By Karen Mannino Monday, September 23rd, 2013
How does art mediate between beauty and truth?
The true and the beautiful belong together, for God is the source of beauty and also the source of truth. Art, which is dedicated to the beautiful, is therefore a special path to the whole and to God.
What cannot be said in words or expressed in thought is brought to light in art. It is “a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches” (CCC 2501). In a way that closely approximates God’s creativity, inspiration and human skill are combined in the artist so as to give a valid form to something new, a previously unseen aspect of reality. Art is not an end in itself. It should uplift people, move them, improve them, and ultimately lead them to worship and thank God. (YOUCAT question 461)
This quote is speaking about art in general, but the point made must be especially true for sacred art; that is, art that is appropriate for use in a church.
What makes something Sacred Art?
What is appropriate for us to be looking at while we worship God? We wouldn’t want our surroundings to distract us from what is going on in the liturgy. We also don’t want to feel as if we were worshiping in an office. We need beauty around us to lift our hearts and minds up so that we can worship well.
Art is not for God, after all. He doesn’t need it. He created the world. Everything that can be seen exists because he spoke it into being. Art is our pathetic imitation of his creative power. It is us humans who need both the act of sub-creation, and the representation of God’s creation to lift our spirits and minds to God.
This is a famous byzantine mosaic. The image is known as Christ Pantocrator. This particular image is in Hagai Sofia, but this idea of Christ is repeated in many images. It is a very long tradition. The artists who created these images had very specific things to convey. These messages became part of the conventions of the genre. Everything in the image has meaning. Together, each little chip of color builds our understanding of God as a powerful being existing in a glorious world above us, majestic and perfect.
I have a modern icon of this image in my house. One thing I find interesting about the icon tradition is that icons are not painted, they are written. The act of writing an icon is as much a prayer and meditation for the artist, as it is a service to the person who will later use the icon in prayer. There is little to no self expression involved for the artist. But the writing of the icon should form the artist, rather than the other way around.
On the other hand, art as self expression is a powerful way by which people connect. Looking at an artist’s work, we see through their eyes. To see through another’s eyes is a crucial part of love. While I love the formal conventions of the ancient icon tradition, conventions in art should not be rigid rules, but guidelines that artists step outside to say important things.
When we look at Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul” we see the moment through his eyes, executed with all the skill for which he was famous. I wonder if, when it was first put up, people who came to pray objected to being faced with the back end of a horse, or the general indignity of the tangle of limbs that fills up the middle of the image. It is a guided reflection on the way Jesus inserted himself into Saul’s life and completely transformed him. It was messy, inconvenient, shocking. There wasn’t room for Jesus, so he knocked Saul down.
Caravaggio was not a saint. I have never heard that he had any interest in living a holy life. As far as I know, he was as much an egotist as any artist stereotype. But because he was striving for beauty, and truth, in his paintings, we can still be uplifted and transformed for the better by seeing through Caravaggio’s eyes. He was a storyteller (which may explain why I love his work SO much).
I took this picture when I visited the National Shrine Of The Immaculate Conception in D.C. I don’t know the artist, but the title says, “Our Lady of Hope.” The friend I was with said it was weird. But as a geeky art student (though at the time I would not have admitted to considering an art major) I was excited about the design elements being used. It’s all about the negative space. But beyond that, it’s a reflection on hope. Hope, after all, is something we can’t see. Hope is the spaces that we fill though they look empty. The sculpture is a guided reflection. It isn’t shockingly human, or showing a dramatic moment in a story, like Caravaggio’s. It is expressing a none-figurative idea using the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Style and content vary greatly. We go from symbolic representation, through very detailed realism, to abstraction. But all of these convey truth. I think they are all beautiful.
A lot of the decoration in churches I have been to in my home town is non-figurative. This avoids arguments of taste among the parishioners. Non-figurative art usually has almost no content and ends up being a pleasing configuration of shape and color. Sometimes such pieces are beautiful. But can art with no content be sacred art? Can it convey truth?
Karen Mannino has a BA in studio art from Aquinas College. She lives in the Northwest pursuing art, graphic design, and loan payments.