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Some Reflections upon Religious Art

by Jacques Maritain


This essay is Appendix II taken from Art and Scholasticism and Other Essays by Jacques Maritain.

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Art and Scholasticism with Other Essays

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St. Dominic's Press, Ditchling, Sussex, 1947

Allow me to put before you to-day some very short and simple reflections. You will, no doubt, consider them too simple—but I hope they are inspired by common sense. What I should like to examine with you very rapidly is the present state of relations between Catholic artists and the Catholic public. We must first observe that there is in general mutual dissatisfaction; and, as in family quarrels, we must no doubt say that there are "faults on both sides," that each party has good grounds for complaint.

Everything that can be has been said on what is called the art of St. Sulpice (the term is ill chosen, and very insulting to an estimable Parisian parish, the more so because the plague is world-wide); on the devilish ugliness, an offence to God and much more harmful than is generally believed to the spread of religion, of the great bulk of contemporary objects manufactured for the decoration of churches; on the kind of bitter contempt still prevalent, in some "respectable" circles, for artists and poets; lastly on the lack of taste and artistic education which arouses an earnest desire for the establishment in seminaries of such courses of esthetics or the history of art as H.H. Pius XI had, before his elevation to the Pontificate, organized at Milan.

Yes, indeed: but there are on the other hand many parish priests sincerely desirous of fulfilling the wish of Pius X, "to make their people pray upon beauty," and anxious to rid their churches of the products belched out of the cellars of religious commerce. Many of these, it must be candidly admitted, are far from satisfied with what is offered to them in the name of modern art. I am clearly not referring to a few distinguished works, but to the average produced in the last few years. Now affection for one's friends; should not prevent one—rather the opposite—from noticing what may still be lacking in an effort which in other respects commands our heartiest admiration. Such parish priests, I say, are often right, for their business undoubtedly is not to patronize the Fine Arts, but to give the faithful what answers their spiritual needs, what really can be of use to the religious life of a Christian community. We sometimes see them driven back in despair on the art of St. Sulpice. And why? Because these products of commercial manufacture, when they are not too heartbreaking, have at any rate the advantage of being absolutely indeterminate, so colorless, so devoid of significance that they can be looked at without being seen, and receive our own feelings, whereas some modern works, especially the most tortured and impassioned, claim to impose upon us by violence in their crude state, and as subjectively as may be, the individual emotions of the artist himself. And it is an intolerable nuisance in saying one's prayers, instead of finding oneself before a representation of Our Lord or some Saint, to receive full in the chest, with the force of a blow, the religious sensibility of Mr. So-and-So.

The difficulties of the present day, to tell the truth, arise from deepset causes and, ultimately, from the crisis affecting our whole civilization. Religious art is not a thing which can be isolated from art simply, from the general artistic movement of an age: confine it, and it becomes corrupted, its expression a dead letter. On the other hand the art of a period carries with it all the intellectual and spiritual stuff which constitutes the life of the period; and in spite of whatever rare and superior qualities contemporary art may possess in the order of sensibility, virtue and invention, the spirituality it conveys is not infrequently poor indeed and sometimes very corrupt.

This is the reason why Christian artists are faced by very grave difficulties. They must on the one hand reaccustom the faithful to beauty, whose taste has been spoiled for more than a century past—and we must not forget that, given the purpose it is intended to serve, religious art, as prescribed by Urban VIII on March 15, 1642, and the canons of the Council of Trent, must not have an "unwonted" character—and so it is a question of destroying bad aesthetic habits, while re-establishing one good one—no easy task. On the other hand, to recover a really live religious art, it is the whole of modern art that they have to elevate, spiritualize, and lead to the feet of God—and that is not an easy task. Truly by that very fact the Christian artist, if he have the genius, is in a privileged position to profit by the whole modern effort.

What is the upshot of all this? It is quite clear that the Catholic public would fall short of an essential duty of special urgency if it failed to understand the capital importance of the task undertaken with admirable generosity by so many artists working to reintroduce sensible beauty into the House of God, if it did not effectively support them, and if, even when not approving of any particular work, it did not surround them with a fraternal sympathy. But it is also plain that Catholic artists on their side ought to make an effort to understand the legitimate needs of the faithful, for whose common good they are working, and courageously take account of the special conditions and exigencies of the task to which they are devoting themselves.

But, I may be asked, cannot some of these conditions be stated ? I think, at all events, that a few self-evident elementary truths concerning religious art can be discerned which, if universally recognized, would undoubtedly facilitate an understanding between the public and artists. Allow me, if you please, to state some on which, I fancy, all here are agreed, and which are commonly admitted by all our friends.

First Observation. There is no style peculiar to religious art, there is no religious technique. Anyone who believes in the existence of a religious technique is on the high road to Beuron. If it is true that not all styles are alike suited to sacred art, it is still more true that sacred art, as I said a moment ago, cannot isolate itself, that it must, at all times, following the example of God Himself who speaks the language of men, assume, the while exalting them from within, every means and every form of technical vitality, so to speak, placed at its disposal by the contemporary generation. (From this point of view, it may be parenthetically observed, it does not seem at all necessary that Christian artists, especially such as have not attained to full possession of their craft, should work in sacred art exclusively. Let them begin by doing still-life studies, accustom themselves to discovering a religious significance in the inevitable apples, jam-jar, pipe and mandolin.)

There are nevertheless two conditions, I think, in the technical order necessary to religious art as such, granted its special object and the purpose it is intended to serve.

1. It must be intelligible. For it is there above all for the instruction of the people, it is a theology in graphic representation. An unintelligible, obscure, Mallarmean religious art is about as absurd as a house without a staircase or a cathedral without a porch.

2. The work must be finished. I do not mean finished in the academic sense, but in the most material and humble meaning of the word. It is in the highest degree fitting that nothing shall enter the house of God but work which is well done, accomplished, clean, permanent and honest. This must clearly be understood according to the peculiar style of the work and the means taken to achieve it, but the ease with which in our day artists are satisfied with themselves compels me to insist upon this point.

Second Observation. Sacred art is in a state of absolute dependence upon theological wisdom. There is manifested in the figures it sets before our eyes something far above all our human art, divine Truth itself, the treasure of light purchased for us by the blood of Christ. For this reason chiefly, because the sovereign interests of the Faith are at stake in the matter, the Church exercises its authority and magistracy over sacred art. I mentioned a moment ago the decree of Urban VIII of March 15, 1642, and the enactment of the 25th session of the Council of Trent. There are other instances. On June 11, 1623, the Congregation of Rites prohibited a crucifix representing Christ with arms updrawn. On September 11, 1670, a decree of the Holy Office forbade the making of crucifixes "in such a vulgar and artless way, in such an indecent attitude, with features so tortured with grief as to provoke disgust rather than pious regard." And you are aware that in March, 1921, the Holy Office forbade the exhibition in churches of certain works by the Flemish painter Servaes.

Here is a point deserving all our attention. Servaes is a painter of very considerable talent, a Christian full of faith, and one can only speak of his character with respect and friendly feeling. I am happy to bear witness to it here. The Stations of the Cross which raised such a violent commotion in Belgium stirred deep religious emotions in certain souls, nay, brought about conversions. The work in itself is beautiful and worthy of admiration. Nevertheless the Church condemned it, and it is never difficult, even when appearances and human methods of procedure disconcert us, to understand the wisdom and the excellent reasons behind the decisions of the Church. In spite of himself, assuredly, and not in his soul but in his work, the painter, fascinated by the Ego sum vermis et non homo of Isaias and conceiving his Via Crucis as the very dizziness of grief, found himself falsifying certain theological truths of capital importance—above all the truth that the sufferings, like the death of Our Lord, were essentially voluntary, and that it was a divine Person who suffered the most appalling human suffering: the pain and agony of His Humanity were handled by the Word as a tool with which It performed Its great work. At the same time, for such as cannot harmonize the poor symbols which Art sets before their eyes and the pure image living in our hearts of the most beautiful of the children of men (for in His case, as in His Mother's, as Cajetan reminds us in his essay De Spasmo beatae Virginis, the supreme torments of Calvary, piercing the mind still more cruelly than the body, yet left His reason intact upon the Cross in the full exercise of its dominion over the senses)—for such, I say, certain plastic distortions, a sort of degenerate aspect of the outline, are tantamount to an insult to the Humanity of the Savior and, as it were, a doctrinal misconception of the sovereign dignity of His soul and body.

At a time when the truth of the Faith is threatened on all sides, should we be surprised that the Church should be more than ever concerned at the distortions of doctrine which may be implicit in certain works of art intended for the use of the faithful, whatever their aesthetic value otherwise may be and the salutary emotions they may in some cases excite, and whatever the piety, faith, depth of spiritual life and highmindedness of the artist who wrought them?

I would nevertheless like to add that from this same dogmatic point of view, the disgraceful sentimentality of so many commercial products must be an equal source of distress to sound theology, and is tolerated no doubt only as one of the abuses to which we resign ourselves from time to time having regard to human weakness and to what may be described as, adapting a phrase of Holy Writ, "the infinite number of Christians with bad taste."

This last-mentioned ultimate control by theology, which presupposes in' the artist a genuine theological culture, clearly does not impose any aesthetic genre, any style, any particular technique, on sacred art. We must, however, realize that it gives it, as it were spontaneously, certain general directions. For instance, the intrinsic characteristics of the object represented are assuredly of very special importance for sacred art; not from the point of view of naturalist imitation of material details and picturesque appearances, which are more out of place and execrable here than elsewhere, but from the point of view of the laws of intellectual significance. Considering the essential inadequacy of the means of expression of human art in relation to the divine mysteries to which they are applied, the frightful difficulty of expressing in a sensitive medium truths which cleave the earth and sky and unite the most opposed realities, one would even be inclined to think that sacred art, however rich it ought to be in sensibility and humanity, ought undoubtedly, if it is to attain a certain spiritual fullness, to retain always some element of hieratic and so to speak ideographical symbolism, and, in any event, of the strong intellectuality of its primitive traditions.

Third (and last) Observation. Merely this, that a work of religious art ought to be religious. If it is not religious, it is not beautiful, for beauty presupposes essentially the integrity of all the requisite conditions. As Paul Cazin remarked, tell an artist handling a religious subject "that he has produced a masterpiece, but that his masterpiece is not religious, and you will give him pain . . ." Cazin goes on: " God alone can touch men's hearts with a feeling of piety before the tawdriest chromolithograph, the most heart-breaking daub, as much as before the most sublime masterpiece." That is true, but it does not prevent certain works of art from having normally a value in themselves, a radiation of religious emotion, of interior illumination and, specifically, of sanctification. Nevertheless, let us repeat once more after Maurice Denis, this does not depend on the subject itself. Nor does it depend, I am convinced, on the formula of a school and a particular technique. It would be a great mistake to think that clumsy angles and a cheap material are the necessary means of expressing a Franciscan emotion or that a geometrical rigidity and dull, austere tones are required to stamp a work with the seal of Benedictine dignity.

There are no rules for giving an artistic object the value of a religious emotion. This depends on a certain interior freedom in regard to rules. It can be achieved only by not being directly pursued, and by the artist sharing, in one way or another, in the spiritual life of the Saints. This was made easy for artists by the common Christian atmosphere of the ages of faith, even when they kept themselves far removed, from many points of view, from the examples of the Saints; but of itself, and lacking such exterior assistance, it requires in the soul the habitual radiation of the theological virtues and supernatural wisdom. It is, moreover, essential that the virtue of art do not remain separate, isolated from such wisdom, because of an imperfect mastery or misleading academic principles, but that the two be put in contact, the virtue of art freely employing such wisdom as a supple and infallible instrument.

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