Theology, Bible and liturgy as the sources of Christian art

Rev. Henryk Nadrowski,

Poznań, Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza


It is important, and even essential, to realize that both in the creative and in the perceptive process associated with Christianity one must have the minimum knowledge of theology, the Bible, liturgy, tradition, custom and a general idea of culture and art. Religious art as well as art made for a gallery or museum has a very open character and can even assume the form of an experiment. However, sacred art, which is associated with the space of the church, is an entirely different phenomenon. The latter must have an ancillary and adaptive character: it must serve the community and the individual discovering of the closeness of God, especially during the liturgy. Time, space and man form a kind of triad, which clarifies sacred art.

It is a mistake to build churches without a clear indication of that hic et nunc. Space-time, i.e. realization and concretization, allows not only for considering the time of a given epoch but also for creation and evaluation according to its criteria. The subject matter itself does not prejudge the sacred nature and purpose of a given work of art. What is necessary is deliberate and purposeful creative activity, and an object of worship should be carefully designed.

However, it must not carry a message that is accidental, incoherent, chaotic. It is necessary to restore the idea of the iconographic programme of ​​a sacred object, which will be anchored to the three foundations listed in the title. These, in turn, will guard the dogmatic correctness of a work of art and clearly explain its sense that results from a consistent iconological message.

It is an important task to properly prepare developers, investors, and the faithful-recipients both for the understanding of historical church monuments and for new solutions concerning content and form. However, it is not enough that this space should be correct and functional in its technical or artistic aspect. There is no place for the reification of art. What is important is that the works of sacred art should be imbued with a certain metaphysical depth, a meditative climate or a mystical nature. They should even stimulate a person to meet God. This interpersonal character is crucial: the man-artist establishes a relationship with God in the creative process while and the man-recipient ought to feel this personal relationship with God, which indirectly is also a meeting with the artist. The latter has the role of a priest and prophet, or evangelizer, who is an intermediary leading to the supernatural reality. Moreover, a work of art becomes a meeting place for other people, sometimes even for generations. This is because the spirit of faith and devotion accumulates in it, and the work thus receives a “new life” that transcends not only its time but also the creative idea of the artist.

An artist always expresses himself in some way. At the same time, the author of a work of sacred art does not speak in isolation from his specific environment and circumstances. He does not create art for himself but for the faithful. The very concept of a work and its artistic effect is to invite, even encourage the faithful to visit a given church space, which is to be a foretaste of the heavenly Jerusalem, new earth and new heaven. This eschatological aspect is somehow inscribed in the space of the church.

Art and works of art need their right place, not only in the space of the church, in the catechesis, in homiletics, in pastoral work, but also in theological thought, in the interpretation of the Christian Creed and the Decalogue. Sacred art is even defined as a “theological space.” It is necessary to deepen the theology of aesthetics and art.

An important task is the co-operation of all those jointly responsible both for the appearance and the dignity of the heritage of the past as well as for new solutions in church architecture.

keywords: theology, the Bible, liturgy, Christian identity, personalism, space-time, architecture, sculpture, reification and hominization of art, iconography, iconology, saeculum, sacrum, the profane, Letter to Artists by Pope John Paul II


The history of Latin civilization is inseparably linked with the whole richness of the Mediterranean area. Feliks Koneczny (1862–1949), a historian and creator of an original concept of civilization, refers even to the Attic roots of law, beauty and truth as important factors reflected in the social, political, artistic and cultural life of the contemporary western world.

Social life is strongly based on relations that intertwine, cross and complete one another but are sometimes  contradictory. At the same time, many areas of both individual and collective life are subjected to one another. When analyzing the basis of all definitions, divisions and assessments, one must first specify the axiological criteria. The world of values and, consequently, the quality of individuals as well as communities allow us to treat various areas of life responsibly.

The rich world of communication media, film, music production and information technology are currently shaping the world of culture and art. The media are accessed by both the masses and the intellectual elites. The loss of the roots of one’s own identity is these days becoming a problem in personal and community relations. This is not just the process of identity breakdown, but is a true erosion of identity. It does not only concern industry or commerce, marketing and distribution, but also ideas and science, culture and art as well as the worldview and religion. The increasing consumerism favours extreme anonymity and individualism, and the  society adopts the character of an ‘abstract and universal audience’.[1] Contemporary man with a well-formed personality, especially a Christian, needs to consistently widen and deepen his attitude of influencing the course of events, progress and development, as well as to develop his sense of duty to affect the environment positively.

Important triads

Time is an important category of existence, of the surrounding reality and the human condition. It is God who initiates it, operates and reveals himself in it. God also enabled man to involve himself actively and responsibly in the course of nature and culture. It is man who is able to release time, ‘give it a sense, and fill it with value’.[2] Together with the purely biological triad of birth, life and death, we are also involved in an existential and artistic triad, namely our beginning, heyday and twilight. God and man are active at all times. The reality of the world either develops or disintegrates. Art is expressed and represented in time and space. Throughout time, man-creator prioritises works and products of mind, heart and hands, not only chronologically but also axiologically and soteriologically. It can be said that quality and virtue which are ontically inherent in these works and products define their right place and value. The heritage of both the whole mankind and an individual man includes the three aspects of creation and assessment of particular works: history, the present and the future. The mentioned framework and criteria also refer to the entire heritage of mankind in the fields of spatial activity (architecture), or the fine arts (painting and stained glass window), and also audio-visual (literature, poetry, theatrical and musical) experiences. One can notice that it is with time that the comprehensive perception of the heritage of mankind becomes crystallized, including our historical heritage, contemporary quests as well as our future perspective. The set of criteria from a given time affects the dynamism of events and the transformations of the world. At the same time, one needs to be aware of the ever-changing – in time – set of criteria, mainly the intangible criteria in different fields, including the field of art. This concept of changing time, including historical knowledge, is indispensable when evaluating and interpreting aesthetics and artistry. The concept of changing time is also necessary for the comprehensive perception of an era’s background, the condition of human knowledge and experience. This context of time enables us to notice the arguments from different scientific fields as well as the opinions of theologians[3] and the educational church office in a given era, regarding things which are worldly and those which are timeless, transcendental, and eternal.

translated by Anna Gajewska and Dagmara Filip-Simpson

[1] D. Strinati, Wprowadzenie do kultury popularnej, Poznań, 1998, pp.190ff.

[2] D. M. Turoldo, Misterium czasu, Kraków, 2000, p.24. “You and Him participate in creation which lasts; you are becoming God’s collaborator, you co-create with God”.

[3] K. Bracha, “Teolog-intelektualista i duszpasterz w państwie średniowiecznym”, in: Kolory i struktury średniowiecza, ed. W. Fałkowski, Warszawa, 2004, pp.136–154.

[4] J. S. Pasierb, Człowiek i jego świat w sztuce religijnej renesansu, Warszawa, 1999, pp.37ff.

J. Sokołowska, Spory o barok. W poszukiwaniu modelu epoki, Warszawa, 1971, p.47.

[5] K. Adam, Natura katolicyzmu, Warszawa, 1999, p.186.

[6] Jan Paweł II, Wiara i kultura. Dokumenty, przemówienia, homilie, Rome, 1986.

Jan Paweł II, Pamięć i tożsamość. Rozmowy na przełomie tysiącleci, Kraków, 2005.

Jan Paweł II, Fides et ratio, Poznań, 1998.

Jan Paweł II człowiek kultury, eds. K. Flader, W. Kawecki, Kraków, 2008.

J. Ratzinger, Służyć prawdzie. Myśli na każdy dzień, Poznań–Warszawa–Lublin, 1983.

J. Ratzinger, Duch liturgii, Poznań, 2002.

[7] Symbol Apostolski w nauczaniu i sztuce Kościoła do Soboru Trydenckiego, ed. R. Knapiński, Lublin, 1997.

[8] A. Dylus, “Cnota”, in  Słownik teologiczny, ed. A. Zuberbier,  Katowice, 1998, p.96.

[9] K. Drzymała, “Katakumby rzymskie”, Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny 28 (1985) no.1, p.61, pp.64–73.

B. Filarska, Początki sztuki chrześcijańskiej, Lublin, 1986, pp.15–22, 31ff.

[10] R. Etchegaray, “Nasze Credo, in Wiara Kościoła. Biskupi francuscy komentują wyznanie wiary, Warszawa, 1985, p.9.

[11] R. Hind, Twarze Boga, Warszawa, 2005, p.7.

[12] S. Wysłouch, ”Wizualność metafory”, in Miejsca wspólne. Szkice o komunikacji literackiej i artystycznej, eds. E. Balcerzan, S. Wysłouch, Warszawa, 1985, p.218.

[13] W. Świerzawski, “Zakorzenić sztukę liturgiczną w teologii (o dojrzałe powołanie artysty)”, in Sztuka w liturgii, ed. W. Świerzawski, Kraków, 1996, pp.221–230.

[14] Cf. L. Giussani, Zmysł religijny, Poznań, 2000, p.170: ‘Deep self-awareness suspects the existence of Someone Else at its foundation. That is what prayer is: deep self-awareness, which collides with Someone Else. In this way prayer is the only human gesture in which the human greatness exists entirely’; p.174: ‘The world is like a word, logos, referring to something else, something beyond oneself, something above. In Greek the word ‘higher’ (above) is aná. This is the meaning of the word ‘analogy’, similarity: a form of a collision between a human being and the reality gives birth to an internal voice which attracts him to the meaning which is farther, higher, aná.’

[15] H. Nadrowski, “Liturgia – kontekst mediatyczny oraz ikoniczny”, in Laudate Dominum. Księdzu Profesorowi Jerzemu Stefańskiemu z okazji 65-lecia urodzin i 40-lecia kapłaństwa, ed. K. Konecki, Gniezno, 2005, pp.77–99.

[16] The common and different elements were paid attention to during the interdisciplinary conference “Teatr–Kultura–Liturgia”, Opole–Wrocław, 16th–17th March 2005, cf. E. Mateja ,“Sprawozdanie z konferencji naukowej Teatr–Kultura–Liturgia“, Liturgia Sacra 11 (2005), no.2, pp.423–425. Also cf. Obraz i kult. Materiały z konferencji “Obraz i kult”, KUL–Lublin, 6–8 października 1999, eds. M. U. Mazurczak, J. Patyra, Lublin, 2002.

[17] P. Petryk, “Liturgia a duchowość chrześcijańska”, Liturgia Sacra 12 (2006), no.1, pp.14ff.

[18] K. Lijka, Rewaloryzacja roli paschału w odnowionej liturgii Wigilii Paschalnej, Poznań, 2007, p.296.

[19] M. Janion, “Maska. Maski. Ontologiczne nieszczęście Człowieka Śmiechu”, in Maski , vol.2, eds. M. Janion, S. Rosik, Gdańsk,1986, p.399.

[20] H. Nadrowski, “Prawda o Bogu i człowieku przez sztukę”, Międzynarodowy Przegląd Teologiczny “Communio” 7 (1987), no.4, pp.68–69.

[21] M. Walicki, Hans Memling Sąd Ostateczny, the unfinished manuscript completed and edited by Jan Białostocki, Warszawa, 1981, pp.16.

[22] A. Maśliński, Humanizm w sztuce. Antyk i człowiek, Kraków, 1978, pp.57.

[23] It’s advisable to examine a relatively short, but interpretatively and bibliographically rich text, concerning the  mentioned motive: T. Dobrzeniecki, “Haec porta Domini: justi intrabunt in eam. Contribution to iconography of Hans Memling’s Last Judgement”, in Ars auro prior. Studia Joanni Białostocki sexagenario dicata, Warszawa, 1981, pp.187–192.

[24] H. Wölfflin, Podstawowe pojecia historii i sztuki. Problem rozwoju stylu w sztuce nowożytnej, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków, 1962, p.307.

K. Piwocki, Pierwsza nowoczesna teoria sztuki. Poglądy Aloisa Riegla, Warszawa, 1970, p.338.

[25] S. Pazura, “Structura i sacrum. Estetyka sztuk plastycznych Hansa Sedlmayera”, in Sztuka i społeczeństwo. Vol.1: Ocalenie przez sztukę, ed. A. Kuczyńska, Warszawa, 1973, pp.91–165.

[26] E. Panofsky, Studia z historii sztuki, Warszawa, 1971, p.29.

[27] J. Szymik, “Piękno Boga, piękno człowieka”, in  Chrześcijaństwo i kultura XXI wieku, ed. A. Jarmusiewicz, Kraków, 2002, p.211: ‘That stereotype has its source in the fracture of the world in Paradise, in the scene of tempting Adam and Eve, when Satan makes them suspect God, suspect that His intentions when forbidding them to taste the fruits from the tree were not pure. As a result, this stereotype has its source in the fake image of  God, which has its satanic roots- because it’s a lie about God. This exists in the thousands of human images in various mutations, e.g. The image of the god-watchmaker who winded the world but is not interested in it; the image of god who is looking at human pain with the folded – presumably  almighty – arms; the image of god (even more brutal), who is playing with the world and people, ,moving them like pawns on the chessboard of history, or last but not least, the image  (very popular in various versions) of the cage made by god with the aid of commandments. In the cage, all human freedom, happiness and development is imprisoned.’           

[28] A. Rouet, “Art et liturgie”, La Maison-Dieu (1991), no.186, pp.73–88.

[29] P.-M. Gy, “Espace et celebration comme question théologique”, La Maison-Dieu (1978), no.136, pp.42ff.

[30] H. U. von Balthasar Teodramatyka. Vol.1. Prolegomena, Kraków, 2005, pp. 259–260.

[31] B. Bakuła, Człowiek jako dzieło sztuki. Z problemów metarefleksji artystycznej, Poznań, 1994, p.13.

[32] E. Manfredini, “Riflessi della riforma liturgica sull’architettura della chiesa”, Fede e Arte (1965), no.2, p. 246.

[33] An example may be the following work by an ex-Dominican: H. C. Zander, Ecce Jesus. Zamach na religijny kicz, Wrocław, 1993.

[34] A. N. Whitehead, Religia w tworzeniu, Kraków, 1997, p.35.

[35] Ibid., p.39.

[36] Ibid., p.44.

[37] Ibid., p.57.

[38] M. Heller, Wszechświat i słowo, Kraków, 1980,  p.53.

[39] A. Chupungco, “Adaptation de la liturgie à la culture et aux traditions des  peuples”, La Maison-Dieu (1985),  no.162, pp.26ff.

[40] I. Celary, “Polskie zwyczaje religijne”, in Liturgia Sacra 8 (2002), no.2, p.284.

[41] A. Nossol, “Teologiczny wymiar sacrum i profanum”, in Człowiek – dzieło – sacrum, eds. S. Gajda, H. J. Sobeczko, Opole, 1998, pp.14ff.

A. Basista, “Teologiczna wymowa współczesnych budowli sakralnych”, in Budownictwo miast i wsi. Budownictwo Sakralne ’98. Białystok 78 maja 1998. Konferencja Naukowo-Techniczna. Białystok, 1998, pp.10ff.

[42] L. Bastiaansen, Ikony Wielkiego Tygodnia, Kraków, 2003, p.11.

[43] Hind, p.7.

[44] A. Flis, Chrześcijaństwo i Europa, Kraków, 2003, p.217.

[45] G. Ravasi, Przykazania w Piśmie Świętym i sztuce, Kielce, 2003, p.24.

[46] S. Kobielus, Niebiańska Jerozolima. Od sacrum miejsca do sacrum modelu, Warszawa,1989, p.8.

[47] A. Stauffer, “Inculturation et architekture d’eglise”, La Maison-Dieu (1989), no.179, p.98.

A. M. Szymski, “Symbolika formy a idea konstrukcji w emocjonalnym odbiorze przestrzeni sakrum”, in Budownictwo miast i wsi. Budownictwo sakralne ’96. Białystok 1011 Maja 1996. Konferencja Naukowo-Techniczna. Białystok, 1996, pp.195ff.

[48] J. Plazaola, Kościół i sztuka. Od początków do naszych dni, Kielce, 2002, p.11.

[49] M. Poprzęcka, “Kuźnia – postscriptum”, in Ars auro prior…, pp.735–738.

[50] A. Dombrowska, „Martwa natura Ślewińskiego, Boznańskiej i Wyczółkowskiego w opinii krytyki”, in Roczniki Humanistyczne 36–37 (1988–1989), no.4, pp.36.

[51] A. Olędzka-Frybesowa, Patrząc na ikony. Wędrówki po Europie, Warszawa, 2001, p.298.

[52] It is beautifully expressed in numerous prayers, e.g. the Christmas preface: ‘In the wonder of the incarnation

Your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of Your glory. In Him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see’. These two realities are also mentioned in the preface of Dedication of a Church: ‘Lord, You allowed us to build this visible edifice, in which You protect Your people in their pilgrimage and give them the sign and the grace of unity with You. In this holy place You build Your temple of living stones which are Your people and You make the Church growing all over the world develop as the Mystical Body of Christ until it reaches its fulfilment in blessed peace of celestial Jerusalem.  Also the preface of Christian Death emphasizes the relation of these two worlds: the earthly, transient, and the celestial, eternal one: The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for Your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death  we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.’

[53] At least two elementary publications should be mentioned here:

Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, ed. E. Kirchbaum. Vol.1–8,  Rome–Freiburg–Basel–Wien, 2004;  and

D. Forstner, Świat symboliki chrześcijańskiej, Warszawa, 1990.

Other works worth mentioning here are:

Leksykon – hitoria, sztuka, ikonografia, being currently published by ‘Arkady’, an excellently prepared series of illustrated thematic volumes (Old Testament; New Testament; Angels and demons; Symbols and allegories; Astrology, magic and alchemy; Nature and its symbols plants and animals);

J. Seibert, Leksykon sztuki chrześcijańskiej. Tematy, postacie, symbole, Kielce, 2002.

J. E. Cirlot, Słownik symboli, Kraków, 2007.

[54] B. Balicka, Święci, relikwie i patroni, Białystok, 2003, pp.9–17.

[55] A. Boczkowska, Tryumf Luny i Wenus. Pasja Hieronima Boscha, Kraków, 1980, pp.5–19.

[56] E. Weiler, Jesus Gottessohn. Begegnung und Bekentniss, Leipzig, 1975, pp.5–8, 57–63, 138–149.

[57] S. K. Stopczyk, Biblia Rembrandta, Warszawa, 1960, pp.16ff.

M. Roztworowski, Rembrandta przypowieść o miłosiernym Samarytaninie, Warszawa, 1980, pp.74–78.

[58] Whitehead, pp.60ff.

[59] J. Suchecki, Między nauką, religią i sztuką. Nieeksplanacyjne wartości nauk społecznych, Warszawa,  1993, p.80.

[60] S. Michalski, “Widzialne słowa sztuki protestanckiej”, in Słowo i obraz. Materiały Sympozjum Komitetu Nauk o Sztuce Polskiej Akademii Nauk. Nieborów, 29 września 1 października 1977, ed. A. Morawińska, Warszawa: PWN, 1982, pp.178ff.

[61] T. Chrzanowski, “W poszukiwaniu nowej  ikonografii”, in Sacrum i sztuka. Rogóźno. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez sekcję Historii Sztuki KUL. Rogóźno 1820 października 1984, Kraków, 1989, ed. N. Cieślińska,  Kraków,  1989,  pp.15ff.

[62] P. Ricoeur, Egzystencja i hermeneutyka. Rozprawy o metodzie, Warszawa, 1975.

K. Klauza, Teologiczna hermeneutyka ikony, Lublin, 2002.

C. Rogowski, Hermeneutyczno-dydaktyczny wymiar symbolu i implikacje pedagogicznoreligijne. Studium pedagogicznoreligijne w wymiarze interdyscyplinarnym, Lublin, 1999.

[63] E. H. Gombrich,  “Ziele und Grenzen der Ikonologie”, in  Ikonographie und Ikonologie. Theorien – Entwicklung – Probleme. Bildende Kunst als Zeichensystem, vol.1, ed. E. Kaemmerling, Köln, 1979,  pp.396–435.

[64] J. Kębłowski, “Problem syntezy w historii sztuki. Głos antycypujący dyskusję”, in: Ars auro prior…, p.35.

[65] K. Czerni, „Antysacrum – czyli o konflikcie współczesnej sztuki z religią”, in: Sacrum i sztuka, pp.190ff.

[66] B. Ugeux, “L’inculturation de la liturgie”,  La Maison-Dieu (1996), no.208, pp.83ff.

[67] H. Nadrowski, “Obraz, symbol, słowo. Inspiracje i kreacje”, Studia Laurentiana 3 (2003), no.1, p.150.

[68] L. Heiser, Das Licht aus der Höhe. Verkündigung, Glaube, Feier des Herren-Mysteriums in der Orthodoxen Kirche, St Ottilien, 1998, pp.30–35.

[69] G. M. Roers, “Lesbarkeit der Kunst”, Geist und Leben 4 (2000), pp.304ff.

[70] M. De Micheli, Az avantgardizmus, Budapest, 1978, pp.65–74, 95–104, 122–130.

[71] P. R. Rgamey, Art sacr au XXe siècle?, Paris, 1952;

A. M. Cocagnac, “Le vrai renouveau commence dans le coeur”, L’Art Sacr (1963), no. 11–12, pp.5 –17;

A. M. Cocagnac, “Rouault”,  L’Art Sacr (1964), no. 5–6, pp.7–32.

[72] Biblia w sztuce. Wystawa w Muzeum Śląskim w Katowicach, Exhibition in the Silesia Museum in Katowice, 29th October – 29th November 2004.

[73] B. Pawłowska, Urbs Sacra. Pielgrzymki i podróże religijne do Rzymu i w starożytności chrześcijańskiej (IVVII w.), Kraków, 2007, pp.63–76, 82–91.

[74] G. Kubler, Kształt czasu. Uwagi o historii rzeczy,Warszawa, 1970; see also: J. Białostocki, Sztuka i myśl humanistyczna. Studia z dziejów sztuki i myśli o sztuce, Warszawa, 1966, pp.135–145.

[75] S. C. Napiórkowski, Jak uprawiać teologię, Wrocław, p.10.

[76] Ibid., p.151.

[77] K. Wolsza, “Ikona i doświadczenie religijne. Próba analizy fenomenologicznej”, in Ikony Niewidzialnego, eds. M. Lis,  Z. W. Solski, Opole, 2003, p.23.

[78] J. Białostocki,  Symbole i obrazy w świecie sztuki, Warszawa, 1982, pp.15–22, 28.

J. Białostocki, Historia sztuki wśród nauk humanistycznych, Wrocław, 1980, p.91.

[79] K. Olechnicki, „Obrazy w działaniu – obrazy w badaniu”, in Obrazy w działaniu. Studia z socjologii i antropologii obrazu, ed. K. Olechnicki, Toruń, 2003, p.9.

[80] A. Borowski, “Cesare Ripa czyli muzeum wyobraźni”, in C. Ripa, Ikonologia, Kraków, 1998, pp.V–XIII.

[81] Suchecki, p.81.

[82] J. Majka, Metodologia nauk teologicznych, Wrocław, 1991, pp.83, 90ff.

[83] Ibid., pp.85, 90.

[84] S. Ferrari, Sztuka XX wieku, Warszawa, 2002, p.192.

[85] H. Nadrowski, “Relacje fides, ratio i ars w zabytkowym kościele”, Zeszyty Naukowe Politechniki Białostockiej: Budownictwo (2006), no.30, pp.289–306.

[86] I. Ullman, “Sacrum a kicz – obcość czy powinowactwo?”, in Budownictwo sakralne i monumentalne ‘2002, Białystok 910 maja 2002. IV Międzynarodowa Konferencja Naukowo-Techniczna, Białystok, 2002, pp.390ff.

[87] John Paul II, List do artystów, Poznań, 2007, p.25.

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" I, 2008. Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.