The Catholic Thing
Our Heritage of Beauty Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 05 December 2011

Editor in Chief’s Note: It’s end of the year, fundraising time again. Please click here to read a message from Robert Royal.

I happen to like much of what is somewhat imprudently termed “modern art.” Consider: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), a cubist, and Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), a realist, were both modern artists. 

That said, what’s often missing from modern art is the context of faith that so characterized art between Creation and about 1700. You’ll search in vain for it in Picasso, by birth a Catholic; you’ll find it in Rockwell, although his soft Episcopalianism never much affected his painting, and such religiosity one sees in his work, as for instance the folks at prayer in his “Freedom of Worship” (1943), is actually Americanism

So great is the schism between faith and faithlessness in art after the seventeenth century that you might suppose that modern artistic formation consciously rejects belief in God. And contemporary Catholic art? Well, if you’re building or renovating a church, you’ll probably look to the fine-art market for something affordable from the five centuries ago, which is why God made rich donors.

There are exceptions, of course, although it’s my impression that prominent modern artists who do treat religious subjects mostly do so with the commitment of, at best, an anthropologist or, more likely, a sociologist. (There are a lot of less prominent figures who are explicitly Catholic or Christian and quite good, and if you want a doorway into that world, take a look at the quarterly Image, which regularly introduces them a wider world.)

Heaven knows, you don’t see much American art being created that could properly be called magisterial. No, not much. But there is some.

At a Catholic church in New Jersey (Christ the King in New Vernon), there is a recently installed Stations of the Cross that evoke the power of faith in the way they do in the great cathedrals of Europe. The fourteen paintings are the work of Leonard Porter and garnered for him the 2011 Merit Design Award from the American Institute of Architects’ Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture.

Here’s XII, Where Christ Dies upon the Cross:

Mr. Porter wouldn’t disagree with my assertion about the rarity of such work.

“You wouldn’t think,” he says, that “liturgical commissions of this scale and complexity are possible in today’s world.” And he isn’t talking about the Stations but about the twenty-one-foot-wide triptych he painted for St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Christ Enthroned with Saints and Angels:

And it’s not as though Porter is laboring in obscurity. As the AIA award indicates, he is receiving the some of recognition he deserves, and his work has been profiled in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Art & Antiques magazine.

I’m especially fond of his stunning portrait of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Here I’m quoting from his website, Segnatura:

based on actual photographs of St. Therese, [it] does justice to how she actually looked. Dressed in the traditional Carmelite habit, and holding a cross with roses, she emanates light and holiness. Her serene yet intense gaze makes it feel almost as if she is in the room with the painter.
Judge for yourself:

I can only say I hope these images will reproduce here as vividly as they render at Segnatura.

Mr. Porter is a member of The Foundation for Sacred Arts, a Catholic nonprofit organization founded “to stimulate a vibrant renewal in the patronage and production of Christian sacred arts (art, architecture, and music); and to advance the pursuit of excellence in conformity with truth, goodness, and beauty in these arts; for the glory of God, the life of His Church, and the transformation of culture.”

Other groups, such as New Liturgical Movement, are undertaking similar efforts to bring back to the Church (yes, it is in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “an act of recovery”) the majestic beauty of Catholic art and worship. It is a massive undertaking, at least as measured by where some Catholic churches are today and where they ought to be.

At Mass the other day, the celebrant, a priest for more that fifty years, struggled through the new missal. It’s no surprise that many of the hundred or so of us at church (good for a weekday) stumbled over some of the responses (especially the reflexive “And with your spirit”), but – to paraphrase Cardinal Newman – a thousand difficulties ought not to equal one doubtful Mass. There was no Confiteor, no Gloria, no Credo – we were in and out in fifteen minutes, and it was obvious the monsignor was skipping the things he thought unsettling by being unfamiliar.

But, heavens! Why’d you think so many showed up on a Thursday? We’re hungry to believe: in Christ, of course, but also in this old-new liturgy. I couldn’t help thinking of Chesterton’s famous quip about Christianity, which paraphrased fits: the Roman Missal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. So far.

This is why the work of Leonard Porter is as important as it is beautiful, and why the liturgical re-reforms of Sean Tribe and his contributors at New Liturgical Movement are essential, why Gregory Wolfe’s Image is must reading, and why The Catholic Thing does what it does, seven days a week. And it’s the raison d’être behind Complete Catholicism too.

The Foundation for Sacred Arts describes our shared efforts as the antidote to “the spiritual anemia of modern society.” We need beauty, which is why all the Catholic arts must thrive: “with [a] contemporary voice that is simultaneously rooted in tradition . . . so that those who encounter the beauty in these arts might be brought into life-altering contact with Divine Beauty Himself.”

Brad Miner is Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing. Please note: much of Mr. Porter’s work is available for purchase at Segnaturaincluding the Stations of the Cross, if your church is in need.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Other Joe, December 05, 2011
Popular modern art forms are so debased and trivialized that they are no longer popular. A person randomly chosen from the educated classes probably would not be able to name a working poet, a working sculptor, a working "artist" (painter or image maker) a serious working novelist, a serious working dramatist, a serious working composer. Who is the contemporary Picasso, someone arranging dead chickens and video loops of meat packing workers in an "installation"? Secular art cuts itself off from its own tap root of meaning. When it isn't scolding and intentionally shocking, it can be clever and pleasingly designed, but so is table lamp. Other than its basic utility, why should anyone care? And they don't.
written by Mark Kirby, December 05, 2011
Brad Miner, you're raising important issues here: I think many have been driven away from the Catholic Church by the banality and vulgarity of its contemporary liturgies and of the new or reformed spaces that host them. (The retranslation of the Mass seems a step backward in the right direction.)

All your links are to representational art. Is this the only kind that works for sacred spaces - is there an Incarnational curse on abstraction, or irony? Representational art is a meager tributary from the movement of art in the last century. Time was when religious art was the work of artistic pioneers.

I know Matisse and Chagall did religious art, and to get Rothko, one has to yield to contemplation. Must non-Representational, religious art be products of genius to be at all worthwhile? I've seen a terrifying Crucifixion by Francis Bacon - quasi-representational - but does it belong in a church? Would such a thing so unsettle worshippers that they couldn't pray? Maybe such unsettling would cut an opening for grace: Grunewald's Crucifixion at Isenheim is as shocking.

These are real questions for me. Likewise with twentieth century religious music - I'm talking Stravinsky or Poulenc, not Haugen: they seem very alive to me, but few congregations use them, and with the marginalization of the Tridentine Mass, they have mostly lost their places as vehicles for living ritual. Yet for me at any rate, listening to, say, the Sanctus from Stravinsky's Mass is a religious experience that singing "Gather Us In" is not.
written by Brad Minerl, December 05, 2011
Dear Mr. Kirby: Thanks for your comment. I began the column by noting my appreciation of 20th-century art, and focused here on Mr. Porter, because he is a faithful Catholic — not because his work is representational. If you visit TCT often you see the work of many "modern" artists, including Marc Chagall. As to music, I urge you to visit our sister site,, where you'll hear/see a video of John Tavener's "Mother of God," a contemporary work that's (IMHO) is as glorious as some of Palestrina or Beethoven.
written by DS, December 05, 2011
There is a lot to criticize in the new cathedral in Los Angeles, but I think the large tapestries by John Nava are a marvelous exception and worthy of contemplation. Contemporary in style, they continue a noble artistic tradition of the Church. They provide a powerful representations of heroic individual saints, and when viewed in situ, also of the communion of saints and the ongoing journey of church.

I also agree with Mr. Kirby's comments. At some level, the Tridentine Mass and certain kinds of abstract art are aimed at the same end: bridging a gap between sinful humanity and the "otherness" of the divine.
written by ann, December 06, 2011
I think an important element that needs to be pointed out is the state of art education today. Before modernism, artists were trained in an atilier where they learned how to draw before attempting to paint, while developing their eye through working from life. They were able to achieve beauty in their work because they had complete mastery over their tools. Part of the reason why many artists do not care for beauty is simply because they are unable to achieve it with their underdeveloped skills. The atilier system is vastly different from the art training a student would receive in a university program today. Also, our society's concept of beauty has been so cheapened through advertising, cosmetic surgery, and other ways, that it is completely detached from any meaning to the common person.

Unfortunately, I believe Catholic Universities are largely at fault for the absence of real beauty and quality Catholic artists. Unlike our society, the Church holds a defined understanding of beauty which actually touches a person's soul. But rather than aim to move someone's soul, art students today are encouraged to move the audience via through shock value. There are very few Catholic universities that care enough to offer a MFA in fine arts (Notre Dame is the only one that I've come across), and even the schools that proclaim themselves to be invested in revitalizing a "Catholic culture" (John Paul the Great U, Franciscan U, etc.) do not have any form of a respectable art department.

I have been impressed by the writings from within the Church discussing the importance of beauty, goodness, and truth in art, but there is very little effort to actually cultivate such artist. Until this changes, I doubt we will see anything more than a handful of quality Catholic artists.
written by Chris in Maryland, December 08, 2011
Brava Ann.

For an example of devotion to the classical training for the artist, and essays on the struggles of these artists who have banded together to reclaim the enduring goals and methods of classically trained artists, see the web site called "ArtRenewal dot org."

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