It is an acknowledgment that the material and spiritual worlds are intimately connected, and that sacred art and architecture are vehicles for divine truth.

When a sacred sense is missing, we feel that the art or architecture is arbitrary or irrational, disconnected from the past and probably the future, and causing us to think more about the artist than about the subject of the art.  After making the observation that there is no style or technique reserved for religious art, Jacques Maritain in Art & Scholasticism listed three requirements of all sacred art.  These may be applied to sacred architecture as well.

Sacred Art Must Be Legible

First, sacred art has to be legible because it is there for instruction of the people.  It is “theology in figures,” so that it must not be confused or confusing in terms of the theological truth it conveys.  As art it may reveal more to us than has been revealed in Scripture, because Scripture and Tradition do not always tell us all the details, but nothing may contradict what God has revealed.

“Theology in figures” may be most difficult when the subject of the painting is Christ Himself, who is both God and man. Traditionally painters have acknowledged His divinity by an elaborate or gilded halo, rays of light, or an unearthly beauty. His humanity, easier for the artist to capture, must not obscure His divinity.

Maritain notes that in 1623, the Sacred Congregation of Rites forbade depictions of the crucifixion in which the humanity of Jesus is so disfigured as to cause disgust instead of piety. This was not a judgment on the state of the artist’s soul or on his artistic ability.  It was the acknowledgment that a horrendously disfigured Christ does not affirm the divinity of Christ, nor his divine will and full use of reason.  Sacred art must, in its own unique way, catechize visually and reinforce the spoken and written catechesis.

In terms of sacred architecture, the catechesis of the faithful is just as important.  “Theology in stone” applies to both sculpture and architecture.  If the Lord of the Universe is sacramentally present in this place, it should look different than the shopping mall down the highway. The importance of the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament must be expressed architecturally, the altar should be elevated, etc.  The Church as the Domus Dei or “House of God” must look different from an auditorium or gymnasium.

Sacred Art Must Be Complete

Secondly, sacred art and architecture must be complete in the material sense; they must be well-made, finished, durable, honest. Sacred architecture should not feel like it will blow away with the next wind. Sacred art cannot be just a “sketch,” or have a”here today, gone tomorrow” quality. That which aims to contain or depict lasting truths must have enduring beauty.

Sacred Art Must Be Religious

A final observation made by Maritain is that sacred art must be religious.  This seems absurdly obvious, but sadly it is not.  He goes so far as to say that sacred art must have an “absolute dependence on theological wisdom.”

How does this translate, practically speaking, in the world of church renovation and restoration?  Please stay tuned for future posts!

Posted by Karen D’Anselmi, August 2016

(See Art & Scholasticism & the Frontiers of Poetry by Jacques Maritain. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962. Translated by Joseph W. Evans.)

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