Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Catholic Images?’

Like a Bride Adorned for Her Husband

May 30th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

This is a post originally published September 12, 2011. I am re-posting it after attending the rite for the ordination of deacon this past Saturday. I did a post yesterday that was critical of the lack of emphasis on the altar. From where I was sitting –on the right side of the nave about halfway down– I could not see the altar or more than the tops of the heads of the clergy at the altar. Not being able to see much of the liturgy I took to looking around and noticing, once again, some beautiful things, most noticeably the beautiful stained glass windows. They remind me of what I think is a very important concept a Catholic church building should convey.

The photos you see in this post are from the original post. The last one, especially, does not convey the full blue appearance of the windows as I saw them Saturday. The second to last window is a little truer to the effect I noticed.

Click on the Photos to see larger images.

Rev 21 [1] Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. [2] I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem,coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.


Rev  21 [11] It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.


Rev 21 [18] The wall was constructed of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. [19] The foundations of the city wall were decorated with every precious stone; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald,[20]the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. [21]The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; and the street of the city was of pure gold, transparent as glass.

The church building in the Catholic tradition is more than just a gathering space for an assembly of people. It is a symbol of the New Temple –the people of God- and of the Heavenly Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven” dressed like a bride. The building should predispose us to experience the liturgy as timeless, incorporating in worship both all in heaven and all on earth. It is difficult to see how that experience can happen in a minimalist environment. I’m not going to say impossible, but, for most people, difficult.

Look around carefully and you can find in the Cathedral several suggestions of the heavenly Jerusalem in addition to the windows.


I can say something positive about our Cathedral even after the notorious renovation: the beautiful windows are still there. They form the equivalent of walls of jasper, gold, precious stones, pearls, sapphires and such, mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The bride –the Church—is adorned in beautiful garments as she goes to meet her Lord.

Take heart! Not all is lost.

Ramifications for the Liturgy -do you think?

September 28th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie
True beauty satisfies the human heart.
(from The National Catholic Register)

Register illustration via “Shutterstock”

“…My interest in the influence of beauty on mental health arose in graduate school at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. I heard a series of lectures by philosopher Kenneth Schmitz in which he addressed the relationship between the transcendental qualities of being (truth, goodness, unity and beauty) and the practice of psychology. This really caught my attention — in part because I had heard very little about the topic previously. In particular, it struck me that I knew of no place in psychology where beauty — understood in its depth — and its role in human health had been addressed in a direct, conscious way…
In my research, I found empirical studies showing that exposure to natural beauty is salutary, actually improving physical and mental health. There are also health benefits of exposure to artistic beauty, as expressed in painting and music. I became increasingly aware of how the various forms of beauty can help to heal the human person, particularly in terms of psychological healing…”      Read more

A Gem in Geneva – Part III

September 22nd, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie


Part I

Part II

Here I share with you the stained glass windows of St. Stephen’s Church in Geneva, New York. The most interesting of these beautiful windows is the large one that rises above the narthex and main doors. The subject is the Jesse Tree. My camera is just not sophisticated enough to do it justice from below so you will have to travel to Geneva to really appreciate it.

(you will definitely want to click on the pictures to see sharper images)

"The Jesse Tree"

detail of "The Jesse Tree"

detail "The Jesse Tree"

detail "The Jesse Tree"

detail "The Jesse Tree"

"The Jesse Window"

some of the south (side) windows

detail of one of the south windows


one of the south windows


one of the north windows (?)

church sign

main entrance

 This is the last in the series on St. Stephen’s Church. The church is part of “Our Lady of Peace” parish.

A Gem in Geneva – Part II

September 21st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series

Here are some more pictures from my visit to St. Stephen’s Church in Geneva. The sculptor who decorated this church is the same, if I remember correctly, who also did the work in Blessed Sacrament Church in Rochester. Anyone know his name? I apologize for not researching it.

I would call this a beautiful Catholic church. How do we know if a Catholic church is beautiful? Is there any standard we can apply? Is it just a matter of opinion and personal taste? I’ve published here, before, my thoughts on that subject. If you are interested, browse through our topics list on the right side of the homepage. I have several posts under the headings beauty, beautiful, Catholic images and a few more.

(click on pictures to see clearer images)

Savannah Georgia’s Cathedral Church

March 12th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Can you stand a peek at another cathedral?

(See a video that I made of the Cathedral, here.)

I was fortunate to visit the cathedral church of Savannah, Georgia (St. John the Baptist) a couple of weeks ago and was delighted with what I saw.

(click on photos to see larger images) 


The Cathedral has published a book that displays the art of the Cathedral and provides interesting historical background as well as religious definitions and explanations.2 I’ve reproduced several of the book’s photographs for this post.

Savannah Cathedral (3)

The first thing that struck me about the decorative program of this church appears high up in the clerestory, above the nave. The murals there led me to ask if there was a book available that would explain not only the personages in those murals but also the subjects and symbols that were in abundance throughout the rest of building. A beautiful book it is.

Those murals in the clerestory, along each side of the nave and on each side of the transept(s), depict a celestial procession of saints realistically portrayed against a regally patterned, flat, pinkish, wall paper-like, background. I immediately thought of the tapestry procession of saints in the controversial Los Angeles Cathedral.

Los Angeles Tapestries (4)



A celestial procession of saints as part of the decorative program of a church goes way back to the earliest Christian churches. The only surviving ‘house-church’ (ca. 243), at Dura Europos in Syria, shows a procession, in the baptistery, of the three women to the tomb of Christ.

Three women at the tomb. Dura Europos, Syria (243) (6)

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (7)

Probably the best known example is in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (561) in Ravenna, Italy where processions of saints line the clerestory walls of the nave (see a clip here). Processions of 22 virgins appear below the saints on one side of the nave and 26 martyrs, on the opposite side.

I don't think churches "in the round" work because they focus inward on the community too much and not enough on the Lord. But, I give this parish credit for including the saints above and around them. (Photo has been edited to emphasize the 'clerestory.') (8)

A program of saints hovering above the nave of a church is an excellent way to reinforce a congregation’s sense of the communion of saints (a ‘Catholic’ concept). The saints, as well as the congregation, are participating in the liturgy from heaven, represented by church imagery high up on the walls of the nave. In my opinion, the suggestion of timelessness (‘God’s time’) is an important goal for church architecture. It is impressively achieved in a traditionally arranged long nave which leads to -and ends at- the altar where a strong eschatological image is displayed behind/above the altar.
Psalm 84, the first in today’s morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours,  suggests that  processional imagery in the nave of a church is most approriate:
“My soul is longing and yearning,
is yearning for the courts of the Lord.”
“They walk with ever growing strength,
they will see the God of gods in Zion”
And, from Revelation 15:4 of today’s morning prayer:
“All peoples shall come and worship in your presence”
Liberals, progressives (or whatever the term should be) often invoke the image of journeying but it is interpreted in their ‘creative’ liturgies and church environments as ‘wandering.’ It never seems clear to me as to where they are journeying to, except inward toward the earthly confined community. In an environment like the Savannah Cathedral the journey is clearly to Zion and to the celestial celebration. The saints have successfully gone ahead of us -that’s why they are depicted in a higher register, above our heads. They encourage and help us by accompanying us; journeying, not wandering aimlessly.
Let’s also remember that Biblical history -salvation history- has an absolute beginning and an absolute end. Like an arrow it flies straight to the target from a definite starting point.

John points to the Lamb of God. Apse window. (9)

The Savannah Cathedral’s decorative program follows one type of Catholic tradition that emphasizes eschatological treatment of a scriptural scene; in this case, the Baptism of Christ and the story surrounding St. John the Baptist. It is in the nature of stained glass to transfigure even realistically rendered imagery into a vision of sanctification.  And so it is in the situation here: the saints of the murals in this Cathedral process toward the chancel (toward the altar of sacrifice and the table of the celestial banquet) in which are three luminous windows each proclaiming around the head of St. John “Behold, the Lamb of God”. (You recall, I hope, the image of the Agnus Dei -the Lamb of God– we saw in the chancel of the Washington Cathedral.)


Overlooking the altar, on each side, are the four evangelists participating from their box seats in the clerestory.

Transept window. (11)

The windows of the transept in St. John the Baptist are also quite beautiful and symmetrically programmed opposite each in the transept. In the north is depicted The Ascension of Our Lord and in the south, The Assumption of Mary. Both hopeful images for the successful completion of our journey. Below the transept windows are lancet windows of saints, the Christ Child, and the Holy Virgin.


There are Stations of the Cross, of course. These were made in Munich, Germany and installed in 1900. You can’t get to enjoy Easter without enduring Good Friday. Appropriately, these are located just slightly above eye level.


1 -by Bernie

2, 3, 9, 11 -Aviles, Suzanne, Art and Symbols of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, (2007) Diocese of Savannah, 222 Harris Street, Savannah, Georgia 31410. The book is available for $20 and includes photographs of nearly all the works in the church as well as a wealth of information both historical and religious.

7 Sant’Apollinare Nuovo Tango7174

4 Los Angeles Cathedral

Tapestry Saints

8 Anne Spenny (original photo has been altered) Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio

10, 11 -Bernie

Saint Matthew the Apostle Cathedral, Washington D.C.

March 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

I visited the cathedral church of Washington D.C. this past weekend –the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle. Most my age probably remember this church from the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. The church was cleaned and restored in 2003 and the results are stunning. What was a fairly dark and somber interior is now restored to its original brilliance. The cleaned mosaics shimmer under the newly installed lighting.

(Click on images to see a larger size.)

One of America’s foremost muralists, Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936), designed and executed the mosaics in the chancel, on the pendentives and in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. His assistant, Vincent Aderente (1880-1941), executed the painted murals which where designed by Blashfield.

View a short video clip I made.

The Cathedral beautifully expresses the environment of a Temple of Christian sacrifice. The eschatological nature of the Christian liturgy is clear: heaven and earth are united in timeless liturgy.  The imagery is magnificently rendered to express transfiguration –sanctification in Western terminology, deification in Eastern terms. This is how, I believe, a church interior should be decorated; with a clear expression of what the liturgy is all about and a suggestion of the beauty that awaits us. Many of our new churches -heretically in my opinion- express an aimless journey focused inward on ‘community’ instead of turning toward the Lord.

The chancel imagery is, appropriately, the most powerful in the Cathedral. Saint Matthew the Apostle is depicted seated in a 35 feet high mosaic behind the altar. An angel stands behind him enveloping Matthew with a scroll inscribed with the Saint’s name. The Evangelist holds a book with a passage from his gospel: “Jesus saw a man sitting in the custom house named Matthew and He said to him ‘Follow Me.’ And he arose and followed Him.” In the pediment below, two peacocks –symbols of immortality—drink from a cup from which rises the Chi Rho, the symbol for Christ.


Above Saint Matthew, a 49 feet wide and 25 feet high lunette mosaic includes eight angels and the Agnus Dei of the Book of Revelation –Jesus, the Lamb of God, resting on an altar. The circle in the middle of the altar represents eternity. On the right, the bottom angel holds the pillar of Christ’s flagellation; the second angel up holds the crown of thorns; and the third holds the legend IHS, the first three letters of ‘Jesus’ in Greek. On the left, the lowest angel holds the spear that pierced the side of Christ; the next angel holds the hammer and nails; and the third up from the bottom holds the wood of the cross. The angels closest to the Lamb hold trumpets and herald the Gospel. The imagery is strongly evocative of the Book of Revelation and the Catholic understanding of the sacrifice of Christ as ritually ‘made present’ on the altar below.

The Chapel of Saint Anthony of Padua provides an interesting contrast. Off the east side of the nave, the slightly more realistic mosaic is architecturally framed to create the illusion of a landscape outside that side of the building. An historical painted mural of saintly and eminent Americans is located above the entrance, at the back, and is designed in imitation of Raphael’s famous painting in the Vatican Palace of the School of Athens. On the opposite side from the Saint Anthony Chapel is the Chapel of Our Lady which contains three mosaics by Thomas S. La Farge which represent biblical passages referring to Our Lady and the genealogy of Jesus. Mary looks like she’s doing a tap dance the way she is posed in a sculpture by Gordon S. Kray. (It is beautifully sculpted but… it looks like a tap dancer at the end of her routine.)

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is outstanding. The Tabernacle is framed by a background illustrating the two disciples from the story of The Road to Emmaus at the moment when they recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread.

Unfortunately, beautiful enriched imagery is usually considered superfluous or downright ‘politically’ incorrect in today’s Church. We have pretty much jettisoned thinking of Beauty as an attribute of God and an important ingredient in our ‘worship spaces.’ Minimalistic, simplistic, mundane and even ugly are in; uplifting, inspirational and hopeful are out.

Here is the parish website

Light of the World

January 26th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Yesterday, January 25, was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

The iconic painting of this moment in the life of St. Paul is Caravaggio’s, The Conversion of St. Paul (1601).1 The painting depicts the moment recounted in Chapter 9 of Acts of the Apostles when Saul, soon to be the apostle Paul, fell on the road to Damascus. He heard the Christ say “I am Jesus, whom you persecute, arise and go into the city.”

It is a very dramatic interpretation of the event; theatrical we could say. There are several design principles Caravaggio uses in the painting to involve us in the action. Many modern art critics would, perhaps, concentrate solely on describing and evaluating the artist’s competency in handling the formal principles used in the organization of design. The religious significance behind Caravaggio’s use of the principles of design in this particular painting might escape them -and us, too. 2

Caravaggio was a painter in the Baroque style. There are several design characteristics that artists working in that style commonly exhibit in their work. Among them are an emphasis on foreshortening, the dominance of asymmetry and diagonal linear arrangements, and dramatic lighting (spotlighting, we could call it, in many paintings). These are what I mean by formal design elements and principles. We can never get away from describing and evaluating how an artist formally organizes a work of art because that concerns the grammar that makes up the language he is using. In the case of Caravaggio’s painting of The Conversion of St. Paul we can briefly say that he has employed –among other things- the element of light (and dark) to dramatically focus our attention. He deploys the principle of emphasis through contrast (stark contrast) to emphasize Paul and the horse he has just been thrown down from. Those are some aspects of the formal design of this image. But, I would like to briefly describe how Caravaggio has used one of the formal elements –light and dark– to convey a religious meaning, or to symbolize religious doctrine.

Here is where the artist and the viewer (including the art critic and art historian) have to be on the same page or share the same religious or cultural background.  That is not by any stretch something we can assume in our secular age.

Knowing what we do about the story of the conversion of St. Paul, we at least understand the light as representative of the voice of Christ. Most of us probably stop right there in reading the painting –at the narrative; at the literal message.  And, that is certainly the most important meaning. But, as in scripture, there are several levels of meaning other than the literal.

Yesterday morning I noticed that the suggested hymn for Morning Prayer in the Common of Apostles included the following: “Of Gospel truth they bore the light to brighten earthly night; may we that heavenly light impart to every mind and heart.”3 In this visually dramatic painting of The Conversion of St. Paul we can see the mighty impact that heavenly light physically had on St. Paul. But, we also see in the painting the artist’s intent to communicate the sense of the absolute awesomeness of God’s intrusion into our earthly night. Through the Incarnation, life, and redemptive death of Christ “the dawn from on high (has broken) upon us to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”4 St. Paul the apostle was to bear the Light of the world to the Gentiles, as we also have been instructed to do.

Light as a symbol of God/Christ, and the Incarnation, is everywhere in scripture, theology, and the visual arts -including architecture.  The whole Gothic style of architecture is based upon the symbolic power of light to communicate the sense of divinity flooding through the glorious stained glass windows. Standing in the nave of a French Gothic cathedral, I am struck by how dark it is inside.5 However, the windows –the glorious windows- glow with intense colors; the warm colors, like the reds, seem to float in front of the cool blues and greens. The abbot responsible for this emphasis on light in the Gothic style, Abbé Suger (ca. 1081-1151), was stirred by the writings of a theologian6 ca. 500 who allegorized God as heavenly light and Jesus as the earthly image of that “Light” from the Gospel of John (1:4-5 and 9) “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… [He] was the true Light which lights every man who comes into the world.” In the Gothic cathedral we see the same “Light” that pierces the darkness in The Conversion of St. Paul, this time piecing the darkness of the interior of the church. Christ, here, is the luminous window, the image of the Father piercing the darkness of earthly sin.

Here is an afterthought : Religious and liturgical art in the Catholic tradition has so much to offer us and yet, for the most part we have jettisoned that tradition in favor of a more protestant or evangelical theology that views art as a threat and a distraction. Our churches are sterile ‘worship spaces’ and our Liturgy has become a matter of functional concerns. Nothing is allowed to take us beyond the literal. We’ve cut it to the bones and removed the meat of the matter. Our personal relationship with Jesus has been reduced to bumper sticker spirituality and social work.

We might know the stories7 but we no longer understand or experience the stories on more than a literal level.  It has become a strictly sterile experience. The arts –music, art and architecture- enlarge and enrich the religious and spiritual experience and deepen our understanding of truth -and our relationship to Truth. They take us to the level of the allegorical. They can uncover in their own way the implications of the faith and the doctrines of the faith. Why limit our ways of understanding to only the sermon/homily?


1 Painted for the Cerasi Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. It is still there.

2 It is a sad part of the fallout of the ascendency of radical secularism in our schools and culture in general that we are losing our ability to read religious works -be they in the visual arts or literature or music- for their original religious meaning.

3 Exultet Orbis Gaudiis, 10th century; translated by Roger Nachtwey, 1965.

4 from the Gospel Canticle (Benedictus) for Morning Prayer

5 Art teachers continue to describe the interior of Gothic cathedrals as brilliantly lit by the light flooding in through the large windows –the large windows being the result of architectural innovation.  But a Gothic cathedral with its original stained glass windows –or colored replacements- is just the opposite; it is noticeably dark. The Light pierces the dark interior in the Gothic cathedral in a different way than in The Conversion of Paul as it causes the brilliant windows to appear suspended in the darkness, illuminating our minds more than the interior.

6 Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

7 It seems that very few people, especially the young, even know the stories. Only a very few people know, anymore, the symbolism and iconography. Most run-of-the-mill art historians and clergy don’t even know.

The “Righteousness of the Plain”

October 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

1. Monastery of Kloster Eberbach, 1145-1160 and 1170-1186, Frankfurt

The phrase –“the righteousness of the plain”– is used by Robin M. Jensen in her 2004 book The Substance of Things Seen [1] to describe the view of many that art in worship marks the “beginning of a slide down into vanity, materialism, and –ultimately—idolatry.” God should be worshipped in simplicity and free of distracting “trappings.” Art is viewed by such folks as self-indulgent and, at the very least, an unnecessary expense. Better that the money be spent on meeting the basic needs of people, especially the poor. The Church should concentrate on good works rather than beautiful works.

Jensen points out that a text from Isaiah is often cited by holders of this view.

“When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bring offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:12-13. 16-17)

The “righteousness of the plain” view understands feelings and sensory experiences to be improper to religion. Religion should be a dispassionate activity. Art “awakens appetites” and “arouses passions” and can tempt people to sin.

We recognize this viewpoint as representative of puritanical Protestantism. There are exceptions, to be sure, but we identify the view, in general, with Protestants. Catholics often describe a plain church as looking “protestant.”

But this passion for the plain has a tradition in Catholicism as well. For pretty much the same reasons, “Cistercian monastic architecture –under the influence especially of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)– was characterized by its simplicity and austerity. In contrast to the richly carved capitals and portals at other monasteries, Cistercian art was minimal, with almost no figurative carvings to distract the monks.” [2]

2. The "architecture of light" of Acey Abbey represents the pure style of Cistercian architecture, intended for the utilitarian purposes of liturgical celebration

Saint Bernard, in a letter to William of St. Thierry, writes:

“…the vast height of your churches, their immoderate length, their superfluous breadth, the costly polishing, the curious carvings and paintings which attract the worshipper’s gaze and hinder his attention… The church is resplendent in her walls, beggarly in her poor; she clothes her stones in gold, and leaves her sons naked; the rich man’s eye is fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find their delight here, yet the needy find no relief.” [3]

3. 12th-century Cistercian

Bernard’s austere aesthetics and numerous rules eventually outlawed the use of paintings and other images in his monastic churches. His rules it must be remembered, were for monks who had withdrawn from the people, “we who left all the precious and beautiful things of the world for Christ’s sake.” Bernard, however, notes that bishops and their parishes have an excuse for expensive worship in “being debtors to the wise and the unwise, and unable to excite the devotion of carnal folk by spiritual things, do so by bodily adornments.” [4] Clearly, even in the case of non-monastic churches, Bernard disparaged use of liturgical art.

4. "Quietly Beautiful" Novy Dvur contemporary monastery in the Bohemia area of the Czech Republic. Photo by Ståle Eriksen

Although St. Bernard sees the use of images and decoration in worship as having the potential for descending into idolatry, he seems to object most to what he understands as the distracting aspect of decoration, and the contradiction between expensive worship and care for the poor.

I suppose someone should have asked Bernard if he found Jesus –the image of the invisible Father- “distracting?” The sacramental nature of liturgical images, based upon the theology of the Incarnation (affirmed by the Second Council of Nicaea 787) [5], would seem to place St. Bernard’s thinking on the subject of the use of holy images in churches at odds with the teaching of the wider Church. Not surprisingly, the Protestant Reformers several centuries later echoed Bernard’s thoughts. [6]

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council we witnessed an onslaught of minimalism in the construction and renovation of churches that only recently, after forty years of iconoclastic thinking, seems to be running out of steam. The minimalist tendency had already been evident in the liturgical reform movement leading up to the Council. It gained momentum quickly after the Council mostly as a result of the interaction of the thinking of the Council with regards to active participation in the liturgy and the social upheaval of the 60s and 70s: rejection of authority and tradition, and the intensity of emotions over racial and social justice concerns.

Austere simplicity of church buildings is generally outside the mainstream of Catholic architectural tradition being relegated, for the most part, to monastic environments andl church architecture that became popular with liturgists of the second part of the 20th century. I do not mean to imply, of course, that austere simplicity cannot be beautiful or, even, Catholic. We have a strong tradition of monasticism in the Catholic Church and we formulated, after all, Western thought on social justice and effective care for the poor and marginalized. Rejection or at least abstension from sensual stimulation is within our tradition and as much a pathway to spiritual union with God as reflecting on beautiful art and music. I can’t go into the details of such spirituality here, only to point out that it is a ligitimate pathway that yeilds great fruit not only to monks but to a large segment, if not a majority, of Catholic faithful. I think that it would be difficult to find a page in “My Imitation of Christ” (by Thomas à Kempis) without word about letting go of this world and its sensual allures. Then, there is the example of the covering of statues and paintings during the last two weeks of Lent.  The Cistercian approach is a strong one in our tradition, if not a dominate one.

We each have our preferences, of course, but the vast majority of the Catholic faithful are not monks or nuns under a rule of austere simplicity and chastity. Diocesan churches, it seems to me should adhere to the thinking of the Second Council of Nicaea and employ images and decoration in churches –and not be cheap or stingy about it. The Second Vatican Council did not change the policy of images in churches; indeed, it stressed their importance.

It does not help that often art or “decoration” is viewed as not essential, as actually have a role to play in the liturgy. Since it is thought of as “frivolous”, it is usually one of the last things considered in a budget and only if money is left over.



[1] The Substance of Things Seen; Art, Faith, and the Christian Community, Robin M. Jensen, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)  pp 79-80

[2]  Sacred Destinations

[3] Early Medieval Art 300-1150, Carcilia Davis-Weyer, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1986)  pp 168-69

[4] Early Medieval Art… 169

[5] “…the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.  … we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.”

[6] St. Bernard did hold some doctrines that the Protestant Reformers would later resurrect. His theology contains a mix of Protestant and Catholic doctrines. Calvin, for example, quotes Bernard several times to show the historical validity of “faith alone”, and his concept of justification was important to the Protestants. I don’t mean to imply by this that Bernard is not worthy to be a Doctor of the Church; that would be ridiculous. Only that his thinking could at times, on certain topics, seem to not obviously exemplify traditional Catholic teaching.

Picture Sources





5. and 6. Cistercian Abbeys, History and Architecture, Photos by Henri Gaud and Text by Jean-François Leroux-Dhuys, (China, Könemann, 2006)


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)

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

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

Yes, “Gather Us In” exists in stained glass

May 11th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

You will want to first read the previous, related, post.

In this post I would like to try and come to a reasoned judgment as to the worthiness of these stained glass windows from St. Margaret Mary Church (of Blessed Trinity Parish) in Apalachin (near Endicott, in the Diocese of Rochester). I only pick these windows because I suspect that they would have a strong appeal for most people. They were designed by Steve Jeremko.



I will ask myself the four basic questions I recommended in my previous post entitled Can there be a stained glass version of “Gather Us In?”  for determining the worthiness of specific sacred or liturgical works of art. The questions are based on the stipulations outlined by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:  

1. To what extent are the works quality stained glass windows?

2. To what extent do the works have the exclusive aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God?

3. To what extent are the windows Catholic? Can we see the influence of Catholic tradition in the symbols or iconography? Are the images orthodox –indicative of correct belief?

4. To what extent do the windows exhibit noble beauty? Do the elements and principles of design communicate a lofty feeling rather than a common or base one?

I invite you to try and answer these questions first before reading my conclusions.

First off, question number one is probably impossible for us to answer here so let’s assume that the windows are perfect examples of stained glass.

Let’s move on to the second question: Do the windows have the exclusive aim of turning our minds devoutly toward God? Here, already, we run into a problem.  The first window, especially, with its theme of inclusiveness is less about worshipping God than it is about a man-centered feeling of community and inclusiveness. It is rife with political correctness. Topping it off, off course, is the socially charged emphasis on the rainbow which not only signifies an array of differences but also calls to mind homosexual inclusion. Now, these are not bad things but they are also not exclusively God-centered –unless you think of God only in human terms; as only existing in your fellow man and in human relationships. The windows do not devoutly turn us toward the majesty of God –which is the aim of worship—but, rather, to ourselves and our social policies. There is nothing offensive about the ‘inclusive’ window; it is just not sacred, liturgical art, if we consider the requirements outlined  by the Council fathers.

Is it Catholic? I think we run into even more difficulties in examining the works based on question three. I don’t think these windows  look at all Catholic. When I look at them I am reminded of stereotypical Protestant or non-denominational art. Notably lacking is any reference to the unity and apostolicity of the Church through time. The windows lack any theological foundation other than an ambiguous spirituality or pastoral feeling.  The marriage window seems to reference the scriptural story of the wedding at Cana (employed as a mere setting) but the use of intertwined rings and heart frame introduce essentially secular symbols or signs. It is safe to say that there is nothing here that is doctrinal or dogmatic or even, specifically, scriptural in a Catholic sense. If there were some reference in the marriage window to, for example, the relation between Christ and His Church we might have something with which to work.

In addition, the prominence of the rainbow and its clear associations with the socially and politically charged issue of homosexually seems to imply an attitude that is actually in opposition to Catholic Church teaching on chastity, as far as homosexual persons are concerned.  That may not have been the intent of the artist or those charged with supervising the artist but this is what can happen when you fail to consult tradition or and have no solidly orthodox goal in mind.

How about noble? Do the windows meet the Council Fathers’ mandate that sacred art exhibit noble beauty? The word noble infers, among other things, outstanding qualities or elevated ideas and thoughts. A feeling of seriousness, formality and appropriateness come to my mind, as well, as I consider the meaning of the term nobility.

These church windows are pretty, certainly –pleasant enough to look at. Pretty, however, is not noble beauty. These windows do not inspire anything more than a pleasant feeling.

The reaction to my conclusions regarding the worthiness of the windows in St. Margaret Mary Church may very well be the same as reactions to the criticisms of the song “Gather Us In.”  I have tried to reach a critical judgment of these windows based on what I understand to be the standards or guidelines outlined in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.