What Is Liturgical Art? An Introduction to the Function of Church Art in the Catholic Church

By Richard H. Gross, MTS

Dr. Timothy Herrman examines the complex concept of the Catholic Church’s Sacred Liturgy in the course of his lecture on The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium. Dr. Herrman, after careful examination of many aspects of the Liturgy, brought it into focus with a very simple summary: The Liturgy is Christ’s work. With our goal being to find a simple summary of liturgical art and keeping Dr. Herrman’s very satisfying summary of Liturgy in mind, it seems clear liturgical art is Christ’s art.

But what does this mean; what role does this assign to liturgical art? The Liturgy is, as Sacrosanctum Concilium states, “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows. For the aim and object of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of His Church, to take part in the sacrifice, and to eat the Lord’s Supper.” (Article 10) Therefore, the role of liturgical art must be to support, in its own way, the role of the Liturgy… the work of Christ.

First and foremost, liturgical art is found at the coming together of the people of God to praise and worship our Creator as one body – the Church[1] – with Christ as our head.[2], [3] This distinction between Church – the people of God – and church – “the building in which the Christian community gathers to hear the word of God, to pray together, to receive the sacraments, and to celebrate the Eucharist[4]” – is important to an understanding of liturgical art, for liturgical art works in service to the Church and though it is frequently found in that building called “church” it can indeed be of service “wherever two or three are gathered together[5]” in Christ’s name. The service that liturgical art provides at the gathering[6] of the faithful is to create an environment by which men’s minds may more devoutly contemplate God in worship and praise, and be lifted to the realm of the divine as they strive to manifest “the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful.”[7]

It is understood by HolyChurch that the fine arts rank among man’s noblest achievements[8] and are testament to the genius of man created in the image of God.[9] While this is true of all fine arts, it is most especially true of the art created to serve God and the Church.[10] Sacrosanctum Concilium says of liturgical art that “These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God, which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.” (122)

If liturgical art can rightly be called Christ’s art, then it should also be considered the art of the people of God, for the people of Christ are intimately linked to Christ and are with Christ and in Christ.[11] Therefore, though the primary role of liturgical art is to give glory to God by reflecting the beauty of the divine, a vital secondary, though in many ways no less important, role of liturgical art is in service to the people of God, the Church itself. Liturgical art must be “worthy of the place of worship and … enhance the liturgical, devotional, and contemplative prayer they are inspired to serve.”[12]

In this role of enhancing liturgical, devotional and contemplative prayer, the church art is acting in service to the people as they, in turn, seek to serve God. Certainly, it is possible for the Christian to pray without having religious art nearby. However, when that art is present, it serves the Christian at prayer by acting as a lens through which prayer is focused.

Thus, the relationship between God, the Church and liturgical art is one of the many reminders that the faithful have of the Trinitarian[13] relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and His only begotten Son.[14]

Certainly, it would be absurd to imply that the Divine Trinity is perfectly reflected in the relationship between God, Church and liturgical art. All such analogies are ultimately flawed, for it is never possible to fully describe the infinite perfection that is the Holy Trinity.

In the relationship between God, Church and art, God, the supreme Creator, in His divine plan, made the Church. “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in His own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek Him, to know Him, to love Him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.”[15]

The Church, in its turn, creates (or has created for it) liturgical art to assist it in its ever-present goal of coming to know God, to love God and to serve God. Thus, liturgical art is one of the many tools available to the faithful in their quest to grow in holiness through ongoing conversion.

God’s call to conversion comes and is answered in many diverse ways. Liturgical art can act as both vehicle for God’s call and lens by which the answer to God’s call is focused.

[1] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 752: “In Christian usage, the word ‘church’ designates the liturgical assembly, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. These three meanings are inseparable. ‘The Church’ is the People that God gathers in the whole world. She exists in local communities and is made real as a liturgical, above all a Eucharistic, assembly. She draws her life from the word and the Body of Christ and so she becomes Christ’s Body.”

[2] Cf. Ephesians 1: 18-22: “May the eyes of (your) hearts be enlightened, that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory in his inheritance among the holy ones, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe, in accord with the exercise of his great might, which he worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavens, far above every principality, authority, power, and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.”

[3] Cf. Colossians 1: 18: “He is the head of the body, the Church.”

[4] Rite of Dedication of a Church and Altar, Chapter 2, Number 1.

[5] Matthew 18: 20

[6] Certainly, worship is intended to be done in community. “Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the ‘sacrament of unity,’ namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops. Therefore liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Article 26) This, technically speaking, makes liturgical art a specific subset of religious art, for while religious art may rightly be used in private devotions, liturgical art finds its proper use in communal worship. However, this may well be putting far to fine a point on the matter. While there may indeed somewhere in the world be beautiful treasures of Christian art hidden away for the private use of one individual, such a hiding away would in itself be a most unchristian act. The norm is that the sacred arts perform their function usually in community, though certainly each individual will view the specific pieces of art differently and, thus, be affected by them differently.

[7] Cf. Lumen Gentium, “Chapter V: The Universal Call to Holiness,” Article 39

[8] The Council Fathers at II Vatican said that bishops “by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display.” They also made it quite clear that art that is unworthy of use in the liturgical environment should not be allowed in the church. They said in no uncertain terms that bishops should “remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists that are repugnant to faith, morals and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Article 124)

[9] Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Article 122.

[10] Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Article 122.

[11] Cf. John 15:1 – John 16: 4

[12] Built of Living Stones, No. 143

[13] “And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and Co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity is Trinity, and the Trinity is Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity.” (Athanasian Creed)

[14] Nicene Creed

[15] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1

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