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Catholic “coffee table” books that delight both the eye and the mind

Four recent books on the theology of the home, the art of Michael O’Brien, the artwork of J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Vatican secret archives are filled with countless treasures

(Image: Angelika Agibalova |

They are known as “coffee table books”—those large hardbacks full of glossy illustrations, often selected and placed strategically to show guests where our tastes lie. (Or, a cynic might say, to make our guests think our tastes lie in various high-brow directions.)

I take issue with the cynic as far as my small collection of these books is concerned. They are all about things that I love. There’s Audubon’s Birds of America, a collection of Norman Rockwell paintings, and another of the world’s great cathedrals. But I will admit that they gather dust; until recently I rarely bothered to look at them. Too busy! Whatever time I had for reading was devoted to something more serious—a good novel, perhaps, or an important spiritual work by a prominent author. There were no precious minutes or half hours to waste gazing at pretty pictures. Needless to say, the recent events in which we’re all immersed in have changed that. Not only is the time available, but it’s a very welcome escape from my newly narrowed world to gaze at faraway places, great art, or historic artifacts.

Just in time for this strange season of lockdown, several recently published coffee table books have come my way. Not only do they provide a feast for the eyes, but they are also treasures for the Catholic soul.

The Theology of Home: Finding the Eternal in the Everyday
By Carrie Gress, Noelle Young, and Megan Schreiber. Photography by Kim Baile (TAN Books), 220 pages

Thanks to HGTV, big box do-it-yourself stores, and bestsellers on decluttering and Scandinavian hygge, home design and interior decorating are trending obsessions. The three Catholic moms who co-authored this book think that’s fine, but want to take a closer look at the desire to make our homes places of beauty, comfort, and self-expression.

They share thoughts on the very concept of Home and our longing to feel “at home” in terms of both time and eternity. They examine various elements that make a house a home—light, nourishment, comfort, safety, order, hospitality. But their reflections don’t breathe a word about home security systems, window treatments, or recipes. Instead, each element is examined as symbol of our ultimate Home, and how our earthly homes can give hints of what awaits us. The authors don’t quote DIY and design experts, but rather saints and philosophers.

Photos abound of lovely homes: some simple, some elaborate, but all obviously Catholic. This we discern not only by the presence of icons and statues, but also by the many children that are so obviously at home in them. [Editor’s note: See CWR’s October 2019 interview with Carrie Gress about this book.]

The Art of Michael O’Brien.
Introduction by Clemens Cavallin (Ignatius Press), 172 pages

Many of us know Michael O’Brien’s novels far better than his artwork. Indeed, his cover designs for those novels may be the only works of his that we’ve seen.

Those covers are striking, but when a great story beckons from within the pages, we don’t tend to linger outside. Now, here is our chance to linger and explore this side of O’Brien’s creative skill. You’ll be surprised at the range of styles he uses, from traditional byzantine iconography to photo-realism. Although all his works are striking and provoke quiet contemplation, my favorite O’Brien style is one that—forgive this amateur’s description—seems to combine elements of the eastern icon with a softened, more natural facial features (for example, the 2018 St. Joseph the Provider on page 160).

Nearly all O’Brien’s subjects are religious, whether overt portraits of saints and biblical scenes, or more symbolic representations religious concepts. The introduction by Clemens Cavallin helpfully describes various influences on O’Brien’s work, and the artist’s preface briefly describes the evolution of his career (which began almost simultaneously with his conversion to Christ), and shares hard-won wisdom on the artist’s vocation in a post-Christian world.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle Earth
By Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library), 416 pages

Hardcore Tolkien fans will never lack for collections of art work inspired by Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. Artists such as John Howe, Ted Naismith, and Alan Lee have delighted us with their interpretations of iconic scenes and characters.

But last year we were reminded that Tolkien himself was a good amateur artist. Thousands flocked to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York to see the “Maker of Middle Earth” exhibit of his paintings, maps, and calligraphy. Those who missed it can console themselves with the book version, a 10”x10”, one and a half inch thick chunk of a volume. There are other editions of Tolkien’s art available, but this one is an omnibus that includes preliminary sketches, maps, Elvish calligraphy, photos of key correspondence, and even multi-color doodles scattered over pages of the London Times classified pages.

In addition, there’s plenty of worthwhile text. The biographical sketch gives due place to Tolkien’s Catholic faith. Essays on Tolkien’s love for Norse mythology, his friendship with C.S. Lewis and the “Inklings”, the invention of the Elvish language, and the evolution of his visual art are all interesting and valuable reads.

It’s a must-have for any fan’s Tolkien shelf.

Vatican Secret Archives: Unknown Pages of Church History
By Gregorz Gorny and Janusz Rosikon (Ignatius Press), 352 pages

When it comes to specifically Catholic coffee table books, the gold standard must be that of Gorny and Rosikon. Their five previous titles (on the “mysteries” of Fatima, Guadalupe, Divine Mercy, the Magi, and the Relics of Christ’s Passion) combine historical investigative reporting with splendid graphics and photography.

Their latest volume centers on a timely topic: the “Secret” archives of the Vatican. These archives, of course, are not so secret anymore. They’ve been recently renamed the Vatican Apostolic Archives, and their contents has been increasingly accessible to scholars in the past few decades. (The most recent example: Pope Francis has just made more documentation on Pope Pius XII available to researchers on March 4th of this year.)

But secret or not, most of us will not be traveling to Rome and gaining privileged access to those Vatican storehouses of historic documentation. Thanks to Gorny and Rosikon, we can get a glimpse from home. Furthermore, we can satisfy our curiosity on some of the most controversial issues in Church history. The Crusades. The Knights Templar. The Inquisition. Galileo.

Or, heading into more recent epochs, we can explore the situation of the Catholic Church during the Spanish American War and World War II and the Holocaust. With the help of Vatican documents and interviews with modern scholars, the authors give context to these events that is sadly lacking in the popular versions that we’ve grown up with. Here we see distortions resolved and stereotypes debunked.

All accompanied by striking pictures of the people, places, and things that made history. Vatican Secret Archives is truly a feast for the armchair historian.

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About Daria Sockey 1 Article
Daria Sockey is the author of The Everyday Catholic’s Guide to the Liturgy of the Hours (Franciscan Media) and writes for a variety of Catholic publications. She lives in northwestern Pennsylvania.

1 Comment

  1. Why the heck is secular literature seen as important and why coffee?

    Boy if you guys really feel that this stuff is so great you’re wrong or …
    (gulp!), this is a problem.

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