Sacred Art: a Rebirth?

by Jeffrey Rubin


A look at the renewal of Catholic art, especially painting and sculpture, focusing on a few key contemporary artists.

Larger Work

Sursum Corda!



Publisher & Date

Foundation for Catholic Reform, Summer 1997

If you want to comprehend the utter poverty of Catholic art over the past few decades, try to imagine someone being converted by it.

Converts (including this writer) often tell how the rich artistic legacy of Catholicism—the magnificent cathedrals, the masterpieces of painting and sculpture, the soul-stirring music—helped draw them to the Church, convincing them that only the highest truth and goodness could inspire such beauty. Yet none that I know—not even the liberal converts of my acquaintance—has ever claimed to find a motive for faith in, say, '60s pop "hymns," or ski-lodge-style churches, or the childish banners and semi-abstract sculptures that are today's answer to the paintings, statuary and stained glass of yesterday.

Are future generations doomed to seek the beauty of the Faith entirely in the achievements of an increasingly distant past? Perhaps not. Some artists are rediscovering the treasures of Catholic artistic tradition, and making a conscious effort to incorporate and build on it in their own work. They are also rediscovering the traditional purposes of art—variously expressed, but invariably understood as revealing the glory and goodness of God, His creation and His heavenly kingdom.

For now, most such artists labor in relative poverty and obscurity; with few exceptions they are scorned by the art establishment and passed over in the awarding of commissions, grants and teaching jobs, even in Catholic contexts. They are therefore hard to find, and it took no small effort to locate the several profiled below.

But perhaps because of their struggles, their stories are almost as interesting as their work—a couple, incidentally, are converts themselves. And their views about art, refined in opposition to the reigning modernist orthodoxy, are surprisingly well-articulated for men and women whose preferred media of expression are paint, clay and stone rather than words.

The Sacred vs. the Satanic

In 1981, shortly after sculptor H. Reed Armstrong returned with his family to the United States after seventeen years in Spain, he approached the curators of the Salve Regina gallery at Catholic University about staging an exhibit of his work. And why not? Armstrong was a devout Catholic, he did most of his work on Catholic themes, and during his years abroad had built a reputation as one of the leading sculptors in Spain. Besides, after just a year back in the States, it was apparent to him that hardly anyone else here was doing Catholic art.

So it came as something of a shock when Armstrong received word that he had been rejected in favor of artists deemed "more worthy" than he. Like who? He got his answer that very day, when he saw a review in the Washington Post of an exhibit at Salve Regina Hall "dedicated to images of Shiva's linga"—in other words, explains Armstrong, "Hindu art celebrating the phallus."

Armstrong got another shock a few years later when he attended an exhibit at D.C.'s Hirshorn Museum The theme—the return of "Content" to modern art—seemed promising; he had gone to Spain in 1963 partly to escape the growing trend toward abstraction, which he detested. But the new "content," it turned out, was "absolutely diabolical"—quite literally. One painting, for instance was a lurid representation of "The Horned One."

That last experience was a watershed, Armstrong says, turning him from a "simple working artist" into something also of a historian and philosopher of art. He now sees the transition from abstractionism to Satanism in art as logical. "You could not have gone from Christian art to neo-pagan diabolical art without having had this interlude of abstract art in between to clean the slate."

The deeper historical and theological roots of the crisis, Armstrong says, extend at least as far back as the Protestant Reformation, with its revolt against the use of imagery as an "aid to faith." It is that traditional Catholic understanding of the purpose of art to which Armstrong now consciously adheres in his own work: "As a Catholic artist I have to bring us images that will bring us to this supernatural reality." His sculptures of saints, for instance, are a "mediation to a heavenly realm," intended to make real to viewers that the saints "are alive in Christ."

Armstrong very nearly had the opportunity to gain broad influence for his work and ideas in the mid-'80s, ironically at the scene of his earlier rejection: Catholic University. A large private bequest was made to set up a Magi Center for Sacred Art, and Armstrong was hired to serve as Director/Sculptor-in-Residence, with a charter to make it the center of a rebirth of Catholic art. But Armstrong's conservatism in matters both of faith and of art quickly earned him the enmity of University insiders. "There was a lot of hatred towards me in the art department; the theology department didn't like me very much, either." After a feminist-led putsch that left him without allies, he was sacked.

Unfortunately, that wasn't the end of Armstrong's suffering at the hands of the liberal Catholic establishment, although he has acquired a certain humor about it. For instance, he recalls offering a large sculpture of the Prodigal Son, commissioned by Catholic U. before his firing, to Jesuit-run Georgetown University afterward. But Georgetown president Timothy Healy, SJ, rejected the sculpture— which showed the son on his knees before his father—as "too authoritarian"; it now resides in the tiny back yard of Armstrong's home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Earlier, he was commissioned by Georgetown to do a life-sized statue of St. Joseph to replace one vandalized outside the Jesuits' on-campus residence. All but three of the Jesuits snubbed the inauguration ceremony. "I think they would have preferred Martin Luther King," laughs Armstrong.

Despite such humiliations, Armstrong's work continues to bring him growing notice—and a steadily rising number of commissions— especially from conservative Catholics. A recent career highlight was a showing of his work at the home of his friend Patrick Buchanan, where he unveiled a bust of the Catholic commentator, who has also praised Armstrong's work highly in his syndicated columns. Other boosters include Fr. John Hardon, SJ, and Jude Dougherty, dean of Catholic U.'s School of Philosophy. A bronze bust of Blessed Edith Stein, commissioned by the University of Notre Dame's Maritain Center, has had an additional cast installed at the seminary of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Still, at 59, Armstrong hasn't reached the level of artistic self-sufficiency he had achieved in Spain; he continues to supplement his income by teaching art and third grade at the Heights, a private Catholic academy in Potomac, Maryland, run by Opus Dei. Meanwhile, he lectures on art at such institutions as St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, Virginia's Christendom College and "wherever they will have me." And he still dreams of heading his own art program within a Catholic college or university, where he can pass on his hard-won wisdom about art and faith to a new generation.

Late Vocation

If Armstrong's program had been up and going in recent years, one of his prize students might well have been painter/sculptor Michael Janek. But in the desert of contemporary art training, where the usual marks of artistic talent—a gift for representational drawing, for instance—are sniffed at, and such basics as anatomy and perspective rarely taught, Janek, 29, has had to go it alone.

In fact, he almost missed discovering his artistic vocation altogether. Providentially, he found it while trying to discern another possible vocation—as a priest. In 1992-93, as a novice at the Fraternity of St. Peter's seminary in Wigratzbad, Germany, Janek marveled at the exquisite paintings and sculptures that fill the Bavarian region's beautiful Baroque-style churches. "I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the churches; I thought, I have to try it." An avid practitioner of drawing since childhood, he had attempted only one painting, at age 14, but decided to try the brushes again during his recreation time. The result was a beautiful Madonna and Child, all the more remarkable for being the first adult effort of a self-taught painter.

Janek did not return to the seminary—mainly due to difficulties in studying in a foreign language, he says—but Fraternity officials remembered his talents when the time came to renovate the chapel of their newly acquired facility in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. Janek ended up directing the artistic side of the renovation, and contributed an original painting of the Crucifixion to go above the altar, and the trompe l'oeil marbling on the chapel's plaster columns.

Janek works slowly—he finds life in the secular world less conducive to producing religious art, the only kind that interests him—and so his body of work remains small. But it displays a remarkable range of talent; few artists, even those with the formal training he lacks, are capable of moving between painting and sculpture with such ease.

A soft-spoken man, Janek is nonetheless blunt about the state of contemporary sacred art. "It lacks objective beauty—it's ugly. Most often it just expresses confusion." That flaw is "a reflection of the state of the Church" since Vatican II. Moreover, "it doesn't lift the soul to sentiments of piety or anything; it just depresses."

Stimulating such "sentiments of piety" is what Janek sees as the proper function of sacred art; in that role it must work hand in hand with architecture, liturgy, music, even vestment design. "The best environment for this to happen," he says, "is the traditional Mass"—so Janek's ambition is to get more commissions like the Fraternity chapel. For now, he concedes, that may seem unrealistic, but with the rapid growth of the Latin Mass movement, the future still looks bright to this gifted young artist.

An Artistic Rebirth

Janek points out that Catholic sacred art has always been "a powerful tool of conversion." Sometimes it works that way on artists themselves—and no better illustration can be found than the example of sculptor Frederick Hart.

Hart, 53, is the best known of the group profiled here, having first come to the nation's attention in 1974, when he won an international competition to design the sculptural program for the west facade of the Washington National Cathedral— three life-size stone statues including Sts. Peter and Paul, and three heroic relief panels representing phases of the Creation. A decade later he won more fame when his "Three Soldiers" was installed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and dedicated by Ronald Reagan.

Hart has always worked outside the modern art mainstream. In the '60s, when other sculptors were welding junk-metal abstractions, he served apprenticeships with the likes of Felix de Weldon, sculptor of the famous Iwo Jima Memorial. But it was the National Cathedral commission that drew him deeper into the tradition of Western religious art—and ultimately to the Faith. As he studied the works of his great precursors in cathedral sculpture, and the theology they expressed, he found himself on the road to belief.

Three years later he became a Roman Catholic. Why not an Episcopalian? (The National Cathedral is Episcopal.) "When you get into any Christian doctrine, once you do more than scrape the surface, you get back into the Roman Catholic Church." He was soon appointed to the Sacred Arts Commission for the Archdiocese of Washington, and in 1979 created the processional cross for Pope John Paul II's historic Mass on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Hart has used his celebrity to inveigh against the corrupt moral and aesthetic standards that guide most modern art, and to propound his alternative vision for a "great rebirth of art." That rebirth must begin, Hart says, by rediscovering and renewing the "discarded axioms" and forgotten standards of past art—such as that "ancient trinity of truth, beauty and goodness" and the idea of art as "service to something it holds in greater esteem than itself." And it must go along with an overall renewal of the moral and spiritual foundations of Western civilization itself.

As for Christian art in particular, Hart believes contemporary artists make a fundamental mistake by trying to express traditional Christianity in modernist styles. "I think they're to a large extent mutually exclusive; and to try to do that is an impossible task."

At best the results, as seen in many contemporary churches, are "weak," like an "old lady in mini-skirts." The reason? "Modernism is fundamentally antagonistic towards any kind of tradition or any kind of faith with a capital F."

Search for Truth

A self-described "wayward Congregationalist," Kirk St. Maur, who now attends Anglican services, suspects he may yet become a Roman Catholic. And it was art that nudged him along this path.

A native of Quincy, Illinois, St. Maur attended Minnesota's Carleton College in the late '60s and early '70s. By then, even Midwestern art departments like Carleton's were thoroughly dominated by abstractionists, which for a while suited St. Maur, then very much a child of the times, just fine. But towards graduation he underwent a "crisis." "Modern art seemed vacuous," he says. And too easy for someone with real gifts: "I felt like I was playing checkers and I wanted to play chess."

So St. Maur applied to some graduate art programs that offered more traditional training—and the next fall went to Florence to study at the Villa Chifanoia, the graduate art school of Illinois-based Rosary College. He would remain in Florence for more than a dozen years, also studying at the exclusive Simi Studio and the world-famous Florence Academy. His teachers included some of the finest artists in Italy, among them the renowned Vatican sculptor Enrico Manfrini, who had designed the private receiving chamber of Pope Paul VI and worked on important cathedrals around the world.

Then, in the late '70s, St. Maur won an international competition to do a heroic-sized statue of St. Michael the Archangel for the Church of San Michele in Buriano, Italy. Installed with a special blessing from Paul VI, the statue won St. Maur wide acclaim and has since been commissioned for other sites as well.

It also helped win him important commissions when he returned to the States in the early '80s, where he eventually re-settled in Quincy. One major commission was for Illinois' largest state park, Pere Marquette, named for Jacques Marquette, the French Jesuit explorer and missionary to the American Indians.

Despite the park's namesake, the politically correct bureaucrats administering the grant at first didn't want a statue of Marquette. "If the state had had its way, you would have had some abstract piece of junk out there, bright orange," laughs St. Maur. "Or perhaps an Indian." But St. Maur steered them into commemorating Marquette himself—partly, he chuckles, because "I thought it would be fun to make the state pay for religious art."

St. Maur sees all his art as religious in some sense; even when his subjects are from nature he sees himself as "working in imitation of God." But views like that, and his representational style itself, all but disqualify him for most teaching jobs in college art programs, which are still dominated by modernists, as are most funding agencies. So while he does manage to support himself as a sculptor, he does so "barely"—he's more or less resigned to being unable to marry and support a family. His struggle has its benefits, though, turning his mind from worldly matters like success and more to matters of the Faith. Besides, he was prepared for difficulties when he decided to become an artist. "I knew it was kind of like entering the priesthood."

Sermons in Stone

Someone who knows well the similarities—and distinctions—between the life of the artist and the priest is Fr. Anthony Brankin, who is both.

Pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Chicago's southside, Fr. Brankin, 47, is also a sculptor, painter and craftsman whose statuary and other religious artwork—including crucifixes. Stations of the Cross and sacred vessels—can be seen in parishes and private collections around the nation. His only formal training came when he was already a priest: from 1981 to 1983, while studying theology and history in Rome, he also took a full load of courses at Rome's Academy of Fine Arts.

Father Brankin's artistic style and philosophy—like his taste in liturgy—are squarely in the old Catholic tradition. Art in general, he says, "should be celebratory of Creation"; sacred art in particular should "mediate the things of God." The Reformation's attack on this theology of sacramental mediation, he says, led to the divorce of art first from faith, and eventually from reality altogether.

The Catholic arts survived so long as the artists themselves maintained the proper understanding of their function. Unfortunately, says Brankin, that no longer holds. Modern approaches to church art and architecture derive more from contemporary abstractionism and minimalism than from the classical Western tradition.

Fr. Brankin lives in isolation from the art world, which he likes just fine. Commissions come through word of mouth. "Normal people look at it and like it, and I'll be commissioned on that basis." It vexes him how the art establishment has intimidated ordinary people into believing that they don't understand art; that indeed, the artist is a kind of Gnostic priest whose work is meant only for the elect. His own aims are less pretentious: "I'm trying to communicate something to people"— specifically his faith, which for this priest can't all be contained in a sermon.

Treasures of Tradition

"Oh, you know, all roads lead to Rome," Gloria Thomas says with a laugh, answering the tough but inevitable question of how she, raised Southern Baptist, eventually became a traditional Catholic. For Thomas, 51, the road was full of detours, but the great Catholic art of the ages seems to have helped provide direction.

One of Thomas' most vivid childhood memories is of poring over a family Bible illustrated with Renaissance paintings of biblical scenes. "I was convinced that those pictures were miracles." No doubt they were; if nothing else they helped inspire her own artistic vocation, which brought her from her native Midwest to New York's Queens College in 1968 to pursue a Master of Fine Arts.

But the MFA program turned out to be "totally crazy...the object was not to produce artists; it was to produce people who had an ideology about art." At bottom, she believes, the students were being taught "to carry forth the evolutionist program that the world was not created, but was the result of random accidents; and that therefore the creative act in human beings is the same—that it comes from some unintended random discharge." Which is what most of her fellows' work looked like.

She left after only two years, without getting her degree, and embarked on a religious quest that began with an urging to "give myself to God." Deeply confused by the turbulent times, she first tried to become a Buddhist, but was told by her chosen guru (from New Jersey) that conversion wasn't part of that religion. "I was shocked; I thought all religions must have the salvation clause, where God would help you. I wanted God to help me."

So she returned to her Baptist beginnings: reading the Bible. Then "I started shopping around"—first in a Quaker church; later in the Episcopal; finally, in 1978, arriving in Rome. Ironically, it was her predilection for Scripture that made the difference.

"When I got hold of the Baltimore Catechism, and found the Scriptural roots of the dogmas, and read the exegesis of that Scripture—the Church Fathers and the Tradition of the Church—1 found it absolutely compelling intellectually."

Today, Thomas reads much of that exegesis in the Latin originals—she learned the language during several years spent in a Benedictine convent, trying to discern if she had a religious vocation (she didn't). Her home library is filled with such classics of the Faith as the works of St. Jerome and "all the exegesis of Cornelius a Lapide"—the cast-offs of Catholic seminary and university libraries.

Her library is also filled with other cast-offs: book after book containing reproductions of "practically every notable work of art in the world"— especially of the Western religious tradition. What chiefly astonishes and repels her about contemporary art is that it so totally repudiates the past. "It's as though nobody's ever seen any of this."

Thomas' art, however, is quite the opposite. "I'll use anything from anytime from anywhere," she explains. And indeed, her paintings—invariably on Christian themes—recall virtually the entire history of Western art: elements of the Byzantine, High Middle Age and Renaissance traditions, among others, co-exist with one another and even with contemporary references (a technique also used by Christian artists of the past). The effect is one of a continual remembering and renewal, of uniting past and present under the aspect of eternity.

Thomas seems baffled that her fellow contemporary artists would repudiate such riches. She once wrote, for a catalogue, a brief parable that explains her approach to her work, and which could also apply to the other artists profiled here:

I crossed a desert and came to a magnificent city all deserted. As I wandered through mansion and palace I heard someone say, "Take anything you want; take everything. These are the treasures of tradition abandoned."


Reed Armstrong
13 Sussex Rd.
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Michael Janek
9734 150A St.
Surrey, British Columbia

Frederick Hart
14120 Hume Rd.
Hume, VA 22639

Kirk St. Maur
The Stables' Studios
Payson, IL 62360

Fr. Anthony Brankin
St. Thomas More Church
2825 W. 81 St.
Chicago, IL 60652

Gloria Thomas
154 Kentucky Ave., #3
Lexington, KY 40502

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