Sacred Art - a methodology

Modern art should be given free scope in the due and reverent service of the church and the sacred rites, provided that they preserve a correct balance between styles tending neither to extreme realism nor to excessive 'symbolism,'...*

- Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei

Pope Benedict XVI, in Spirit of the Liturgy, identifies three traditions of art employed in the Sacred Liturgy: the Iconographic, Gothic and Baroque. While premising the same foundation, the regula fidei, and end, Dei glorificatio, their means differ.** This distinction of means might be seen under two aspects, the theological and philosophical.

The rarified vision of the Iconographic presents the events of Sacred History and the communion of saints, sub specie aeterna, from an eschatological view. The saints, no longer vacillating in the passions of life, are seen complete and at rest, interceding from the glory of Heaven for those on Earth. The images are hence windows into heaven or Sacred History where one can come and still and contemplate the mysterium fidei.

The Gothic and especially the Baroque, rather than an abstracted and objective view, present a mode of representation which is grounded in the particulars of the hic et nunc, here and now of life. The flat, ambient lighting of the Iconographic begins to cede to the more familiar light of the world even to the point of fracture, witnessed in the later Baroque Caravaggisti. Giotto's frescos begin to infuse a new wind of action and emotion. There is a move towards greater Naturalism as St Thomas articulates, "since only through sensible things can we come to know intelligible ones"*** Rather than an objective theological view, a subjective stance develops, beginning in the varities of this life and moving to the certainties of the supermundane. 

This tension has characterized much of the theological speculation within the Church. It is the relation of the transcendent to the imminent. Indeed the disparity of these two outlooks is almost insurmountable, if it not for the greatest mystery, magnum mysterium, Verbum Dei incarnatum, the Word of God made flesh. It is in the person of Christ that the transcendence of God is made knowable to man in the particularities of this life. 

A shift is also seen in the philosophical framework. While the essential material of Theology and art did not change, the language and structure used to speak of them did. Thus in this period of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Platonism and Neo-Platonism which influenced the Early Church gradually cedes to the Aristotelianism which gave a new significance to the particularities of Nature. Subjects which might have been discussed in terms of imperfect manifestations of pure Forms, began to be discussed in hierarchies of genus and species, possessing essential and accidental attributes and having various levels of perfection qua active and potential qualities. Through the history of the Church, a spectrum of orthodox or better orthoprax, artistic modes has developed. Just as St Thomas posits a simultaneity of meanings in Sacred Scripture,**** so too these various modalities can overlap rather than compete. 

The body of work presented here, tries to continue an organic development of the late Gothic schools. Here the essential narrative and allegorical elements established by the Iconographic traditions meet an increasing Naturalistic appetite. The gilded backgrounds indicative of God's grace and glory sometimes cedes to the expanse of the created world and sometimes the Naturalistic precision of architecture is pushed back into symbolic form. It is in this potent meeting of schools rather than opposition that the work is formed. 



* Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, 195. «Recentes imagines ac formae, ad materiam aptiores, ex qua hodie conficiuntur, non sunt generali modo atque ex praeiudicata opinione spernendae ac reiciendae; sed rationibus illis aequabiliter ac recte compositis, quae neque ad nudam contendant rerum imitationem, nec ad nimium « symbolismum », quem vocant, ac necessitatibus potius spectatis christianae communitatis, quam peculiari artificum iudicio atque ingenio cuiusque suo, oportet omnino eam nostrorum temporum artem liberum habere campum, quae sacris aedibus sacrisque ritibus debita reverentia debitoque honore inserviat;,...»

** The scholasticulus would say that they posses the same material cause, regula fidei, and final cause, Dei glorificatio, but have differing formal causes.

*** St Thomas Aquinas, ST I, Q 50, a 3, ad 3. «quia ad cognoscendum intelligibilia non possumus pervenire nisi per sensibilia»

**** St Thomas Aquinas, ST I, Q 1, a 9-10.