Baldicchino Angels during installation, Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, Wisconsin. Anthony Visco, the Philadelphia artist and sculptor created the angels.Photo used with permission of the artist.
Art for art’s sake, which only refers to the author, without
establishing a relationship with the divine world, does not have its
place in the Christian concept of the icon.
No matter what style is
adopted, all sacred art must express the faith and hope of the
The tradition of the icon shows that the artist must be
conscious of fulfilling a mission of service to the Church.
Authentic Christian art is that which, through sensible perception,
gives the intuition that the Lord is present in his Church, that the
events of salvation history give meaning and orientation to our life,
that the glory that is promised us already transforms our existence.
Sacred art must tend to offer us a visual synthesis of all dimensions
of our faith.
Church art must aim at speaking the language of the
Incarnation and, with the elements of matter, express the One who
“deigned to dwell in matter and bring about our salvation through
matter” according to Saint John Damascene’s beautiful expression.
DUODECIMUM SAECULUM (Veneration Of Holy Images)
Pope John Paul II
Apostolic Letter of the Supreme Pontiff to the Episcopate of the Catholic Church on the occasion of the 1200th Anniversary of the Second Council of Nicaea.
Sacred art in the twenty-first century is often seen as an endeavor that harkens our Catholic Church back to a period of history when the Church was often the greatest patron of the arts and individual artisans. While we would like to believe the period of the Renaissance was the greatest period for the commissioning and execution of great works of art, the reality is much older than we sometimes know. The celebration of the 1200th Anniversary of the Second Council of Nicaea was a significant event during the pontificate of John-Paul II. It was during this anniversary that the late Holy Father expressed an acute understanding and appreciation of the sacred art traditions of both the Eastern and Western Church.
Understandably, when considering Nicaea one is drawn to the great diversity of artistic cultures that existed in the then eastern/western territories of the Roman Empire. In the traditions of the Eastern Rites, the Icon was of particular significance and importance, not just for its artistic representation of Jesus, the Blessed Mother and local Saints; it was of particular interest and importance because iconology represented a catechetical instrument with which Christology, Mariology and Hagiography could all be taught through an appreciation of the visual arts in Catholic liturgical culture.
Significantly the Iconography of the Blessed Mother was predominant in the church buildings of the ancient world. As a suggestion the reason for this Marian Iconography was because of the critical role played by Mary in the Incarnation and Birth of Jesus. Iconographic representations of Jesus and Mary were in fact tangible examples of not only the language of the Incarnation, but visible manifestations of the ongoing faith realized by the Church as a result of the Incarnation.
Marian Iconography perhaps is the most favorite subject of those that write icons because Mary is the best representational example of her unconditional response, her, “Fiat!” to the power of the Divine Father.
As a Catholic believer, it always seems most significant to me that images and iconography of The Virgin Mother of God are universally included in all of our Catholic Churches, regardless of rite, eastern or western. It is I suppose that the image of Mary in John-Paul’s philosophical and theological orientation always prompted him to include a Marian heraldry even in his papal coat-of arms. However I believe that John-Paul true Marian devotion was not only a result of his deeply felt religious convictions regarding Mary’s total openness to the will of God, his strong devotion was also a synthesis of all deeply held Catholic beliefs that have been so deeply held by the Universal Church since the Councils of Nicaea and most importantly the Council of Ephesus.
It is especially interesting that in John-Paul’s proclamation to the worlds bishops to celebrate the anniversary of the II Council of Nicaea the late Holy Father draws on imagery of matter from matter as best illustrated by Saint John Damascene, an Eastern Father of the Church whose mystical understandings of Incarnation theology are not always widely read in the Western Catholic Church. However his position as a Doctor of the Church is firmly established not only by his strong defense of iconography within the Catholic Church but with the title of, “Doctor of Christian Art,” is unrivaled in Church history. His appreciation and understanding of the significance and importance of the sacred arts is an asset which we are constantly trying to attain in our modern Church environment.
John-Paul II is citing Saint John Damascene not only intended for the bishops of the Catholic Church to recognize the universal importance of the contributions of sacred arts to the life of the Church, but also intended that they strongly advocate such an admirable profession in our modern theological and liturgical life. The reference to sacred art as providing as, “synthesis,” of all dimensions of our faith in itself testifies to the critical importance of art in our modern Church.
Perhaps this theme of art as a theological synthesis is most tangibly felt in the pontificate of Benedict XVI. His recent permission for the celebration of the Tridentine Liturgy suggests not only a papal desire to restore an ancient rite, but also indirectly attempts a restoration of sacred arts to a place of prominence within our sacred worshipping community. While it is not explicitly stated in the papal motu proprio of July 2007, the basis celebration of the pre-Vatican II liturgy implies the need to examine our artistic and historical sensitivies to qualitative iconography and sculptural presentations of the Divine Mysteries during our celebration of the Sacraments. A return to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass also provides an opportunity for Catholic artisans to restore our Catholic Churches to a state of artistic pristine beauty, such as we have not seen since the Modernistic movements of post-Vatican II art and architecture.
Regardless of the frequentness of the celebration of the Tridentine Liturgy, it seems that the current Holy Father is attempting to resuscitate not only liturgical tradition, but artistic tradition as well. As a result there is a great opportunity presented here in the restoration of the viable Tridentine liturgy in that the visual arts in conjunction with the sacred arts might especially experience a true revival of quality art for the purpose of Divine worship.
While the historical significance of sacred art is well represented in both the Eastern and Western rites of the Catholic Church, our appreciation of the Church as a representational synthesis of salvation history through artistic expression is what is critically important here. Iconographies, as well as the visual arts are all substantial contributors to the world of sacred art. At this period in Church history and development, we really should not miss the great opportunity presented by Benedict to collectively restore our Catholic collective identity in both the way we worship as well as artistically represent our understanding of our sacred art and spaces.
Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author that writes on Catholic topics and issues.
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