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Our Heritage of Beauty

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 [1], 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 [2]:

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 [3], 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 [4], 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 [5] 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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.