Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Now Consider Skill, Sacredness, and Noble Beauty

October 12th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

In my last post I offered a negative evaluation of the Lourdes triptych of “The Resurrection” based on the work’s unorthodox presentation of the Supper at Emmaus. Orthodoxy prevents the hijacking of the liturgy for heretical, social and political purposes and is, therefore the most important standard in measuring the suitability of a work for the liturgy. My suggestion was to stay away from anything the least bit innovative or trendy when it comes to content (that includes unorthodox interpretations suggested by the artist’s design). The Liturgy and everything associated with it must be unambiguously orthodox.

In this post I would like to offer a further evaluation of the triptych based on three other criteria that I use to judge a proposed or existing work of liturgical art. Like orthodoxy, the three criteria come from Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council.

We can examine the triptych by asking three questions that represent the three criteria.

First, to what extent is the work of high quality in terms of material and artistic skill?

Those who commented on the triptych in the first post of this series overwhelmingly saw the same problem with the artistic skill demonstrated in the work. Briefly, the panels, to them, look “amateurish.”

The triptych project required a skill in composing and rendering the human figure in a naturalistic style. Unfortunately, in this work, the artist’s skill does not rise to the occasion. We sense that he wants the figures to appear not just naturalistic but realistic, and his skill at pulling it off falls short which is distracting. The problem is noticeably evident in his rendering of the heads and faces, and hands. The poses seem unnatural, even comical.

1. The artist certainly possesses some skill he depicting the figure -notice the foreshortening in the hands- but has trouble with Mary's right and left forearm and elbow. Readers remarked negatively about the artist's skill at depicting teeth and expressions.

The artist who created the triptych is not known as a figurative painter but as a landscape painter. Figurative work is not part of his repertoire. Artists tend to be grouped into categories of subjects they specialize in. One of the most basic of categorical divisions is between figurative (works in which the human figure is the main subject) and non-figurative (works in which the human figure is not included or in which figures play a very minor role). This artist here is known for his non-figurative watercolor landscapes. That is the subject, medium and technique at which he excels. He was not a suitable choice for this project and as a result the figures in the panels appear awkward or amateurish.

It is interesting that one of our readers commented that he liked the landscape backgrounds. That is because landscapes are this artist’s forte, not figures.

2. The artist of the triptych is here shown working out of doors on one his many watercolor landscapes for which his is well known.

There are certainly skillful aspects to the triptych, among them: the harmony of colors and balance of tones and the suggestion of new life through the use of high value colors. If you can concentrate on just the color and distribution of tones across the three panels you can sense that he has skill at balancing tones and controlling color. He also is knowledgeable and skillful at coordinating the elements for the purpose of emphasis and movement.

3. The artist is skillful at organizing the elements to create emphasis. Notice the downward sweep of Christ's left arm joins with the upward sweep of the smoke. the movement then returns to Christ by way of the sail of the boat. In this way he unifies the figures and frames them, lending emphasis to the figures. Notice that the figures in the background lean in toward the center grouping further enhancing emphasis. There are however some awkward mergers between the foreground and background. Notice the awkward alignment of the mast of the boat with the left contour of the apostle's head. The water line, too, is awkwardly aligned with the bottom of the boat and the shoulders of three of the figures.

The artist is a well known successful artist and teacher in our region. Unfortunately he was asked to do something outside his area of expertise.

Second. To what extent does the work have the exclusive aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God?

A religious subject alone is not sufficient for qualifying a work of art as sacred. The work must express a redeemed, glorified, and transcendent world. Even the depiction of scriptural historical accounts must –in my opinion- be represented in the light of God’s plan for man and the world. Time in the liturgy is God’s time. Everything, including past events, must be depicted as glorified, transformed. The prayers, language, gestures, movements, art and music must all reflect the reality that we are attending the liturgy of heaven. We are joined by the angels and saints in a heavenly Jerusalem.

4. "The Conversion of St. Paul", Caravaggio (1600-1601), Cerasi Chapel, Santa Maria del Popola, Rome. The artist's use of light here suggests Divine Light -God's intervention into human history. The light pierces the darkness of this world. God is Light! The world is redeemed just as St. Paul was converted. The event now enters God's time.

Liturgical art is a specialty. Just being a professional artist is not good enough. The artist must be familiar with the history of liturgical art and must be familiar with and understand the scriptures, and commentaries on the scriptures. He must have more than a passing knowledge of applicable Church teachings, dogmas and doctrines and their history and explanations; same with knowledge of the saints. Further, he must be able to articulate how liturgical art through the history of the Church has presented a particular scriptural text, doctrine, or saint.

"The Annunciation", Father Marko Ivas Rupnik, Mosaic

5. "The Annunciation", Fr. Marko Ivan Rupnik, Mosaic. Divine Light pierces human history here, also. But the artist -a professional liturgical artist- also includes other doctrinal symbols. Once again, we see an historical event transfigured.


Liturgical art commissions should be awarded to artists who have demonstrated success as liturgical artists. Unfortunately, many works originate with pastors or parish councils or committees that really have no knowledge of what good liturgical art should look like and so awards go to somebody’s relative or friend, or, in this case, a member of the parish who happens to be an artist. Sometimes the artist is a professional, but too often the person is just a “Sunday” painter. The artist here is a well known professional.

6. This is one of the beautiful watercolor landscapes by Dick Kane, the artist who painted the "Resurrection" triptych.

But, the artist in this instance has no liturgical art background as far as I know. He is not known as a liturgical artist. As a result, the triptych fails to do more than narrate a story although the artist’s use of high value color does suggest a peaceful and transcendent aspect to the scenes. Unfortunately, the colors in the triptych have to fight the lack of skill in the handling of the figures and the result is prettiness, or suggestive of a children’s book illustration.

Needless to say, a work might be religious but not necessarily liturgical. These triptych panels fall into the category of religious, not liturgical.

Third. To what extent does the triptych exhibit noble beauty? Has the artist used the elements of design effectively according to the principles of design to create a lofty feeling rather than a common or base one?

To get an answer we can refer once again to the comments our readers posted in reaction to my first post regarding the triptych. We see among the comments a consensus that suggests the panels seem better suited to classrooms for young students or perhaps a youth group, or to children’s religious books, coloring books, etc.

7. "The Assumption", Carracci (a rival of Carravaggio), 17th century. Everything comes together to form a work of noble beauty: pose, expressions, control of light and dark patterns, movement, balance...


Noble beauty is a difficult goal. It is liturgical artists who are best qualified to know traditional approaches for creating noble beauty. Professional, non-liturgical, artists are also qualified in this area but we need an artist who is both a professional and a liturgical artist.

8. "Supper at Emmaus" Icons are particularly expressive of a transfigured reality and possess noble beauty.

Unfortunately, this triptych just doesn’t measure up as a liturgical work of art. I suspect the fault is not with the artist but with the person(s) who oversaw the project from its inception. The artist was simply asked to do something out of his field and the patron didn’t have a clue as to what was required. This kind of thing happens all the time when it comes to commissioning a liturgical work -the patron (even if -and sometimes especially because- the patron is a committee) often doesn’t know what he (or it) is doing.

In my next post I would like to try to outline how I think such projects for churches should be organized and supervised to ensure a product that can properly predispose us to receive an abundance of graces from participation in the liturgy.


Picture Sources

1. Photo by a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Brighton


3. Photo by parishioner






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7 Responses to “Now Consider Skill, Sacredness, and Noble Beauty”

  1. avatar Gretchen says:

    Thank you for this series of posts. They are instructive. I’m beginning to learn why I am inspired by some art and not by other art. Again, excellent.

    Gretchen from SOP

  2. avatar Choir says:

    In the same vain and somewhat humorously, I was attending Mass many years ago and the priest was talking about how we should pray for the deceased that were listed on the diptich. At that time, I no clue know what a diptich was; so I thought the priest was saying “dipstick”. So I’m thinking how could pray for people listed on a dipstick. Well…anyways…I thought it was funny!

  3. avatar Mary-Kathleen says:

    Thank you for this mini-seminar in appreciating and critiquing liturgical art, Bernie.

    I never knew how much I didn’t know!

    p.s. Mr. Kane’s landscapes are beautiful.

  4. avatar annonymouse says:

    Well done, Bernie.

    You’ve articulated and given me insight into WHY I quickly concluded that these pieces of art are unserious and unworthy of a Catholic sanctuary.

  5. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    Choir!! ! !

    I just checked on my dipstick. It says empty!!! So we should pray for the empty!! (empty of grace instead of full of grace?)lol You might have heard right!!

  6. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    Very good post!!!!!!!!!! But don’t stop at paintings; talk about fake plastic brick, polyester vestments, 51% beeswax candles, audiotaped music, fake flowers, faked wood made to look like real wood, and painted poured concrete walls painted to look like brick and if they were really brick, would fall down.!!!

  7. avatar Raymond F. Rice says:

    Just recently I realized why Christ meeting Mary Magdalene looked so familiar in that painting. Mary looks like Ethel Merman and Christ looks like Charleton Heston.


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