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The Purpose of Sacred Art


From its very beginning nearly 2,000 years ago, the Catholic Church has used art to instruct men and women about the Faith and to inspire them to live up to its high ideals. An old tradition holds that St. Luke the Evangelist was the first Catholic artist, painting a portrait of the Virgin Mary, whose face he had actually seen in life. For this reason, he is one of the patron saints invoked by artists.

The place which images of holy men and women have in the Catholic Church has long been misunderstood by those on the outside. In the 8th century, during the period when the iconoclasts sought to destroy any depiction of Christ and His saints, St. John Damascene wrote in defense of sacred art: "Through icons of Christ we contemplate His bodily form, His miracles, and His sufferings... and we are sanctified." The 2nd Council of Nicaea in 787 upheld the veneration (not worship) of icons.

The early Church Fathers described the purpose of religious images as anagogic, literally meaning "leading one upward." They wrote that this art should raise the soul and mind of the beholder to the incorruptible and eternal realm of the Spirit. In modern times, Pope John Paul II has written, "Iconography is based on the mystery of the Incarnation in which God chose to assume a human face... Sacred art seeks to transmit something of the mystery of that Face." This art, then, is like a window into Heaven itself. Sacred art is beautiful to the eye and enriching to the spirit.

Catholic art has always told the story of the Faith. Originally this was done through clandestine symbols (such as the anchor/cross, and the fish), later through iconography and portraiture (in which saints held an item which helped the viewer identify them), and later still through highly detailed depictions of scriptural scenes and hagiography (the life stories of saints). In the Catholic Mass, the homily is used to explain the Scriptures and the doctrines of the Church, and for instructing the faithful how they can apply these in daily life. Sacred art can act as a "homily" of its own.

To help make the teachings of the Church understandable, Catholic art has frequently utilized symbolism. Symbols have been described as both "concealment and revelation... (they are) a phenomenon in which abstracts such as ideals, morals, and virtues become concrete in such a way as to be more clearly expressed than words." The meaning of the symbol does not lie in the symbol itself, but points to something else outside of it.

Christian typology, which has an important role in the theology of the Church, has been utilized in sacred art as well. Catholic teaching sees the Old Testament as a typological anticipation of the New Testament. The Church understands the Old Testament as the story of God's relationship with His people under the Old Covenant, with prophecies that point to the coming of Christ and the New Covenant. In the events and persons and of the Old Testament, the early Church Fathers could see "types and shadows" of the events and persons of the New Testament. Catholic art is often used to teach viewers that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of these anticipatory Scriptures.


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