“The alliance between the Christian faith and the arts has been broken.”

So spoke Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, on Sept. 10, 2009, announcing a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and artists from around the world.

The meeting, which took place Nov. 21, gathered together painters, poets, composers, dancers, actors, filmmakers and architects under the famed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The reason for the meeting was the problem outlined by Archbishop Ravasi and Pope Benedict’s desire to both heal that rift and renew the sacred arts.

Many in the world of art and the Church welcomed news of the gathering. But perhaps no group in America welcomed it more than the Foundation for Sacred Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded to help bring about the very renewal Pope Benedict seeks.

Through exhibitions, seminars, concerts and other ventures, the foundation works to school postmodern Catholics in the Church’s rich tradition of sacred painting, music and architecture. It also cultivates and promotes artists dedicated to teaching truth through beauty. 

Bound together

Once upon a time, the need for such an organization would have been unthinkable.

As Dominican Father Giles Dimock, prior of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., explained, from the earliest days of Christianity, art was considered essential to expressing and teaching the faith.

“Even when the Christians were a beleaguered minority in the catacombs,” he said, “they used images of the Lord as the good shepherd, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and pictures of loaves and fishes.”

Once Christianity went above ground, early believers gave form to their faith in the great basilicas and mosaics of the fourth century. They also set their worship to song in the form of Gregorian chant. As the centuries passed, the Church went on to commission the great Gothic cathedrals and stained-glass windows of the medieval period, then the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, Palestrina’s polyphonic chant and Mozart’s orchestral Masses.

The first reason for that close relationship, said sculptor H. Reed Armstrong, is that art and faith are bound together by beauty.

“We are brought by the perceptible beauty of the material world to the imperceptible beauty of the spiritual world,” he said.

Sacred art also forms the imagination.

“In our culture, the imagination gets a bad rap,” said Armstrong. “People think if you imagine something it’s not real. But the imagination is the faculty by which we envision reality. Through promoting the sacred arts, the Church fomented proper imagination — steering us away from improper images and filling the mind with good ones.”

Ultimately, however, art and faith are connected by the reality of the Incarnation. Presenting the truth about a God who took on flesh demands representing that truth in paint, plaster, marble and stone, not to mention poetry and song.

“We’re bodily creatures, and all knowledge comes to us through our senses,” said Father Dimock. “We were not saved by a distant God, but by the Second Person of the Trinity, who became one of us and saved us through that. God saves us through our body, with our senses. Sacred art touches our senses and elevates them.” 

Lost in abstraction

Well over a century ago, however, that understanding began to wane. The Enlightenment and the modernism it spawned led some to believe that a mature faith didn’t require mere pictures. The advent of plaster statuary and mass-produced sentimental artwork (along with mawkish music) made matters worse.

“As the images lost their power, people began to think they weren’t important,” said Armstrong.

At the same time, the world of art abandoned realism and embraced abstraction. Works of art became less understandable and therefore less capable of teaching the faith.

“Modern art is self-referential. The artist understands it, but it’s rarely readable to the viewer,” said Ann Marra, the foundation’s executive director. “And if it’s not readable, it’s not catechetical.”

Complicating matters further was the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Church to embrace contemporary art. The call was well-intentioned. The Church recognized the fissure between faith and art and wanted to find new ways to communicate truth to people of the 20th century.

“The problem,” said Catholic artist Anthony Visco, “was that too many people mistook ‘contemporary’ to mean ‘modernist,’ which it never did.”

The result were churches “built not to serve the liturgy but to serve the novelty of design,” and art and music that were “more about the artist than turning minds to God.” 

Recapturing imagination

In the decades that followed, the gulf between the Church and the arts widened. Then, in 1999, Pope John Paul II penned his famous “Letter to Artists,” issuing the same call for renewal that Pope Benedict issued in his Nov. 21 meeting. Around the same time, younger Catholics began experiencing what Father Dimock called a “hunger for roots,” seeking out beautiful churches and more traditional art and music.

That seeking has continued, as has a growing interest in young artists to return to more traditional forms of art, Visco said, adding he hears weekly from such aspirants, all looking for training and work.

And that’s where the Foundation for Sacred Arts comes in. Although founded in 2002, its early efforts were confined to traveling exhibitions. Last year, the foundation expanded exponentially — increasing its staff, hosting conferences in Virginia, as well as Chicago, and putting on an exhibition focused on the mysteries of the Rosary at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It also launched an online directory to help bishops and pastors looking to commission paintings and sculptures, and helping churches find qualified artists.

It hopes to expand programs further, launching a series of sacred music concerts and another exhibition, as well as conduct workshops in seminaries around the country.

“Through all our programs, we aim to be a catalyst for a new movement in the sacred arts — one aligned to an objective standard of beauty, rooted in the traditions of the Church, that also resonates with a 21st century audience,” Marra said.

Artists such as Visco and Armstrong say the foundation’s work can’t be underestimated.

“A renewal of the sacred arts won’t come out of secular art schools,” said Visco. “We need something like the Foundation for Sacred Art to reach the next generation. That’s the missing link.”

Not surprisingly, the biggest obstacle the foundation has faced is financial. Convincing donors that supporting art is as important as soup kitchens is tricky.

“We’re pragmatists,” said Father Dimock. “When it comes to building churches, we tend to think that building a shelter is the mission. But we forget that if there’s not beauty in that shelter, there’s nothing to draw people in. To carry out the Church’s mission we have to appeal to the whole person.”

Failing to do that carries a significant risk, Armstrong said. “We cannot leave the imagination out of the picture,” he added. “We’re losing souls by leaving it out.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.

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