Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Place for Art in Churches

Why do Catholics pray "unto an idol of wood, metal, stone, and the like?"

I'm pretty sure that was what a chap meant by "is this stones and wood true?"
"is this stones and wood true ?

"... #TheTruthCaster: ... praying, gazing unto an idol of wood, metal, stone, and the like."
(Response to a Twitter post)
As a convert to Catholicism, I can see why some non-Catholics sincerely believe that we're idol-worshipers.

We're not idolaters, but I've long since stopped trying to convince zealots that their preferred reality isn't entirely accurate.

On the other hand, those comments started me thinking about Catholic churches and art, and reminded me that I haven't talked about art and idolatry for a while.

Using Our Brains and Hands

(From Sjcantius, via Wikimedia commons, used w/o permission.)
(Photo of St. John Cantius church, Chicago: March 23, 2015.)

The inside of a Catholic Church generally is not the sensory deprivation chamber some folks seem to think is required for Christian worship.

The parish church down the street from my house is nowhere near as opulent as Chicago's St. John Cantius. But we've got the basics: an altar; a crucifix, sometimes two or three, depending on the season and whether Mass is in progress; Stations of the Cross; and assorted statues of Saints and angels.

Since it's Our Lady of Angels church, we've also got a painting by Tom Kane. He used Tiepolo's Immaculate Conception as a model, adapting it to the curved half-dome over our altar area. (August 18, 2013)

We worship God, not the statues, paintings, or anything else. I'll get back to that. The art isn't a distraction, though: and that may take a bit of explaining.

God's creation of the universe isn't an hideous mistake. The world we see is basically good; and so are we, basically. Good, but not perfect, and that's another topic. Topics. (Genesis 1:31; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 302, 337-339, 341, 396-409)

We're made in the image of God, so it's no surprise that we like using our brains and hands: observing this world, and making some of our own stuff. It's part of being human, and one way we learn more about God. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism, 31-35, 355-361, 2293)

Art and Faith

Many folks probably think of "technology" as one thing, and "art" as something entirely different.

There's something to that, although I've seen tastefully-arranged arrays of tools on workshop wall racks. Pablo Picasso included a printed image in his "Still Life with Chair Caning," Marcel Duchamp's readymades encouraged folks to take the aesthetics of bicycle wheels seriously, and I'm drifting off-topic.

I haven't made my mind up about Andy Warhol's pop art, although I can't argue with its success: a remarkable number of folks bought the stuff.

Wrenching myself back to faith, worship, and being human, "art is a form of practical wisdom:"
"...Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man's own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill,295 to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing...."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2501)
One of these days I may trace multimedia's development from the Cave of Altamira through the Basilica of Saint Denis to podcasting software: but not today.

A few centuries after those 'barbaric' gothic cathedrals gave traditionalists fits, we've gotten used to seeing walls covered mostly with glowing pictures.

Some of the stained glass is simply decoration. But many of the windows in those cathedrals and churches are covered with pictures illustrating Bible stories, events from lives of the Saints, our encounters with angels, God's attributes, and other details of our faith.

Besides, light is a good metaphor for truth, and I've been over this before. (January 19, 2014; July 9, 2011)

From a Catholic viewpoint, art can be a good thing: when we keep our priorities straight.
"...To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God's activity in what he has created. Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man.296"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2501)
I'll get back to "art is not an absolute end in itself," too.

Sacred Art in the Universal Church

Some illustrations in the Book of Kells are more obviously Christian than that Chi Rho monogram. Some of my ancestors came from that part of the world, which helps explain why I like the style and understand some of the symbols. (August 3, 2014)

I also like art that wasn't made a dozen centuries back. My personal preferences matter to me, but what's important is what the Church says about sacred art:
"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.'297 This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier."
(Catechism, 2502)
What's "true and beautiful" and what's not is debatable — and debated, sometimes with more emotion than sense.

I hope the artist who repainted statuary in St. Paul's church, the other parish church in town, thought the new color scheme was "true and beautiful." Decades later, I still think it's garish. Bear in mind that I like baroque, rococo, and Frank R. Paul magazine covers.

But I won't rant about St. Paul's statues being 'un-Christian' just because I hope I'm still around when they're repainted: and that the next artist chooses a more subdued color scheme. My preferences are my preferences. At least this way it's hard to not notice the church's sacred art.

The Catholic Church is literally καθολικός, universal: not tied to one culture or one era. (Catechism, 854, 1200-1206, 1668, 2441)
"The diverse liturgical traditions have arisen by very reason of the Church's mission. ... The Church is catholic, capable of integrating into her unity, while purifying them, all the authentic riches of cultures.68"
(Catechism, 1202)
Some Catholics lived in mid-20th-century America: but most have not. I have some sympathy for folks who sincerely miss the 'good old days' as they remember them: but restoring the world of "Leave It to Beaver" isn't a reasonable goal. (May 3, 2015; December 28, 2014)


Idolatry isn't just worshiping a statue or symbol.

Putting anything — art, money, physical fitness, fame, family, a career, or anything else — at the top of my priority list would be idolatry: and strictly against the rules. (Catechism, 2097, 2112-2114, 2534)

I don't worship anyone or anything other than God. But I've found that pictures of Saints, and other symbols of our faith, can help me remember their service and love for our Lord: which reminds me of our Lord, which gets me back to the proper focus of worship. (Catechism, 1159-1162)

That reminds me of a quirk of language and culture, in the upper Midwest at least. Someone who deals with religious art told me that when he was talking with a non-Catholic American about three-dimensional representations of a person, he used the word "carving."

Apparently "statues" with a religious subject were supposed to be a sort of idolatry: but if he called the statue a "carving," it was okay. (July 15, 2012)


Footnote 295 in Catechism, 2501, right after "art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill," refers to Wisdom 7:15-17. I think those verses do a nice job of discussing knowledge, crafts, the universe, and getting a grip:
"Now God grant I speak suitably and value these endowments at their worth: For he is the guide of Wisdom and the director of the wise.

"For both we and our words are in his hand, as well as all prudence and knowledge of crafts.

"For he gave me sound knowledge of existing things, that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements,"
(Wisdom 7:15-17)
Finally, here's a closer look at that page from the Book of Kells, and the usual link list to other posts:


Brigid said...

Wrong word form: "verses do a nice job of discussion knowledge, crafts, the universe"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Oops. Fixed. Thanks, Brigid!

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