The Tremendous Impact of Catholic Works of Art on the World
For centuries, much of the world’s best-loved and most widely recognizable works of art have been inspired by the Christian faith. Michelangelo’s Pieta, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Handel’s Messiah, and many more works of painting, sculpture, music and architecture have enriched human life and have fostered awe for God and reverence for the Catholic faith in millions. But since the purpose of the Christian religion is to save humanity from our sinfulness, restore us to friendship with God, and offer us eternal salvation, one might ask whether Christians - either individually or as a culture - even need fine art. Why expend resources on purely temporal enjoyments, which delight the senses but will pass away eventually? A response to this question can be had through considering the ways in which God communicates with us. Far from being extraneous, fine art is central to the Christian experience because it mirrors God’s mode of interacting with humans, and can lift our minds and hearts beyond temporal affairs, to the consideration of heavenly things.
A look at salvation history reveals that when communicating directly with humans in order to lead us to salvation, God uses material things. After creating the material world, God saw that it was good and blessed it. In the Old Testament, He used a burning bush, the waters of the Red Sea, a pillar of fire, and many other natural elements, to work miracles for the Israelites. In the New Testament, Jesus used bread, spoken words, and clay, to perform miracles.
In addition, man is called to be a steward to creation, and to participate with God in bringing into the world things that are true, good, and beautiful. In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve to subdue the earth and to master it. This means that it is proper for humans to apply reason to the material things that God created, to produce things that reflect the Creator.
So it is clear that God wants us to employ our intelligence in using His creation for making good things. This is obvious in the case of items that are practical, such as shelter, clothing, or medicine, but is it also true of fine art? Does God really want humans to make art? After all, a sculpture won’t put food on the table; a painting won’t keep you warm in the winter.
It is important to remember that humans are more than simply physical creatures. As Our Lord said during His sermon on the mount: “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 NAB). Man is made up of a spiritual and a physical element, and God’s creation helps nourish both. In fact, those things which nourish our souls are the more important ones, for those are the things that lead us more directly to God.
When we experience very good art, we often feel strong emotions. The word emotion comes from the Latin phrase ex movere, which means “to move out,” or to be taken out of oneself. Isn’t this what we feel whenever we listen to a thrilling hymn, gaze upon an exquisite icon, or walk through a towering cathedral? Good art has the ability to make us look outside of ourselves, to take our gaze off of our own lives, thoughts, and concerns, and to ponder greater things. This is necessary in order for us to live a life that is truly human: we must go out of ourselves, toward others and toward God. Fine art can help us do that.
In our day and age, the first thing that most people think of when they hear the word “art” is paintings. But the term “fine art” encompasses anything that’s made by humans for the purpose of aesthetic enjoyment. Even something that has a practical function, such as a building, can be designed in a way that is beautiful to look at. For centuries, the Catholic Church has given the world beautiful architecture that captures the imagination and lifts the mind to God.
One of the most prominent examples of great Christian architecture is the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres in France. Its twin spires stretch upwards into the sky, as though they are just yearning to touch heaven. When a pilgrim enters the cathedral, his gaze is directed upwards by the sheer height of the walls, and he can’t help but feel small in the presence of such a large and imposing structure. The famous rose windows on either side of the cathedral are covered in a dizzying array of floral images depicting angels and Old Testament figures, with Our Lord and His Mother in the center.
This sense of the proportion between the individual and his surroundings helps to inspire in pilgrims an awareness of their relationship to God, before whom all of creation is as nothing. It fosters humility and awe before the Creator. In this way, the Chartres Cathedral moves the individual’s focus outside of himself and toward God.
Two of the Christian world’s most famous images - Da Vinci’s Last Supper and Michelangelo’s Pieta were produced at very nearly the same time - the 1490s - and reflect a reverence and attentiveness for the last hours of Christ’s life. The Last Supper depicts Christ seated at table with His Twelve Apostles, at the moment when they are reacting to His announcement that one of them will betray Him. The look of shock, awe, and confusion on the Apostles’ faces, contrasted with Christ’s serene look in the center of the painting, is striking. Despite His imminent betrayal, torture, and death, He is the only figure in the painting who doesn’t look distressed. Similarly, the Virgin Mary in the Pieta appears calm and composed as she holds the crucified body of her Son. What could Da Vinci and Michelangelo be trying to tell us in these works of art? We can treat these images almost the way we might treat a spiritual book, or poem. We can contemplate them, ponder the details, the facial expressions, the hand gestures, the colors, and draw great spiritual truths from them.
From this consideration, we can see that great Christian art is more than merely something pretty to look at. It can be edifying, educational, uplifting, and even spiritually enriching.
A common objection to great Church art is the claim that if the Church cares about helping people, such as the poor and the sick, we should get rid of all our artwork, sell it, and use the funds to help people. How is anyone helped, how is the Gospel being lived out, by an old painting gathering dust in a museum somewhere?
There are a few ways to respond. First, the Catholic Church already is one of the world’s most significant and influential helpers of the poor and marginalized. Every single day we run hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, which serve millions of needy people worldwide. Countless saints, including Mother Teresa, John Bosco, and Katharine Drexel, have devoted their entire lives to service of the less fortunate. To claim that the Catholic Church needs to sell off all her art and start living the Gospel is to ignore much of the Church’s day-to-day activities, and many of her greatest figures.
Secondly, the wealth generated by getting rid of all the paintings, sculptures and cathedrals in the world would be considerable, but it would not be sustainable. A finite sum of money would be raised, which could be put to good use. After a certain amount of time, however, that money would get used up. The good that it did will have passed away. The best way to help the poor and less fortunate is through resources that are renewable, such as donations, and volunteer time. This is exactly what the Church is doing: countless people all over the world volunteer their time, talent and treasure on a regular basis so that help for the poor can continue indefinitely into the future, rather than through a quick influx of money that may help for a while, but will dry up.
A final reason why the Church need not sell all her fine art is because, as mentioned above, art accomplishes more than mere entertainment. It can be spiritually edifying. For centuries, countless people have been inspired to greater piety by the paintings, sculptures, and cathedrals of Christendom. In the end, it is a relationship with God, and not material well-being, that is the most important element of the Christian life. To get rid of all the Church’s art would be to sacrifice spiritual development for material gain.
The Catholic Church’s heritage of fine art is a blessing to the world. As long as we appreciate art for what it is - man’s participation in God’s creative act - we can be sure that the works of beauty that have been made, and those that will be made in the future, will continue to inspire, edify and enrich Christians the world over.