Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Art Through the Eyes of Faith

by Russell Shaw


An interview with one of America's great modern Catholic sculptors on the state of religious art and architecture today.

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Our Sunday Visitor



Publisher & Date

Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., July 11, 1999

Growing up in Greenwich, Conn., H. Reed Armstrong, 62, knew he wanted to be an artist ("You don't choose it, you just do it"). Today, his sculptures are in many churches and collections in the United States and Europe.

After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1960, he and his Ukrainian-born wife Roxolana, also an artist, went to Spain, where Armstrong practiced his craft and their four sons were born. In 1980 the family moved to Washington, D.C., and Armstrong took up teaching along with sculpting.

Our Sunday Visitor spoke with him at his home about his views on religion and art.

OUR SUNDAY VISITOR: how would describe your style as an artist?

ARMSTRONG: You could define my art as contemplative rather than decorative. I must have done hundreds of crucifixes in my life — I'm doing 12 for Georgetown University right now, since they finally decided to put the crucifix back in the classroom — and each time you come to the mystery of salvation, trying to come to grips with it. And, of course, you'll never do the definitive piece, because you can never plumb the depths of the mystery.

Probably it was touch and go for me between theater and fine arts. Oh, I loved acting! As a matter of fact, I approach sculpture more from an actor's than an architect's point of view. In many ways, creating a personality in acting is very similar to creating a personality in sculpture.

But when I left the Academy of Fine Arts in 1960, I found there was not a great deal of interest in figurative religious art in this country. Modernism in art had come into the Church. It was the age of straw crucifixes. The more primitive it looked, the more authentic. Bronze statuary represented the oppressor.

So we went back to the roots, back to Spain. Spanish artists were reading American art magazines and wanting to be more like Americans, and I wanted to continue the Spanish mystical tradition. In fact, two of the foremost art critics in Spain singled me out as its embodiment.

But one can't look back. One has to think of an art that embodies tradition along with a 20th- or 21st-century perspective. As a 20th-century artist, my sensibilities are intuitive and emotional rather than classical and meticulous, somewhat impressionistic, but part of an ongoing tradition. Recently, I did a St. John the Baptist for a Baroque church in Germany precisely because I could do a piece of modern art that fit right in with the existing Baroque art.

I've always worked mainly on commission. I do not exhibit in galleries. I used to exhibit in a place called Contemporary Christian Art in New York, but it closed. People would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars somewhere else on what the critics labeled as art, then come in there and haggle over $20 for a saint. Saints, you buy from catalogues; art, you buy from Madison Avenue galleries.

VISITOR: You've written that there has been no genuinely Catholic movement in the world of art since the Baroque art of the 16th and 17th centuries. Why not?

ARMSTRONG: There is a Catholic tradition in art. The Romanesque, the Gothic, the Renaissance, the Baroque have very different styles, but the impact of the mystery of salvation remains the same in each.

Then came a paradigm shift. Man decided he was going to build Utopia. The Enlightenment came in, with its dialectic — on the one hand, the classical, going back to Greek and Roman ideas; on the other hand. Romanticism, feeling. They're both very this-worldly views.

I don't mean Catholics stopped producing art. Individuals have produced exquisite work. And people still want Oberammergau figures because they think that is Catholic. But the modern Oberammergau stuff is dead. It's perfectly nice, but it's made by craftsmen with cutting wheels. It's not an encounter with the mystery, which flows through the artist's hands and comes out a work of living art.

Now? There is a lot of ambiguity in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Things are still being worked out. There is no overall consensus among the theologians, and until there is, there will be no consensus in the arts. Art always reflects theology. It isn't there just to cover up the holes in the wall. It represents the soul of the culture. This is what's so frightening about our culture's art. Look at the art magazines — in art being produced now you see the culture of death. It's a new realism, but a realism of despair.

VISITOR: You've said religious art and architecture since the 1950s reflect a change in the theology of nature and grace. Explain that.

ARMSTRONG: Take removing the altar rail. That signifies removing the barrier between nature and grace. Now we're all "engraced." The priest used to be pontifex and mediator. He went up to the altar of God to offer the sin offering of Christ much as the high priest of Israel entered the Holy of Holies. Now we're all the People of God and the priest is just the presider.

And if we're all engraced, we don't need atonement. So the suffering crucifix is removed. Not that it is essential to our belief, but it does focus attention on the re-enactment on the altar of the passion and death of Our Lord — a sacred meal but also an atoning death, not just a communal lovefest.

And the statues of the saints are removed. In the theology of the Mystical Body, they were members who had power, and we could approach God through them. The new theology of the People of God removes the saints as intercessors. I think of a statue of the Prodigal Son that I know. A naked man is holding out his hand, but there is no forgiving Father. It's a statement of Teilhardian theology — man reaching out to the Omega Point.

I repeat: Art reflects theology. Real religious art is not meant just to be beautiful. It is meant to bring the beholder into the presence of the mystery portrayed.

VISITOR: What makes Catholic art Catholic?

ARMSTRONG: The same things that make a distinctive Catholic mind-set. First of all, it should be grounded in natural law. It doesn't have to have a specifically religious theme — there's such a thing as a Catholic landscape. But it should have a sense of hope and joie de vivre and love of the creation, as opposed to what is pessimistic or ugly, nihilistic, self-pitying, cloying. Even in depicting suffering there has to be nobility — the nobility of the suffering Lord.

VISITOR: Must a creator of religious art be a religious believer? Must you be a believing Catholic to do Catholic art?

ARMSTRONG: That's a thorny question. How about some of the High Renaissance artists? Some were complete rotters who did religious themes because princes of the Church hired them. Is it great art? Yes. Is it great religious art? No, because; it does not approach its subject from the point of view of faith. You do not look at it and say, "This will bring me closer to the divine mystery."

But yon can have a great work of art that is not Catholic and lousy art that is very Catholic. Probably one of the greatest sculptors of religious themes in this century is Jacob Epstein, a Jew. His sculptures are in many ways profound, but I do not believe they have the spark that might be implanted by a Catholic artist of the same genius. One of the greatest painters of the 20th century is Francis Bacon. His paintings are the true visions of a very profound man, but they are visions of hell — they make you shudder. This is the very opposite of Fra Angelico, a card-carrying saint and a card-carrying genius. But that's very rare. How many genius-artists and real saints are there?

VISITOR: Another statement of yours is that most modern art and architecture express a Gnostic spirituality. What does that mean?

ARMSTRONG: The secret knowledge of the Gnostics of old was that man is god. The artist is the best proponent of the Gnostic religion since he can express visions beyond the mundane. Catholicism, Judaism and Protestantism are the lowest and basest of religions. The true religion is the religion of the artists Abstract art was part of it, although abstraction is pretty much out today.

Some sort of Gnostic spirituality is the common denominator of everybody hanging in our modern museums except Picasso. Seances and spirits and moving the brushes, that sort of thing. Even Picasso said the artist is pontifex—priest — between this world and the numinous reality.

You'll be brainwashed in this if you go to art school now. Look at the catalogues — Yoga, Native American mysticism, a lot of Carl Jung. As art teachers, Roxolana and I have a hard time knowing what to recommend to gifted kids. The art schools are just going to corrupt you, morally, spiritually and aesthetically.

VISITOR: Tell me about your teaching. Whom do you teach, and what do you try to teach them?

ARMSTRONG: I teach boys in the third through sixth grades at a private Catholic boys' school called The Heights. They really do very nice things. You can't teach a person who doesn't have the visual sense to be a great artist, but you can teach him the theory and the rudiments — what colors go together, perspective, design. Sculpture is much more difficult, since very few people have the knack for seeing in three dimensions.

VISITOR: If they aren't going to. be artists, what are you trying to accomplish?

ARMSTRONG: The imagination is an integral part of the human personality that must be developed just as reason must be. I try to teach them to see outside themselves — to see the world as it is, not filtered through a TV screen.

I also teach art history. Discernment is very important — the true, the good and the beautiful are tied together. Once there was a Madonna of Chartres. Now there is a Madonna of MTV. These are two very different worldviews, with two very different effects on our concept of the good life.

I don't know if it's puritanical or rationalistic, or a combination of both, but until recently it was not considered the American Way to develop the arts in children. And now we're developing them from the wrong perspective, as self-expression rather than a means to seeing the world.

VISITOR: So what is the hope for the future?

ARMSTRONG: There are many young people who want to serve the Church through their art. They are starting to form guilds and societies at the grass roots. They know there's a difference between the art they're producing and what is acceptable in the galleries. We need images that fill the heart and mind with a love of reality, a love of the faith and hope for the future, both temporal and eternal.

When the theology finally jells — when it amalgamates with all that's good in the tradition — there will be a place for artists to express this vision, so that people's imaginations will once again be filled with visions of goodness and glory rather than death and despair.

But there has to bean institutional base. One of the biggest problems is educating the clergy. They are the ones who buy Church art, and they're all formed by the bishops' conference document, "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship," which is just awful. We need a genuine Catholic art center. I would like to see someone at the top levels of the hierarchy say, "This is serious, this is an apostolate of the Church that deserves to be supported."

Shaw is Our Sunday Visitor's Washington correspondent.

H. Reed Armstrong's web site is

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