immerged while living here below, and in providing a window to the infinite for his hungry soul.” – To a group of Italian artists received in audience on April 8, 1952.
The First art work we can say was that of God’s own creation of things and so consequently the goodness and beauty of the art should lead us to see and comprehend God whose wisdom the artist should seeks to imitate.
Art and Our faith.
What is it’s relation to our faith – At first glace, this should seem easy for all of us here – for we are surrounded by art, both in the very images and the vary architecture of the Church itself which speak volumes to us.
A few things that will help draw this out for us: - A story.
During the iconoclast heresy of the eighth century the Emperor Constantine Copronymus had continued the destruction of the sacred images wrought by his predecessor Leo the Isaurian, Emperor of Constantinople. Now, when a monk named Stephen, who defended the veneration of the sacred images of Christ, Mary and the Saints, was captured by the soldiers of the Emperor and was brought before him, the holy monk brought out a coin which bore the Emperor's image, and said: 'Sire, whose image is this?' 'Mine' answered the Emperor, proudly. Stephen then threw the coin to the ground and began to trample upon it. The Emperor was outraged and, in fury, ordered the monk to be put to death immediately. Stephen replied to the impious Emperor: 'Alas! If I am punished for dishonouring the image of a mortal monarch, what punishment do they deserve who burn the image of Jesus Christ?''
In other words if we honour the image of mere men, and take pride in our own image, how much more ought we give honour to the image of Our and His saints ! Our Lord who is as St. Paul tells us the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15) who to a visible form so that we may by this image (the person of Our Lord) come to God .
Dogma and Art
The saints always understood that there is a close relationship between doctrine and images as they make accessible for the average laymen the profound teachings of the Church by means of an image. Stained glass windows were once used to teach the faith as well as decorate the Church in a way which is fitting of the house of God.
A monk, called Methodius, in the eighteenth century painted a picture of the Last Judgment, which was the cause of converting to the faith Bogoris, the King of the Bulgarians.
St. John when he wants to explain to his listeners who Christ is tells us that He is Logo’s – Word – The word who is the living image of the Father, made flesh for us -
Dealing with this issue at length Pope St. Gregory Great
St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) wrote to an Iconoclast bishop, Serenus of Marseilles, who had destroyed the images in his diocese: "Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise you for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame you for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book" (Ep. ix, 105, in P. L., LXXVII, 1027).
Sacred Images are catechisms for those who can’t read. They speak volumes – ‘A picture speaks a thousand words’
"The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God" - St. John Damascene, De imag 1,27.
And again he (St. John
Damascene) says else where:
"We proclaim Him [God] also by our senses on all sides, and we sanctify the noblest sense, which is that of sight. The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to those who can read, that an image is to those who cannot read. The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear; it brings us understanding. Hence, God ordered the Ark to be made of imperishable wood, and to be gilded outside and in, and the tablets to be put into it, and the staff and the golden urn containing the manna, for a remembrance of the past and a type of the future. Who can say these were not images and far sounding heralds?" [1, 17]
Our Lord Himself, when He was with us on the earth, showed to us the importance of stories and storytelling. He did not come and give us a set of logical assertions to teach us our faith; He didn’t speak to the people in political and difficult language. He came and taught us through parables. In the 13th chapter of Matthew, the disciples themselves become puzzled as to Our Lord’s method of teaching. Having just heard the parable of the sower and the seed, the disciples ask Christ why He speaks in parables:
Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; but to them it is not given. . . …. because seeing they see not and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand . . For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should understand with their heart and be converted; and I should heal them. But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear (Mt. 13:10-16).
Our Lord makes clear that the parable is a special gift to those who possess understanding. – In seeing and hearing – Today we are focusing on the seeing – by seeing they are able to go to draw out the deeper point that is presented to them. – This must be our approach with all images that confront us.
And else where in Scripture Our Lord points out to us that if one thinks upon something immoral and consents to it in his heart he has sinned. Now we can take the opposite of that and say with confidence that if someone looks or thinks upon a holy thing or image and consents to the thought he will then draw down blessings and graces upon himself.
Situation today -
Today, unfortunately, by the many so called artists of our age we are only provided with a steady diet of poisonous images, that slowly eat at our hearts and minds corrupting them, making it even more difficult for us to appreciate, love and be drawn to spiritual things.
Modern Church buildings and art works no longer elevate the mind to the supernatural, but are sterile and perverted if not out rightly blasphemous at times. Nor is it by mistake. – Our places of worship will impact the way we think and view things. – The beauty of the House of God is there to elevate our minds to the sacred. – For the old saying of the Church rings true not only when it comes to prayer and worship but also in regards to architecture of the Church and it’s surroundings – that is ‘The law of believe, determines the law worship’ – the way in which we worship God and the surroundings will also have an effect on what we believe as they are part of what we do – part of what we are trying to express.
Combating the culture of death – Early Church
Christians from the very beginning understood well the great importance of sacred art -
Christians from the very beginning adorned their catacombs with paintings of Christ, of the saints, of scenes from the Bible - The catacombs are the cradle of all Christian art.
St. Ambrose (d. 397) describes in a letter how St. Paul appeared to him one night, and he recognized him by the likeness to his pictures/paintings which he had seen of him (Ep. ii, in P. L., XVII, 821).
In the seventh session of the 2nd Council of Nicaea we read that the Church taught that: "We define with all certainty and care that both the figure of the sacred and lifegiving Cross, as also the venerable and holy images, whether made in colours or mosaic or other materials, are to be placed suitably in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and pictures, in houses and by roads; that is to say, the images of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our immaculate Lady the holy Mother of God, of the honourable angels and all saints and holy men. For as often as they are seen in their pictorial representations, people who look at them are ardently lifted up to the memory and love of the originals and induced to give them respect and worshipful honour (but not real adoration which according to our faith is due only to the Divine Nature). So that offerings of incense and lights are to be given to these as to the figure of the sacred and life-giving Cross, to the holy Gospel-books and other sacred objects in order to do them honour, as was the pious custom of ancient times. For honour paid to an image passes on to its prototype; he who worships (ho proskynon) an image worships the reality of him who is painted in it" (Mansi, XIII, pp. 378-9; Harduin, IV, pp. 453-6).
What does all this mean for me and my faith?
1. We should venerate the images of God and saints – giving them a prominent place in our Churches and homes. God Himself gives us the example of this in the O.T, when for example, He commanded the Jews two have to statues made of God of the angels before the Cherubs as a reminder of God’s constant presence with his people. And again when he commanded the images of the serpents to be made so that those had been bitten by the snakes and who looked upon it could be healed, for the serpent was a representation of Christ, who recognising us, who have been bitten by poison of sin, may heal us when we look upon His sacred image with faith and humility.
2 The Sacred Art and Architecture of the Churches is part of that great patrimony which has been handed down to us by our Catholic ancestors – we must know it, love it, and cherish it. One of the great other many things besides the faith and the Mass that conciliar religion has succeeded in destroying is the knowledge of the greatness of that beautiful arts and great Churches, which we here in Australia seem to know so little about – These images are our family heirlooms given to us to guard, venerate and hand on. In this way we perform acts, which form part of the virtue of religion which is aimed at bringing us closer to God. –
St. Joan of Ark, the wondrous and holy maiden, what did she ask for as her dying request – An image of a crucifix before here – before here death. – Why ? So that by means of it she could obtain a greater love of God so as to be even more well prepared to stand before him in Judgment.
3. Our Lord and His Holy Mother have many times in History promised many blessings to those who venerate their images. – What then shall be the reward of those who not only venerate but who paint or draw or distribute these sacred images so as to make them known. – What a beautiful thing it is to place our talents and skills and our money at the service of God so as to make Him and His saints known by means of such sacred images – many of you here have done and continue to do exactly that by what you contributed to the building of this holy Church. While it is nothing like those great monuments of the faith built prior to the council nevertheless built in the same spirit of faith and desire for God’s honour and glory.
– Example of St. John Damascene : By forging a letter, the Emperor Leo III convinced the Islamic Caliph that St. John was plotting against him. The Caliph, believing the Emperor, had St. John's hand cut off as a punishment. But St. John prayed to the Blessed Virgin, reminding her, that "This hand often wrote hymns and canticles in praise of thee, and many times offered the Sacred Body and Blood of thy Son in thy honor for the salvation of all sinners." He continued his prayer all night. Then Mary appeared to him and said, "Be comforted, my son, in the Lord. He can restore thy hand Who has made the whole man from nothing." Then she took the hand from where it had been hung in the monastery, and in a moment it was restored to his arm.
4. Pride in the image of self, which reflects the goodness of God. – Have respect dear friends in the way we dress and act .- The importance of self image for the sake of God who we reflect – We have an attitude today which is one of hopelessness, despair, discouragement –Hence the culture of ugliness and death that surrounds us has been imbibed by many who go by the name of ‘Catholic’. We seem to have forgotten what it’s all about – Heaven – Life heaven, reflect heaven, by the goodness we refect in ourselves.
In the past people had good parents and older brothers and sisters who would make sure we never left home without presenting a good public image. Made sure we wore our Sunday best for Mass, - put on good clothes and combed our hair, etc, basic things, for they made sure that we had a sense of the image we reflect by our bearing on the whole family, the town/village, parish we were from – Today we have forgotten this. – Apart of the sign of the times – Blindness – Then don’t take offence for what I say, but take it to heart and do something about it.
Pius XII gave a strong warning to Catholic mothers/fathers who imprudently allowed their sons and daughters to become accustomed “to live barely attired.” The relevance of his words make them well worth repeating for the benefit of both mothers and fathers today, many who are well meaning but ignorant of the dangers of the immodest clothing that has become commonplace today. He affirmed forcefully:
“O Christian mothers, if you only knew what a future of worries, dangers, and shame … you lay up for your sons and your daughters by imprudently accustoming them to live barely attired, making them lose the natural sense of modesty. You would blush and take fright were you to know the shame you inflict upon yourselves and the harm which you occasion to your children, entrusted to you by Heaven to be brought up in a Christian manner” - Letter A Lei, Vicario Nostro, May 2, 1928
5. Make use of these things to go higher – to focus on that which the image directs us, namely to the desire to be with Our Lord and His Holy Mother – not purely a sentimental piety, but piety which is well founded on faith, that is moved to go beyond appearances to that which can not be seen – To God and the Glory of heaven. – In this sense all images are only imperfect in as much as they will never be able to perfectly replicate for us the beauty of God, saints or heaven, but simply act as a foreshadow inspiring us onward to the greatness that awaits us above.
The Words of St. Bernadette illustrate this point for us perfectly:
‘My Lady is beautiful, beautiful beyond compare; so beautiful that when one has seen her once, one would wish to do so as to see her again; so beautiful that when one has seen her, one can no longer love anything earthy.’ –