Sacred arts and Vatican II

Episcopi vel per se ipsos vel per sacerdotes idoneos qui peritia et artis amore praediti sunt, artificum curam habeant, ut eos spiritu Artis sacrae et sacrae Liturgiae imbuant.Insuper commendatur ut scholae vel Academiae de Arte Sacra ad artifices formandos instituantur in illis regionibus in quibus id visum fuerit.[1]

One of the most important teachings of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council was the provision for the establishment of schools or academies of sacred art in order to train artists. To the best of my knowledge, this responsibility entrusted to local Episcopal conferences has never been implemented. Not only does the council specifically mention artists; it specifically entrusts the responsibility of ensuring the quality of their work to the concern of the Bishop and appropriately trained priests to help in this endeavor. My questions are simply these:Where is the Institute for the Sacred Arts in the United States?Why haven’t the bishops established this particular institute for the United States?Why do the American Bishops frequently use artisans not from the United States when commissioning liturgical art?

As a Catholic that believes the expression of our religious faith deserves the highest caliber of materials and environments, it confuses me why we continue to utilize religious goods suppliers to furnish our sacred spaces. When a particular parish community decides there is a need to initiate a new piece of sacred art or renovate a liturgical space, quite frequently the clergy pull a religious catalogue off the shelf and make an order. My concerns are multiple. Why do we insist on using catalogue pieces that are premade in a workshop, usually in Europe and do not exhibit any sense of originality or quality from their inception? Why do we endorse studios and assembly line liturgical goods production houses that fill in the blank on the liturgical need and massively produce the same product for hundreds of locations. Usually these studios are located in Italy another European location. Why don’t we utilize the best artisans and craftsmen in the United States to fashion sacred art and liturgical spaces for our Catholic Churches?

There are most likely multiple answers to the questions I have outlined. It has been 44 years since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concillium and completion of this task does not seem to be any closer than in 1963.It confounds me that our own Catholic clergy persist in absolute decision-making authority when it comes to the execution and implementation of new liturgical spaces or the commissioning of sacred art. Most clergy with which I am familiar do not know the difference between Baroque and Bauhaus but they insist on making the decisions about church design and architecture.The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council did not intend for this to happen.

When proclaiming an appreciation of art and artists the Council Fathers envisioned a partnership between the communities of Church and artisans. Such a relationship was uniquely intended to incorporate mutual understanding of the Church’s needs for artistic integrity and the implementation by the artisans of qualitative expressions of religious belief. Such an understanding does not imply that the most expensive representations of religious expression constitute the highest quality of the artistic endeavor; rather it suggests that the highest quality compositions by artists should be included in the Church’s expression of her beliefs.It seems that in neglecting the need to establish an American Academy for Sacred Art the symbiotic relationship between Church and Artisan is seen as unimportant or unnecessary.

The deeper understanding of God’s expression of Himself through the artisan appears to have been relegated to mass-produce; fill in the blanks, religious articles.As the Catholic Church in the United States continues to develop, a deeper understanding of its mission and sacramental activities it is time to implement the decrees of the Second Vatican Council and establish an institute for the study and preservation of sacred and liturgical art.The United States is and has not been a missionary church under the jurisdiction of the Propaganda Fide for quite some time. Directly associated with this fact, we need to start utilizing and implementing liturgical designs from highly talented and qualified American artists and craftsmen. One of the most alarming endorsements I often see is the openly commercial endorsement by establishments such as EWTN of foreign liturgical “crafts” guilds and establishments. The domestic Catholic network in the United States should really begin to focus on the many talented and inspired Catholic artists and craftsmen that reside in the United States. Perhaps organizations such as EWTN would even use this as an opportunity to highlight American artists and craftsmen that are especially astute in their representations of sacred and liturgical art.

My goal is not merely to provide artistic isolationism when determining Catholic needs for good architecture and design. My goal is to promote and establish a Catholic communal appreciation of quality liturgical art and design that is available in the United States.Most often, the major metropolitan areas of the country contain many of the individuals that possess artistic expertise and creativity. It makes logical sense then that most artists that specialize in liturgical and sacred arts would cluster around the larger Catholic populations in our larger dioceses and archdioceses. Sacrosanctum Concilium makes a very specific point that the Bishop should entrust the proper understanding of proper artistic and liturgical integrity to priests especially trained and associated with the visual arts.

One-step further would also to provide for the establishment of a liturgical arts organization within each bishop’s local jurisdiction. This group would serve as a conduit for local artists and parish communities that are seeking to utilize each artist’s and craftsmen’s unique skills and talents. At the same time, perhaps this same “liturgical arts” group could provide an educational element for priests and parishioners alike. Lectures, seminars and workshops as well as exhibitions of liturgical and sacred art might be arranged so all of the faithful would appreciate and understand the true importance and necessity of such contributors.One of the only examples of such an exhibition of liturgical and sacred arts took place in Philadelphia in 1976 during the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, which was held in August of that year.

The location was the old Philadelphia Civic Center and exhibition space was provided to display local examples of sacred and liturgical art. Quite honestly, the exhibition covered a large space within the exhibition hall. It was also an opportunity for me as a high school student to begin to understand the truly symbiotic relationship that exists between the Church and the Artist, Sacred Art and Liturgical Expression, as well as the relationship between architecture and sacred space. During my tour of the exposition, I was introduced to many artists and craftsmen that continue to produce exceptional pieces of art that are most worthy additions to sacred spaces. Some of these artists, such as Robert McGovern, Bill Daley, Wayne Bates and Anthony Visco have been great sources of friendship as well as artistic mentors over the past 35 years or so. During my tenure as a seminary student, I was very fortunate to have experienced both artists and their works.

In particular, Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary commissioned and still uses original furniture constructed by George Nakashima. The liturgical furniture have for over 30 years provided exceptional examples of good design and exceptional execution of natural materials in the liturgical space. During this period, George Nakashima was even a frequent visitor, and even made use of fallen trees from the campus in his woodcarving projects.Of course, one of the most enduring mandates of the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium was the entrusting of an educational understanding of the sacred and liturgical arts to the Bishop, who in turn delegated this task to Msgr. John Miller in Philadelphia. Throughout the years, Msgr. John Miller has taught many a future priest the qualitative differences between vellum and plain old paper, the nuances of quality between hand woven wool and mass produced polyester as well as the material exquisiteness of handcrafted liturgical vessels when compared to off the shelf items.

Quite frequently his voice was similar to St. John the Baptist calling out in an artistic wilderness where the message of liturgical quality of materials was not always understood or appreciated. I am glad to say that after thirty years he is still teaching me and other former students about the necessity of highest quality materials in our oblations to the Almighty.Clearly, the intentions of the Second Vatican Council regarding art and artistic expression within the Church were intended to launch a Renaissance of craftsmanship in our contemporary Church. Unfortunately, in most cases this rebirth and new appreciation of artisans and their crafts has only been experienced on a limited basis. That is exactly why the United States Bishops need to establish an institute that promotes and fosters an appreciation of all of these artistic disciplines. Not only would such a school of sacred art provide much needed education for clergy and faithful alike, it would provide an creative incubator for ecclesial art. Artisans, clergy, faithful people would all have vast resources available to further appreciate and explore the relationship between the Church and Artistic expression. Such a relationship would provide opportunity for cooperation with all parties to explore artistic expression and its age-old relationship to the worship of God. At the same time, we would experience a marked increase of qualitative liturgical accessories and vessels for use in our pursuit of the Divine.

In a business scenario, it is a “win-win” situation. It is the same in pastoral, and artistic terms as well, all parties involved would benefit from establishment of liturgical arts appreciation programs. Such development hopefully would produce artistic and architectural representations that are worthy of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

Recently in the Vatican art, restorers were surprised to find new art treasures underneath the soot and grime from centuries of candle wax. As it turns out landscape artist Paul Bril did the hidden treasures in the sixteenth century. It seems that Pope Sixtus V commissioned 40 artists of the period to paint landscape scenes near the Scala Sancta, which is near the private chapel of the Popes in the Vatican Palace. According to Vatican historians, Pope Sixtus V had a great appreciation for the visual arts and commissioned over 18,000 square feet of artistic endeavors during his reign. He was reported to enjoyed landscapes and other pastoral themes.It is really an amazing thing that the Church has been such a consistent patron and advocate towards the development of the visual arts.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council promulgated in chapter 7 that the Church had a unique relationship with artists and their arts. It enjoined local bishops to establish and maintain sacred art academies and schools to better educate artists regarding the importance of sacred art. At the same time, such an institution would enable both faithful believers and artisans the opportunity to learn about the intense relationship with all of the arts the Church has enjoyed for centuries. It is most likely one of the most disregarded mandates that came out of Vatican II in 1963.

We are 40 plus years since the end of the Council and sacred art still does not have a domestic United States academy for its study and development. Since the close of Vatican II hundreds if not thousands of Catholic churches have been renovated, renewed, restored or even ruined by a disregard for their architectural and artistic integrity.

Today, the Church is on the threshold of a restoration of the Tridentine Mass as a viable option to the Novus Ordo of Paul VI and our Catholic Churches have been quite literally looted and vandalized.It was common practice in the post-concilliar period to completely remove old altars, renovate the sanctuary of most churches and “modernize” the architecture. Great examples of quality and artistic expression were frequently just “ripped out” and destroyed, or placed in storage. In it’s attempt to streamline and simplify it’s liturgical celebration of the Mass, quite often parish communities were completely rebuilt with little or no regard for the architectural and historical integrity of these sacred spaces. So here, we are on the possible eve of a restoration of the Church’s ancient form of celebration and the requirements of Vatican II have not even been accomplished.To the best of my knowledge, there is no sacred institute for liturgical arts in the United States with artistic education as its primary purpose. From any experiences I have had, artists that focus on liturgical and sacred arts quite honestly do not even have a national organization.

However, they exist. Most of these artisans, experienced in all mediums of artistic representation (such as marble carving, bronze casting, and woodcarving, painting, iconography and so on.) seem to survive and proclaim their artistic interpretation of God’s creation without help or support from any one in the hierarchy of the United States Bishop’s Conference. There are of course a few exceptions, and some bishops utilize American artists for domestic church projects. For the most part though, religious art for public exhibition in our Catholic Churches is confined to ordering iconoclastic images from religious supply catalogues or contracting with some foreign workshop to construct sacred art and images.I really do not understand the notion that in order for ecclesial art to be of any significant value or importance there is a misconception it should be made in some Italian quarry, or some Spanish woodcarving factory. As an institutional Church, we are committing a grave injustice aimed at craftsmen and artisans that labor right here in our American Catholic Church. Instead of utilizing architects and liturgical planners that love to “skirt” off over the Atlantic, we should be scouring each American diocese for the existence of qualitative sacred artists. It is time for the American Bishops to provide for the mandate of Sacrosanctum Concilium and establish a school for the development and the preservation of the sacred arts.

Quite frequently, I have witnessed new architectural projects that are going on in Catholic Churches, even Catholic Cathedrals…and priests and bishops have engaged artisans and materials from European sources. Now quite realistically, I am not promoting architectural and artistic isolationism. I am promoting patronage of native talent when projects are conceived and implemented. The United States is no longer a foreign mission of any European Catholic Church. It is only appropriate that artisans that are part of our own worshiping community be given the opportunity to provide artistic expression in our Catholic Churches. In a period when the Church is advocating a new appreciation towards good stewardship of natural resources by all of the faithful, an excellent place to start appreciating these resources is within our own talented artistic community.

Sometimes when Bishops and priests consider projects that involve casting of new statues, or renovation of sacred spaces they immediately rule out using local artisans. The reason is usually quite simple, they mistakenly believe the local artist or craftsman is too expensive for the project’s budget. As a result, we have neglected as a Church to appreciate our own gifted Catholics that worship God through their artistic expressions. At the same time, the responsibility for creation of liturgical and sacred art is consigned to companies that mass-produce religious articles for hundreds of Catholic Churches throughout the world.

As a result, we frequently see the same portrayal of images of Jesus, Mary and the saints with just subtle differences throughout the United States. It does not seem that Sixtus V, Paul VI or any pope for that matter intended for cookie cutter art throughout Christendom.In addition to the initiation of a school for sacred arts, perhaps every parish community would be best served by trying to incorporate local artists into all of their projects. It seems that the notion of community also involves appreciating the fields in which all of our parishioners’ labor. It really would not be that hard for the local parish priest to invite individuals of all crafts and trades to provide services to the local parish community. That is not to say these services should be offered without compensation as well. Catholic social teaching from Leo XIII to John Paul II have always made it clear that individuals should be compensated justly for their services and in fulfillment of their jobs.

This teaching applies to the Church as employer as well.One might discuss many facets regarding the use of local artisans and craftsmen in local Catholic projects. The most important facet I believe is the openness of the Church to include these creative and talented individuals into a closer working relationship with their parish communities. Education of priests and faithful would not be a subject that should be overlooked.

Sacrosanctum Concilium also recommends that clergy and future clergy be educated in an appreciation of all of the arts. This is not something that the Fathers of the Council considered optional, it was promulgated as part of the declarations of Sacrosanctum Concilium. I know from my own seminary educational experiences over almost eight years I only had one course in art appreciation while I was in college. During my theology studies, the priest entrusted with our education in liturgy and its practice was quite often seen as a John the Baptist figure. His message of liturgical quality and integrity in relationship to the sacred arts was always maligned and misconstrued as a “necessary evil” in order to fulfill the requirements of Vatican II. However, his courses have provided me with inexhaustible resources over the years as well as a constant deepening of my personal appreciation for visual and sacred art.

It would also help a considerable bit if parish communities were involved in a catechesis regarding the importance of quality in our liturgical and sacred arts. Quite frequently, in our post-Industrial society that prides itself on the expediency of just about everything. It would be an enriching insight for parishioners to understand the difference between mass produced religious materials, and the essential quality and dignity of handcrafted articles destined for sacred expression. Rarely in our modern United States do we place a high regard on artistic craftsmanship that included material quality.

This disregard for humanly created things quite honestly is reflective of the secular humanism dangers that present themselves to Catholicism. An individual’s essential value and worth at times are neglected for more collective goals and the dignity of a human person’s life and work sometimes is disregarded.In a time when more is best, biggest is better, most expensive is best and mechanical engineering is superlative perhaps we should pause and rethink our Catholic appreciation of human labor. Sacred Art in our liturgical activities is reflective of man’s deepest desire to pursue an understanding of God. Sacrosanctum Concilium implied there is a symbiotic relationship between art and religion, the Church and the Artisan, and the Artisan with the Church community.

It is an appropriate time in the 21st century to revisit the Church’s appreciation of artistic expression with a manner of material integrity. We have had enough of mass produced religious art, inferior representations of quality materials and the exclusion of Catholic artistic talents. It has been 44 years since the Holy Spirit through the Second Vatican Council inspired Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is time we implemented and paid attention to its significant message. If we don’t take the responsibility seriously a few centuries from now, historians will be uncovering not only artistic works from the time of Sixtus V, but they will be trying to piece together the artistic fabric of post-Vatican II. It really is our responsibility and obligation that they uncover and understand that this era was a true Renaissance of artistic quality and merit

I suppose there is a theme emerging here. Over the past few writings, I have called for the development of a Sacred Art Institute within the Catholic Church in the United States. Perhaps the foundation of this educational facility would be best placed here in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which is one of the four original dioceses (Boston, Philadelphia, New York & Bardstown), carved from the Primal See of Baltimore , two hundred years ago. Such a location would make a lot of sense. Not only is Philadelphia rich in it’s artistic heritage, it also offers quite a few craftsmen and artists that make the area their home.

Now I am not really talking about a new art school, but rather a unique collective space that could be devoted to the study and development of sacred and liturgical arts. One of the best places I could imagine would be to house such an institute in a former Catholic school with an adjacent church. I could think of half a dozen such examples of such sites within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that would make perfect spots for an arts campus. Quite a few urban parishes with changing population shifts come first to mind. The site could be leased to artists at a reasonable cost and developed into a studio complex where the sharing of artistic skills and intellectual curiosity could be freely exchanged. In the same manner, such a gathering of individuals might also stimulate new life into a parish community that is in a state of urban flux.

There are quite a few points that would justify such an institution. The first point should be a revitalization of good craftsmanship and artistic works for our sacred spaces. This community would be exclusively designated as a “Catholic” Sacred Art Institute, so there would be no confusion of artists, patrons and sponsors of its singular purpose.

Secondly, the endeavor would provide good reutilization of parish resources in a period when quite a bit of existing church real estate sits cavernously vacant. Old classrooms not only seem appropriate for the space required by artists, but I would think the quality of natural light would be excellent. If the Catholic parish needs to continue providing minimal heat and electricity to keep a vacant building in “dry-dock” state, then it should not be wasted.

Next the message would be abundantly clear that the Bishop, or in this case Cardinal Archbishop, takes the entire notion of quality art and architecture for Catholic worship seriously and is intent on the success of such a collective group within their jurisdiction. We commonly as a Church provide space to other groups, such as AAA, Knights of Columbus; Red Cross etc…why not provide a permanent and reasonably available place for craftsmen and artisans. Most importantly, the institute should be adjacent to a living and active parish community. This way the artisan community can truly begin to incorporate the axiom, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi into their sacred art and ministry.Recently in the Catholic press there has been some interesting reflections on parishes of historical significance within the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

When we think of parishes, one usually associates lots of activity within a parish community. However, this is not the case with some of the older and historic churches of Philadelphia. Most are closed on a regular basis and the Eucharistic Sacrifice is only offered on a monthly basis. It is really unfortunate that historical sites such as Holy Trinity in Philadelphia are celebrated as “architectural jewels”, when in reality they are no longer the active expression of the Sacred Mysteries, but just dead buildings. Old churches especially those with American historical significance should be vibrant, living parish communities regardless of their neighborhoods or ethnic populations. Anything less than an active Catholic Church in the community quite frankly says to the local community…you are too poor for sacraments. Twenty-first century believers can coexist and even flourish in eighteenth century buildings. Such a disregard for the spiritual integrity of a local community is elitist and at times racist.

Church buildings and sites exist for worship and praise of God, not the historical displaying of antiquated historical accessories. Perhaps the area around this parish church would benefit from a living group of artisans and faithful Catholics. Think about the great influence an arts community would have on the spiritual life of a quasi-existent parish structure.The catechetical importance of the establishment of such a site would be an invaluable resource to Catholics everywhere as well. Not only would the knowledge and expertise of Catholic artists be preserved and passed on to new generations, such a site would be a shining example of the importance Catholic art and architecture in every age. The availability and fluidity towards an appreciation and experience of “works in progress” would enable educators and faithful to experience “living” artists’ expressions of faith. Such a place could also serve as a showcase for priests and parishioners that are considering the acquisition of new liturgical accessories for their sacred spaces.

Priests could speak with artists and watch the entire process of artistic revelation as pieces are created. At the same time, the mistaken concept of mass produced religious articles would be discouraged, and execution of qualitative art would occur. Perhaps even this “studio” would serve as a catalyst for artists and craftsmen to consider religious art as a Catholic vocation, through which they might serve Christ’s Church. Regardless of the effect, such a place would enable the story of Catholic faith to be promoted and taught through sacred and liturgical art. That has to be a great catechetical effect.Finally, consider the need for evangelization. Mgsr. Michael Carroll, a former seminary professor, used to say that…”catechesis and evangelization go hand in hand!” There is a lot of significance in this statement. Artistic expression in a parish community really teaches Catholics about their past, present and future as a worshiping community. The visual arts also communicate the pervasive power of God’s Word, as we try to understand and appreciate God in our artistic expressions and symbols. In turn, we try to share and communicate this faith to others in hopes that they might experience the Catholic faith. Such a vehicle for theological evangelization really does exist in the simple paintbrush of an artist. If that were not the case, why would anyone visit the Sistine Chapel?

Sacred and liturgical arts are perhaps a very broad phrase meant to describe those craftsmen and artisans that embrace their faith in their artistic works. For all of us as Catholics the phrase really should signify the need to teach and spread the Gospel message through the visual arts. Not all art is Catholic. Not all art is worth mentioning. However, sacred art is something, which has had little attention paid to it. It is long overdue. After all, it is only a human expression of our human condition that seeks to know God.Saint Augustine is appropriate here,”…our hearts are restless until they rest in You. Fulfill this longing through Jesus the Bread of Life.” Confessions of Saint Augustine & prayer of the 41st International Congress, Philadelphia 1976

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that writes on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. He writes daily at: & & He writes about Irish Catholic experiences  at Nothing Left Unsaid!” is his daily column @ Comments are always welcome @

[1] SacroSanctum Concilium, Chapter 7 number 126 Bishops should have a special concern for artists, to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy. This they may do in person or through suitable priests who are gifted with a knowledge and love of art.It is also desirable that schools or academies of sacred art should be founded in those parts of the world where they would be useful, so that artists may be trained. 

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