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Sacred Art

Identifying the ‘sacred’ has always been a function of art.  Whether it is a humble still life, crucifixion or a Kore figure from the Attic peninsula, art has the transcendent power to reveal aspects (truths) of the human experience that the confusion of our everyday life obscures.  Our eternal search for ‘why’ has lead to the creation not only a series of belief systems but almost all of the greatest masterworks of our culture.  They continue to endure because they never lose relevance.  The pathos evoked by Michelangelo’s Pieta has not diminished in time.  (To those sensitive to that emotion, of course)

Kenneth Clark in his book, ‘Landscape into art’ states that “Facts become art through love.”  I would like to expand on that idea by saying that art is Nature transformed by love.  Artmaking is a research into meaning.  More than representing or not representing what is before us, it is a meditation on the significance of our subject.  That is why the merely mechanical reproduction of what we see has no place in the sphere of Art.  For that reason I refuse to be dependent on photographic references and prefer to work from my imagination if I am deprived of Nature.

I feel the sacred plays a role in all my work.   As a Catholic, the Gospels and the life of Jesus have always been a powerful catalyst for my imagination.  Below are a couple of examples:

Jesus in the Garden of Olives

My goal in all my sacred images is to combine the symbol with a psychological state.  The above image depicts Jesus in the decisive moment moment after the Last Supper where he embraces his fate.  His right hand refers to himself as a sign of recognition and the left moves forward, palm up, in acceptance.

Jesus Carrying the Cross

The Via Crucis  (Stations of the Cross) is a powerful theme.  I designed the movement to be a circle of hands.  Two men embrace the Cross for entirely different motives.  Jesus embraces his destiny.  In an ambiguous action, the other man is either lifting or lower the Cross.

Sacred art is not just an illustrated version of the gospels.   It is (that is at least until recently) an essential element and partner in our journey down the spiritual path.  Below are two more examples of my Sacred work.  The first one is a Madonna of the Annunciation.  It is a life size, oil on linen picture.

Madonna of the Annunciation

The next one is a small(10cm x 15cm) oil on copper picture of Saint Francis.

St. Francis on the Mountain

I must mention in conclusion that Catholic art today is in a deplorable state.  The power of the speaking symbolic image has been supplanted by a lightweight figurative style that has more in common with a social realist propaganda poster art than with the primary movers of Christian imagemaking: Giotto, Michelangelo, Titian and Bernini.  The public’s requirement for a photographic style has not helped either.

However, there are a couple of institutions that are trying to change the current situation.  The Foundation of the Sacred Arts definitely is trying its best with what is available.  Their website can be found here.  David Clayton has founded an art program with a focus on the Iconographic tradition at the Thomas More College in New Hampshire. His blog can be found here.  I am also an honorary member of the Altobello Persio association for Sacred Arts in Matera, Italy.  Unfortunately the state of sacred art in Italy is even worse than in the States.  Very ironic.


7 thoughts on “Sacred Art

  1. Hello,

    I have a question. Are sacred images defined as images having explicitly religious imagery? What would you classify art that is say, a portrait of a person or a representation of the human form which is meant to draw out the beauty and inherent dignity of a person or the sacramentality of the human body made in the image and likeness of God (or perhaps images with more “implicitly” religious themes)?

    I’d be interested in you elaborating on or redirecting me to sources, perhaps with images to illustrate, where I could read more about your second to last paragraph in this post. Thank you!


  2. Thank you for your comment Shana,

    When we talk generally about the classification of ‘Sacred Images’ it usually infers that they involve religious imagery or purpose. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that other types of images are unable to express ‘Sacred’ elements. Quite the contrary. In the western tradition the canons of Beauty were used to reveal an underlying divine structure to our perceived world.

    Figurative art up until the 19th century was constantly involved in studying, interpreting and expressing these canons. What went wrong with art in the 19th century definitely deserves its own post and much more investigation.

    A type of literalism entered figurative art that eventually left many images meaningless. I will try to find some examples of the prosaic influence of the photograph and post them later.

  3. I enjoy looking at the hand on the Madonna – Matt, do you believe photography on it’s own can ever hope to gain sacred status? Why or why not? Diane Arbus, etc…

  4. Hello Chris,
    Nice to hear from you and thank you for your comment. I feel photography, for a variety of motives, cannot and will not ever create sacred images of worth. The reason being the reproductive quality of any photograph. Oil paintings, original sculptures, works of architecture and many of the decorative arts are ‘unique’ expressions. We see many works of art today in reproduction, via computer or book). But that does not replace the individual quality of the work itself. The Van der Geest looks great in reproduction but one has to see the painting in life to have a more complete experience.

    Technology soullessly copies and then filters our world and then reproduces it within the limited means it possesses.

    The photos of Arbus do capture the humanity of the individual, not matter how grotesque the package. Sacred art has a different function of expressing an existence through symbol and interpretation that connect us to the universal.

  5. A great definition of sacred art from Thomas Merton:”The work of art must be authentically spiritual, truly traditional and artistically alive… without these fundamental qualities, the work of religious art remains spiritually dead.”

  6. Hey Martinho.

    Thank you for the comment. Thomas Merton knew his stuff. That is a no nonsense definition. But for me it is a bit vague and rhetorical. In today’s world ‘artistically alive’ and ‘truly traditional’ are pretty much antithetical. Something has got to give. Hopefully it will be the pervading culture of today.

  7. […] posts to the subjects.  One that has a brief description of my approach and goals can be found here.  Unfortunately, the level of serious patronage in the Catholic Church is dismally low.  Money is […]

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