“May your art help to affirm that true beauty which, as a glimmer of the Spirit of God, will transfigure matter, opening the human soul to the sense of the eternal.”
These stirring words come from the conclusion of St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists . In that letter, the Pontiff reaffirmed the great role that Catholic artists – painters, writers, architects, musicians, et al. – have to play in the life of the Church. Catholic art, especially in its traditional forms, is art for the soul. Truth, beauty, and goodness come together as one; Christ is partly made perceptible to us through art. Yet this message has become obscured due to ignorance of the Church’s past, and current unfortunate trends in the arts.
Through the Mass and the sacraments, the priest shows us a foretaste of heaven and draws us to God. The artist, through different means, can do the same. There is thus a profound mutual interaction between the Church and culture. The Faith provides inspiration for the artist’s work, and the beauty of their work helps lead others to Christ.
It is one of the most glorious realities of the Faith that it has inspired the creation of some of the most beautiful art in human history. There was a time when the greatest composers in Europe wrote for the Mass. Mozart, Palestrina, Victoria, Pergolesi, and Lassus, to name just a handful of relevant figures, produced truly sacred music as a backdrop to the Sacrifice of the Altar. It is music that can move even the most hardened skeptic to tears. Likewise, the Gregorian propers of the Mass transport one to another realm; the sheer beauty and purity of the chant can be overwhelming.
The medieval cathedrals are testimonies in stone to the glory of God. The existence of these sacred spaces defies modernity’s collective scoff at the ‘backward’ medieval period and its ignorant and illiterate masses. Compare Chartres Cathedral to the brutalist nightmares that make up our modern architectural landscape, and the genius of our forebears becomes quite apparent. Indeed, the most humble parish church is often a place of beauty and order; a space where God resides in simplicity amidst the silence and the statues.
Turn to the writers and the philosophers in the bosom of the Church, and it is hard to know where to begin. Those who accuse the Church of irrationalism have clearly never heard of the Scholastics, or the Angelic Doctor and his Summa. Dante’s supreme paean to “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” penetrates the soul as does little modern writing. The message of repentance in Augustine’s Confessions echoes to us across the centuries. The Church has 2000 years of such timeless works.
Catholic art offers an objective standard of beauty to the world. This is perhaps why it unsettles so many, who wish to see it as “irrelevant” or who downplay the link between the art and the Faith. Compare Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks to the works in a modern art gallery. The figures in Da Vinci’s or Bernini’s work point to the eternal; we stand transfixed before the statue or painting. With modern art, we feign intellectual interest in its drudgery and continue on our way.
It is painful to consider that many Catholics today don’t seem to even be aware of this history. In too many places, sacred spaces have been whitewashed, and beautiful things debased. When it comes to the Church’s cultural patrimony, wider trends seem to have infiltrated in templum Dei. In the average Catholic parish, the faithful have no access to the beauty of Gregorian chant, no art that lifts the mind to heaven, and a sacred space that seems to have deliberately chosen the horizontal over the vertical. Sacrosanctum Concilium  states that Gregorian chant should retain “pride of place” in the liturgy and Latin should be preserved. In the Church of Palestrina, for how much longer must we suffer Dan Schutte?
There have been groups and movements of artists in recent times who have shown through their explicitly Christian works that the blending of art and religion is still possible and fruitful. The writers of the Catholic Literary Revival of the 19th and early 20th centuries demonstrated this. The movement was filled to the brim with converts, with individuals who found no solace in industrialized modernity. In England specifically, such luminaries as Newman, Chesterton, Greene, Hopkins, and Waugh poured their souls into novels, poetry, and theology, inspired by their belief in Christ. A wave of Catholic intellectuals and writers were thus converted through and by their art.
Christian art is one of the crucial components of Catholic culture because it can have profound consequences for different individuals. We wonder: where does the beauty of this painting, cathedral, cantata, poem come from? The answer: from the beauty of Christ – and those who perceive that beauty sometimes begin to move towards Him. We should bear this in mind in our ongoing debates about liturgy and Christian art – and thank God that one of the ways we can contemplate Him is through his creatures’ creations.
The images above are two versions of Madonna [or Virgin] of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci, both c. 1519. The one above (left) is from the Louvre in Paris; the lower (right) is from the National Gallery in London.