Art has a story — beginning in prehistoric caves, reaching rational perfection in classical culture, soaring to heaven in the Middle Ages, and pushing the bounds of meaning in recent centuries. It also tells our story, reflecting the sentiments and soul of each generation. The most striking future of modern art is ugliness, breaking from art’s longstanding search for beauty and perfection. Why do people continue to produce and purchase art devoid of beauty? I think it reflects the disorder in our own souls, particularly our grasp after novelty that pushes every boundary.
Catholics, even with our rich heritage in the arts, have witnessed the intrusion of this ugliness even into our sanctuaries. Horizontal and mundane architecture, music detoured from Broadway and abstract images ruled the day since the 1960s.
More recently, however, a correction has begun. Churches have started looking like churches again, accompanied by a resurgence in chant, polyphony and sacred hymns, as well as classically inspired art. We have rediscovered beauty’s power to evangelize. Ugliness acts more as a protest against tradition and its perceived limits. While we have to speak into the culture, which often serves as an excuse for the banal, we also have to direct people to God through mystery, transcendence, brilliance, harmony and order.
I teach many classes on theology, but I particularly enjoy a class that will be offered again this fall through the Lay Division of St. John Vianney Seminary, a walk through the history of Catholic art. This September, I’ll be starting up a 30-week online class, “Icon: An Exploration of Catholic Art and Culture,” an enrichment class with no required reading or assessments.
After soaking in the great churches, paintings, melodies, sculptures and poems, it can be shocking to encounter the modernist protest against this rich tradition. Thankfully, we end the class with a note of hope, evaluating recent commissions of churches, music and visual art that draw on our rich tradition to restore a sacred character within Catholic churches.
In order to promote the arts in the Church, we need to commission beautiful works again. There are many contemporary artists who are beginning to produce high-quality work for churches. I was happy to see some of them highlighted by Ignatius Press in Catholic Home Gallery: Eighteen Works of Art by Contemporary Catholic Artists—Removable and Suitable for Framing (2023), edited by John Herreid.
As the title suggests, the book takes shape around large, high-quality prints of contemporary Catholic art, framed by commentary on the featured artists and their work.
A quote from Matthew Alderman, one of the featured artists, describes the thrust of the book well:
The stereotypical view of art — which I think has pretty much murdered any good in it — sees it largely as a regurgitation of the artist’s interior self-expression. I think I have some private insights to bring to the table, but my mission is to depict and express God and His saints in line with what has been passed down to us, through Divine Revelation, through the millennia of liturgy, art and Catholic culture.
Another of the book’s artists, Neilson Carlin, has produced paintings for Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse and the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Many of his works focus on vivid and realistic depictions of the saints. “Bringing the heroes of the faith to life,” he says, “isn’t just a job, it’s my true calling, my vocation.”
Here is his portrait of St. Charles Lwanga:
Another painting, from James B. Janknegt, contains both a nod to tradition and a more contemporary feel:
Janknegt describes this image of Mary, the Ark:
In this painting, I combine two beautiful appellations of Our Lady — the Ark of the Covenant and the Burning Bush. Mary is the New Ark as she held within her the Bread of Life, the Word Made Flesh, and the Great High Priest after the order of Melchizedek prefigured in the original contents of the ark of the covenant: the manna, the tablets of the Ten Commandments and Aaron’s rod. Mary is like Moses in that as Moses could stand in front of God who appears as the burning bush and not be consumed, Mary could contain God in her womb and not be consumed.
Dressed in modern fashion, the two figures appear to be Moses on the left, who encountered God through the burning bush, and St. John on the right, who wrote about the Word made flesh. The bush is in full bloom due to the life that Jesus brings into the desert of this world, with living water flowing into our hearts.
We can still produce works of meaning and beauty. The Catholic Home Gallery provides hope in this regard, while supporting contemporary Catholic artists and providing images that can prompt meditation within our homes.
• Related at CWR: “Conversations with three contemporary Catholic artists” (Aug 1, 2023) by Paul Senz
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