Grażyna Ryba

Rzeszów, Uniwersytet Rzeszowski


Most studies of the art of the nineteenth and, particularly, twentieth centuries treat issues related to sacred art only marginally. In “the age of avant-gardes,” as the last century is sometimes called, artistic phenomena were generally assessed according to the paradigm of their novelty and originality, and works of religious art were usually mentioned only if they belonged to an artist’s output corresponding to the above standards. Contemporary sacred art largely escapes these criteria, also used today, leaving a significant area of artistic creativity on the margins of art history. In connection with the modifications of criteria for assessing a work of art, postulated in the last decades of the twentieth century by philosophers and culture theorists associated with postmodernism and aimed at rethinking that approach to art, one may also perhaps propose changes that would allow including a wider range of artistic phenomena associated with religious than previously considered.

The paper discusses the implications of the ideological dualism that has been present in the Western civilization for over two hundred years and of the accompanying crisis of sacred art. It outlines the synthetic image of the current state of research on contemporary sacred art and formulates research postulates.

keywords: contemporary sacred art, contemporary civilization, sacred art study


This diametrical and slightly provocative title is supposed to draw attention to an important problem of the research into sacred art of the past two centuries. Upon further consideration it might seem that all facts – supposedly commonly known – fall into place and lead to thought – provoking conclusions, which should then be verified by more thorough research.

Most studies on the 19th century art, and even more markedly those on the 20th century art, tend to marginalise the subject of sacred art. In the time of avant-garde, as the 20th century is often called, the prevailing paradigm for the evaluation of artistic achievements was based on their novelty and originality, and religious works of art were only mentioned when their creators’ work was generally considered to conform to those norms.

Modern religious art largely falls outside the above criteria (still used), which tend to neglect a significant area of art in terms of research, and a number of phenomena that should naturally be part of research on the history of art are pushed into non-existence. When modifying the criteria for art evaluation as suggested by postmodernist philosophers and art theoreticians who aimed to re-evaluate the existing views on art,[1] one can possibly suggest various changes which would more often take into account artistic examples of religious nature.

Therefore, it seems right to replace the criterion of novelty, which is still omnipresent in the evaluation of modern and contemporary art, with a yardstick based on the scale of art of  religious nature and the number of works and artists involved in its creation. Another important criterion is one connected with accessibility to religious works of art  by recipients of various aesthetic backgrounds and expectations, as well as the aspect of message represented through sacred works of art, linked to the great tradition of sacred art. When defining the new criteria, we should remember the specifically Polish attitude, which highlights the social role of art and implies taking into consideration extra-artistic values, like patriotism and emotionality.

In Polish conditions, where, despite progressive secularisation, the great majority of people still identify themselves with the Catholic faith, sacred art fills a large gap between the rather hermetic high art and the ever more aggressive mass culture. Religious art is supposed to evoke transcendental experiences, lead to contemplation and the search for contact with the Absolute, so it poses issues that are fundamental to human existence and the awareness of its sense. This role of art is attempted at irrespective of its form, varying between the extremes of masterpiece and religious kitsch. For many recipients it is religious art which is the only way of contact with art as such, forcing them to deeper experience and reflection.[2]

Dualism of perspectives and its consequences in culture

It appears that the period in development of art between the end of the 18th and end of the 20th century ought to be re-evaluated as this time, despite internal divisions and apparent variety, is characterised by consistency in terms of fundamental cultural determinants. First and foremost, in the history of Western European culture there appears dualism, based on the opposition between the centuries of Christian tradition and the new dynamically developing secular civilisation. The period can be kept within the limits established by the process of secularisation, starting with its conceptualisation as one of the great Enlightenment ideas that were continued in the universality of modernism, to the evolution of a particular religion of the body, being part of the global culture at the end of the 20th century, which emanated from the consumerist civilisation. The process of secularisation occurred in three stages; from the intellectual elites which created the theoretical foundation of the new outlook, to newly shaped social and political principles of European countries, to the emergence of secular societies in the previous century, in which practising religion, as institutionalised by the Christian Churches, plays a marginal role. The symbolic date closing the period in the history of western Europe is 10th July 2003, when the project of the Preamble to the EU Constitution was announced, which included references to antique civilisation and Enlightenment ideology, but omitted the contribution of Christianity to the shaping of the continent’s cultural image.[3]

Both of these trends combat each other, and in this fight the secular ideology seems to be the more expansive and oppressive one, even resorting to, as in subsequent revolutions, the physical extermination of the opponent and unparalleled destruction of cultural heritage;[4] or at best, as in the case of the European Constitution, neglecting the role of Christianity in shaping the continent’s culture. Therefore, the fight oscillates between physical and material elimination and ignorance of this role. The evaluation of historical events and the most important tendencies in the development of culture as seen by representatives of both trends is radically different. However, the secular point of view has become dominant thanks to the advantage of research potential and forms of education, resulting from the incorporation of science and education into the structures of secular state and the limited participation of denominational institutions.

translated by Renata Latko

[1] Such attempts are the consequence of adapting postmodernist assumptions to the methodology of the humanities. This issue is discussed by M. Bryl, “New Art History: nauka, polityka, obyczaj”, Artium questiones (1995), pp.185–215. It also includes a wider bibliography.

[2] This function entails that even the works of very low artistic level will never have all the characteristics of kitsch (F. Winzer, “Kicz”, in Słownik sztuk pięknych, Katowice, 2000, pp. 111–112 ).

[3] Despite the removal of the expressions included in the original version, the fragment relating to Christian values was not included in the final version of the preamble. It only contained the general expression relating to the inspiration ‘from the cultural, religious and humanistic heritage of Europe’ (Official Journal of the European Union, 2004, C310).

[4] D. Gamboni, The Destruction of Art. Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution, New Haven–London, 1997, passim.

[5] ‘Religious art, which experienced a very serious crisis in the previous century, has not overcome it yet’ (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, p.13). Similar opinions are expressed by Stanisław Rodziński (“O laicyzacji sztuki sakralnej”, in Sacrum i sztuka, pp.182–185) as well as by foreign researchers, cf. E. Fouilloux, “Autour de Vatican II: crise de l’image religieuse ou crise de l’art sacré?”, in Crises de l’image religieuse, eds. O. Christin, D. Gamboni, Paris, 1999, pp.263–280.

[6] K. Czerni, “Antysacrum,  czyli o konflikcie współczesnej sztuki z religią”, in Sacrum i sztuka, pp.186–196.

[7] For instance the expression ‘scleromonastic criticism’ (skleroza in Polish means senile loss of memory) – a paraphrase of the expression used by Stanisław Szukalski – was used by Kazimierz Piotrowski, the custodian of the infamous, unrealized exhibition “Irreligion” (K. Piotrowski, “Zwycięstwo pseudoawangardy – socjomorficzne aspekty sztuki i krytyki lat 90”, in Art of the 90s, Orońsko, 2003, p.23).

[8] R. Rorthy, Filozofia a zwierciadło natury, Warszawa, 1994, p.10.

Rorthy claims that  for the intellectuals philosophy has become a substitute for religion; it was the area of culture  where the stable ideas could be found, ideas that could explain and justify one’s own activities as an intellectual and thus help to discover the importance of one’s own life

[9] A. Malraux, La Metamorphose des Dieux, Paris, 1957. Les écrits sur l’art d’André Malraux, vol.2, Paris, 2004, passim.

[10] Mass culture as a substitute for religion has various forms, for instance the so-called ‘pop-psychology’ (P. C. Vitz, Psychologia jako religia. Kult samouwielbienia, Warszawa, 2000, passim).

[11] M. Poprzęcka, Akademizm, Warszawa, 1977.

[12] A. Besançon,  “L’art et le christianisme”, in Christianisme, heritage et destines, ed. C. Michon, Paris, 2002, p.12: ‘Museum or painting gallery, as has often been noticed, are now becoming the places of cult. Crowds of believers go there in order to be in a spiritual communion with the work of art or, less mystically, in order to take the communion of the transformed genius and Art. In French Ministry of Culture there are the same priests as those who in times of Diocletian were in charge of the emperor worship.’

[13] Except for the hours of worship, Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Wawel Cathedral or St Mary’s Church in Kraków are just three more museum pieces, swarming with tourists. Church authorities are trying to put up resistance to this phenomenon by promoting the so-called ‘pilgrimage tourism’.

[14] ‘church buildings do not have to be symbolic. Christianity has always been a fight against all the myths. In this sense secularization is a Christian process’ (O. Uhl, “Kirchenbau als Prozess”, in Kirchen für die Zukunft Bauen, Freiburg, 1969, p.133, quotation after: J. Sowińska, Forma i sacrum. Współczesne kościoły Górnego Śląska, Warszawa, 2006, p.9). The realizations of this trend in the contemporary sacred architecture are mentioned in M. Rosier-Siedlecka, Posoborowa architektura sakralna, Lublin, 1980, pp.14, 90.

[15]The works of presenting art are a type of possible sacred art which is not that conspicuous, it is mainly exhibited in the interiors and the contact with such works of art requires the effort of entering the church.

[16] Philosophical bases of these theories can be found for instance in the aesthetic theories of Hegel.

[17] Information related to various concepts of sacred art was gradually presented in Cracovian bimonthly paper Przyjaciel Sztuki Kościelnej in the period between 1883–1885 (cf. J. Wolańska, “Towarzystwo Świętego Łukasza w Krakowie i Przyjaciel Sztuki Kościelnej, in W. Bałus, E. Mikołajska, J. Urban, J. Wolańska, Sztuka sakralna Krakowa w wieku XIX, part 1, Kraków, 2004, pp.39–88).

[18] The Church has consistently objected to such attempts. The Second Vatican Council emphasizes that throughout the history ‘the Church has not regarded any specific style as its own but accepted various artistic forms of each individual epoch’ (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium 4.12.1963, VII, no.123, in: Second Vatican Council. Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations, Poznań, 1968, p.68). Also the Papacy was in favour of the autonomy of art (John Paul II, “The Church needs art. Does art need the Church. A speech addressed to artists and journalists in Hercules Hall in Munich (19.11.1980)”, L’Osservatore Romano (1981), no.2, p.18). Variety of styles is accepted as well as ‘artistic forms of all nations and countries’ ( Wprowadzenie do Mszału Rzymskiego, Poznań, 1986, p.62, no.254). Additionally, the Polish Episcopate points out that ‘aesthetic criteria and the ways of influencing the believers have changed’ (“Normy postępowania w sprawach sztuki kościelnej wydane przez Konferencje Episkopatu Polski, część III: Tworzenie nowej sztuki”, in Budowa i konserwacja kościołów. Poradnik-vademecum, ed. A. Grabowski et al., Warszawa, 1981, p.296). The Bishops ‘encourage to search for the new artistic forms’ and almost order that ‘the Church style be the style of the given epoch’ because ‘it would not be truthful to introduce the styles of the previous epochs to the present times’ (p.298).

However, it also happened that, for instance the French editing L’Art Sacré magazine did not want to see anything coming from the times of Fra Angelico or earlier. Such an attitude contributed to a kind of iconoclastic crisis, which has been visible since the end of the last war. Negative consequences of this crisis in France are the continuation of the negative impact of the attitude towards the Jansenists’ art and the revolutionists’ ideology. There are so many churches decorated only with poor reproductions of icons, hanging on the concrete walls”. (Besançon, p.12).

[19] For instance Nazarenes and their imitators establishing numerous societies and associations of artists creating sacred art.

[20] B. Kumor, Historia Kościoła, vol. VIII, Lublin, 2004, passim.

[21] Even within the Catholic church there are some attempts to make it an institution that assures the comfort of existence by separating intentions and deeds and to exclude the notion of sin from human existence. However, such tendencies were officially condemned and marginalized (John Paul II, encyclical Veritatis splendor, Kraków 1993; T. Biesaga, “Personalizm Karla Rahnera a personalizm Karola Wojtyły w sporze o teologię moralną”, Analecta Cracoviensia 32 (2000), pp.89–100).

[22] cf. footnote 5

[23] The art fields, which appear and disappear quickly, concentrate on destroying the creative process and the relationship artist–process of creation–work of art–reception–spectator. Such fields often expose only one aspect of the phenomenon. Nowadays, we can observe unwillingness to start a dialogue with the spectator, which often results from disdain, egocentrism or hypocrisy of artists. This phenomenon appeared for the very first time in the 19th century and results from the conflict between the artist and the society. This conflict was due to the decline of the informal institution of patronage and to the unstable position of an artist under capitalist conditions; in a sense, contemporary artists seem to take revenge on the society. It often happens that the more contempt they show to the spectators, the more admired they become.

[24] The names can be multiplied. There are, for instance: Eugène Delacroix (cf. K. Herding, “Friedrich Schlegel und Eugène Delacroix. Krise und Erneuerung religöser Malerei am Beginn der Moderne“, in Crises de l’image religieuse, pp.191–212) or Jan Matejko and Stanisław Wyspiański (cf. W. Bałus, Sztuka sakralna Krakowa w wieku XIX. część II: Matejko i Wyspiański, Kraków, 2007, passim).

[25] An example may be the sacred art of Maurice Denis (H. Guène, “L’Arche, un moment du débat sur l’art religieux (1919- 1934) “ , Chretiens et Societés XVIeXXe siècles (2000), no.7, pp.23–38)

[26] Ibid.

The work of the Society of St Luke is discussed in J. Wolańska, pp.39–88.

[27] A phenomenon described and criticized by John Ruskin.

[28] Numerous examples in the art of Mannerism (for instance Madonna with the long neck by Parmigianino) and Baroque (sensualistic depictions of the saints by Jordaens).

[29] “Sztuka i kontrreformacja”, in Teoretycy, pisarze artyści o sztuce. 1500–1600, ed. J. Białostocki, Warszawa, 1985, pp.390–432.

[30] Information about the fascinations of the 19th and 20th century writers for works of fine art, including the contemporary sacred and religious art, is given in numerous publications, written by, for instance, W. Okoń, D. Kudelska, Z. Mocarska-Tycowa.

[31] S. Litak, Parafie w Rzeczypospolitej w XVIXVIII wieku, Lublin, 2007; Kościół katolicki w Polsce. Rocznik statystyczny 19181990, Warszawa, 1991.

[32] cf. footnote 5

[33] H. Claveyrolas, Les Vitraux d’Alfred Manessier dans les édifices historiques, Paris, 2006, passim. Stained glass windows of Marc Chagall in cathedrals in Metz and Reims or of Albert Giacometti in Fraumünster in Zurich are also well-known.

[34] For instance, the sanctuaries in Lisbon (1779–1792), Paris (1875–1900), Rome (1879–1887), Barcelona (1886–1961), Brussels (1908–1951).

[35] A. Kotula, P. Krakowski, Malarstwo, rzeźba, architektura. Wybrane zagadnienia plastyki współczesnej, Warszawa, 1981. This is one of the most fundamental publications about the art of that time. The works of sacred art are mentioned here only in the context of some famous secular artists. Sacred art as a separate trend and the related issues were not included in the publication mentioned, nor in the majority of other publications.

[36] Institut für Kirchenbau und kirchliche Kunst der Gegenwart was established in Germany, at Philipps-Universität in Margburg (1961) and Arbeitsstelle für Christliche Bildtheorie, theologische Ästhetik und Bilddidaktik at Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster; in Italy – Pontificia Commissione Centrale per l’Arte Sacra in Italia (1924–1989) developed its activities, in France – Comité National d’Art Sacré (operating since 1901).

[37] Since 1954 a quarterly paper called Fede e Arte has been published by Pontificia Commissione Centrale per Arte Sacra in Italia, in German-speaking countries interesting articles were published in Christliche Kunstblatter (published since 1862) and Jahrbuch für Christliche Kunst (1939–1969), in France – in L’Art Sacré (1939–1968) and Chroniques d’Art Sacré (published since 1975).

[38] A detailed bibliography is included in publication of H. Nadrowski, Kościoły naszych czasów, Kraków, 2000. Research connected with the recent works of sacred art is not all that dynamic anymore because of rapid decrease in the number of newly built churches (Sowińska, p.10).

[39] The exceptions that prove the rule can only be those publications that present the recent achievements in the field of contemporary architecture.

[40] E. Norman, Dom Boga. Historia architektury sakralnej, Warszawa, 2007, passim.

[41] Christianity is perceived in this way by mass culture, which mentions Christian holidays together with, for instance, Walpurgis Night – the holiday of the witches movement, that is put on a par with Christian church (Magic Calendar, cf.:, 11.09.2007).

[42] M. Kwiek, ”Filozofia a nauka i literatura ponowoczesności. Kilka uwag”, Principia. Pisma koncepcyjne z filozofii i socjologii teoretycznej XXI–XXII (1998), pp.159–176.

[43] Historia sztuki po Derridzie. Materiały seminarium z zakresu teorii historii sztuki, Rogalin 2004, ed. Ł. Kiepuszewski, Poznań, 2006.

[44] E. A. Klekot, Wyobrażenia NSPJ w popularnej sztuce dewocyjnej Europy od 2 poł. XVII w. do XX w., (unpublished Ph.D. thesis from 2002, written under the supervision of B. Dąb-Kalinowska in the Faculty of History of the University of Warsaw).

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.