Christian Art

Church crucifix, BerlinAn important attribute of beauty is that it naturally draws one to contemplation.  Whenever we see (or hear, in the case of Music) something really beautiful, it naturally draws our intellects into considering it.  This is also why we can sit for a long period of time looking at a sunset or a view of a range of mountains.  On the other hand, we tend to ignore or be repulsed by things that are really ugly.

modern church crucifixIf  an oil painting has both a Christian theme (i.e. it is about Our Lord, Our Lady, a saint or some mystery of the Faith) and it is beautiful, it will naturally draw people to contemplate that which is extolled by the art.  The beauty of the art will draw us to contemplate the art, and the Christian theme will provide the subject matter of contemplation.

Church crucifixHow many of you have walked into a modern Catholic church and seen a statue that lacked clarity and could not figure out what it was?  What happens?  One ends up spending all his time trying to figure out what or who it is and what the author had in mind rather than kneeling in front of the statue, with the beauty of the statue naturally drawing one to contemplate the mystery or virtue portrayed.

Contemplation and prayer are intimately connected – in fact, prayer is sometimes called contemplation.  Often contemplation has a more restricted sense within the various levels of  prayer, but the point is that contemplation is naturally an activity of the mind.  Chagall's PietàPrayer is the lifting of the mind and heart to God – and so, if a statue is beautiful, it will naturally draw one’s mind, and the beauty will make it much easier for one’s will to follow. But, if the statue is ugly, then one’s prayer is done in spite of the statue, not because of it.

It appears today as if  some members of the Church have no or very little aesthetic sense, because they are building churches that are ugly and they are putting statuary in the churches that are equally hideous.  We wonder why mental prayer has collapsed?  Statues are unrecognizable and we wonder why the cult of saints has imploded?

Our Catholic culture teaches that puMichelangelo's Pietàrity, modesty, truth and temperance are virtues.  If they are, why do some of the new churches not contain statuary to give one the impression of purity by the clarity of statues? Why aren’t the statues representing modesty and humility by portraying saints with hands folded like the humble slave? As Catholics, we believe that the desire to lead a life according to truth is necessary for salvation, and yet we have statues and churches that bear no resemblance to the true beauty of the doctrines of our Church.

Most probably those that build and adorn these churches do not believe the same things we do.  How crucial then is authentic orthodox faith, in submission to the teaching authority of the Church, to Christian Art!  Beautiful Christian Art ultimately exists to lift our minds to God, Who is that for which all things strive.

15 Responses to “Christian Art”


  1. 1 pokankuni July 19, 2009 at 20:58

    I agree with you completely. Maybe I’d push things a bit further, as I personally believe that, generally speaking, we need something to look at when we pray.

    We are humans, and we need to see, hear, touch things (hence the wonderful pedagogy of the Catholic sacraments, which all have something that hits our senses – matter! Grace flows through sound, oil, water, bodies… not mere ideas). We can’t see God, Whom we are speaking to while praying, and yet we need to look at Him somehow. I strongly believe that christian life became a lot more difficult when art images could no more been prayed in front of — you might say they lost their “prayability”.

    Some times ago, I managed to spend some minutes of mental prayer in a lonely church, in the middle of a working day. I went near the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle and began to struggle in my prayer… as on the door of the Tabernacle, someone had painted a big, bright red, feathery-and-floating-big-tailed goldfish! Evidently the “artist” had been told that the fish is an eucharystic symbol. And so he had painted a fish, maybe the cutest little goldfish ever. Too bad the resulting image could fit much better in a Disney vintage cartoon rather than in front of the Blessed Sacrament.

    I’d like to cry out to the whole world: please, let only true Christians make christian art!

  2. 2 Antonio July 19, 2009 at 23:09

    Ciao Gabriella… l’altro blog è stato TUTTO trasferito qui (tanto aveva solo una decina di giorni di vita). A fine mese l’altro blog lo cancello definitivamente (una piattaforma molto instabile quella del “cannocchiale”). hai fatto benissimo a ordinare il libro, più lo leggo e più gioisco, un libro meraviglioso, non solo per i contenuti ma pure da leggere, uno stile perfetto. Alcuni capitoli mi hanno commosso per la purezza del pensiero espresso. Leggi e mi dirai.

  3. 3 andrea July 20, 2009 at 02:33

    Ciao Gabriella,grazie tantissime per questo bellissimo post.
    L’arte e la cultura cristiana è un pò come il carburante per un aereo! Senza tutto questo patrimonio,non saremmo mai stati così nelle nostre città,nelle nostre piazze,nella nostra Europa e non solo. Tutto viene da Lui,sempre e solo da Lui,dai carismi ch suscita nei nostri cuori e nelle nostre menti. Senza di Lui,non avremmo le piazze delle nostre città con i “Duomi”,attorno ai quali sono stati costruite tutte le città della nostra Europa. Pensate che oggi,mentre camminavo,ho spostato l’attenzione,verso una chiesa piccola,ma molto abbandonata. Aperta solo al mattino. E’ una chiesa secondaria. Non è una chiesa artistica,ma quello stato di abbandono(che non è per mancanza di preti o fedeli,ma per motivi logistici)mi ha fatto comunque venire in mente quello che qualche volta il prof.Ratzinger,è cioè le “radici cristiane della nostra europa”. Mi guardavo intorno è mi sono detto dentro di me:la piazza lì in fondo esiste grazie alla cristianità. Senza di essa d’avanti ai nostri occhi non vedremmo quello che effettivamente vediamo. O,per dirla meglio,che cominciamo a non vedere più. Infatti tutto sembra che stia sbiadendo nella misura in cui la nostra società si stia distaccando dai valori. E’ non è un discorso solo religioso,ma anche “tecnico”. Tutto sembra stia decadendo. Tutto sembra in uno stato di abbandono. Alla gente non importa più di nulla. Preferisce fare un parcheggio per parcheggiare l’auto al supermercato o ristrutturare case già nuove. Sembra che l’interesse della gente non sia più controllato da leggi morali,ma solo da ricerca di falso piacere,che assopisce la coscienza e allontana sempre di più dalle cose buone e giuste. L’Arte,il Bello e il Vero(la Verità)sono collegate come si sa,filosoficamente; o meglio,il Bello e il Vero sono parte integrante della verità;perchè slo ciò che è Vero(con la v maiuscola)è anche Bello e l’arte bella è solo quella Vera. Le società “credenti e moralizzate”(anche il mondo musulmano) sono quelle che hanno sviluppato di più le bellezze artistiche. Nei paesi arabi l’arte bellissima della scrittura,in occidente invece c’è stato uno sviluppo “senza paragoni”(anche perchè noi abbiamo Cristo che ha chiamato i Suoi artisti). Al di là di quale sia la fede,possiamo dire che là dove c’è stato un vivere “religioso”,c’è stato un maggiore sviluppo. Ed in questo andiamo a concordare con ciò che dice il papa nella Sua ultima enciclica(se non sbaglio),e cioè,che l’ateismo blocca lo sviluppo,perchè con l’ateismo non c’è nessun tipo di umanesimo. E noi Italiani,di “umanesimo” ne sappiamo più di tutti. Guarda caso,in italia c’è Roma,la sede centrale di tutta la cristianità a livello globale! Non è un caso! No no! Infine,dando uno sguardo a livello globale(anche nelle altre culture) si può dire che c’è più sviluppo artistico dove c’è stato meno ateismo! Tra l’altro,non so se ci abbiamo fatto caso,ma nelle culture dove si crede in un Solo ed Unico Dio,c’è più integrità(anche se,senza Cristo,manca sempre qualcosa,ed infatti,anche gli arabi sono affascinati dalla nostra cultura),mentre nelle terre dove si è sviluppata l’dolatria,non c’è arte,non c’è il “bello”(perchè non c’è il Vero o almeno parte del Vero),ma solo sviluppo di ritualità folkloristica,come in cina o nei Paesi induisti ecc… Dove si crede in un Solo ed unico Dio sembra che ci sia una sorta di “integrità umanistica”,mentre nel politeismo,solo disgregazioni. L”umanesimo cristiano è il massimo! Altrimenti non ci sarebbero molti turisti giapponesi in Italia. Per concludere, dove ci si apre alla Verità,è come se ci venissero dati anche dei doni in aggiunta”Gesù dice :” e il resto verrà dato in aggiunta”,ed è proprio vero. I cristiani sono stati premiati di più,per “testimonianza” della Verità. Il problema è questo però: Anche le “nostre radici cristiane sono un talento”. Cosa ne stiamo facendo noi che l’avevamo ricevuto. Infatti l’Europa rinnega le proprie origini. E in questo momento mi viene in mente un altra frase del vangelo ” ….vi verrà tolto anche quello che credete di avere”!(più o meno è scritto così,non ricordo perfettamente). Viva l’arte cristiana!

    benedizioni

  4. 4 Pyralis July 20, 2009 at 12:07

    How right you are, Pokankuni (and what a beautiful name – what does it mean?)

    Religion in my country is in steep decline, and I know why. Simply gaze upon any modern church built after 1960, and you will know why too. Modern churches are ugly as sin, and so too is modern religion.
    In an age before modern church architecture, every Sunday morning my parents dutifully herded their eleven children into a towering Romanesque church. So big it made everyone small, even our parents, our nuns and our gym teacher, who was the biggest guy we knew.
    We always arrived early to take our place among a sea of dark wooden pews. Waiting for mass, there was nothing to do but gaze piously aloft at shafts of sunlight radiating through glass stained in colors so rich, they were not of this earth and made my imagination run wild in gazing at the images depicted. And all around us, filling a near empty church, boomed an organ in a tone so deep, so loud, it moved clouds around the sky.
    Between each arch, patrolled a saint. Each saint stood like a grenadier in an arched guard house, and each saint had their own section of the congregation to keep an eye on.
    We knew not to mess with these saints. We knew to kneel when everyone knelt, sit when everyone sat and stand when everyone stood. And more importantly we also knew not to whine or make a noise or disturb the other faithful. If our parents were in a buoyant mood, they settled us in the back beneath the lenient saints. These were the lady saints, mostly moms, who were more understanding of colicky babies and bratty two year old sisters.
    If our parents were angry with us, they positioned us in front among the frescoes. This is where the martyr saints stood guard, the real tough ones.
    In short, you had to work your saints. You had to be up on the religion, and if you were up on religion — you knew enough not fool around anyway. By the time I was able to follow my missal, I knew a lot about my religion just by looking around my church but then … all this disappeared! Actually the big church is still there but only for tourists.
    The church I get dragged to these days by my wife looks like a suburban bank with an exceptionally large parking lot. It is an ugly church but not exceptionally ugly. These barns testify to the idiocy of big ideas. Take the universal concept that the sacred should uplift — that it should soar toward heaven. Now give that idea to a church committee of used-car hucksters and fast-food managers and what do you get? A student project consisting of a 200 foot skate board ramp with a cut out square hole, partially plugged by a stainless steel cross.
    They say church architecture should reflect a modern sense of community. If I want community I go to a bar. My bars reflect my community. There, you can talk to the guy on the next stool during the sports ceremony. You can show him photos of your kids. You can complain about your spouse. There people are friendly and listen to each other. You get to see their kids, and hear about what a troubling nag their spouse is.
    I have seen scary bars. I’ve seen run-down bars. I’ve seen pretentious bars, but I’ve never seen a bar as ugly as an ugly church. I guess this goes to the difference between church and bar people. It goes to the difference between being good and having a good time, but it also goes to the difference between something forced and something real.
    This is what happens when religion looks to a modern earth rather than an ancient heaven for answers; a mistake that is reflected in the architecture of its churches.

    I join Pokankuni in crying out: “please, let only true Christians make christian art!”

  5. 5 Cinzia July 20, 2009 at 12:57

    “And all around us, filling a near empty church, boomed an organ in a tone so deep, so loud, it moved clouds around the sky.
    Between each arch, patrolled a saint. Each saint stood like a grenadier in an arched guard house…”

    Pyralis, how well you write and how poetic you sound!! Beautiful! Most importantly, you, Andrea and Pokankuni (and Gabriella of course) are all absolutely spot on. Well said. I agree wholeheartedly with every single word.

    If I can go a step further I have to add that ugliness is not only confined to modern churches …. the modern churches in modern suburban Australia fit in perfectly with ugly, squalid suburbs that are an eyesore for kilometres without end. You can be sure that all these buildings were conceived with only one thing in mind: spending as little as possible – not a thought ever went into doing something aesthetically pleasing or the slightest bit beautiful. Just streets and streets of raw concrete, corrugated iron, huge rectangle sheds and more corrugated iron … there is only one word to describe so much ugliness: squalor!!

    It MUST be a consequence of a godless society … just as Andrea has said so adequately .. there is no more beauty inside people that there is no beauty to reflect on the outside.

    On a positive note, thankfully the earlier immigrants did build some beautiful cathedrals here (and other buildings of course), I guess to re-capture what they had left behind in their respective homelands …. a bit of old Europe.

    Greetings to all.

  6. 6 Clorinda July 20, 2009 at 16:02

    Che belle parole Andrea, anzi, un bel pensiero.

    Purtroppo, tra noi giovani, manca quasi del tutto la consapevolezza dell’identità del Vecchio Continente, della sua storia, della straordinaria ricchezza del suo patrimonio. Anche perché nelle scuole viene insegnato ben altro, purtroppo! Per esempio, il Medioevo è ancora oggi percepito, nell’immaginario collettivo, come una lunga notte nella storia dell’umanità. Per me la lunga notte è la cosiddetta modernità!

    Come può un’epoca contrassegnata dall’ignoranza aver dato frutti come le cattedrali e le università, opere letterarie come la Divina Commedia e teologiche come la Summa di San Tommaso? Come può aver dato alla luce il monachesimo occidentale? In realtà, l’epoca medievale presenta una straordinaria vitalità in ogni ambito del sapere e una straordinaria storia impregnata di religiosità e fu testimone di un proficuo incontro tra popoli e culture diverse. Con il Medio Evo, i diritti della persona umana acquistano una forza sconosciuta nel passato. Fondamentale è il contributo del pensiero cristiano, così come straordinariamente fruttuoso fu il dialogo tra filosofia e teologia. Come dice Andrea, “senza tutto questo patrimonio,non saremmo mai stati così nelle nostre città, nelle nostre piazze, nella nostra Europa e non solo”.

    Fino all’era moderna, la parola “Dio” era in tutto, sempre come dice Andrea: “Tutto viene da Lui, sempre e solo da Lui, dai carismi che suscita nei nostri cuori e nelle nostre menti. Senza di Lui, non avremmo le piazze delle nostre città con i “Duomi”, attorno ai quali sono stati costruite tutte le città della nostra Europa”.

    Oggi, come ci ha avvertito Nietzsche, “Dio è morto”, quindi senza “Dio” possiamo solo capire le dinamiche del mondo contemporaneo sostituendo la parola “Dio” con “denaro” o con “tecnica”.
    Con la morte di Dio è finito in Occidente l’ottimismo cristiano. L’ottimismo che il cristianesimo aveva profuso nella cultura dell’Occidente si è estinto, e al suo posto è subentrato il nichilismo che Nietzsche definisce così: “Nichilismo, manca lo scopo, manca la risposta al perché, i valori supremi perdono ogni valore”.
    Con la morte di Dio è morta la cultura Europea.

  7. 7 Kaede Sachi July 20, 2009 at 16:10

    I couldn’t have said it better than Pokankuni🙂
    I fully agree.
    Personally I find it very hard to pray if I don’t have an image before me … but not a bright red goldfish!😀

  8. 8 Brian July 20, 2009 at 21:06

    Gabriella –

    I agree – here in the USA there are many “modern” Churches
    where you will find it difficult to lift up your mind and heart to God. Recently I attended a retreat at the seashore. The chapel was built over the water – big picture windows where you could view the passing sailboats. But where was a statue of Our Blessed Mother?

    I could not find it…..

  9. 9 Laura July 21, 2009 at 09:57

    nn esagero ma da qsto blog ci sto a capì ttnte + cose🙂
    x es dai post di Gabriella e i commenti di Andrea e Clorinda ke mi fanno vedere le cose da 1 altro . di vista.
    ero cnvnta ke il medioevo pullulava di streghe, inqstri, gente barbara cme mi hanno insegnato a scuola.
    invece qllo che dite voi è vero e anke qllo che dice il mio papi ke è un contadino: Gli uomini nn devono mai essere intesi in antagonismo cn la natura, cn il creato, ma in armonia con esso, in cui il soggetto nn è soltanto fruitore di Bellezza, ma anke oggetto e creatore🙂
    saluti a ttti

  10. 10 Griff July 21, 2009 at 14:10

    A lovely post that conveys something close to my heart very well. God Bless.

  11. 11 anne bender July 21, 2009 at 14:55

    Well, I’m just going to have to learn Italian! I feel that I am missing out on so many beautiful words to go with all of the beautiful images which you are all discussing! This is a great site, I’m so glad to have found you! I look forward to many more lovely posts and discussions and learning to decipher the gorgeous Italian language!

  12. 12 churchmouse July 21, 2009 at 17:23

    Thanks, Gabriella, for an excellent post. And excellent comments, too, esp. from Pokankuni and Pyralis! ::pauses to bookmark::

    We can but pray for the return and restoration of beauty in our churches. Some priests would tell us that if our spirituality were stronger (I’ve been told this) that we wouldn’t need beautiful statues and architecture. But, we are only human and when we see them we naturally reflect on God and His saints.

    Why is it culturally okay to see religious art in a museum but not in a church? In a museum, statuary and paintings are called ‘masterpieces’. Even our humblest churches used to have one or the other, or both. Now, we have to visit a museum to see great religious art? It doesn’t make sense.

  13. 13 elai July 23, 2009 at 06:56

    Yes it is so inspiring to see christian arts that will always remind us on what God has done for us. It lifts up our spirits and makes us realize how we are loved. Why not share it with our loved ones so they can also be inspired?
    http://greatisthelord.net/
    Inspirational Gifts

  14. 14 pokankuni July 26, 2009 at 16:38

    @ Pyralis: thank you! ‘pokankuni’ means ‘learning by watching others’ in an indian language. But I’m from Italy😉

    @ churchmouse: I, too, often find religious art in museums is somehow misplaced, although there is nothing wrong in praying in a museum🙂 …and sometimes I wonder if someone may meet God through art. I heard it happened with Bach and Gaudì: people becoming Christians after being struck by the beauty of their Christian art.

  15. 15 jamescutler July 1, 2010 at 09:03

    Hi,Thanks for the lovely post and amazing picture collection,how well you write and how poetic you sound!! Beautiful! Most importantly,all are absolutely spot on. Well said. I agree wholeheartedly with every single word.Thanks for sharing.


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J.R.R. Tolkien scrisse queste parole nove anni dopo la morte di sua madre.






Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13)




“Beati sarete voi quando vi oltraggeranno e perseguiteranno, e falsamente diranno di voi ogni male per cagion mia. Rallegratevi ed esultate perché grande è la vostra ricompensa nei cieli”.