Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Sacred Art Is Not For Teaching Scripture to the Illiterate (Part 1)

Sacred art is not meant primarily to help people to know good things; rather it is to inspire us through beauty to do good things.

If we were to believe what some say, especially professional art historians, it would seem that the main purpose for the creation of Catholic art of the past, for example in the stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals, was to teach Scripture to the illiterate. Some might broaden this slightly, and tell us that it was to teach Catholic doctrine, but again, to the illiterate. This can, in turn, be asserted by Catholics who think that it is a good thing, and occasionally, Eastern Rite Christians, who criticize Catholic art for this reason, and tell us that the iconographic tradition forms the hearts of those who worship, while they worship, in contrast to what they would argue are degenerate naturalistic forms. I explain here why I suspect the historians are wrong, and doubt that this has been the main goal of Roman Catholics in the past. But even if the historians are correct, this narrowly defined didactic purpose would not have been the main purpose or Catholic sacred art, because the Roman Catholic Church has consistently told us otherwise. This posting is the first in a two-part article.

While being happy to concede that this is part of the story, I have never been convinced that the main reason for the presence of art in Roman Catholic churches is purely or even primarily didactic.

First, I would contend that while art can aid instruction, it simply cannot be read like a book without explanation. Assuming the illiterate of the past weren’t also deaf or unable to comprehend the spoken word, people learned primarily by oral tradition: through hearing the Word being read by those who were literate, through homilies, personal instruction, and through the words and actions of the liturgy. If this were the case, then art certainly has a part to play, perhaps through reminding and reinforcing those lessons in the minds of the faithful.

For example, would anyone be able to tell what was happening here if they didn’t already know the story? There is obviously something pretty gruesome going on, but would anyone understand its meaning and context without explanation? Perhaps, we might think, it is inspiring us to kill babies - an abortionist’s manifesto!

Giotto - The Massacre of the Innocents
If, however, this is viewed during the liturgy on the feast of the Holy Innocents in the Christmas season, then we have some context, and it will impart an understanding of the feast and its place in Salvation History and in the Sacred Liturgy, and thus enrich the worship of all those present, literate and illiterate alike.
To limit the purpose of art to a narrow didactic role seems to me to miss the whole point of the Christian faith, which is union with God, most powerfully through our worship of Him in the liturgy. This is the end to which all those lessons are, or at least ought to be, directed. Certainly, art can be a teaching aid for those learning Scripture or Catholic doctrine, but that is not its main purpose, for knowledge of Scripture and Catholic doctrine serve the Catholic life, of which the high point is liturgy. The Catholic faith is not primarily about knowing things, it is about doing things - praxis - and worship is at the heart of what we do. Art can enrich our worship and our prayer directly, for we can worship and pray better while looking at good sacred art, which forms us to be better worshipers through form (meaning the style in which it is painted) and beauty as much as content.
The most important role of art is in stimulating and directing prayer in the course of our worship in the liturgy, and it does this in a way that deepens the participation in the worship as we look at it. In this case, the result, if it is well chosen for the purpose, is not so much a lesson learned, but a love enriched and deepened.

What does the Church say about the purpose of art?

St Gregory the Great, writing at the turn of the 7th century to the Bishop of Marseille, is often quoted to back up the assertion that sacred art has primarily a didactic purpose. “For a picture is displayed in churches on this account, in order that those who do not know letters may at least read by seeing on the walls what they are unable to read in books.”

Gregory the Great
Gregory was not writing dogmatically here, so we do not know if this point of view represented the sole argument in the Roman Church, let alone of Gregory himself, for having art in churches. He was after all writing to a particular person on a particular issue for pastoral reasons, and we would need to know more about the context to be sure. Furthermore, just 178 years later, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which did articulate dogma, told us something different: the purpose of art is to inspire and stimulate our capacity for the right worship of God and the veneration of the Saints. Art does this through form and beauty and it informs our hearts as much as it gives information to the intellect through content:
We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the catholic church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. (Percival 1955:).
In short, art is for all, and it inspires as well as instructs.
Next week, I will look at what the Council of Trent had to say on the matter and how this cannot be used to support the assertion of a narrowly didactic role for art in churches.
An 8th-century Coptic painting of St Anne, Mother of Our Lady

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