Sacred art on Catholic college and university campuses influences students in many ways. It inspires meditation, prayer and discovering new faith perspectives. It sparks curiosity about the history or meanings behind the art, and appreciation for the artists who created the work. For some students, exposure to sacred art influences the direction of their studies and careers.

In his introduction to art class at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo., Jesuit Father Terrence Dempsey wants students to start looking at art with new eyes. For instance, if they find traditional art boring, what fresh perspective can they discover about it? And what other styles can they appreciate?

Art in context

Also, as director of the university’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, he creates spaces where students can link art with classes in theology, history and other course studies. Traditional art, including religious artifacts from the 13th to 20th centuries, is displayed at the St. Louis University Museum of Art on campus, so that Catholic heritage is available. While the contemporary art looks very different, there are commonalities.

“Here, students see that artists of our time are doing significant religious art of our time using the visual vocabulary of our time, in the same tradition that the artists of earlier times used what was popular in their time,” Father Dempsey said.

God is still glorified, but with different media. For instance, an exhibit with towers of stacked televisions creates the stained-glass windows from the medieval Chartres Cathedral in France and runs a video of the life of Christ. At one point a burst of light — the light of God — comes through.

“It’s startling, absolutely startling,” Father Dempsey said. “The students are moved. They sit on the floor in absolute silence, and then some go to the university church that has stained-glass windows, and they start to look at them in a different way.”

Art and history intersect

Allison H. Lipari, now assistant to the chair of the Department of Art at her alma mater, The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., looked at sacred art from such a different perspective, she said, that she switched her major.

“I started out as a physics major and studied abroad in Europe between my freshman and sophomore years,” she said. “We studied art history and we went to all the cathedrals and learned about Gothic architecture, and about how it is meant to mentally lift your prayers up to God. As a Catholic, I found those cathedrals with huge windows for light, and the colored glass, to be very inspiring. That’s why I switched from physics to art history. There are so many different types of sacred art, and it’s wonderful to see how they complement each other. And when you learn about them, you see what art is echoing from the past.”

As a student, Lipari visited the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on campus for her faith and for studies. When she graduated in 2010 with a major in art history, she stayed to work in administration in the art department.

Art as inspiration

Incoming freshmen at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., are introduced to the St. John’s Bible, an illuminated work of art commissioned by the abbey and university. It’s rendered in the ancient Benedictine tradition of writing manuscripts.

“They come in and it’s, ‘Oh, I have to listen to a presentation on the Bible. I’ll endure it,’” said Tim Ternes, director of the project housed in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. “Then they are blown away. I think what immediately strikes them is that the fact that it was even done, and that it took 23 people 15 years to create it. The pages are 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It’s a monumental work.”


Every word of the New Revised Standard Version translation is hand drawn. The illustrations are called illuminations and, Ternes said, “They draw you in. For many, it’s one of the first Bibles that feels welcoming. It reinforces the fact that the Bible is communal, and it becomes an invitation into the Scripture to find meanings. Many students say that it changes the way they read Scripture.”

Grace Butkowski, 20, of St. Cloud, Minn., is a junior history major working at the project through an internship.

“These are more modern designs, and they tried pulling everything from every culture and from science as well,” she told OSV. “We call them illuminations because they just glow. Without that glow, this would just be an illustrated Bible.”

Butkowski guides tours and works with staff to create the exhibits. In addition to seeing the Bible as “an inspiration for faith,” she appreciates the longtime correlation between religion and history.

“Religion is woven into every facet of history,” she said. “You can’t separate them. If you study any war, whatever political causes there were, there’s always some component of religion as well, and artwork can be propaganda for those causes.”

A new environment

A competition to conceptualize a design in the Trinity Dome in the Basilica of the National Shrine solidified Corey August’s plans to pursue a career in architecture, specifically sacred design. While a freshman at CUA, he teamed up with fellow freshman Philip Goolkasian, who rendered the technical side. Their work won first place.

August, 23, of Silver Springs, Md., developed the artistic design of the Holy Trinity linked with the Holy Family and the intercession of Mary.

“When I was at The Heights (high) School in Potomac, I traveled in western Europe and was very influenced by the baroque cathedrals and glorifying God through the built environment,” he said. “I wanted to be an instrument of that.”

August pursued a major in architecture with a concentration in sacred space and cultural studies. His thesis project looks at how architecture can be part of the New Evangelization in creating inviting spaces.

“I went into architecture thinking I would design baroque cathedrals, and yes and no,” he told OSV. “Yes, in a dreamland, because there’s this argument between reverting back to church design at the height of Renaissance, and then these modern churches. But if the faith we have is the living Body of Christ, it’s living and evolving and growing. So if you want to revert back, it’s something that becomes stagnant. The new would not change the message of the Church but just deliver it in a new environment.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.