The Redemption of Catholic Art

by Dr. Benjamin D. Wiker


Catholic artist James Langley reflects, in an interview with Benjamin Wiker, on the state of Catholic art today, the apostolate of the Catholic artist, and how we can recover an aesthetic that represents truth and beauty. Langley sums up by saying, "A clear assessment of the state of Catholic culture today reveals the presence of a kind of iconoclasm in which the image of God's real presence has been obscured and the sacramental significance of true sacred art has been lost. The loss of this majestic image of Christ the Risen Lord, in which the moral and spiritual dimensions are integrated with aesthetic beauty, corresponds to a loss of religious sensibility throughout culture."

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, November 2005

Artist James Langley has spent a decade painting landscapes where Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School made his beginning: in the sleepy mill town of Steubenville along the banks of the Ohio River. He studied the liberal arts at Thomas Aquinas College and Thomas More College Rome Program, and fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design and the New York Academy of Art. Currently teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design, Langley has also taught fine arts at Franciscan University of Steubenville and lectured at Notre Dame University, Brown University, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Langley paintings in private collections and corporate buildings include commissions for allegorical and religious themes. His work has been chosen for exhibit by the American Watercolor Society, the Institute of Classical Architecture, and the National Civic Art Society. Recent exhibitions include: James Langley: A Decade of Painting at the Butler Institute of American Art; Contemplating the Sacred: Religious Works of Contemporary Artists at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC; and Reconquering Sacred Space, an international juried group show at Palazzo Valentini in Rome.

When not teaching and being present to his wife and seven children, Langley is currently engaged in decorative painting for the Classical Galleries by Thomas Gordon Smith Architects in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

What is your assessment of the state of Catholic art today?

Langley: To be quite frank, the void of beauty in the Divine Liturgy, in the House of God, and in Catholic culture is all too commonplace. And that's not simply a subjective judgment. We are suffering a true spiritual loss of great consequence — a loss that is all the more appalling when contemporary art is compared with the magnificent artistic patrimony inspired by the faith.

The great loss becomes evident when we consider the mysterious and sacramental character of beautiful religious art, architecture, and music. True religious art has the power to stir the deepest longings of the human heart for God. Artistic beauty is a sign of God's presence on Earth and represents the first fruits of a return to God freely given as an offering of praise and thanksgiving, worship, and adoration. Simply put, Catholic art today is salt that has lost its savor.

Salt without savor? Please explain.

Langley: Good Catholic art is, to say the least, very scarce in our time. Most of what we see is marked by a notable lack of quality. Are we to doubt the evidence of our senses when we visit all too many churches built over the past fifty years? The artless and utilitarian character of objects associated with worship is immediately obvious. That ugliness not only reflects poorly upon the willingness of Catholics to form culture in a manner consistent with the Gospel we preach, but it demonstrates a crisis of faith.

It is most unfortunate that we Catholics have allowed the cultural expression of our faith to descend into such banality. The Church has neglected her vocation to lead the culture to Christ by filling it with the beauty of his face. We have rich homes fitted with every comfort and convenience but our churches and public places are often very poor in beauty. At best, we seem to have become content with a cheap and shallow beauty of a sort that may lift the emotions but does not lift the soul to God.

Sadly, many are quite content with the current situation. They believe that the presence or lack of beauty in worship and in daily life is a relatively trivial affair, something of altogether secondary importance as compared to the serious moral, economic and political crises of the day. Adding to this, is a kind of ingrained cultural utilitarianism that is offended — much like Judas! — by what it perceives as the "conspicuous waste" represented by the investment in a higher standard of sacred art for the Church. They believe they are taking the moral high road by saying, "It could have been spent on the needy!" We must never forget that Catholic art, architecture, and music are all, in their own way, that precious perfume poured out by Mary, sister of Lazarus, upon the head of Jesus.

You say that this represents a crisis of faith. How does bad art point to a crisis of faith?

Langley: "Bad art" points to a crisis of faith to the extent that it betrays an inability to see God in his creation and an unwillingness to glorify him in the work of our hands. Bad art cheats God of the honor due him and reflects a distorted view of the Incarnation and of the natural world itself. When our aesthetic sense is cheapened, our art cannot bear full witness to an authentic encounter with Christ.

A clear assessment of the state of Catholic culture today reveals the presence of a kind of iconoclasm in which the image of God's real presence has been obscured and the sacramental significance of true sacred art has been lost. The loss of this majestic image of Christ the Risen Lord, in which the moral and spiritual dimensions are integrated with aesthetic beauty, corresponds to a loss of religious sensibility throughout culture.

By "iconoclasm," you mean — at least, in part — a rejection of the attempt to express eternal, spiritual truths and realities in material art forms?

Langley: Yes, our senses have been closed to the transcendence of faith. The new iconoclasm has excluded God from our field of vision by suppressing the art and the time-honored images that would open our eyes to an interior vision of the Lord. This "opening of our eyes" is an opening up of the senses to the full significance and sacramental presence of the Incarnation. A rebirth of authentic sacred art has a vital and unfulfilled role to play in the long anticipated renewal of both Liturgy and culture that has yet to follow the epoch?making events of the Second Vatican Council.

I seem to remember the Pope saying something to that effect.

Langley: Cardinal Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — addressed this very point in a chapter titled "On the Question of Images" in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000). He argued that "cultural abstinence" from sacred images has "led to a new iconoclasm, which has frequently been regarded as virtually mandated by the Second Vatican Council." Of course, the Second Vatican Council did nothing of the sort. As he goes on to say, "The destruction of images" after the Council "eliminated a lot of kitsch and unworthy art, but ultimately it left a void, the wretchedness of which we are now experiencing in a truly acute way."

We need to fill this void. It creates a blindness of the spirit that afflicts both the Church and contemporary man. To do so, we need, as the Pope said, "an affirmation of the fundamental importance and theological status of the image in the Church."

If iconoclasm leads to spiritual blindness, then clearly good art must be iconic?

Langley: Yes, that is to say, all good art is iconic in that it reflects the Vera Icon, which is the Image of God. As tradition tells us, this image, not made by human hands, was granted St. Veronica in response to her unique role in the Divine Liturgy on Good Friday, wiping the face of Christ in his agony. Artists — who serve the good of the Church by offering sacramental works of skill and beauty that participate in the reality of what they depict — perform the office of Veronica in assuaging the disfigured face of God.

What criteria should guide the artist in this task?

Langley: There are two aspects of which artists must be mindful in order to reflect what is transcendent in the work of their hands. The first criterion is that the artwork has an actual physical beauty. The second is that this physical beauty be chastened so that it can speak to us of sacred things.

Traditional art is guided by an intuitive conviction that the beauty of the human body, the landscape, and the entire world of creatures are all signs that creation is inherently and deeply meaningful. The experience of beauty — rooted in the evidence of purposeful order in nature — conveys a clear intimation of a higher world and gives rise to a language of the sacred. The fact that even pagan cultures realize this insight in no way diminishes its basic importance for the Christian artist.

So the purpose of the artist is to respond to that beauty, to see deeply into that transcendent beauty, and represent it in his work?

Langley: Exactly so. The primordial work of the artist is to make visible through the beauty inherent in material things, a higher invisible reality that would otherwise remain hidden. The understanding of the artist as one who provides a passage for the mind to move in contemplation between the worlds of sense and spirit imparts a noble character to even the most humble decoration.

As an artist, what fascinates me in particular is the truly mysterious way in which physical beauty speaks of the spiritual world, and therefore can become, through art, an evocation of eternity and an emblem of God. But artists must learn to see this mystery in beauty. Fostering responsiveness to beauty nurtures the ability "to read deeply into the bosom of nature." This forms the moral and aesthetic sensibility of the artist himself, and hence, what he makes.

And then the artwork itself forms the moral and aesthetic sensibilities of those who view it?

Langley: Absolutely. We can see the importance, then, of the proper representation of the human figure. In today's culture we are subject to an ever more aggressive coarsening of sensibility with regard to the body. The antidote to this vulgarity is to commission real artists to witness a true theology of the human body in their artwork.

To turn back a bit, by criticizing much of contemporary Catholic art as banal and ugly you mean that, like much of modern art, it turns away from what is real, transcendent, and beautiful, to what is abstract, mundane, and ugly?

Langley: It does. As Pope John Paul II wrote in his letter to artists; "This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair." Unfortunately, having exchanged classical standards of beauty for false "artistic" criteria such as "originality," "updating," "multiculturalism," or "Spirit of Vatican II," Catholics all too easily and often throw away their own rich cultural identity for a mess of pottage.

In practice the Church frequently continues to patronize a kind of art that acts as a block rather than a bridge to religious experience. Bishops frequently undermine their own authority, preferring to defer their responsibility to "experts" trained in an anti-transcendent, modern aesthetic.

Should the Church then simply reject modern art?

Langley: The Church is not opposed to new forms but we should recognize that the possibilities for modernist idioms are extremely limited if not antithetical to faith. Providing a splendid and authoritative model for a new approach to building the City of God, architect Thomas Gordon Smith has called on the Church to "follow recognizable models of holiness and transcendence that seamlessly embody the continuity of her own living tradition of two thousand years." The materials, methods, and aesthetic assumptions of modernism are often inherently opposed to the form and content of true worship, understandably so, since they all too often originated in dehumanized, nihilistic, and woefully individualistic philosophies.

Perhaps you could spell out some of that a bit more. How does modern art tend to be individualistic, and how does that contradict the spirit of true worship?

Langley: All the great artists have been shaped by tradition rather than by any conviction of their own authority to warp or abandon that tradition. The genius of traditional art is not based in the notion of originality or any therapeutic need for self-expression; rather it exists in the magnanimous spirit of conforming oneself to a pattern given by an authority higher than the individual.

It is only when the artist places himself within the historical and cultural continuity of a common human experience that he can have the opportunity to communicate perennial and universal truths of the human condition across time and place. For Catholic artists, tradition carries a special authority because they are responsible to pass on the revealed truth about Jesus Christ, derived from a common point of origin in the memory of "what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have touched . . . " as it says in 1 John 1:1.

The ultimate point of reference for the Christian artist is neither contemporary culture nor one's self, but rather the discovery of beauty in the encounter with Christ. Proceeding from that experience of the radiance of the God-Man as clothed in the Divine Liturgy, the Catholic approach to the making of religious art is grounded in the common experience of a received tradition to which one's own contribution is humbly added. To accept that tradition implies a study and appreciation of how other artists have seen the image of God.

Art forms that hold originality and self-expression as paramount begin with a disordered understanding of the freedom of the children of God. As such they risk producing art that distorts and is literally irrelevant to the Christian experience.

Artistic styles in modern times seem to come and go like fashions in clothing and hairstyles — so that looking at much Catholic art in recent decades is like looking at embarrassing high school yearbook photos.

Langley: All too true! We have to have discerning spirits ourselves to test the "spirit" of artistic trends and styles. To question an artistic style is to test its formative spirit. We should be aware when it flows from and expresses the beauty of our vocational identity and when it is alien, or degrading, or merely a fad.

Be aware, however, that the novelty of much contemporary art is premised upon a fallacy. I am referring to the unexamined notion that stipulates "modern solutions for modern needs." The implication is that the artists of every era must forge a new artistic idiom along with new materials and methods in order to keep pace with the culture's continual attempts to "recreate" humanity, to remold it according to some new image.

This is a ridiculous assumption — that modern man somehow differs significantly from ancient or medieval man as man, and in his need for God. The result of this assumption is seen in the utter triviality of much contemporary art, that treats the unchanging realities of life as though they were inconsequential and constantly in flux.

It is no accident that such egocentric concepts of self-creation and self-realization, which stress complete originality, produce an art without roots. As a consequence, much recent art tends to be trendy, shallow, and short on skill, lacking in quality, and altogether dismissive of the Imago Dei.

The Catholic artist, then, has exactly the opposite task — to present the very deepest realities, to turn us toward what is of the greatest consequence, to what is everlasting not ephemeral, to Christ himself?

Langley: Well said! In doing so, all genuine religious art approaches the condition of a sacrament. It becomes an outward sign of an inward grace. Therefore the Catholic artist must exercise skill and judgment in the making of objects that will be associated with the mind of the Church. This is what the painter Blessed Fra Angelico was getting at when he reputedly said: "To paint Christ one must live Christ." Sacred art in both its devotional and its liturgical aspects lends expression to the prayer of Christ Himself in offering Himself to the Father, thus restoring a true perspective of what it means to be in communion with God.

So we can understand all of this more clearly, could we take a look at one of your works, the Holy Family triptych, now in a chapel used for the spiritual formation of young men at the Opus Dei headquarters in New York City? This triptych focuses, not on the miraculous or extraordinary, but on the very ordinary aspects of Jesus' life: Mary nursing Jesus on the flight to Egypt in the first panel, Jesus at work in St. Joseph's shop in the central panel, and the death of St. Joseph in the final panel. Is there something extraordinary, something transcendent, hidden in these ordinary things?

Langley: Yes, the painting attempts to accurately embody some aspects of the spirituality of the insightful St. Josemaria Escriva (who as a patron of artists is also someone to admire and imitate). The painting as a whole reveals the intimacy and normalcy of familial relationships that are entirely ordinary but bear a greater significance. It is an archetypal image of true communal life, which is at the same time a likeness of the communion of Persons in the Trinity. It is meant to remind us that the place and means of our redemption are to be found immediately, in our present circumstance, in the ordinary activities of our daily lives.

We see in this central panel, Mary offering a cup of water to her husband and son. What aspects of the spiritual dimension does this quite ordinary act reveal?

Langley: That simple gesture of compassion in giving a cup of water is ordinary, but at the same time emblematic of the binding of oneself in service to others. It also represents the mercy that slakes the thirst of God. The painting thus communicates on a number of levels, embodying the spiritual dimension, but without any overt or conventional religious symbolism. Rather, the spiritual dimension is shown to be rooted in the apparent naturalness of the ordinary.

In this regard, we also note that the painting is occasioned by the Virgin's interruption of the men at work with the invitation to drink and rest. Jesus is represented as busy about Joseph's business and yet also as responsive to the compassionate and solicitous presence of his Mother. He exemplifies "The Worker" as a young man making the rough wood plane, hidden in the enclosure of the shop, overseen by St. Joseph's guiding presence as he toils. The viewer's eye and mind are therefore brought to dwell upon this hidden moment in the life of the Lord in relation to all that shall follow as he enters into his public life.

What of the left and right panels?

Langley: With all three panels we have a clear sequential unfolding of a classical theme: "the three ages of man" in which infancy, youth, and death are portrayed in the life of this archetype of the Family. Anchoring the image on both left and right is a matriarchal presence. In "Rest on the Flight into Egypt" the infant Jesus takes nourishment from his mother's flesh while the father exerts his providence for them. The painting is a passage into the mystery of being at home in God's plan while also experiencing homelessness; it expresses the paradox of spiritual wealth in the midst of utter poverty and of the Creator's willed dependency upon the creature.

On the right panel is the "Death of St. Joseph." Here we have the confrontation with the mortality of those we love and with God's apparent refusal to act when only God can. The composition enables us to reflect upon Joseph as we also ponder the approaching hour of our own death. The painting also turns upon the unity of the three persons, perfected in a moment that will reshape the life of Jesus from a private to a public one, and prefigure a future death in which the mother will face the silence of God alone.

On the allegorical and liturgical level we begin to see the work of his "hidden years" as part of a larger design, so identified is he with the necessities of our human condition. The composition is therefore intended to expand and sustain our meditation upon the reality of his Incarnation, upon the love of God for our humanity, especially in all of our unadorned and ordinary moments of dependency and toil and death.

But also, it turns us to reflect more deeply on the life of Christ as well?

Langley: Yes, that is really the central point giving meaning to all the rest. For just as the Eucharist appears indistinguishable from ordinary bread, so the painting is about the mystery of the God who tabernacles himself in our flesh, and becomes indistinguishable from an ordinary man. The Christ-centered meditation is deepened by placement of the painting at the very center of the altar with its tabernacle and ivory crucifix. You'll note that the outstretched arms of the Corpus overlap the lower center of the painting and complete the circle of movement uniting the figures.

This meditation on the real presence of Christ in familial life is not intended to convey any particular moral, but rather a way of being. The painting is an image of life hidden in Christ, such that ordinary life and work, however simple, become material for our own offertory at Mass. What we bring to the altar where this painting stands is contained in the cup Mary offers to Jesus in response to his thirst. Given this renewed understanding we enter and begin to live the Divine Liturgy.

And so, your art truly does focus on the Mass, on Christ himself, and not on the mere expression of your talent?

Langley: I deeply believe that any exercise of creativity that does not at least implicitly perceive the Creator reduces the artist to absurdity. It is not that my art is always explicitly sacred or devotional. Art can still have profound religious significance without being specifically devotional art for private prayer or sacred art for public liturgy. I trust that you would much rather have me paint a true picture of my dog than to paint a false picture of the Creator of my dog! However, we must be clear that talent or inspiration is not something we can presume to have or measure, since it is after all something not chosen but given; a "gift," as they say, a gift to be given back to the Creator.

Most of us, of course, are not artists. How can we contribute to this important effort to bring beauty back into Catholic culture?

Langley: We whose vision is informed by faith have today a unique historic opportunity to reinvigorate art and give compelling new expression to the Catholic experience. We are fortunate to have a generation of highly trained and expertly skilled Catholic artists and architects, whose talents are almost completely unemployed, undirected, and unrepresented by the Catholic Church — and this, at a time when she is in particular need of their service.

On this question of the renewal of art in our time we can look to Benedict XVI who reminds us, "Before all things it requires the gift of a new kind of seeing. And so it would be worth our while to regain a faith that sees. Wherever that exists, art finds its proper expression." We can contribute to this proper artistic expression of the faith by helping to create a climate that is receptive and appreciative of fine religious art. Cultural abstinence is not a Christian option. As Saint John Vianney reminds, "For God, nothing is too costly or too beautiful."

James Langley's work may be viewed at

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