Vatican II & Sacred Art

Deacon Scott Maentz Vatican II


Photo by Alberto Ayala

One of the things that was always emphasized in our seminary training with regards to the liturgy, which includes the use of sacred art, is that it should have a character of noble simplicity. The council fathers described the use of sacred art with these words,

The fine arts are rightly classed among the noblest activities of man’s genius; this is especially true of religious art and of its highest manifestation, sacred art. Of their nature the arts are directed toward expressing in some way the infinite beauty of God in works made by human hands. Their dedication to the increase of God’s praise and of his glory is more complete, the more exclusively they are devoted to turning men’s minds devoutly toward God.

I love the fact that this document expresses the belief that artists, through their work, share a communion with God by the way in which they mirror His work of creation. The beauty of creation is expressed through the hands of artists and the Church affirms this. I recall in the seminary when Fr. Bob Barron expressed his dismay at the motto of MGM Studios, Ars Gratia Artis, a Latin phrase which means “Art for art’s sake”. The Constitution makes it clear that art, and especially sacred art, is always art for the sake of God’s glory. As one who has taken up the study of writing icons, I understand the heavy burden this puts on artists. My teacher Irene is meticulous in reminding me that sacred artists should take great care in their work as people will be using these icons for prayer.

Sacrosanctum Concilium makes clear is that there is a certain dignity that should be present in art that is placed in church buildings but does leave things vague enough to have caused us some problems in the last several decades. The document, while stressing noble simplicity, does not define clearly what constitutes beauty. My guess is that the fathers spoke in vague terms because beauty is difficult to define. The following words ring true with me, but leave the door open for a wide range of interpretations,

The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of peoples and the needs of various rites. Thus in the course of the centuries she has brought into existence a treasury of art which must be preserved with every care. the art of our own times from every race and country shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided it bring to the task the reverence and honor due to the sacred buildings and rites.

As I reflect on these words, it strikes me that perhaps the problem is not with a lack of definition by the bishops who gave us this document, but rather the fact that our current culture has largely abandoned beauty in favor of the vulgar and the profane and has in many ways lost the ability to recognize what should be considered beautiful.

The council fathers also encouraged the Church to “seek for noble beauty, rather than sumptuous display.” One of the things we have yet to find a proper balance for, in my opinion, is this noble beauty. Let’s just take the example of clerical vestments. We seem to either come down on the side of extremely lavish and expensively made vestments or completely tacky polyester looking ones that are, in my opinion, not worthy of what they are being used for. Perhaps my issue with the extremely lavish vestments is not the beauty that they possess, but the expense that goes into them that many in our country would argue could be better spent on those in need. I do believe we need to be very critical about what we allow when it comes to vestments and other sacred art that it is suitable for its purpose. Perhaps a good analogy would be to look at what would be expected of the person invited to a state dinner at the White House. Jeans and a t-shirt are not appropriate for this event, and at the same time it would also be inappropriate to show up wearing a jeweled crown and a royal robe, unless of course you are the Queen of England.

There was some controversy following the council that continues to be discussed even to this day surrounding the implementation of the following statement by the council fathers:

The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they be venerated by the faithful is to me maintained. Nevertheless their number should be moderate and their relative positions should reflect right order.

There has been an enormous amount of commentary written surrounding the “stripping of the altars” in the history of the modern Catholic Church. Much of it I find intelligent and compelling. I don’t want to overly criticize those clergy who were given the task of implementing the council. In my opinion, they did the best they could. But in retrospect there are some things that could have been done better. I am sure there are also things that future generations will look back upon in the present day Church and say the same. I am sure that there were many churches that needed to remove much of the art that was perhaps “too much” for a particular church, but I also know that many churches went beyond what the fathers called for. Another place I turn to is our Eastern Catholic church buildings which often have icons on every inch of every wall from floor to ceiling and see a great beauty represented there. To me, I believe we made the mistake of trying to apply legalism to art, and that doesn’t work. They each speak a different language.

It has been 50 years since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. While that seems like a long time, in the life of the Church it is very short. It is my great hope that we can continue to find ways to bring the beauty of words, music and art to our liturgy to continue our expression of thanks to God for all He has done for us. We will only reach perfection in our praise in heaven, but let us keep striving to make each liturgy more beautiful than the last.