Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Modernistic Art and Divine Worship

by Rudolph G. Bandas


In this article, Rudolph G. Bandas discusses the effect of religious art on divine worship. Modernistic art seems to deliberately distort what it seeks to represent: Christ, Mary, the saints are often portrayed with odd expressions on their faces and over-sized hands and feet, and sometimes appear more like animals than humans. Rather than inspiring reverence, this style or art causes a natural sense of disgust, or even ridicule in its viewers. In response, Bandas lists the Church's requirements that a work of art must fulfill before it can be placed in a sacred building. He also enumerates some theological principles that artists ought to consider before attempting to represent sacred mysteries and truths, including the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ as true God and true Man, Jesus Christ as our crucified Savior, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints. He ends with the argument that religious art ought to be intuitive: it ought to clearly depict some aspect of the Faith. Modern art, on the other hand, is often frustrating to the viewer because it is difficult to perceive what it is portraying.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, October 1960

In our day we are witnessing a peculiar outbreak of ugliness and brutality in the domain of art; yes, even in the field of Christian art. This morbid epidemic has the character of a deforming arthritism or elephantiasm or leprosy in art. In some instances it seems to be a return to the artistic productions of the cave man: certain paintings in their workmanship do not surpass the figures in the caves of primitive man. In fact, the late Cardinal Constantini, chairman of the Pontifical Academy of Art, speaks of "visual blasphemies" and "figurative horrors" in modernistic art, arousing a sense of repugnance and disgust. Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints are pictured with cretinic faces and with hands and feet affected with elephantiasis. Christ, on the Cross, is portrayed as degraded and almost animal-like. We meet saints with monkey faces and in attitudes that remind one of a mental hospital or an institution for abnormal diseases. Many suspect--and not without reason--that we are face to face here with the infiltrations of Communism seeking to make religion ridiculous and repulsive, especially to the children.

A decree of the Holy Office in 1952 listed the requirements which a work of art must fulfill before it can gain admittance into a sacred edifice. The following must be the marks of acceptable religious art:

1) It must enhance the beauty of the house of God; it must not be unworthy of the house of prayer and the majesty of God; it must not involve anything unbefitting and unbecoming, since sanctity belongs to the house of God.

2) It must engender and foster the faith and piety of the faithful; it must not disturb or in any way diminish the piety of the people.

3) It must not contain anything unusual in appearance; disordered, distorted and confused executed without proper decency and respect (Canon 1279); in bad taste and causing scandal; foreign to the mind and decrees of the Church.

4) It must be dogmatically correct, and must not be an occasion of error to the unlearned.

5) It must severely exclude second-rate and stereotyped statues and effigies.

His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, again touches on the question of art in his Encyclical, Musicae Sacrae (Christmas, 1955), and affirms that all art must be subject to the laws of God and be in conformity with man's last end. God is inseparable from the universe as a whole as well as from each and every part of it. Hence, art, which depicts nature or human conduct, cannot abstract from the Creator, from God's moral laws, and from man's last End. Consciousness of these great principles will not only not detract from, but will ennoble and perfect the artist's work. This will be especially true if he deals with religious and sacred subjects. And here we come to a capital requirement for genuine religious art; namely, a deep and reverent faith of the artist. Says Pius XII:

The artist who does not profess the truths of faith or who strays far from God in his attitude or conduct should never turn his hand to religious art. He lacks, as it were, that inward eye with which he might see what God's majesty and His worship demand. Nor can he hope that his works, devoid of religion as they are, will ever really breathe the piety and faith that befit God's temple and His holiness even though they may show him to be an expert artist who is endowed with visible talent. Thus, he cannot hope that his works will be worthy of admission into the sacred buildings of the Church, the guardian and arbitor of religious life.

Theological Principles

In this section we shall lay down a few theological principles concerning the concrete visible representation of divine mysteries and supernatural truths.

God: The Old Testament forbade representations of God for fear that the Jewish people might fall into idolatry. His proper Name, "I am Who am" (Exod. 3: 14), placed the concept of God outside of all material representation. The prophets described Him as a venerable old man who does not grow old: He is the "Ancient of days" (Dan. 7:9, 13, 22). Christian iconography took over this concept of Daniel only at a later date. In view of the extensive pagan worship of statues and pictures, the Church exercised a prudent restraint in representing God under a human figure. At the end of the fifth century it expressed the idea and Providence of God by means of a hand extending from a cloud, basing the image on the following Scriptural texts: "Thy right hand, O Lord, is magnified in strength" (Ps. 117:16). This image is of frequent occurrence in the miniatures and mosaics of Byzantine art.

The Blessed Trinity: as the most august mystery of our holy religion, the Blessed Trinity does not easily admit of representation. Benedict XIV gives us for our guidance the following directive: "Images of the Blessed Trinity which are commonly approved and may safely be permitted are those which represent the Person of God the Father in the form of a venerable patriarch, taken from Dan. 7:9: 'The Ancient of days sat'; in His bosom His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, God and Man, and between both the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, in the form of a dove" (Bullarium Rom., p. 318). In order to emphasize the role of the Blessed Trinity in the work of the Redemption some artists represent the Father as receiving on His knees the Body of the Crucified Christ; others, as Durer, represent the Eternal Father as supporting by His arm the Victim of the Cross over Whom hovers the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove.

The Holy Ghost: adhering closely to the Scriptural narrative of the apparition of the Third Person at the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan (Matt. 3:13-17), Christian artists usually represented the Holy Ghost under the form of a dove. In representations of Pentecost the Holy Spirit is placed at the top of the picture under the form of a radiant dove surrounded by a nimbus, while a fiery tongue hovers over the head of each Apostle. Since the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and from the Son, He is often placed beneath the figures of the First and Second Persons; but since He is the bond of love, which unites the two Persons He is also placed between the Father and the Son.

Jesus Christ: In judging images and representations of Our Lord it is well to keep in mind the following great dogmatic truths:

(a) Jesus Christ is God: His Person is divine, operating through the divine and human natures. His divine nature is resplendent in and radiates through His human nature. Since actions are attributed to a Person, and since His person is divine, all His actions reveal the perfection of a Divine Being and make Him a most perfect Model and Exemplar worthy of all our imitation. Any artistic work depicting our Lord, which does not do justice to those great truths is not worthy of the name of art.

(b) Jesus Christ is true man: Nay more. He is the most beautiful among the sons of man (Psalm 44:3). Jesus Christ did not come into the world through the ordinary process of generation. His body was fashioned miraculously in the chaste womb of Mary through the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. Now a work must reflect the perfection of the author, and only perfection can be predicated of a Divine Agent. True, in a prophetic chapter in Isaias (c. 53) the future Messias is described as being without "beauty and comeliness." But this passage refers exclusively to the sufferings of the Servant of Jahve.

Since Our Lord was conceived miraculously. He was free from original sin as well as from all the consequences of original sin. He was impeccable, because His Person was divine and all holy. He was Sinless, full of grace, free from all actual sin and inordinate tendencies. While he assumed these imperfections which were in keeping with the end of the Incarnation--for example, hunger, thirst, fatigue--He was free from all defective embryonic growth, physical defects, sickness and disease, all of which are consequences of original sin.

In trying to convey to others some notion of the Person of the Redeemer, the artist should not forget the present, risen and glorified state of the Redeemer at the right hand of God. Christ rose and is at this moment in the aetas perfecta, in the age of physical perfection. The scars of the Passion and Crucifixion have disappeared, the risen Christ has an integral and complete and perfect body. That risen body of His is impassible--no longer subject to suffering; it is agile--capable of moving quickly from one place to another; it is subtile--capable of passing through matter and closed doors; it is permanently resplendent with that brightness of which the apostles caught only a glimpse on Mt. Tabor at the Transfiguration.

Now, does modernistic art try to bring into relief these immortal truths of the Gospel? Hardly; in fact, it might be said that modernistic works of Catholic artists are caricatures of these sublime verities, they are illustrated blasphemies, a total rejection of the venerable traditions of the Church.

Images Of The Crucified Saviour: the Catholic artist who proposes to depict the Crucified Lord should carefully keep in mind the following great truths: Christ is God; He is consubstantial with the Father, possessing numerically one and the same immutable and inammisible divine nature. There can be no schism within the divine nature, and hence even on the Cross, there was no interruption or cessation of the communion of mutual love between the Father and the Son. It is interesting to note, in this connection, that no Father of the Church interpreted the words of Our Lord on the Cross--"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" (Matt. 27:46)--in the sense of a real abandonment of the Son by the Heavenly Father; many, following the teaching of St. Augustine, maintain that Christ spoke these words of infinite sadness as Head of the human race. Let the artist then carefully exclude from his representation of the Saviour on the Cross anything incompatible with the hypostatic union.

There is still another dogmatic truth which the Catholic artist must keep in mind: Christ's soul possessed the Beatific Vision permanently from the first moment of His conception, although by His own Will He prevented the glory of the soul from overflowing on His body before the Resurrection. Hence, Our Lord did not have virtues incompatible with the Beatific Vision--the virtues of faith and hope. Hence, too, He could not die of despair, which is a loss of confidence and hope. Much less did He die of a "broken heart." As we pointed above, Christ had a perfect human nature. His heart was not diseased but physically perfect. A healthy heart does not break of itself. For the same reason, the heart of Jesus cannot be said to have broken because of grief over man's sins. Christ's consciousness of His exact mission and the fullness of His knowledge precluded all despair. Our Lord Himself said: "I lay down my life, that I may take it up again. No man taketh it away from me, but I lay it down of myself and I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again" (John 10:17-18). We might note, too, that Christian Tradition represented Christ on the Cross not as victus but as victor, as the King triumphant over death: Regnavit a ligne Deus: Qui mortem nostram moriendo destruxit; and again:

Pange, Lingua, gloriosi,
Lauream certaminis
Et super crucis trophaeo
Dic triumphum nobilem

If only Catholic artists kept some of these truths in mind and were guided by them, our churches, rectories, convents and institutions would not be cluttered with the monstrosities, which have found their way into them.

The Blessed Virgin Mary: In their representations of Mary artists have from time immemorial struggled with two concepts which at first sight seem irreconcilable and which require rare tact and ability in him who must associate them in one and the same artistic production: Mary's Virginity and divine Maternity. Furthermore, she was always free from all sin, both original and actual, as well as from all inclinations to sin. There was nothing defective or disordered in her physical growth and development. She was not subject to disease, sickness and senility. Theologians agree in teaching that, if she died, she died not because of bodily deterioration but out of love of God without any pain or death agony, and that her body was not subject to corruption. And now in her risen state in heaven her body enjoys all the blessed qualities of a glorified body. Let the artist again pause before these truths when about to sculpture or paint a representation of the ever Blessed Virgin and Mother of God.

Angels: "Angel," in the Greek language, means "messenger." Angels are pure spirits, superior to men in knowledge and power, created by God to adore, love and serve Him. A particular duty of angels is to be the protectors of nations and guardians of individual man (Matt. 18:10; Acts 2:15). Traditional Christian art represents angels as winged adolescents. Youth is an emblem of force and grace. The wings are an emblem of their spirituality, mastery over space, promptness and speed in carrying out the mandates of God, immortality.

Saints: The Saints are men who attained a special degree of perfection, exercised Christian virtues in a heroic degree, and often sacrificed their lives for the faith. When an artist is called upon to represent a Saint, he should obtain adequate information on the life of the Saint, the time and environment in which he lived, the iconographic forms which tradition has already assigned to him, the particular devotional practices connected with his feast, etc. The drapery adopted should be in conformity with history, the Saint's state of life, and iconographic tradition. Saints who did not belong to a religious order may not be represented in the habit of a religious (Urban VIII, Constitution of March 15, 1642). It should be the artist's task to make the Saint's image radiant with his particular virtue.

Deformed Art And The Liturgy

Deformed art is not liturgical. All Christian art is destined in one way or another to be associated with Christian worship. Now worship is both internal and external. Art belongs to external cult --although the eloquence of outward beauty also moves the soul and thus serves to promote internal cult. Art then, which has the noble office of rendering to God the homage of adoration, should be endowed with the most exquisite beauty. How then can the artist presume to render glory to God by disfiguring the human form on which God has impressed his own image and likeness? How can such an image of man reflect and radiate the beauty, which God has kindled in his face: "The light of thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us" (Ps. 4:7). Art is visual prayer; modernistic deformed art not only savours of contempt for the divine, but may well border on the sacrilegious.

Deformed art is not catechetical: In our day an attempt is being made to substitute abstract art for figurative art--but wrongly so. Judaism and Islamism, it is true, forbade the representation of the human form. But Christianity is a religion of the Incarnation: "The word was made flesh." Jesus Christ came as man, so that we may see Him and adore His humanity. Abstract art smacks of the heresy of Docetism, which denied the bodily reality of Christ. It is also an anti-artistic procedure. Art is rapid and easy intuition. It speaks to the imagination and not to the reasoning faculty. Making art a process of solving enigmas is reducing art to a cabal. Sacred art has above all the duty of nourishing the devotion and piety of the faithful. The imposing church facades of the Middle Ages, portraying the majesty of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, of the Last Judgment, were great catechisms in sculpture. The interiors of the cathedrals were vast and rather dark. The rich stained glass windows gave life to the architectural complex, and offered to the piety of the faithful the radiant pictures of the life of Christ, of Our Lady, of the Saints. Why should we reject and destroy this great artistic, liturgical and catechetical life in our churches, and replace it with the hieroglyphics of abstract art? Why should we replace this clear and artistic catechism--a joy to the eyes of the soul--with a pictorial puzzle?

The teacher of Christian doctrine must speak with clearness, accuracy and dignity. Deformed art lacks all these basic qualities. It leads to confusion of ideas, makes religious teaching distasteful, and Christianity itself ridiculous and repulsive.

Let us quote, in conclusion, the words of the distinguished architect, Benedict Williamson, who, in his work "How to Build a Church," says: "Either those who produce such things do not know how to sculpture or paint a human form, and in that case they are not artists and should not be permitted to produce such monstrosities; or, they know how to paint and sculpture, but do not wish to do so; and this is infinitely worse. It may be that this disease which afflicts certain artists grows from the desire to be original; if this is the case, they have failed miserably because the children in the first grade produce any amount of such things and have always done so" (quoted by Cardinal Constantini in Fede ed arte).

Some of these modernistic artists contend that they are seeking their inspiration in copies of ancient Christian art. But this is infantilism in art. Besides, in the early Christian era the human race was emerging from the corruptions and sensualism of paganism, and art did not attain that idealistic perfection, which it reached in later centuries. Stammering is natural and delightful in a child but grotesque in an adult. Christianity is not an archeological doctrine but a form of life capable of accommodating itself to all times and places and destined to endure as long as humanity.

Related documents:

Musicae Sacrae
Motu Proprio of Pope Pius X on Sacred Music

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