Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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

May 16th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

I contend that a work of art must be Catholic in order to qualify for use as sacred liturgical art. I think that is what the Fathers of Vatican II meant when they stipulated in Sacrosanctum Concilium of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 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.”

But, how do we know if a work is “in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws”? I believe there are several standards that a work must be measured by in order for it to be used in the liturgical space of a church. But, in order to avoid one very long post, I will post several smaller ones that explain my standards. What follows are descriptions of the first two. I hope you will feel free to chime in.

Unambiguously orthodox.

Certainly, the work must be in accord with orthodox Catholic teaching and doctrine. It would not do to have images that were heretical or even ambiguous about such important matters. For example, a design proposal for an apse painting in which the Holy Mother of God was depicted as a fourth member of the Godhead would be heretical. That certainly should be rejected. But, a design, improperly formed, might inadvertently suggest that she is part of the Godhead. The artist may not have intended to create a heretical image but the image might easily be mis-interpreted. The ambiguity disqualifies the work from being considered sacred. People in charge of approving liturgical designs need to watch out for doctrinal ambiguity. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good resource on Catholic doctrine and teaching to have close at hand.)

Sometimes the ambiguity is intentional. The transgendered crucifix still in use in St. Mary’s Church, downtown Rochester, is a clear example of intentional doctrinal ambiguity. It got approved because it was “modern” and not because it was Catholic. The term “modern”1 was used to justify the acquisition of the crucifix so as to deliberately blur the literal/historical identity of Christ for the purpose of furthering a feminist agenda. Now, the people responsible no doubt felt they were doing something good –making women feel included. In doing so, however, they introduced doctrinal ambiguity and, even, heresy. If there is no widespread precedent for an image then its doctrinal orthodoxy should be held suspect and a higher authority or competence consulted.

Another example of ambiguity is the popular use of the rainbow image in banners and other temporary art forms that are often found in many of the sanctuaries of our progressive parishes nowadays. It is true that the sign of the covenant between God and Noah was the rainbow and is, therefore, scriptural and a legitimate Christian symbol. But, the rainbow image has become for most Americans a secular symbol for the social issue of diversity and inclusiveness. In addition, the rainbow has become a design image symbolic of the homosexual agenda. The vast majority of people today would be reminded of inclusiveness and homosexual “rights” and would not likely think of the Sign of Noah. In the case of the association of the rainbow with the homosexual agenda the rainbow could even seem to be contradicting the Church’s clear teaching on chastity, marriage and the family. This doesn’t mean that rainbows are now out, only that we have to be particularly careful in their use.


1 (left) What is the meaning of this banner? (right) a "Rainbow Sash" group protest in a Catholic church.

2 "The Promise Widow", St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. Here, the symbolism of the rainbow as the sign of Noah is made perfectly clear.

Ambiguity is a major problem with much of what I call banner art used in parishes today partly because they are created under very loosely controlled circumstances. Sometimes created by youth groups and other times by liturgy committees, designs get by simply because no one wants to stifle anyone’s enthusiasm. Certainly, nothing should be planned for use that is not first evaluated by the pastor.

3 "The Sign of Noah" or Peace & Diversity?


Banners promoting ideas of social action, civil rights, feminism, “community” and such present themes that are not bad in and of themselves –some are, after all, themes in the Gospel- but they tend to focus on man’s political or social action without the need for God –a kind of self redemption. They divert from the praise of God -which is the proper aim of the liturgy- and from commemorating His saving intervention in human history.

Banners, themselves, no matter how unambiguously orthodox, do not qualify for use in the church anyway. But, that is another standard. We will describe later in the series.

Restricted Content and Subjects

In addition to unambiguous orthodox doctrine, works of liturgical art should be limited to depictions of the persons of the Holy Trinity, Mary, (some) blesseds and canonized saints, the angels, scriptural accounts, and dogmatic compositions. No other persons, living or dead, or subjects should be represented anywhere in -or on- the church, excluding ancillary rooms not directly used in the liturgical space. This restriction also helps us to avoid drifting into fads which have no place in the liturgy.

4 (right)sculpture of Archbishop Oscar Romero on the martyr's wall of London's Westminster Abby Church. If this was a Catholic church his image would be inappropraite in this location as he is not yet even beatified. (middle) statue of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in the nave of a church in Murano, Italy. (right) statue of Pope John Paul II. At the time this picture was taken John Paul was not yet beatified and so his image was confined to the narthex of the same church that contains the image of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta.


I’ll clarify further on restricted content and subjects in Part 2 of this series.

So, there are my first two standards that I think we should apply to an artist’s proposed design to see if it passes the test for use as sacred liturgical art: unambiguously orthodox and, restricted content and subjects.


1 Making Renovation Work, Joan Sobala, SSJ, page 11, Modern Liturgy, Vol. 7, Num. 4. The term was used by Sister Joan Sobala, who was on staff at St. Mary’s at the time, in describing the transgendered cross which was much criticized, according to Sister, by “angry and vocal dissenters from beyond the parish.” The critics, she suggested, were merely “opposed to the replacement of the large,  traditional cross by a  more modern image of the risen Christ.”

Picture Sources

1. Left Image; Right Image

2. The Promise Window

3. Christian Computer Art

4. Oscar Romero, Blessed Teresa and Pope John Paul by Bernie Dick

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

  1. Maureen says:

    Sounds like they made a tragic mistake about where to hang the statue of St. Wilgefortis.

    (And yeah, probably not a good idea to have statues of St. Wilgefortis et al, in this sad and confused age.)

  2. annonymouse says:

    Bernie, Bernie, Bernie. What are we to make of Ezekiel 1:28, Revelation 4:3 and Revelation 10:1, all of which refer to rainbows around the glory of the Lord upon His return or around the throne (“halos” in the NAB Revelation, but rainbows in other translations)?

    Not every rainbow means what you’re taking it to mean, Bernie!

  3. Bro AJK says:

    Dear Bernie,

    You are tightening your doctrinal arguments. Good.

    Ambiguity can lead to kitsch. We don’t need that as we’ve plenty of it.

    Banner….How would that differ from a tapestry? I ask not to be flippant. Say what you want about the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in LA, but those tapestries of the saints facing Christ are beautiful. That is unambiguous to me. The saints are like us, but not. They prayed in the nave, like us, but now their stature has grown, and so they are shown greater-than-life. I think the total is greater than the sum of the parts on that one.

    Anyway, I babbled. Good job once again at reflecting over the doctrinal part of liturgical art.

  4. Hopefull says:

    The whole rainbow theme is in the stained glass at St. Louis in Pittsford. Of course, that whole church is turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction anyway. Here’s something else that bothers me, and I’d appreciate comment on it. How can a chapel be named for the donor? I’m thinking of the Coleman Chapel at St. John Fisher. Is it appropriate to be bothered by this? Or chapels named after favorite pastors for that matter? Who is responsible for making decisions on this kind of naming?

  5. Scott W. says:

    It is true that the sign of the covenant between God and Noah was the rainbow and is, therefore, scriptural and a legitimate Christian symbol

    annonymouse, annonymouse, annonymouse. What are we to make of someone who doesn’t bother to read things such as:

    “It is true that the sign of the covenant between God and Noah was the rainbow and is, therefore, scriptural and a legitimate Christian symbol.”


    “This doesn’t mean that rainbows are now out, only that we have to be particularly careful in their use.”

  6. Bernie says:

    Bro AJK:
    Thank you for your insightful comments.
    I am planning on taking up the banner issue in a subsequent post. I like your observation concerning the tapestry in the LA cathedral.

    I had to go to the St. Louis parish website to see if they had any pictures of the windows. I couldn’t remember what they looked like. After looking at them in the pictures I’m not sure I understand your concern. At least rainbows don’t come to my mind. The colors used are wide ranging and very intense/pure hues and mostly organized according to the principle of color ‘temperature’ (cool colors -blue, greens, purples- grouped together in contrast to warm colors -reds, yellows, oranges)The contrast seems to be used to create emphasis; for example, in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel the warm colors are grouped behind and around the tabernacle. The cool colors surround them. The use of the colors in this instanse is to emphasize the tabernacle, and symbolically to emphasize the sacredness tabernacle and its contents. As long as intense colors are coordinated with other elements or images to clue us in as to what the window is meant to communicate then I think we are okay. I wouldn’t want you to become overly sensitive to the use of pure, bright colors.

  7. Hopefull says:

    Thanks, Bernie.
    I was probably confusing in what I wrote. The part about “turned around” only meant about the Sanctuary being at the west end of the Church; whereas, most other churches have the Sanctuary at the east end, where I believe it is supposed to be.

    But I agree with you about the stained glass at St. Louis. I think it is beautiful — the Holy Spirit And the Crown of Thorns window is spectacular. But what I meant about rainbow was the side windows. I have never been able to get the “church tour” on the St. Louis website to show pictures for me (just piano playing.) So I am not sure what you saw, and if the side windows were shown or not.

    From the altar or ambo, facing the people, the side windows are arranged in the colors of the spectrum, with reds closest to the altar, to blues in the back. Actually if I were “redesigning” I would prefer the highest energy colors (blue is closer to UV) in those side rainbow windows to be closest to the altar (the opposite as to how they are ranked). But I only meant to make the point that the rainbow is in many places, and mentioning St. Louis as one of them. The side windows do look like a rainbow when seen from the Sanctuary. I’m sure it wasn’t intended to be a gay rights thing, given when the church was built. The rainbow is a good Christian symbol and we shouldn’t let it get hijacked away from us by others’ using it for their own agendae. Hope this clarifies…..I wasn’t clear in my earlier post and I appreciate your input, and all the beautiful work you display to keep our hearts moving in the right direction.

  8. Bernie says:

    Now I understand. Thanks.

  9. annonymouse says:

    Hopefull – there is precedent – the Sistine Chapel, for instance, was named after Pope Sixtus IV who had it built.

  10. annonymouse says:

    Scott, with all due respect, this is the second post in under a week in which Bernie finds difficulties in liturgical art that includes rainbows. Only after he was called on it in his St. Margaret Mary Apalachin example did it dawn on him that rainbows may have other meanings than the contemporary secular meaning he (and I) finds problematic.

    Now here he is again posting pictures of rainbows, and you are correct, this time he mentions the Genesis rainbow, but his implication is clear – because of the secular connection to homosexuality, I infer that Bernie would purge all rainbows from our worship spaces.

    I simply wanted to point out that there are likely to be rainbows about the throne of God Almighty based on the accounts in Ezekiel and Revelation (and the popular book Heaven is For Real), so he might wish to be prepared for that.

  11. Bernie says:


    I think what I wrote in the post is clear enough and Scott W. even repeated it for you: “It is true that the sign of the covenant between God and Noah was the rainbow and is, therefore, scriptural and a legitimate Christian symbol.” and: “This doesn’t mean that rainbows are now out, only that we have to be particularly careful in their use.”

    In addition the post includes an example of a window that appropriately includes a rainbow in careful context.

    Refering to the sign of Noah in the post merely repeated a theme that came up in the previous post and so was already in the minds of the readers. Choosing to refer to it again merely allowed me to clarify my point -for both me and my readers. Plus, it’s an easy image to search for on the internet to illustrate scriptual context.

    The folks who have appropriated the rainbow symbol as an icon for their movement have every right to do so, but it means that WE now have to be particularly careful to give visual scriptual context when we use it for sacred art.

    Can you think of a way you could have started off differently your comment @ May 16, 2011 at 9:55 PM?

  12. Scott W. says:

    To end on a lighter note, I’d say I’d take a dozen examples of crappy rainbow art over the new statue of Bl. John Paul II any day:

  13. Bernie says:

    Scott W: I think I’ve got to agree with you on that.
    OMG that’s horrible.

  14. annonymouse says:

    Bernie – I agree that my 5/16 post was much too brusque. I apologize. I was in a particularly angry mood and unnecessarily took it out on you.

    I agree that we (as Church) need to be careful so as to not appear to be endorsing a secular meaning of the rainbow that the Church (quite rightly) finds problematic.

  15. Bernie says:

    annonymouse @ 1:26:
    No problem.

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