Cleansing Fire

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Good Liturgical Art in Our Cathedral

June 15th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

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At our own Sacred Heart Cathedral there is an example of good liturgical art -art that is appropriate for use in the liturgy. Liturgical art is art that is used in the celebration of Mass and the other sacraments. For this post, it refers to images that are displayed in the main body of the church, the nave, transepts, and chancel.

In the west wall of the nave of Sacred Heart Cathedral, in a shrine niche, is an original wood carving of Saint John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester (England) and the patron saint of our diocese. A sculpture of St. Joseph, in the same material and style, is in a similar niche on the opposite side of the nave. My observations in this post are of the Fisher work.

Why do I consider this to be good sacred art –liturgical art, as distinct from devotional (or merely religious) art?

I have eight reasons:

1.  It is unambiguously orthodox. Nothing leads me to question its doctrinal or iconic truth. The attributes of this saint are accurately depicted according to tradition: a feather pen, book, stole, alb, and pectoral cross. Most importantly, there is no special attention drawn to the sculpture by the inclusion of strange or unusual objects, clothing or poses.1 The artist, here, has deliberately suppressed or controlled his personal interpretation in favor of an interpretation consistent with tradition.

2.  It is an image that falls into the category of subjects that may be used in a liturgical setting; it is an image of a canonized saint.1

3.  The image is natural but not overly realistic. It is not grossly distorted through abstraction. The head and hands seem to be slightly exaggerated in size in comparison to the rest of the (slim) body, which suggests intellectual and spiritual discipline over carnal and sensual desires.

4.  The work represents the saint in a transfigured or glorified state. The saint appears in possession of eternal truth and in full union with God; existing in a beatified state of being, free of corruption both physically and morally.

a) Frontality – the artist poses the figure standing straight and facing forward.2

b) Symmetry –the head, shoulders and hips are level; the figure communicates a feeling of being at rest and in a state of eternal balance as opposed to a feeling of a person who is in a mere passing moment in time.3

c) The eyes are cast down suggesting an undisturbed concentration; a confident knowing or enlightenment; mentally composed and free of uncertainty or anxiety

d) The compactness of the pose stresses verticality and an otherworldly existence.

e) Although not part of the sculpture itself, the decoration of the back wall of the niche in which the statue is displayed suggests a heavenly environment through the use of pattern and regal colors, gold and red. We might envision a small heavenly throne room.

6. The work is noble.  It is an original work of art (not massed produced), and the material is quality wood that has been skillfully carved.4

7. The image does not invite or demand an emotional ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ response in the viewer as it is meant to make present the actual saint who participates in the liturgy as much as the person sitting next to us. We should not distract each other while praying together in the Mass by dressing outlandishly or behaving in such a way as to attract attention. That goes for the saint, as well.

8. Finally, the image is not looking at us as if to engage our personal attention. That would be appropriate in a devotional piece but not in a liturgical one.

This image of St. John Fisher in Sacred Heart Cathedral is an example of good liturgical art.

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Notes

1 Other approved liturgical subjects include the Persons of the Trinity, scenes from the Old and New Testaments, angels, plant/garden imagery, abstract patterns, and dogmatic images.

2 The opposite of frontality is a figure in contrapposto: head, shoulders and hips twist and face in opposite directions from each other with the weight of the body seemingly carried on only one leg/foot. Rather than appearing at rest, such a pose creates rhythmic visual movement through the figure.

3 The opposite of symmetrical balance is asymmetrical balance which is achieved intuitively and informally rather than mechanically or formally.

4 Noble beauty is a concept mandated by the Second Vatican Council: “Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display …” ( Sacrosanctum Concilium, 124) My emphasis.

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One Response to “Good Liturgical Art in Our Cathedral”

  1. Thank you for your interesting and informative post Bernie!


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