If I may, I’d like to begin with a quote that might be a bit lengthy, but very well worth the read.
“The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendour of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with the beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty - and hence truth - is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of Hell.” That still gives me chills whenever I read it!
Before he was elevated to the Chair of Peter, few in America would have recognized those words as coming from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. This quote came from the forward in The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty by John Saward. [Ignatius Press, 1997] As we have gotten to know Pope Benedict XVI better over the years, we have come to see that he has always had a keen awareness of the fundamental power of art in the mission of the Church. His great predecessor, Pope John Paul II, in 1999 also addressed this very issue in depth in his Letter to Artists when he noted “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art.” [#12]
Why is art so necessary for the mission of the Church? The simple explanation is that viewing an image or work of art takes virtually no time at all, is processed almost immediately, and can easily cross over common cultural and language barriers. We have all heard the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Most of how we receive and communicate information is through sight. The use of unique characters, forms, or symbols of a religious nature in communicating some of the most profound mysteries of our Faith, has also long been a tradition in the Church. The walls of ancient Roman catacombs, which are decorated with images that represent Christianity, testify to the power and potential of signs and symbols. These humble frescos and carvings served as a way of recording and teaching the essentials of our Faith as well as inspiring and encouraging the early Christians to persevere through times of great opposition. This is why the walls and windows of churches throughout history were often richly decorated. As Gregory the Great said, “Pictures are the books of lay people.” Beautiful works of art, such as Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” that are viewed by people from all nations, are often the silent witnesses and teachers of our Faith as they elevate our hearts and minds to realities beyond this world and ultimately to God.
Upon deeper reflection, beauty has been defined since ancient times, as that which is perfectly ordered or that which is as it should be. So it is no coincidence that St. Augustine went so far as to refer to God as 'Beauty' in his Confessions [X, 27] when he writes, "Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty, so ancient and so new." His name for God is both poetic and revealing: that He is perfection, and His perfection is beautiful. True beauty is attractive, even alluring, because God, by His perfect beautiful nature, is attractive and alluring. So when sacred art depicts a certain article of Faith beautifully, what follows naturally is an attraction to that truth, which ultimately finds its rest in God Himself, who is the origin of that beauty. The soul, created by God, naturally seeks to return to Him. The power that authentic beauty has is none other than to inspire us, out of love, to return to God. Even Plato recognized that “At the sight of beauty, our souls grow wings'' [Phaedrus, 249d; 235]. This principle - that authentic beauty attracts - should be considered when setting up a religion classroom for example. Artwork and religious symbols should be strategically arranged so that it makes clear what this setting is about: a place to encounter and fall in love with God, His Church and His teachings.
The power of sacred art specifically, understood in this way, points us to its very versatile nature in evangelization and catechesis. It can be used for teaching purposes, for devotional aids in prayer, as liturgical objects for ceremonial worship, or a combination of all three. In fact, religious art “makes possible a larger measure of desirable religious growth with the least waste of time and energy and with the greatest satisfaction to all concerned. In the interest of economy and efficiency it is recognized as an indispensible factor.” Therefore, “the use of art in religious education is not a luxury.” [Bailey, A. The Use of Art in Religious Education, The Abingdon Press: NY, 1922. p.9] Why is that true? Using sacred art correctly is arguably the most efficient means to evangelize and catechize because once an image has been introduced and explained by a catechist for example, a mere repeat glance at that image brings back the instruction and inspiration instantaneously without even the need of that catechist being present. So imagine a group of teens who have been exposed to, and trained in, not only viewing sacred art but how to meditate with it. One look at an image can not only elevate the soul to love of God, but communicate a greater level of content in shorter length of time than acquiring that content in reading or listening to a teacher.
This is why some form of art should always be utilized as part of the process of inspiring conversion and handing down the Faith, no matter what your particular evangelization or catechetical ministry is. If you haven’t already, I would suggest acquiring some large scale, beautiful original artwork or at least high quality reproductions (if you cannot afford originals), that cover a wide variety of doctrines. Traditional images, such as the Annunciation, The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Last Supper, Road to Emmaus or icons of Christ or Madonna and Child, are excellent starters. Once an image is explained it need only be displayed in an area of the classroom, parish or home that is often accessible for repeat meditations.
Reading an image is not that much different than reading Sacred Scripture. An excellent way of meditating on the scriptures is an old method calledlectio divina which is Latin for “sacred reading” or “holy reading”. The principles of lectio divina, that involve a slow meditation and contemplation on scripture passages, taking in one morsel of truth or insight at a time, can be applied to reading an image. The goal is to be able to spend quiet time in prayer and contemplation before an image, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you through the narrative of the scene so as to come away with some insight or wisdom that can be used to motivate you to greater love of the Lord and be more committed to His service.
Here are a set of sample reflection questions I have compiled as an aid in meditation that can be applied to a variety of a sacred images. This meditation can easily be used in the classroom for example, as a prayer service on its own, as a lead-in to a lesson, (it works best if you match the content in the artwork to the doctrine being taught), or even as an “examination of conscience” in preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I have had great responses from students using the meditations in all of these settings. This method also works wonderfully in RCIA or any adult sacramental preparation as well as any part of a parish, small group, or family prayer service.
Begin by placing the image in a location that can be easily viewed by all participating. Perhaps place some candles around the image or use a spotlight to help the artwork be the central focus of meditation. Consider also using some sacred music like Gregorian Chant as either an opening segment for the reflection or as subdued background music. These questions are best reflected on privately, then if applicable, participants may like to share some fruits or insights with the group. The key is to allow ample time for individuals to spend as much time as they need before moving on to the next step. The idea is not to rush, but stay with each step for as long as people are experiencing fruits.
Meditation Guide on Sacred Art
When beginning, always invoke the Holy Spirit for guidance.
- Identify objectively the event or story in the artwork. What is the subject; who are the characters; what are they doing? What are the formal aspects of the work: medium, colors, size, light? Is it a small, intimate, brightly colored icon, or a large painting with strong lights and shadows? What is the initial impact of the image on the heart and mind?
- How are the characters responding in the scene; how are they affected? What are they contemplating; what is at stake; what do they choose? If the image is of one subject like that of Mary or Jesus, how do they look, what are they doing? What is communicated through the eyes?
- Place yourself in the scene and confront the same situation or character. What strikes you most? Identify your thoughts. Can you engage with the eyes of the figure(s)? Do you sense God speaking to your heart? Do you sense you are called to contemplate something or confront an area of sin in yourself? If there are other characters in the narrative, can you identify with anyone? Contemplate your response. What do you think motivates your thoughts or feelings?
- Consider what might be one specific, concrete thing you can do in light of this meditation that can help you deepen your love for Christ and cooperate more closely with His grace. Make some kind of resolution so that whenever you pass by that image again, you can remind yourself of your commitment and assess your progress.
(Article may not be reproduced without permission; however the “Meditation Guide of Sacred Art” may be reproduced for free distribution as part of a parish, school, or family prayer session with the follow credit: Used with permission. © 2003 Renata Grzan / FortheLoveofBeauty.com)
Renata Grzan is a freelance artist (painter and photographer) as well as speaker on art and catechesis. She holds an undergraduate degree in Fine Art and graduate degrees in Secondary Education and Theology. She received an MA in Theology and Christian Ministry with a specialization and certification in Catechetics from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1997. Renata can be reached through her websites atwww.fortheloveofbeauty.com, www.fortheloveofbeautygalleries.com, orwww.renataphotography.com.
Renata is pictured above with her icon of "Christ the Teacher" now hanging in the Spiritus Sanctus Academy chapel in Ann Arbor, Michigan.