What Words Can’t Convey
Many years ago my family and I visited the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of Avioth in France, just across the border from Belgium. This medieval church is believed to house a miraculous statue of Mary. The church is unusually large for the small village in which it dwells, but its architecture and art are of the highest quality.
At the time of our visit, my nieces and nephews were young children. They were mesmerized by the sheer size of the building, the colors of the stained-glass windows, and the many statues crowding the space. Forgetting they were in a church, they bounced from one beautiful object to another. At one point I followed my niece, who was playing in a dancing stream of colorful sunlight near a window. The light lingered on a little alabaster statue of a dog, resting at the feet of the sculpture of a sleeping woman who was buried in the tomb below.
Though the playful light first drew my niece’s attention, she was quickly drawn to the sculpture of the little dog. As she sat down quietly next to it, she followed the stream of yellow light caressing the back of the dog and began to softly pet it. She then laid her head gently on the alabaster pillow where the little dog was perched and closed her eyes. Then she quickly jumped up and joined her cousins in another part of the church.
Though the whole experience lasted only a few minutes, it made a great impact on me. I marveled at how the light and the little dog had drawn my niece into a private world that only she had experienced. This short and sweet encounter gives witness to the great potential for the power of art to draw people into unexpected encounters to convey their message.
All People Need the Arts to Express Their Deepest Feelings and to Interpret Their Life
Thousands of years before humans began to use written language, they communicated thoughts and feelings visually through art. The earliest examples of this are paintings and small statuettes found in caves. Today these things may appear crude and unsophisticated, but they evidence the artistic expression that set humans apart from all other living creatures, including other humanoids such as Neanderthals. Although these others were able to use tools, they weren’t able to create these works of art, much less decorate them.
Art continued to offer a form of communication even after written language was invented. As is our experience today, the arts reach further and deeper into the human mind, heart, and soul than any spoken or written words. The need for human beings to produce art is part of a profound quest for answers to fundamental questions about life and death, light and darkness, love and hatred. How often have you relied on music to give voice to joy, to lift your spirits, or to soothe your sorrows?
Christians Use Art to Inspire People and Communicate the Gospel
Like most religions, Christianity has relied on the arts to touch people’s hearts and communicate the Gospel message. Cathedrals and churches and even our homes are filled with statues, paintings, mosaics, and other forms of art created to move us and remind us of who we are as Christians.
Sometimes the arts provide a sense of relief, shelter, or order; sometimes they soothe us in physical, mental, or spiritual distress. Sometimes they illumine our faith or tell the story of a saint. Sometimes art invites us to sing of the greatness of our God. Art can move us during a spiritual encounter, such as in the liturgy, or in the marketplace. Art reaches out to us—anywhere.
Sacred art can provide cosmos
We live in a world that can appear to be on the brink of chaos. Sometimes it can all feel like too much. At such times, some people will reach for their rosary, their prayer book, or their Bible. Others will play their favorite music or attend a concert. Still others will seek the quiet of a sacred space to light a candle before a statue. Others will walk a labyrinth or stroll through a garden of fragrant blooms.
All of these experiences seek to bring us closer to our God. Sacred art is sacred because it provides us with a sense of order in the apparent chaos of our world. A beautiful building, a quiet garden, a soothing symphony, or an inviting painting can guide us back from chaos and bring us into the harmony of order, God’s order. Sacred art provides a beacon amid darkness. Sacred art supports life in a world of chaos and death.
Sacred art soothes, heals, and nourishes body, mind, and soul
Medical professionals have discovered that calming, soothing, and beautiful surroundings can aid a patient’s quick and full recovery. As such, sterile and intimidating hospitals are now made to look more inviting, restful, and relaxing. Art hangs in large welcoming spaces. Music is available on request. Meditation chapels, complete with peaceful art, now appear even in hospitals with no religious affiliation. Some hospitals employ art consultants and art therapists who promote healing through visual, kinetic, or acoustical arts.
People sometimes ask if money spent on new paint to give walls a softer look, sculptures, gardens, or art therapists might not be better spent on new equipment or on those in need. Although a different use of funds could allow for an immediate service, it would also eliminate a place of calm, serenity, and beauty in which the poor and grieving can find solace and healing.
Sacred art tells the storyof our faith
One of the most obvious and important components of religious art is the way in which mosaics, frescoes, and stained-glass windows of our cathedrals and churches tell the story of our faith. In a certain sense, Christians created a “picture Bible” on the walls and windows of our churches. People were not only taught the faith but they also received a constant reminder of it in vivid color and
In the same way that we remember a text much more easily when it is set to music, such as when we sing our “ABCs,” we also remember better when we have an image before us. Music and images help us make our faith our own as we sing the story to our own tunes and depict narratives in our own image.
Throughout history, artists have depicted the Judeo-Christian story within the context of their personal and worldview. We see this in Nativity scenes, where every culture and ethnic group has depicted Jesus’ birth in their own image. By doing this, they assure that the human aspect of the mystery of Christ is experienced fully by their culture or ethnic group.
Images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints
Although some examples of Jesus, Mary, and the saints were found in the catacombs, there was a controversy, rooted in the biblical prohibition to depict God. It wasn’t until the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 that a final ruling allowed images of Jesus and Mary to be created.
These depictions of Jesus, Mary, and the saints have been formative for our faith, since they invite us to greater devotion and call us to follow their example. The exemplary lives of Jesus, Mary, and the saints are an invitation for all humanity to try to live as they did.
Sacred art makes us think
Sacred art, like all art, is not always easy to understand. Even when the painting shows a figurative representation of a biblical story, there are often elements present that are not immediately understood. Art, not unlike our faith, never reveals itself all at once. Art asks us to meditate on what is represented so that we may touch its many layers of meaning. This is even more the case when the art is abstract.
A good example of varying styles is found in the Stations of the Cross. Artists have depicted the Stations in styles that range from very figurative and almost hyper-realistic to pure abstracts and everywhere in between. The most figurative Stations show us literally what might have happened when Jesus fell or when he encountered the women of Jerusalem. Somewhat abstract versions focus on certain aspects of the Station but leave out many of the details of the picture. The entirely abstract Stations show no obvious narrative, yet they visually evoke the Station through lines and shapes and colors. All Stations make us think, but perhaps abstract stations make us think just a bit more.
Sacred art hints at eternity
Listening to Gregorian chant, composed in the eighth century and still sung today, is clearly a timeless and mystical way to connect with those who sang and listened to chant in different times and places. In Paradisum, traditionally sung at Catholic funerals for centuries, is an example of timeless chant. Its haunting melody, chanted by a sole cantor while the body of the deceased is honored with incense, lifts us out of the here and now into the beyond. It allows us almost a glimpse of what is yet to come for us and what is already being enjoyed by our beloved deceased.
Paintings also enjoy a connection with eternity, sometimes because of their subject matter, their own sense of timelessness, or of their ethereal and almost elusive nature. Works such as Michelangelo’s Pietá, now housed in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, invite us into the mystery of salvation we might not have imagined otherwise.
The Church Promotes Music and the Arts Today
In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), one of the most groundbreaking documents of the Second Vatican Council, the Church highlights the importance of the arts in the life of the Church and especially in the liturgy. Imagine celebrating the liturgy without the arts. What would it be like to gather in a plain building, devoid of color, beauty, and statues?
Rather, we gather for worship in a beautifully constructed building, surrounded by images carved in wood or stone, cast in bronze, painted on walls, engraved in glass, or set in mosaic tiles. The altar and ambo are clothed in beautiful cloth and textiles, with accompanying artistic hangings around the worship area to celebrate the Church year. The priest and deacon wear carefully crafted vestments. The liturgical vessels are the best the community can provide. Then once the liturgy begins, the poetry of the readings, prayers, and musical hymns and harmonies tell our story of faith. Indeed, the arts enrich the liturgy and bring the Church to life.
A Continuing Mission
Art is not a thing of the past. Pope Paul VI established the Museum for Contemporary Art as part of the Vatican Museums to emphasize that sacred art is also not a thing of the past. Throughout today’s world, hundreds of talented men and women dedicate their lives to creating art because they believe it is their calling and their way of serving the Church.
Blessed Pope John Paul II, a poet and playwright himself, gathered artists on a number of occasions. He also wrote a Letter to Artists in which he tells of the importance of the arts throughout the history of the Church, as well as their importance today. He concludes the letter by inviting all artists to use their God-given talent for the greater good of all humanity.
The artist’s mission is a daunting one. Sacred art, everywhere and at all times, has and will continue to communicate its message far beyond the place and time for which it was created and long after the artist has passed away. What began before the existence of written language has endured to support us today in spirit and faith.
That is the power of art.
Johan van Parys, PhD, is a director of liturgy and sacred arts. He is cofounder and president of the Minnesota/North Dakota Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums.