Where art and the divine meet

Situated along U.S. Route 15 — the road that takes tourists from Washington, D.C., to the historic battlefields of Gettysburg — Mount St. Mary’s University and Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., has more than its fair share of visitors year-round.

Most happen by on a whim, wanting a closer look at the storybook campus nestled against a mountainside. Few know much about the school before they arrive. By the time they leave, however, they do know one thing: Mount St. Mary’s is Catholic. On that point, there can be no doubt.

As for how they know that, the 26-foot tall, gold-leaf-covered statue of the Blessed Virgin, perched atop a 70-foot bell-tower (which itself stands atop the mountain) is their first clue. Even if they miss that statue, though, it’s difficult to miss the life-size mural of Blessed John Paul II on the student life building; the gigantic stone statue of the school’s founder, Father John DuBois, planting an enormous cross in the ground; or the miniature Lourdes Grotto near the residence halls.

A story to tell

Then, of course, if they drive a little farther into campus, they’ll see the road leading up to the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes — the university’s football-field-size prayer garden, complete with Rosary Walk, Stations of the Cross, life-size Calvary scene, and dozens of statues commemorating saints and Marian apparitions, from Padre Pio and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, to Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of La Vang.

At Mount St. Mary’s, like at most Catholic colleges and universities, sacred art is everywhere. It’s in the chapels, but also in the classrooms, the administrative buildings and even the most remote corners of campus.

The reasons for that, chaplain Father Brian Nolan said, are practical and many.

“Every statue, every painting has a story to tell,” he said. “They’re the stories of those who’ve gone before us, stories of what it means to be a faithful disciple. The more we get to know those stories, the more we can imitate each in a particular way.”

They also, he continued, are a reminder of Mary’s, the angels’ and the saints’ perpetual prayers for God’s children on earth, as well as a call to turn to those heavenly friends in times of need.

“When you’re a child, you find comfort in knowing your parents are watching over you,” he said. “Remembering that the Blessed Mother and the saints are also watching over us provides a similar sort of comfort.”

Opportunity for grace

Franciscan University
A Franciscan University of Steubenville student prays the Stations of the Cross. Photo by Kenneth R. Cooke

In effect, what those sacred images do, said Dr. Linus Meldrum, assistant professor of fine arts at Franciscan University of Steubenville, is “provide students with an opportunity to move out of the everyday world. They become an important sacramental — an opportunity for grace.”

That opportunity, of course, isn’t necessary only for Catholic college students. As Dr. Nora Heimann, chair of the department of art and associate professor of art history at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., pointed out, in Europe roadside statues and sanctuaries abound for similar reasons.

“They’re there to remind us of what really matters,” she said. “In a way, they create a little well of sacredness that can reenergize us and redirect our attention to where it should be.”

When it comes to Catholic higher education in particular, however, those reminders have a singularly important role to play.

“In much the same way as it’s important for students to read great works of literature, it’s important for students to look upon great works of art,” said Heimann. “It helps us become attuned to the potential that we all have for doing things with excellence, then strive for things beyond the ordinary. As Catholics, we don’t want our students remaining earthbound. We want to see them seeking transcendence. Sacred art is a treasure for the heart that helps them do that.”

Customs and traditions

Those responses take on distinctive incarnations at individual schools, with students developing their own traditions around their campus’ sacred art — traditions that help bring them to a deeper encounter with the reality to which the art points.

Notre Dame
O’Neil Hall chapel triptych at the Notre Dame. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

For example, according to Dr. Lawrence Cunningham, author of “The Chapels of Notre Dame” (University of Notre Dame Press, $45), a late medieval triptych housed in the O’Neill Hall chapel at the school has become a shrine of sorts for students seeking to remember lost loved ones.

“Students started the custom,” he said. “They come and leave memorial cards for friends and classmates who’ve died.”

Graduating students at the University of Notre Dame, he added, also have a custom of making a “last visit” to the campus’ Marian Grotto and hosting a small prayer service there, all as a way of saying goodbye to their alma mater.

At Mount St. Mary’s, on the other hand, a candlelight prayer service at the Lourdes Grotto is how students say “hello” to the school, with freshman traditionally gathering there Orientation Weekend.

Throughout their time at the university, Father Nolan added, the Grotto is a place to which students sneak away when they want to “escape the stresses of studies and craziness of life. It’s a peaceful place, where they can take time to spend time with Jesus.”

A different sort of tradition has developed around the Mary, Queen of Heaven Statue near Catholic University’s Caldwell Hall.

Explained Heimann, “The statue is surrounded by cherry trees, and in the springtime, when they’re all in bloom, it’s become a common spot for students to get engaged.”

Art teaches faith

Notre Dame
Mary of the Angels of the Portiuncula Chapel at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Courtesy of Franciscan University

At Franciscan, a devotion has developed around the San Damiano Cross, the cross from which Jesus first spoke to St. Francis of Assisi, famously telling him to “Go, rebuild my Church, which you see is falling into ruins.” A large replica of the cross hangs in the main chapel sanctuary, while smaller replicas can be found in every other building on campus, as well as many residence hall rooms.

The cross itself is as much an icon as it is a crucifix, depicting Mary, the angels and other saints standing behind Christ. During students’ time at the university, many come to see it as an aid to contemplation, as well as a window into truths about the Catholic Faith.

“The strong contrast and vivid details of the cross imply the strength and beauty of the Faith in a way no professor ever could convey with words,” said junior Nick DiGregory.

The same can be said, he added, of the other works of sacred art on Franciscan’s campus, from the Stations of the Cross that line the campus hillside to the pictures of St. Francis hanging in the university’s art gallery.

“In the classroom, we learn about the beautiful variety of building blocks that comprise Catholic culture,” he explained. “Then, the sacred art we see everyday on campus reinforces what we learn in the classroom. It’s not just the classroom material that teaches the Faith. It’s the art all around us.”

And that, said Heimann, is the hope behind every piece of sacred art — on college campuses and elsewhere.

“Wherever people are in their faith journey, when they look upon religious works of art, you just hope they see in them some glimmer of God.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.