“Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. 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.” (Second Vatican Council, Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, n. 122).
In this interview, David Clayton—an internationally known artist, teacher, writer, and broadcaster—has picked some of the best books on Catholic sacred art.
An Englishman educated at Oxford, David Clayton, is Provost of www.Pontifex.University, for whom he created the unique Master of Sacred Arts program. He holds the post of Artist-in Residence of Scala Foundation in Princeton, NJ. He has major commissions from churches in the US and the UK, including the Brompton Oratory in London, and has illustrated several children’s books, including God’s Covenant With You by Scott Hahn. His popular blog is thewayofbeauty.org and in addition he writes regularly for the New Liturgical Movement website. His books include: The Way of Beauty: Liturgy, Education, and Inspiration for Family, School, and College; Painting the Nude: The Theology of the Body and Representation of Man in Christian Art; and The Little Oratory - A Beginner's Guide to Praying in the Home.
Sacred art can be understood either broadly or narrowly. Construed broadly, it encompasses sacred buildings, sculptures, paintings, vessels, and vestments. Construed more narrowly, it consists of sacred sculptures and paintings. Which sense do you have mind? Well, I know more about paintings and sculpture, but including that broader definition is fair. Most of what I am going talk about is visual art. The books that I am recommending are predominantly about painting.
We have reached a low ebb. Now, this is an opportunity. It means we have a clean sheet to start again and create something that is wonderful and beautiful.
What is the current state of Catholic sacred art? Dire, in one word.
With a few exceptions, I presume. Some people are bucking the trend, certainly, but, compared to what would have appeared automatically in the past, the standard of what you get in most churches and the knowledge of what even is necessary is very low. The availability of artists is very low as well. We have reached a low ebb.
Now, this is an opportunity. It means we have a clean sheet to start again and create something that is wonderful and beautiful. So, I am not daunted by that. That is why I devote my time to what I do. We have all the necessary ingredients. We have man, with a mission. We have God. We have the materials to make art with. There is no reason why we cannot equal or even surpass, through God's grace, the glories of the past.
In your view, the current state of Catholic sacred sites is quite dismal. What would you put that down to? What are the causes? I take my cue here from Benedict XVI, an authority on these matters. He does not speak infallibly, as Pope, about these things. Nevertheless, I respect him hugely.
In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, he says that the art forms became separated from our worship. The wellspring of Catholic culture, of Christian culture, is our worship. When our worship is in harmony with visual imagery, architecture, music, and the other arts, then you have a very powerful and beautiful “culture of faith”, as he calls it. When that is the case, it can become the driving force for a wider culture, which then engages with people outside the Church. It forms them and primes them for what they see when they come back into the Church.
That was always the case. There was a seamless transition from the culture of faith into what Pope Benedict calls contemporary culture, the wider culture of the time. Previously, the wider culture of the time could be generally described as Christian. There was a break, and the problem was liturgical. It occurred perhaps as early as the outset of the nineteenth century. You could see a separation in the way that people worshipped and their engagement with art. The way in which they worshipped did not engage with the arts. Therefore, the arts became superfluous and, ultimately, neglected.
Artists need to have skill. They also need an understanding of Christian traditions in art and of the way in which art serves the liturgy.
There are many things that Catholics can do to appreciate and promote sacred art: visiting museums and historic churches, or picking an original work of art for prayer at home. Some might even team up to improve the quality of the liturgical art used in their parish. What would you recommend? I have a two-pronged strategy. One is to offer formation to the artists. They need training. Artists need to have skill. They also need an understanding of Christian traditions in art and of the way in which art serves the liturgy. They need therefore to be producing beautiful sacred art in an enlightened way, so that it strikes people. This can turn people’s hearts, even people who, generally, are not appreciative of art or do not think of themselves as appreciative of high culture. If it is authentically beautiful and linked to worship, it can affect people. People do not need to be educated for it to do this.
Nevertheless, it always helps if you create the market for it. You can form people to appreciate what is authentically beautiful as well. How? Well, to a certain degree, you can have art classes which teach people that tradition.
In that sense, you can offer a similar sort of training for patrons of the arts as you would for artists. Patrons work in partnership with artists and should be doing more than simply supplying the money. They need to understand what is needed for the community for whom they are commissioning the piece.
At the same time, you need a bottom-up process in which you are forming people to make use of the art in the liturgical context. It is through teaching people to pray with art in the liturgy that they understand how to pray with art.
For example, every time a saint is mentioned and there is a picture of that saint, turn, look, and address the saint through the art. Currently, very few do this. We might invoke the name of Mary, in the Mass for example, and no one looks at the statue of Mary. They will typically have their eyes shut. You can teach people to look at the statue.
Part of the reason that I wrote The Little Oratory with Leila Lawler, a great person to work with, was to teach people to pray with visual imagery in the home and to give them some parameters for choosing art which serves prayer well. The premise is that if we pray well, then the sacred art that supports that prayer will, on the whole, be good too.
The reason that I focused on the home is that I do not like to badger priests. They are in service of the Church at the parish. Many do not have the training in sacred art that is necessary, but, frankly, unless they are asking you for information, they have probably got enough on their plates. I am grateful that they are doing what they do. To add another criticism to what they're doing, probably is not the most helpful thing. If they are asking the questions and you have that kind of relationship with the parish, that's terrific. However, it occurs to me that we can pray liturgically and authentically in the home, by praying the liturgy of the hours. If we learn to pray with the art, we are developing communities that will naturally desire what is good. My hope is that this will then come into the parish and seep its way up.
What principles have you followed in drawing up your list of recommended books? A little story about how I even got involved in this, will help describe the principles.
I started off wanting to serve the Church as an artist, but I could not find the training anywhere. It was difficult enough to get the skills. Eventually, it was just about possible. I could pick icon painting classes here. I went to learn the academic method of drawing and painting in Florence. So, I am carefully choosing individual courses to build up my skills. Even then, you are making a patchwork quilt of training. It is not ideal, but possible, if you are driven and committed. I have seen people do that and develop the necessary skills. But then you need to understand how to direct those skills in the service of the Church and authentic liturgical art. So, the books I have picked are the ones I found most useful in trying to understand and describe the traditions of the Church and the principles that that would direct the artist’s brush when they are painting.
I have included one of my own books. By nature, I am a self-publicist, but I have included it not just for that reason. I found that there was very little information available. So, I had to draw what I was looking for from a whole string of different sources. I put into my book, The Way of Beauty, those things which are not in a textbook on Catholic sacred art. However well or badly I have done this, I believe it fills a vacuum.
The first book on your list is one you have already mentioned: Card. Joseph Ratzinger’s, The Spirit of the Liturgy. It is not about sacred art as such. Though it has sections on sacred art, it focuses on the liturgy, the setting of sacred art. Why have you chosen this book to top your list? Well, as you say, it is not about art directly. It is about the liturgy. The chapter on art, like the whole book, is immensely rich. He has a way of writing that you can unpack and unpack.
The liturgy, the worship of God, is the highest activity in which we can engage in this life. It is a participation in the heavenly activity of loving God. That is the closest we can get and so it informs everything else we do so by. Through it, all that we do can be part of the activity of loving God and can be sanctified by it. Ultimately, the source and summit of all Christian activity is the liturgy. We need to understand that before we can understand how the art can be placed into that context.
The Spirit of the Liturgy is the best book that I have found, as a first read anyway, to accomplish that. Frankly, you could read nothing else. It is so rich that it gives you a deep understanding of the wellspring of Catholic culture.
The forms that you see in Christian culture are formed from the inspiration of the liturgy. All cultures are of a time and a place. We understand the general through the particular. However, the liturgy is the source of its own culture. It is not simply the external cultures that exist around it. They will contribute to it as well. People talk about Western European culture representing certain things and being inappropriate for other places. Well, to the degree that it participates in what is universal in Christian culture, it is appropriate to all people. So, where there is no Christian culture, it is perfectly legitimate to bring those forms in as they are and then gradually to adapt them to the place and time, as the Spanish did in South or Central America. This is not Europe engaging in cultural imperialism. This is Christianity offering its own culture to others so that they can take it as a gift and then develop it as their own from that starting point.
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