Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
tel. +48 17 872 20 98

Janusz Królikowski

The Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow

Abstract:

History teaches that the Church needs art and that art has its staunchest ally in the Church. Their mutual relationship is based on a basic tenet of faith, which holds that the eternal word of God became flesh, thus giving the highest form of religious approval to the realm of the visible. This is the belief which informs the current “rediscovery” of painting in religion; in this context, we must ask ourselves how painting could be re-introduced into the Christian experience. With that issue in mind, the present article argues the need for a new synthesis of word and image, a change in the perspective on art, which would take account of man’s participation in the mystery of creation, and the inclusion of art in the spiritual experience of individual Christians, especially in prayer and the community of the faithful. The article also points to possible dangers, especially the risk that the value of church art will be reduced to the mere status of a cultural asset.

Keywords: faith, culture, pastoral work, art

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1. The mission of the Church and art

Life became visible

The Church believes that God’s life, out of its very nature invisible, through the incarnation of the Son of God became “visible” for people. She also believes that the testimony given to that life, “which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition, 1 John 1: 2) helps to introduce people to the trinitarian community and church community, which is the guarantee of salvation. This is the chief reason why faith supports renewed serious reflection on the role of visual arts and architecture in the task of evangelization in order to help the Church to conduct her mission of salvation with which she was charged also through the available visible means, both human and material. The Gospel message is primarily a verbal one, but is not limited to that aspect: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, […] He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature” (Heb. 1: 1,3). The Christian message contains a lively dialectics between two opposite poles of word and image, thus its perception takes place through hearing and seeing.[1]

“He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14, 9), says Christ. It means that in His person and in the events of His earthly life is reflected the invisible divine reality permeating the Gospel. Naturally, “[n]o one has ever seen God”, as St John says, but as he hastens to add, by being born in this world, the Only Begotten Son “has made him known” (Jn 1, 18). Through His life, death, and resurrection Jesus Christ has explained Father and illustrated His love with such a lifelike verisimilitude that in his Letter to the Colossians St Paul says plainly: “He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God” (Col. 1: 15). In his work on the relationship between the Church and art Juan Plazaola has correctly observed: “In the message of Jesus of Nazareth as passed down to us in the Gospels there is nothing which could explain the emergence of the images of sacred figures and persons in Christianity. The explanation for that lies not in Christ’s words, but in His life, His mystery and the very fact of the Word’s incarnation.”[2]

The visual Gospel

The Word, assuming in its incarnation a visual form, became thus the “image”. The meaning of images in the liturgical and spiritual tradition has always been seen and still has to be seen in the perspective of this mystery. The “visual” message of the Gospel – “which we have seen with our eyes” (1 John 1: 1), gave birth, rather gradually but inevitably, to visual forms of expression which have been granted a particular theological role by the Tradition and Church’s teaching.[3] Alluding to the speech by St John Damascene in defence of images, the patristic text which provides possibly the best summary of ancient thought on this issue, Pope John Paul II wrote in his apostolic letterDuodecimum saeculum on the occasion of the 1200th anniversary of the Second Council of Nicaea (year 787): “Authentic Christian art is that which, through sensible perception, gives the intuition that the Lord is present in his Church, that the events of salvation history give meaning and orientation to our life, that the glory that is promised us already transforms our existence. Sacred art must tend to offer us a visual synthesis of all dimensions of our faith. Church art must aim at speaking the language of the Incarnation and, with the elements of matter, express the One who ‘deigned to dwell in matter and bring about our salvation through matter’ according to Saint John Damascene’s beautiful expression.”[4] It is not only the issue often summed up by the oversimplified use of the term Biblia pauperum[5], meaning didactic images which under special circumstances could replace or supplement the written word, as Pope Gregory the Great seems to suggest in his famous letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles.[6] In the traditional Catholic conception the meaning attributed to images reaches even further – an image can touch the internal reality of individual people, influencing their most spiritual experiences and the ability to express themselves, also in the field of religion. In his letter written on the occasion of the already mentioned anniversary of the Second Council of Nicaea the patriarch of Constantinople Demetrios I together with his council, invoking the Orthodox Church tradition, stated firmly: “The image becomes the most suggestive form of expressing dogmas and prophesying”.[7]

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Lex orandi – lex credendi

In the tradition both of the Eastern and Western Church the use of sacred images in liturgical life helped through the centuries to show a special relationship taking place between the sign and reality, through the incarnation of the Word, in the context of sacramental economy.[8] The same relationship exists also in all the other works included by people in divine worship, starting from sacred vessels and vestments to the most monumental architectural constructions.[9]In a process both mysterious and easily recognizable – easily recognizable because confirmed also by empirical experience – this manifestation becomes an integrating part of the experience of faith, particularly in the context of celebration and the cult of Eucharist. Finding God present in matter, the believer is led to grasp the new dignity of each material object, which has already become, at least virtually, “a monstrance”, opening in this way the human vision to contemplation.

However, man always remains the subject of both the aesthetic and cultural experience. It is he who is addressed by colours and forms, cloth compositions and weaves, shining gold and precious stones, space and shape of architecture down through the ages. If people learn from objects and space surrounding them at prayer to dedicate their whole sensual and spiritual life to the Creator, then they feel called by figurative art to reach into depths of their spiritual lives, as free and sentient beings, in whom the ability to form relationships, love, devotion etc. is born. The painted representations of Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and saints, which can be seen during liturgy, convey the principles of faith and the meaning of rituals with such force and clarity that no other form of expression can be equal to them. By the same token these representations open human spiritual space to the richness and significance of everyday experience. Art thus becomes a medium of wisdom and for that reason one can also speak about “the wisdom of art”.[10]

Re-discovering the image

Referring to the contemporary interest in Christian art, particularly Eastern icons, Pope John Paul II in the document quoted above emphasized strongly the need for paying renewed attention to the role of images in the life of the Church. He wrote: “Over the past several decades we have observed a resurgence of interest in the theology and spirituality of Oriental icons, a sign of the growing need for a spiritual language of authentically Christian art. In this regard, I can only invite my brothers in the episcopate to ‘maintain firmly the practice of proposing to the faithful the veneration of sacred images in the churches’ and to do everything so that more works of truly ecclesiastic quality may be produced. The believer of today, like the one yesterday, must be helped in his prayer and spiritual life by seeing works that attempt to express the mystery and never hide it. That is why today, as in the past, faith is the necessary inspiration of Church art.”[11]

In increasingly secularizing societies, which are becoming less sensitive to spiritual values, to the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ and the hope for the future renewed world, church art gives access to the reality of the spiritual and eschatological world. Paul VI in his address to artists on closing Second Vatican Council, pointed to the spiritual reality as both the source and the end to which art can guide us. On behalf of Council fathers Pope asked artists not to cease employing their talents in service of divine truth and not to close their hearts to the breath of the Holy Spirit. “This world in which we live”, he said, “needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”[12]

It is worthwhile realizing some advantages of rediscovering Christian art, which follows truth and opens itself to the breath of the Spirit.[13] It could become an important antidote to the widespread alienation and the onset of fatigue caused by one-sided pressure of the visual experience dominating contemporary civilization. It could also contribute to a renewed affirmation of spiritual values which belong to the mystery of Christianity and give more resonance to the vision of the eschatological world, bring deeper and more lasting internal joy. It could give a sense of continuity in time, to help building closer relationships between people by showing them how admiration of beauty connects generations, bringing them to the point of the birth of philosophy, or, as the Greek etymology of this word indicates, “the love of wisdom”.

In life of the congregation sacred art guides us upwards and in a way transforms human vision. It does not add new content to the mystery which has already been divulged through other means but, as in case of Christ’s transfiguration on Mount Tabor, it reveals for a moment glory hidden under the material aspect of faith.[14]

Looking towards the new millennium

On the verge of the new millennium one can clearly see the necessity to discover and re-evaluate sacred art and art in life of the Church. The need to survive, to open to the future, to go through traumatic dangers connected with changes taking place in almost all fields of life, the urge to find deep roots of our common experience – all these direct our attention to the extraordinary experience of values and humanity embodied in Christian architecture, sculpture and painting. The recent initiatives and previous experience have shown that people can gain much by exploring the heritage of their ancestors, can consider themselves equal with others in hope, joy and admiration, can remove triviality from the basic aspects of individual and shared experience, also the visual one. People can cast off the fetters of enslaving advertising image, distracting computer animation, destructive pornography.

In particular it is the role of theologians to work in this area. They are called upon to reflect on faith and to search for new ways to understand the visual Gospel, written through the centuries by experience rooted in faith. They are called upon directing prayer in such a way as to help the faithful to contemplate God in works of art. They are called upon to educate people in such a way to help them achieve balance, now and in the future, between the omnipresent technology and economy on one hand and faith-informed spirituality, which is simply “all-necessary”. Finally, one should work on preparing the faithful for seeing and showing others our common heritage which can touch people internally by showing them new meanings.

The image of God and the image of man

Being Christians, who found our lives and faith on Jesus Christ, we realize how necessary it is to develop and maintain Christocentrism of our existence. Being professional theologians, we realize how necessary it is to approach and fulfil our teaching mission in this christocentric perspective. We all find in the incarnation of Jesus the mystery of salvation of the whole humankind. Hence we should offer a new image of Christ’s humanity – moving and redemptive, comforting and inspiring (cf. Tit. 3: 4 Vlg). It is undoubtedly the central subject of church art, addressed by many masters with unique powers of expression.[15] Art can be always useful for reflections on the meaning of life, necessary and accessible for everyone.[16]

The images of Jesus Christ are of primary importance since through them both believers and non-believers can realize the humanism of Christianity, according to which Son of God, becoming a man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, “has united Himself in some fashion with every man”.[17] The call for contemplating Jesus Christ in art is at the same time a call for communion with others. Being the image of the invisible God, who is the Trinity, Christ shows the supreme example of interpersonal relationships, based on love, giving, mutual openness and acceptance. It is the example Christians should try to imitate, being internally renewed in the creative process for which they are prepared by faith and grace.

2. Sacred art and Church experience

Art and word

Christian art leads a Christian to contact with the word of God in a direct and very ecclesiastical way. The decorations of objects used for cult purposes in most cases refer to the Bible. For that reason St Gregory the Great could say about the paintings placed in churches: “For what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read.”[18] Second Nicaene Council developed this justification, explaining authoritatively: “For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence.”[19]

The purpose of Christian art is then ecclesiastical, since it is connected with the foundations of Church life and tries to help the faithful grow roots in the memory of the community listening to the word of God and born out of it. The iconography of events and characters from the Old and New Testament and the style used for representing them are derived from life of the community and meet the requirements of congregations at various times and in various places in which they are located. A special role is played here by liturgy, which helps to make selection of the biblical figures connected with the key liturgical periods of Advent and Easter. Also when a figure or a scene is not, strictly speaking, biblical (e.g. the Assumption or Coronation of Mary) the iconographic elements usually refer to biblical texts used in liturgy in order to express the meaning of the event: the Virgin’s shining robe brings up the vision of “a woman clothed with the sun” (Rev. 12: 1), and the royal attributes in the scene of her Coronation allude to the words of the psalm “The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes” (Ps. 45 [44]: 13).

Some of the most often recurring images in Christian art have no other purpose than emphasizing the ecclesiastical sense of the biblical texts used in liturgy. The Virgin Mary with Child surrounded by saints has been since the Middle Ages possibly the most frequent subject in Christian art.[20] It refers us to the texts used in Little Office of Our Lady, alluding to Her motherhood not only as an isolated fact but also to the utmost degree ecclesiastical one. This point is made by the texts which speak about “the city of the Lord” as “mother” of the people who find their sources in it and to whom God “imparts His word”. It is a city “strongly compact” which is entered with joy and for whose peace prayers are offered, meaning brethren and friends. (cf. Ps. 122[121]). Prayer or participation in the Holy Mass in front of the pictures imbued with such a meaning can be at the same time a meeting with the biblical message or a moment for community formation. Pope Paul VI rightly noticed with a particular realism and intuitive grasp “Liturgy and art are sisters”.[21]

God the Creator and the creativity of man

The Bible on numerous occasions portrays God as an artist and aesthete – Deus artifex. He is a subtle Maker of works so wonderful that man can only face them with amazement and exclaim “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures” (Ps. 104 [103]: 24). However, also man is creative as he was created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1: 27), and he is an artist, that is he makes beautiful objects.[22] The actions of people attempting to create analogously to God’s creation are an important part of the relationship between the Creation and the Creator. In both Jewish and Christian texts one can notice a significant fact: when God reveals Himself to people, they often respond by “making something”, for instance erecting a monument which is to be a lasting memorial of the meeting with God. Jacob, following his dream in which he saw the Lord, “rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it” (Gen. 28: 10–22). Peter was similarly motivated when after seeing transfigured Jesus on the Mount Tabor he wished to build “three booths”: one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah, to prolong the joy of the moment (cf. Luke 9: 33).

In the Bible human creativity is the most natural response to meeting God the Creator. Such a creativity, expressed in various ways such as poetry, music, singing, dancing, painting, sculpture or a building, is a religious response through which heaven unites with the earth and God with man. The stela erected by Jacob in Bethel marked the spot on which he saw a ladder, “set up on the earth and reaching heaven, on which the angels of God were ascending and descending” (cf. Gen. 28: 12). Similarly Peter’s booths were to have marked the place on which he together with John and James saw Jesus altering the appearance of His countenance and talking with Moses and Elijah. The Apostles saw thus “heaven opened” which was foretold to Nathanael (cf. John 1: 51). The work executed to commemorate such experience is in consequence the work of highest synthesis – sola paradisi, in which the polar opposites meet, in which human limitations are transcended and in which time and eternity meet. This synthesis takes place in a mysterious way, as every artist knows; it is not a part of the ordinary world of the plans and decisions known to man, “not knowing what he said” (Luke 9: 33). Jacob saw in his dream the meeting of heaven and earth, and on waking up he said “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it” (Gen. 28: 16). The context for creativity is, then, mystery which enchants and inspires people. People in order to create have to be placed in a new territory marked with a miracle whose recognition will allow them to face “the house of God” and “the gates of heaven”.

Like Peter on Mount Tabor, so should the artists feel overshadowed by a cloud. They are not going to know what they say, but they will try to prolong the moment by building something – “three booths” – just because they can say after the apostle “it is well that we are here” (Luke 9: 33). It is the atmosphere in which art comes to life and the moment of creative synthesis, stimulated by the voice out of the cloud, takes place. In the similar manner to the inspired text, art, too, leads to the meeting with the supernatural, art, too, transmits the joy of the person who, through a “dream” and “fear” says “it is beautiful to be here”.

Art and prayer

Even the relation with the word from the liturgical viewpoint and the relation with the primary creativity of man point to the ultimate purpose of works of art in service of the Church, that is the contact with God, which could be described by such religious terms as “prayer”, “contemplation” and “adoration”. Also St Gregory the Great in his defence of images stressed the necessity for the faithful to move from visio to adoratio: not the adoration of only the images, but the adoration of God, who is the only one who should be worshipped. St John Damascene said: “The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.”[23] In philosophical terms, it could be said that through art one express “the desire for presence” of what has been portrayed through the medium of art.[24]

Referring to the teachings of the Second Council of Nicaea, The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about sacred images in the article Celebrating the Church’s Liturgy dedicated to the liturgical prayer. Quoting the council statement justifying the worship of images, the catechism supplements it with the following significant words: “[s]imilarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.”[25]

Naturally, one should remember that the adoration is also a means of conversion, that is a profound change of life in light of the object of adoration. It has been proven on numerous occasions through particularly insightful anthropological reflection that the representation of truth through artistic symbols and means has the power of igniting and stimulating love which gives people power to transcend themselves. Such representations have the power of influencing emotions in a way much more effective than reason alone, since they reach into deeper layers of humanity, in particular to human freedom. Even though artistic symbols and means are entangled in material and sensual world, they are able to set one free from the matter and help to awaken spiritual abilities in people.

Style and spirituality

The spiritual dimension of Christian art, that is its oscillation between the physical sign and the spiritual reality, has been expressed through the ages in various ways. Already in the early ages of Christianity, the naturalism inherited from the Greek and Roman art was accompanied by the symbolical language which developed in the Church owing to the biblical directions, close to mystagogy and inspired by the teachings of the fathers of the Church.[26] It means the iconic art, based mostly on the combination of forms, colours and materials in abstract compositions, which, however, should not be taken for purely decorative forms.

In the art of the Eastern Church, still associated with the earliest Christian style, the relation between the physical sign and the spiritual reality was emphasized precisely through the symbolic language, featuring strong relativization of the “natural” aspect of things.[27] The typical Byzantine icon, as Patriarch Demetrios explains, retains only those external features of an object “which are indispensable in order to recognize historical circumstances of a particular fact or the spiritual dimension of a saint. It is done through the elements which are completely purified and immaterialized, since they belong rather to the heavenly realm than to the natural environment.”[28] In Western culture, on the other hand, as the Constitution on Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Second Vatican Council states, “The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved” (123).[29] In contrast to the “purified” and “immaterialized” images of the Eastern Church, the Latin tradition, being for the most part an heir to the naturalistic Greek and Roman art, developed the visual language which is much closer to the sensuous experience of the human subject, the language marked with realistic elements, among which the key ones are anatomy and linear perspective.

However, it does not imply a decreased spiritual role of a work of art in the prayer life of individual believers and congregations. Quite on the contrary, naturalism which had been developing intensively since the Middle Ages, initially mostly in Italy, acquired a particularly mystical character. From this viewpoint one could interpret the rediscovery of human body and the natural world which took place in painting and sculpture under the marked influence of St Francis himself. The Little Poor Man of Assisi presented in his life and spirituality a completely new relation with the things of this world, which became later an important element of the Franciscan formation.[30] This phenomenon is called aptly “the medieval Renaissance” or “the Franciscan Renaissance”.

From this viewpoint, the more or less advanced realism, transforming Italian art from Pisano and Giotto through Donatello and Masaccio up to Leonardo and Michelangelo, has a clearly contemplative character. It is no accident, in my opinion, that a systematic and monumental application of mathematical perspective in painting took place in a mystical painting – in Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (between 1425 and 1429), painted in the church Santa Maria Novella in Florence.[31] By putting the inexpressible mysteries of faith in the space which can be measured in mathematical terms, the painting communicates “the real presence” of divine reality in the human world. In a very short time the same perspective construction was appropriately used in the construction of the Eucharistic tabernacles. The mystery of God, entering time and space, implies the sacrificing of the whole experience of time and space. In the incarnation of the Son of God, limited only to this world, or at most featuring some kind of natural “transcendence”, it was expanded almost to infinity, when the reality of this world in way determined the Word of God itself, which through the incarnation entered the mortal world, accepting its limitations (space, time, culture). Since then every God-given reality, unless it has been downgraded by people only to utilitarian purposes or turned into a tool, communicates much more than just its own meaning. In its own way every individual reality is a symbol, that is an echo and sign of the whole reality which is immanent in comparison with every individual human life.[32]

Art and life

Art, which is close to communal experience, but at the same time is a mediator between us and “the Holy One in your midst” (cf. Hos. 11: 9), has a particular relevance of people’s lives. Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th-century architect and art theorist, wrote with regard to the new “realistic” and “historic” painting of his era “The istoria which merits both praise and admiration will be so agreeably and pleasurably attractive that it will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul.”[33]

These words describe the importance of the example, present in the church art from the times of St Francis of Assisi and defining its development until present. It should be perceived clearly as the “exemplary” influence of images on life, decisions, aims, and the believer’s own freedom. In his First Letter St Peter notices “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2: 21), and St Paul often encourages the faithful to imitate him, believing that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (cf. Gal. 2: 20). In another place the Apostle assures the readers that Christ during the Judgement Day will “be glorified in his saints, and […] be marvelled at in all who have believed” (cf. 2 Thess. 1: 10).

The Church can thus offer, through the directness of the natural image, the example of the life of Christ, Virgin Mary and saints. In this way the image can be included among the means through which Christians can communicate the received truth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in its chapter on the eighth commandment addresses the subject of truth, beauty and sacred art. It uses this opportunity to speak about “the use of the social communications media”, “living in the truth”, “bearing witness to the truth”.[34] In every period of its history Christian art was in fact understood as a “social communications medium”, helping to “bear witness to the truth” about the heritage that the ones “living in the truth” were entrusted with.

In this light the transmission of faith through art appears as service and testimony. Illustrating the truth of Christianity through works inspired by it confirms in a special way that Christians are “always […] prepared to make a defence to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you (1 Pet. 3: 15). Portraying Christ sacrificing himself for humankind on the cross, Mary listening to the angel humbly and faithfully, saints being given the gift of the Holy Spirit, means communicating the faith of the Church, or divine life, which became visible in ordinary time and space of everyday life. For the faithful art is “a special catechist tool”, as Pope John Paul II said meaningfully,[35] and is a mighty tool of evangelization for those who remain outside the Church.

Art and communion

In the austere simplicity of a Romanesque church, in the sweetness of Christ depicted by Fra Angelico, or in the internal drama of the works by Donatello and Michelangelo every believer, or actually everyone can recognize characteristic features of their own spiritual search. This art, remaining so human in its subject matter despite the changes of cultural and historical eras separating its makers from the contemporary audience, expresses the constant communion inscribed in human nature, which is the first gift of the Creator.

The invitation to contemplate the episodes from the Old and New Testament and the lives of saints, immortalized in mosaics, frescoes, sculptures, stained glass, altars and buildings, brings us back to what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council suggested in the constitution Gaudium et spes, saying that the Church encourages also atheists to pay open attention to the Gospel of Christ and to enter the dialogue based on human experience. The Church can allow herself this “courtesy” both towards Christians of other denominations and towards non-Christians, because, as the council constitution says: “Above all the Church knows that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart” (no. 21).

To achieve this purpose, the mission of evangelization through art should include artists themselves, who have always been connected with the Church mission in an alliance which is profitable for everyone, as Paul VI said. This includes both helping the faithful to understand works of the past and offering new works which could contribute to deepening of Christian experience.[36]

Pope Paul VI said: “The Catholic cult makes use of many things and turns material objects into the alphabet for its spiritual voices; it needs an artisan and an artist who could raise them to such a potential effectiveness which later could be developed by a priest.”[37] The artist is then called, in the eyes of the Church, to become a mediator, interpreter and bridge-builder between the material and the spiritual-religious world. In a sense his ministry has a priest-like character. The priest’s ministry refers to divine mysteries and is concerned with the actualization of the work of salvation. The artist’s ministry can, on the other hand, influence significantly the formation of man and activate human collaboration in order to open the recipients to “the gift from above” and its redeeming effectiveness.

Possible dangers

In contemporary times, filled with fleeting commercial images, there is a certain risk connected with renewed value of art in the Church. Therefore, it is important not to change the meaning of the works of sacred art by reducing them to common tourist consumption goods. The same danger can be used also concerning the faithful who may want to see sacred buildings and art works only from the viewpoint of contemporary culture. Such a reductionist approach and a peculiar technicism, degrading the symbolic value and the ultimate meaning of the work of art are very troublesome and require a firm correction.

One should still bear in mind the message which the Church art always tried to fulfil and to defend, and which is rooted in Christ’s words: “And as some spoke of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, ‘As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’” (Luke 21: 5–6). Jesus did not mean to disparage the beauty of the temple – a pious Jew himself, with a strong sense of history of his own nation, he must have loved the symbolic place of Israel’s election. However, as Son of God, sent to bring many brethren to the house of Father, he condemned all outwardness which decreased the meaning of truth and relegated it to a secondary role. As the final and personal Truth of history, Jesus pronounced the obvious fact of the transience of human works: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain” (cf. Ps. 127 [126]: 1)

Neither the faithful nor the visitors make an idol out of art, even if they create it or are experts in various fields of art research. They know that life requires something more and that purely aesthetic beauty is not enough. People who come to church have to feel and see more than art itself. It is the most legitimate requirement with respect to art both from the viewpoint of the viewer and the faithful – to see and feel “something more”. All Christians are called to see above noble stones and offerings the true Temple – Jesus Christ who died and resurrected. The cultural heirloom should express the spiritual heirloom and “beauty so ancient and so new” which persists hidden within man and which man is constantly looking for – the Beauty which calls him, which illuminates him, which touches him, filling him with peace and joy. Even though the noblest works of art will pass away, everything they mean will remain. The faithful can take heart in the message from the Constitution Gaudium et spes of the Second Vatican Council: “For after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: ‘a kingdom eternal and universal’” (no. 39).

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Translated by Monika Mazurek


[1] The current aspects of these issues in: P. Sequeri, L’estro di Dio. Saggi di estetica, Milan 2000; A. Stock,Bilderfragen. Theologische Gesichtspunkte, Paderborn–München–Wien–Zürich 2004, pp. 171–177.

[2] J. Plazaola, Kościół i sztuka od początków do naszych dni, transl. M. Dutkiewicz-Litwiniuk, Kielce 2002, p. 17.

[3] On the importance of theology for art, its development and forms through the ages, cf.: P. Piret, L’art et le Christianisme, Bruxelles 2007; J. Plazaola, L’Église et l’art. Vingt siècles d’architecture et de peinture chrétiennes, Paris 2008.

[4] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Duodecimum saeculum (4 Dec 1987), 11, in: Listy pasterskie Ojca Świętego Jana Pawła II, Kraków 1997, p. 484. [All English translations of Vatican documents after the official website of the Holy See, www.vatican.va, unless indicated otherwise.]

[5] Cf. R. Knapiński, Biblia pauperum – czy rzeczywiście księga ubogich duchem?, in: “Roczniki Humanistyczne” 48, 2000, no. 2, pp. 223–245.

[6] Gregory the Great, List 11, 10, in: J. Królikowski, Widzialne słowo. Teologia w sztuce, Tarnów 2009, pp. 25–27.

[7] The encyclical of the Patriarch of Constantinople Demetrios I on the 1200 anniversary of the 2nd Council of Nicaea15, in: “Vox Patrum” 10, 1990, no 19, p. 574 [translation own].

[8] Cf.: J. Królikowski, Nieme słowo. Teologia w sztuce, Tarnów 2008, pp. 29–51.

[9] An idea particularly worth exploring and updating is the concept of architecture as the “synthesis of arts” advanced by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The idea refers especially to Gothic architecture which in a particular way tried to express rich theology and developed anthropology. A very interesting lecture on the mystery of the church seen from such a view point in: Paul VI, Przemówienie w czasie audiencji ogólnej [The Speech During a General Audience] (17 Nov 1965), in: idem, Trwajcie mocni we wierze, transl. L. Paluch, Kraków 1970, pp. 137–140.

[10] Cf.: R. Court, Sagesse de l’Art, Paris 1987.

[11] John Paul II (ft 4), p. 483.

[12] The Council Address to People (8 Dec 1965), in: A. Michalik, Odkryć sobór. Szkic historyczno-teologiczny Soboru Watykańskiego II, Tarnów 2006, p. 142.

[13] On some conclusions on this subject regarding modern art, cf.: J. Alexandre, L’art contemporain un vis-à-vis essentiel pour la Foi, Paris 2009.

[14] One should naturally bear in mind that the adequate approach to works of art and their influence can take place only if efforts are made to promote aesthetic and artistic education. Art does not speak of itself. “One sees only as much as one knows”, as the rule formulated by Plotinus says. Cf.: R. Arnheim, Pensieri sull’educazione artistica, Palermo 2007.

[15] Cf. F. Saracino, Pittori di Cristo. Studi di cristologia figurativa, Genova–Milano 2004; T. Verdon, Cristo nell’arte europea, Milano 2006.

[16] Cf. H. Küng, Kunst und Sinnfrage, Zürich–Köln 1988.

[17] Second Vatican Council, Constitution Gaudium et spes, no. 22.

[18] Gregory the Great 2009, ft. 6, p. 26. [English translation after: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, vol. XIII, trans. J. Barmby, eds. P. Schaff and H. Wace, Edinburgh and Grand Rapids MI 1886–1900, The Tertullian Project,www.tertullian.org/fathers2, accessed December 21, 2011]

[19] Second Nicaene Council, Dekret wiary, 16, in: Dokumenty Soborów Powszechnych, eds. A. Baron, H. Pietras, vol. 1, Kraków 2001, p. 339. [English translation after: “Medieval Sourcebook: Decree of Second Council of Nicea, 787”Internet History Sourcebook Projects, www.fordham.edu, quoted from: The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp. 549–551, accessed December 21, 2011].

[20] This phenomenon is described suggestively by T. Verdon in Maria nell’arte europea, Milano 2004.

[21] Paul VI, Discorso (4 Jan 1967), in: Paolo VI su l’arte e agli artisti. Discorsi, messaggi e scritti (1963–1978), ed. P.V. Begni Redona, Brescia 2000, p. 141.

[22] This problem was particularly emphasized in the Renaissance, cf.: J.S. Pasierb, Człowiek i jego świat w sztuce religijnej renesansu, Warszawa 1969.

[23] Quoted after The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1162.

[24] Cf. M.P. Markowski, Pragnienie obecności. Filozofia reprezentacji od Platona do Kartezjusza, Gdańsk 1999.

[25] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1162. On art in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, cf.: M. Janocha,L’image et le cult dans le nouveau Catéchisme de l’Eglise Catholique, in: Obraz i kult. Materiały z Konferencji „Obraz i kult”, KUL, Lublin, 6–8 października 1999, eds. M.U. Mazurczak, J. Patyra, Lublin 2002, pp. 55–63.

[26] Cf.: P. Grelot, Il linguaggio simbolico nella Biblia. Ricerca di semantica e di esegesi, Roma 2004.

[27] On the evolution of early Christian art, cf.: E. Kitzinger, Byzantine Art in the Making. Main lines of stylistic development in Mediterranean Art 3rd–7th Century, London 1977, passim.

[28] The encyclical… (ft. 7), pp. 573–574. On the spiritual dimension of the Byzantine icon, cf.: Królikowski (ft. 8), pp. 111–130.

[29] On the issues of art in the Second Vatican Council, cf.: J. S. Pasierb, Miasto na górze, Pelplin 2000, pp. 249–276; F. Boespflug, Art et liturgie: l’art chrétien du XXIe siècle à la lumière de Sacrosanctum Concilium, in: “Revue des Sciences Religieuses” 78, 2004, pp. 161–181; C. Valenziano, La Riforma Liturgica del Concilio. Cronaca teologia arte, Bologna 2004.

[30] Cf.: F. Scarsato, Laudato sia per suora bellezza! L’esperienza estetica di Francesco d’Assisi, Padova 2005.

[31] The comprehensive approach to Masaccio’s Holy Trinity can be found in, among others, in: La Trinità di Masaccio. Arte e teologia, eds. S. Dianich, T. Verdon, Bologna 2004.

[32] Cf.: A.N. Whitehead, Simbolismo (transl. from English), Milano 1998.

[33] L.B. Alberti, O malarstwie, transl. L. Winniczuk, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków 1963, p. 37 [English version after: L.B. Alberti, On Painting transl. John R. Spencer, Yale 1966, p. 75].

[34] Cf. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2500–2503.

[35] John Paul II, Przemówienie do biskupów Toskanii z okazji wizyty „ad limina” [The Addres to the bishops of Tuscany on the occasion of a visit “ad limina”] (11 March 1991), 7, in: “Acta Apostolicae Sedis” 83, 1991, p. 1038 [translation own].

[36] Cf.: A. Dell’Asta, Dio alla ricerca dell’uomo. Dialogo tra arte e fede nel mondo contemporaneo, Trapani 2009.

[37] Paul VI, Discorso (23 October 1965), in: Paolo VI… (ft. 21), p. 77.

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