Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Can there be a stained glass version of “Gather Us In”?

May 10th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Can a corresponding debate be waged in relation to a church’s stained glass window that erupted in the comment section of Gather Us In, A Bad Song Is Playing?

There may be very few willing to tackle the question. I’m not going to point to any particular work of liturgical art in this post. (I will, later, in another post.) Rather, I’d like to lay out my thinking on how we should be making decisions on the appropriateness of specific works meant for use as sacred or liturgical art.

Unlike Gregorian chant, Latin, and the pipe organ the Church has not indicated any preference in the visual arts for one style or another. She mentions the rich tradition of different styles that have served the Church admirably throughout the centuries but mandates no specific style over all others.

The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by. 1

But we are not without some guidance: “She (the Church) has brought into being a treasury of art which must be carefully preserved.” Now, that probably should first be interpreted as meaning that works already created should be left in place or preserved in a useful liturgical way. Such works certainly should not be discarded, sold, or even stored because of style or antiquity. But, I propose, “carefully preserved” could also mean that the tradition of styles employed by the Church should also be preserved and mined for inspiration in the creation of new works.2

Like in many of my other posts, tradition arises once again as a guiding principle.

So also Beauty:

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.3 (Emphasis mine.)

The Council refers to sacred art, art that is oriented toward “the infinite beauty” of God. I interpret this to mean that the Church insists that sacred art must be beautiful because the infinite well spring of beauty is God. I don’t think the Council would have used the word beautiful if the term referred only to some vacuous subjective feeling people might have. No, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. It is objective truth. I’ve addressed this before: “An object, or person, is beautiful when it clearly and fully shows forth its ontological reality as understood in the mind of God.” Now, this means that not only a stained glass window, for example, needs to be skillfully fashioned in the best materials possible and be everything that is essential to being a stained glass window but that it also, in the context of our discussion, be Catholic (capital C; Vatican II was a council of the Catholic Church). It has to be a Catholic stained glass window to be both beautiful and sacred. That is, of course, a demanding requirement.  Artists–and those who commission them- must know quite a bit about what it might take to make a Catholic stained glass window. Knowledge of art history and liturgical art is needed as well as the knowledge of how to make a stained glass window. It is also essential that the artist and others involved have knowledge of Catholic theology and thought. These requirements should not be treated lightly. “…all things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world.”4 When all is said and done the question must be asked, “Is it Catholic?” The Council told us that…

…the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use.5 (Emphasis mine.)

There is yet another requirement the Church imposes:

Ordinaries, by the encouragement and favor they show to art which is truly sacred, should strive after noble beauty rather than mere sumptuous display. This principle is to apply also in the matter of sacred vestments and ornaments.6 (Emphasis mine.)

Notice the phrase here is noble beauty and not noble simplicity.  Liturgists and liturgical consultants often use the word simplicity to insist that a certain minimalism be enforced in art and environment. The Church does not reject complex, intricate or decorative designs but it does mandate against displays that have complexity or the display of wealth as their end –“mere sumptuous display.”

It is in the realm of artists to know how to create a noble work of art. The concept noble has to be translated into a visual image and that is the expertise of the artist. With a skillful handling of the elements of art (the vocabulary of art) according to the principles of art (the grammar of art) the artist will produce a stained glass window that is noble. And so, keeping in mind the Council’s guidelines, a sacred work of art must be noble in order to be beautiful. It must communicate the essence of being noble.

So, in summary, we can judge our hypothetical stained glass window by asking a few questions:

  1. Does the window show forth its essence as a stained glass window? Does it, for example, allow enough light through the colors –but not too much? Is it skillfully constructed?
  2. Does the window have the “exclusive aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God?”
  3. Is the window Catholic? Can we see in it the influence of the Church’s liturgical tradition? Does it use traditional Catholic symbols or iconography?
  4. Is the window noble? Does the composition of design communicate a noble or lofty feeling/idea as opposed to a common or base one?

These are very basic questions that we all need to consider in evaluating sacred (liturgical) art. (I suspect that we could ask the same questions of music intended for use in the liturgy.) They are not questions that will necessarily result in unanimous answers in every instance but they are questions based on the Council’s guidelines that can used to help us arrive at a consensus.


1Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy “Sacrosanctum Concilium”, 123

2There is also this: “Let bishops carefully remove from the house of God and from other sacred places those works of artists which are repugnant to faith, morals, and Christian piety, and which offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense.” But, that is another issue.

3SC, 122

4SC, 122

5SC, 122

6SC, 124



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