Art, Sacred and Profane

All of creation is from the beginning a gift, a token of the Giver’s love. Hence there is continuity between the natural and the sacred, and commonplace substances serve as matter for sacraments. There is continuity between sacred iconography and painting as such, because art was never supposed to be profane.

Profanum means “outside the temple (Lat., fanum).” But in Genesis, God creates the whole world to be His temple, the house of His image. Art, like everything else, becomes profane when, in spite of the eternal power and Godhead manifest in the beauty of creation, we fail to glorify and thank the Lord (Romans 2:21), and thereby lose the inner light that allowed us to see the world aright.

“The Lord is good to all; and His tender mercies are over all His works.” (Psalm 145:8) God holds the world in existence, and the divine conservation and governance of creation always shines forth for all who will see it. Art is beautiful when it magnifies this mystery, as I’ve suggested in previous columns (here and here).

The old masters – Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt, etc. – never merely copied external appearances, because they penetrated the mystery of appearances and celebrated the sustaining divine energies in the rhythmical structures of their paintings. The great painter Henri Matisse describes the artistic process thus: “The first step toward creation is to see everything in its truth, and that demands a constant effort.  . . . A work of art is the climax of long work of preparation. The artist takes from his surroundings everything that can nourish his internal vision.  . . . He enriches himself internally with all the forms he has mastered and which he will one day set to a new rhythm.”

But he didn’t stop there. And is worth quoting at length:

It is in the expression of this rhythm that the artist’s work becomes really creative. To achieve it, he will have to sift rather than accumulate details, selecting for example, from all possible combinations, the line that expresses most and gives life to the drawing; he will have to seek the equivalent terms by which the facts of nature are transposed into art. . . .That is the sense, so it seems to me, in which art may be said to imitate nature, namely, by the life that the creative worker infuses into the work of art. The work will then appear as fertile, and as possessed of the same power to thrill, the same resplendent beauty, as we find in works of nature. Great love is needed to achieve this effect, a love capable of inspiring and sustaining that patient striving towards truth, that glowing warmth, and that analytic profundity that accompany the birth of any work of art. But is not love the origin of all creation?

Art made with such reverent and loving attention to nature is, if “outside the temple,” nevertheless in harmony with the liturgy and oriented towards it.


These days, however, there is a lot of “art” that ignores the metaphysical depth of nature. It starts from a void or else takes the existence of things for granted, as though nature were “just there.” Either way, it is profane in the sense of irreverent and at least implicitly opposed to the sacred; it not only neglects to glorify and thank God for His gift of creation (Romans 1:21), but also fails to acknowledge the divine power in creation (Romans 1:20). Matisse deplored such art.

Matisse’s paintings lack the subtleties of shading and rendering found in the Renaissance and Baroque masters. Like the Russian and Byzantine iconographers, he favored a simplified art of bright colors uncomplicated by shadows and perspective. He did this in order to concentrate on the essential rhythms of lines, planes, and colors – which give rise to the splendid beauty of the masterpieces of every style and period, with or without subtle rendering and perspective.

The work of iconographers is not essentially different from the traditional artistic process Matisse describes. They too expose themselves at length to that which they want to portray, until they can draw its traits from deep within themselves. The Eastern Christian tradition holds that man can see the uncreated light of divinity only by being himself transformed into light. Hence iconographers must be ascetics, must purify their vision and become filled with light.

All true artists must do this to some extent. Matisse told an interviewer that “the artist or the poet possesses an interior light which transforms objects to make a new world of them – sensitive, organized, a living world which is in itself an infallible sign of divinity, a reflection of divinity.”

Matisse fell in love with old Russian icons. “They are really great art,” the artist excitedly told an interviewer. “I am in love with their moving simplicity which, to me, is closer and dearer than Fra Angelico. In these icons the soul of the artist who painted them opens out like a mystical flower. And from them we ought to learn how to understand art.” Not just sacred art, but all art.

Iconography is a pure art, as Byzantine and Gregorian chants are pure music, austere and offering no distractions; and like them it is not easy to do, but requires unwavering attention and sensitivity to tone and rhythm. These sacred arts educate the soul and the senses to perceive God’s creating, sustaining, and saving power in the world.

There are, of course, other styles of beautiful sacred art that similarly illumine the soul. Think of the polyphony of Palestrina, the frescos and canvases of Raphael and Tintoretto, and the rest. The radiant virtue of their tones and rhythms magnifies the Lord’s work.

All the beautiful works of art outside the temple – the still-lifes, landscapes, portraits – likewise honor God by the same essential means, in harmony with rather than opposition to the sacred. When art fails to do this it is ugly – profane – just as bread eaten without thanksgiving is profane.


*Image: The Descent into Hell (Anastasis) by an unknown (Russian) artist, c. early 1400s [Swedish National Museum, Stockholm]

James Patrick Reid teaches painting and drawing at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and serves as artist in residence with the college's Center for Beauty and Culture. He also teaches an online graduate course in the history and theory of Catholic art for the Franciscan University of Steubenville. A portfolio of his work is available at his website.