Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

How do we know if a proposed liturgical image is Catholic? Part III

May 27th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously Part I and Part II

In this third post in the series I would like to offer for your consideration a third standard that I think could be used to evaluate how Catholic a proposed sacred image might be. Denis R. McNamara’s book Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, especially Part IV, informed much of what I express here. The Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Benedict (then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) also served as a reference.

Saints should look sanctified

In order for an image to qualify for use in the Catholic liturgy it must look sanctified or transfigured.

(left) A "transfigured" image of Blessed Mother Teresa on a street in Skopje, Macedonia; 2. (right) A realistic sculpture of Mother in a church nave in Venice (island of Burano), Italy. To my way of thinking the transfiured image on the left is more appropriate for the church than the one on the right even though the realistic image is obviously well crafted and "noble."

In general we might say that this means that sacred images should not be realistic. Realism suggests that the subject still exists in temporal time or at least calls to mind the saint’s former earthly state in a fallen and imperfect world. But, the saints are now in heaven and their earthly bodies have been sanctified or glorified. The bodies of the saints have been permanently transfigured as our Lord was transfigured on Mt. Tabor. Think, for example, of our Lord’s appearances to His disciples following His resurrection. His body was glorified so that they did not, at first, recognize Him. They see a man, but they do not recognize Jesus. The disciples who met the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus only recognized Him in the breaking of the bread. The vision granted Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor was a pre-resurrection glimpse of the glorified Lord.

Like our Lord’s body following His resurrection, ours, too, will be glorified in heaven –sanctified and transfigured. This is now the reality for the saints in heaven and so their images that we use in the church building where we celebrate the Divine Liturgy need to reflect and communicate that truth.

Given this transformation of the human body images of the saints and of Christ must, therefore, also be rendered in natural forms –shown with recognizable and believable human shapes. We do not shed our bodies in heaven, we keep them but in a glorified state. Images that are distorted beyond what could be considered reasonably natural should not be displayed in the chancel or nave of the church or, on its exterior facade. Such images defy the truth of the Incarnation in the case of the Lord, and Christian eschatological truth in the case of the saints and seem to apply a purely spiritual existence.

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?

Abstraction and stylization

Normally, to indicate a spiritual dimension, artists abstract the human form. They fashion a human shape by emphasizing what is essential to the human form and chisel away non-essential or realistic details. The concept is akin to Plato’s theory of ideal Forms. It is an overall principle of design followed by artists no matter whether the subject is a saint, landscape or narrative scene. Abstracted forms suggest a purer, more ideal existence, free of imperfections and weaknesses, including moral weakness. If the subject is a particular saint or landscape then the artist strives to get down to the essential form or most important aspects or qualities of that particular person, landscape or narrative scene. In the process the artist attempts some distortion of shapes, space, and lighting and so on in order to communicate a slightly different and spiritual dimension that contradicts to a certain extent our experiences of the physical world.

3. Door jamb sculptures of the Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral, France, 1145-55. Elongation is a typical way to enhance the spiritual or other-worldly expression of images. Here the figures also become part of the achitecture itself.

So, according to this standard, we should expect images proposed for sacred use to be natural in appearance and yet not be realistic. We should examine a proposed work to see if we can determine in what ways the artist has abstracted the figure or landscape or narrative in order to reveal its essential characteristics or qualities.

Likewise, however, we must be prepared to reject works that are so greatly abstracted or distorted as to deny to the saint or Christ a believable human form. Such images often appear to be like insects or alien space creatures, anything but truly human. It seems popular today to abstract to the point of over-spiritualizing which contradicts the basic truth that the person had a physical body and that that very same body still exists, but now in glorified form.  Some modern images often look merely decorative or symbolic which stresses a kind of cheap generic humanity.

4. The modern crossing altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France. Human shapes radically abstracted and used symbolically or as mere decoration; 5. Crucifix in a church in Assy, France, sculpted by Germaine Richier. The artist tellingly explained that "There is no face because God is the spirit and faceless." The bishop decided that it was a "caricature representing nothing" and had it removed. A new bishop had it returned.

6. A modern icon in a traditional Eastern style.

Traditional Byzantine icons are good examples of a style that has successfully merged for hundreds of years the natural with the spiritual. The artists in the Eastern Churches generally stay within those or similar stylistic boundaries and so it is relatively easy to notice when an artist breaks with tradition. But, the Western Church has chosen a different route, one that allows for greater variety and innovation. That has had its stunning successes but also unfortunate failures. I think it would be at least a little easier and safer if we in the West could at least keep this third standard in mind when we instruct artists on what we want, and then hold them to it.

Stressing naturalism and minimizing realism is only one way to attain the look of a transfigured image. There is, admittedly, plenty of room for disagreements, and we could certainly find examples that work well and yet contradict the standard I have outlined. In the next post, then, I work like to stay on this third standard and describe a few other ways artists suggest a spiritual or other-worldly existence even if the artist has not obviously chosen naturalism over realism in his rendering of the main subject.


Picture Sources


2.  Bernie

4.  Live Rural NL

5.  TIME Magazine ~ 23 April 1951

Book References and Recommendations 


Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy, Denis R. McNamara, (Chicago, Hillenbrand Books, 2009)


 The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2000)

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

  1. Raymond Rice says:

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I always understood the elongated statues on the front of churches, or even inside, were elongated so that they would appear to be of normal height to those looking at them from below. At eye level, as in the picture, they look stretched to the extreme, but from below they look normal. To the medieval pilgrim or worshipper, the only point of view was from below. Thus statues are as they are to appear normal.

  2. Bernie says:

    Raymond Rice:
    Thank you for your comment. No, you are not wrong but it would not likely to have been a concern at this period of history. The example shown is late Romanesque, just at the dawn of the Gothic style. Carvings were designed, especially during the Romanesque period, more to fill a predetermined shape than anything else. Elongation had been going on for some time beginning especially in the Byzantine period. Figures in mosaics for example could be rendered up to 9-10 ‘head heights’ tall. The feet on many of those figures hang down (somewhat pointing down). With the flatness of the modelling of the shapes of the figures on a flat background the figures seem to float, weightless, against a field of gold. It’s interesting how much of the art used on Gothic cathedrals is actually barely visible from below. The art was almost thought of more as a prayer than as decoration with a pedagogical purpose. I remember standing in Chartres cathedral looking up at the stained-glass windows using binoculars to make out the subjects. Now, imagine folks in the 12th century, probably with poor eyesight and without the aid of prescription eyeglasses, trying to ‘read’ the windows. It would not be until the Renaissance with its concern for the realistic rendering of nature that proportions might be manipulated to correct for point of view distortion.

  3. JLo says:

    Thank you, Bernie… your series is wonderful. Side note: have you seen that new statue of Blessed John Paul the Great that’s in the Rome? If you haven’t, see it here:

  4. Bernie says:

    JLo: Thank you. Yes, I have seen the JPII statue. It’s horrible. At least it’s not in a church! ha ha

  5. Raymond Rice says:

    Putting the statue at the train station is going to detour tourists!!! LOL

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