Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


How do we know if a proposed liturgical image is “Catholic”? Part II

May 19th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here

Before describing my third standard for measuring the Catholicity of a proposed work of sacred liturgical art I would like to describe in this post two things that I think are foundational to understanding the purpose of liturgical art vis a vis the Divine Liturgy –the Mass.

Foundational tenets

  1. Each Mass is celebrated both by us here on earth and by the angels and saints in heaven; not in two separate places and two different times but right here and right now.
  2. Liturgical art makes present, through material images, the saints and angels of heaven and the events of our salvation history.

I probably don’t need to explain the first point. It is pretty basic. Probably most people reading this understand the point and would agree. So let’s move on to the second and more difficult concept.

Sacred liturgical images are a part of the Liturgy

In his book “Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy”, Denis R. McNamara explains that sacred liturgical art is an important part of the liturgy. It is not merely decorative. True liturgical art is meant to actually participate in the ritual action of the Mass. Sacred images, MaNamara writes, are visual remembrances of salvation history and actively contribute to the eschatological dimension of the Liturgy.1  Pope Benedict XVI- when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, taught that the …

… point of images (in the liturgy) is not to tell a story about something in the past, but to incorporate the events of history into the sacrament.2

The liturgical purpose of images is to make events and personages real and present.

In liturgical time, we make present again the events of the past and anticipate the realities of the future. So the term images used in this context really means ‘sacrament,’ a participation in invisible realities through the medium of earthly matter.3


"Crossing of the Red Sea and Drowning of the Egyptians", nave mosaic in Santa Marria Maggiore, 5th c., Rome


It is somewhat similar to our understanding of the sacrifice of Calvary brought forward in time and made present in the Mass. The justification for the use of images in worship rests with the fact of the Incarnation through which the goodness of the physical universe became, again, the conduit of divine revelation and divine life. Sacred images, therefore, act in a way similar to sacramentals. They do not actually convey grace ex opera operato, but ex opera operantis ecclesiae; by …

“the Church’s intercession they convey spiritual effects, and by their aid men are disposed to receive fruits of the sacraments and various occasions in their daily life are rendered holy.”4

Through sacred images -whether of persons, places or things- we become disposed to concentrate on our eschatological destination. The images offer us a foretaste of God’s desired goal for us: our union with Him, our divinization –our sanctification.

… in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims …5

The Holy Images are part of that foretaste. They surround us and help us to participate in our praise of the Divine Majesty.

Evidence from our tradition

We have hard evidence that this understanding of the role of sacred images began at least as early as the year 240 when the walls of a ‘baptistery’ in a house church in Dura-Europos were decorated with biblical scenes associated with baptism. In addition, Church Fathers were drawing analogies between such things as the sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrifices that had been offered in the Jerusalem Temple, and between the clergy of the Church and the Temple priests.6 Christ Himself had taught that His life and actions were a continuation and fulfillment of salvation history that had been revealed in the Old Testament. The Apostolic and later Church Fathers, especially the mystagogues7, continued to teach the same theology.


"St. Paul's Outside the Walls", Rome, late 4th c.


The church basilicas of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries expressed the same truth in fresco and mosaic.8 Transforming the Roman civic basilica plan, architects of Christian churches created longitudinal interiors with the primary entrance doors on a short side directly opposite the apse and altar which were set into the wall at the other end. The perspective lines of the rows of columns, marble flooring and open timbered ceilings all irresistibly pulled one visually from the entrance to the far apse end of the basilica toward a large stunning mosaic image of Christ in glory, the end point -the destination- of every life. Other mosaics in the apse drew analogies between what was taking place at the altar and Old Testament ‘types’ of the Eucharist such as the sacrifice offered by Melchizedek or the hospitality of Abraham.


Nave wall and clerestory of "old" -the first- St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican, late 4th c.

In the nave, scriptural scenes from salvation history were rendered on the walls with Old Testament scenes often analogically arranged opposite New Testament scenes on the other side. Images of Old Testament prophets and New Testament saints stood between the scenes or between the clerestory windows in the register above. Throughout, one had a sense of being drawn through salvation history to the end point of history, Christ the Lord, in the apse. Everything in these basilicas seemed to be arranged so as to communicate a sense of procession toward the Lord and the saving action at the altar. Even in the apse, lambs, apostles, and other saints are arranged symmetrically, flanking the Lord and appearing in procession toward Him. The glittering mosaics and bright colors, numerous candelabras and patterned marble floors all suggested a heavenly environment, and spiritual participants. The earthly congregation was in the nave, and the physical world in the sacramentals made of earthly matter. Heaven and earth joined together in the worship of the Divine Majesty.

And so, the holy images of saints are not just portraits of our spiritual fathers in the faith, and scenes from the Bible are not just visual memories of past times. Both are images that make those saints and past events spiritually present to us in the Mass. Such images, therefore, should visually communicate a spiritual reality so that they may effectively dispose us to receive the benefits of the sacraments. The holy saints join us from their heavenly home and so their images should communicate the sanctified nature of their bodies.

How, then, do artists paint or sculpt human images to look sanctified, and how can they represent both past, present and future events as transformed into sacred time?

In the next post I will try to define a third standard in light of the points I’ve made in this post and, hopefully, get a little closer to finding a way to determine if a work art is appropriately Catholic for use in the church.


1 Denis R. McNamara, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, (Chicago/Mundelein, Hillenbrand Books, 2009), page 143

2  Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2000), 117. As cited in McNamara’s book, page 143

3 McNamara, xii

4 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd edition, (London, Oxford University Press, 1974), pages 1219-1220

5 Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Conciliuim, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

6 1 Clement 40, 41

7 Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Denis the Areopaite, and others

8 When images appeared in the basilicas of the late 4th, and 5th and 6th centuries their purpose was purposefully catechetical, especially those displayed in the nave. Their presence there was justified by Pope Gregory the Great for that very reason. The theology of sacred images did not get a full thrashing out until the iconoclastic controversy erupted in the Eastern Church even though the typological underpinnings had been long understood. Looking back on it, however, it’s easy to see how the images more than likely accomplished a spiritual as well as a catechetical effect. The theology was developed in answer to the use of imagery in the churches, explaining definitively what was already felt or unconsciously understood by the faithful. Rules were also set down at the time to correct the misuse of images that led to idolatry. If you are interested, I cover the whole issue in my online book, here and here.

Picture Source:

Last image of stained glass window

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3 Responses to “How do we know if a proposed liturgical image is “Catholic”? Part II”

  1. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    very nice article

  2. avatar Bro AJK says:

    Dear Bernie,

    I would suggest a visit to Aquinas before you go too far, especially his statements on music as they apply. He develops that beauty alone is not sufficient. It is necessary (and this is the part that pushes me to disagree with your use of the prayer card…it seems kitschy), but not sufficient by itself. It must be also be sacred. Aquinas then develops this in more detail.

  3. avatar Bernie says:

    Bro AJK:
    Thank you for our comment. I included the prayer card not as an example of good liturgical art -it isn’t- but only to literally illustrate the two accompanying points in the text. I could have found a more sacred example, and probably should have. I’ll see what I can find and maybe post it later. In the next post, and third standard, I think I address Aquinas’ point. See what you think, then. Thanks.

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