Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Liturgical art’

Gothic and Baroque Inspired Vestment Work

October 24th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

By Shawn Tribe

From The New Liturgical Movement website

14671374_1294925297193172_4946370856752732546_nCeremonial wear, whether sacred or secular, is meant to communicate symbols and deeper meanings; to inspire and to engage, drawing people into the underpinning realities which they seek to symbolize. In this regard, vestments, not unlike…

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This is one thing that keeps me Catholic.

September 4th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

web LMC FinalOne of the things that keeps me Catholic is the Church’s understanding and living out of the doctrine of the Incarnation: that God condescended to become man so that man might become God. This refers to the transforming effect of divine grace, the indwelling spirit of God, and the transforming affect of the atonement of Christ. It literally means that God becoming flesh transformed flesh to become more divine, more like God, or to take on a divine nature. At the moment of the Incarnation all flesh –indeed, the entire physical universe– was objectively made holy and capable of transmitting God’s grace and life.

By the Incarnation, humankind was really changed and not left as a pile of sin, as Luther, in his extreme teaching, taught.

People and their actions –as well as things like bread and wine, water, oil and other material things– became capable of communicating God’s graces, became capable of completing in one aspect what was “lacking” in the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ.

Catholic art expresses well the doctrine of the Incarnation. It often depicts transcendence by rich colors and details and patterns, serene expressions, or, the opposite– explosive exuberance. In worship, Catholicism employs smells like incense, sounds like the ringing of bells, heavenly chanting, kissing, bowing, processing, standing, kneeling –all aspects of being physically alive. It’s the material universe celebrating its redeemed status.

This is considerably different from some core Protestant teachings and practices which are suspicious of anything human or physical that could be seen as even having the potential for competing with God. In such teaching humankind is not changed by the Incarnation in any objective way. Some Protestant Churches that hold the “extrinsic justification” teaching dearly are often devoid of visual art and ritual, smells and bells. (Music and preaching, however, are sometimes exalted in such Churches.) Most mainstream Protestant Churches can be found somewhere in between the Catholic and more puritan versions of Christianity. The Orthodox, of course, are more with the Catholics concerning the impact of the Incarnation and we can see that in their emphasis on art and sensual liturgies.

In the end it is the Catholic understanding of the impact of the doctrine of the Incarnation that keeps me Catholic. Indeed, as local Catholic parishes divorce themselves from sacred art, chanting, incense and ritual, the more they push me into Orthodoxy.

“A tribute to the College’s Catholic heritage”?

June 10th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Below is a corrected version of the original post in which I made an ignorant statement concerning the placement of Tabernacles in newly constructed churches.

From Saint John Fisher College News

20160302_SJFC Chapel Design

The St. John Fisher College Board of Trustees recently announced the construction of the Hermance Family Chapel of St. Basil the Great… Read the whole article HERE

My comments follow:

The outside, not too bad. The inside… ?

“College News” calls the chapel “A tribute to the College’s Catholic heritage”. I certainly do not see a strong reference to Catholic heritage in the proposed architectural design for the new Chapel. The original founders/administration were Catholic, shouldn’t the chapel look Catholic?

This could be any mainline Protestant chapel; certainly not Catholic in any strong sense. Replace the crucifix with a plain cross and place a high back chair in front of the tabernacle and it might just be a Baptist church. Add the stained glass windows and you’re tilting toward the more liturgical wings of Protestantism.

What would make it “more” Catholic?

  1. Place the Tabernacle in the center behind the altar, incorporated into the wall on in front of the wall. Appropriately adorn the area of the Tabernacle with imagery appropriate to the Blessed Sacrament. Several sanctuary lamps alone would add a sense of the sacred. Right now the Tabernacle looks like an unfortunate requirement, off to the side and, most especially, lacking any elaboration suggesting sacred space.
  2. Treat the “sanctuary platform” –as College News calls it– as the chancel it is supposed to be. A Catholic church or chapel to be Catholic must convey a sense of sacred hierarchic space. That is basic to Catholic theology. What we see in the proposed design is a reflection of protestant theology: the complete absence of a sense of the transcendent and an emphasis on the merely human.
    • the altar needs to be prominent in a Catholic church: raised up and covered by a ciborium or baldachin or some form of tester. That is still a requirement for Catholic Churches although often left out in new churches.
    • the chancel in a Catholic church should be clearly marked off from the rest of the space. Usually that is accomplished by a railing or at least by a significant number of steps –at least three steps. The separation suggests a special, more sacred space.
    • the altar in a Catholic church is a sacrificial altar and not just a table. The Catholic Mass is a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary made present. There is a meal component to the Mass but the element of sacrifice should not take second place and in this design it is not even evident. I would look for a solid stone, marble faced, or precious wood altar adorned with imagery.
    • Gosh! Is that music stand supposed to be where the Gospel is proclaimed from? Please, create a pulpit along the same lines as a proper altar: of noble material and appropriately adorned.
    • the wall behind the altar in the proposal appears as a demonstration piece (and an uninteresting one at that) for a gardening or landscape/masonry business. The sacred in Catholic churches is traditionally suggested by imagery around the altar. It is usually the grandest area of the interior space. At the very least the crucifix should be monumental and not the stingy sized one in the proposal. The stained glass windows should be a wonderful addition but the chancel should always be accorded the most important imagery or treatment.
    • the chancel is the throne room of the king (or the Holy Sepulcher or the sacred bridal chamber or the Holy of Holies). There are several possible interpretations from Catholic tradition of the chancel and altar area. Rich and intricate designs as well as regal colors suggest heaven and the transcendent. There is no decoration at all in this proposal. (The addition of a ciborium could minimize the need for imagery on the wall.) The furnishings as well are as plain as can be in this proposal.
  3. Is there even a statue or image of Saint John Fisher planned? Or Saint Basil the Great?
  4. Get rid of the piano. The organ has pride of place in Catholic liturgy, along with Latin and Gregorian chant.

The people responsible for this design have not considered what makes a Catholic church “Catholic”. They have consulted the anti-Catholic worship space designers of liberal liturgy that was barely recognizable as Catholic. That is especially unfortunate since the proposed chapel is meant to be a tribute to the school’s Catholic heritage.

Too bad the architects and sponsors are not aware of the resurgence of classical church architectural. “Classical” in the sense of the use of the esthetic principles of Romanesque, Baroque, Classical, and Gothic church architecture. That’s the latest. What they have come up with has been resoundingly rejected as “not Catholic”.

New Mural at Saint Jerome’s in East Rochester

June 7th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

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Click on photos to see larger images.

Saint Jerome’s in East Rochester (Father Bill Leone, pastor) recently installed a commissioned mural on the inside typanum over the main door and it is a beauty! It is everything you could want in a Catholic image for a church: orthodox, professionally executed, beautiful. 
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The theme or story is the Ascension of the Lord. I probably don’t need to tell you that because the work, unlike so much of modern Catholic church art, is orthodox and unambiguous. It is also free of the political or social commentary we often find in so much contemporary church art.

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We are struck by its beauty, not by its strangeness.

The artist, Rick Muto is a well known professional artist in Rochester and, if I’m not mistaken a parishioner at Saint Jerome’s. I also believe that this is his first religiously themed work.

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Here is his website: Rick Muto Decorative and Fine Art website

Rick Muto is also on Facebook: Rick Muto Decorative and Fine Arts Professional Services

What are we to think of the darkened figure in the lower right corner? Use the comment box to offer your interpretation.

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Scroll down on the artist’s Facebook page timeline and you will see a photo of him in his studio working on the Ascension mural.


Heaven Is In The Rafters At The Cathedral

June 3rd, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

This is a republishing of a previous post from July 18, 2011.

Also, a reminder that the rite of priestly ordination will take place tomorrow morning 10:30 A.M. May 4, 2016 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester.



Like many people of the diocese I was disheartened by the results of the renovation of our cathedral. I believe several serious mistakes were made in the renovation. Nevertheless, besides utilitarian improvements, there are several good things in which we can rejoice that came out of that renovation.  One good thing certainly has to be the beautifully restored patterns on the rafters, and the angels from which the arches spring.


(Click on photos for larger views)



I have written before of my hope that we return to emphasizing in our churches, through imagery, the presence of the heavenly personages at Mass. Every Mass is a celebration both here and in heaven. The angels and saints are as much in attendance as our fellows in the pews. Images make us conscious of their presence.


Heaven and earth meet in the liturgy that is held in the church building and so the building matters, it is not just incidental. The physical building and its decoration predisposes us to receive the graces of the sacraments.


Heaven comes down to us (or, we are lifted up to heaven) and hovers over us in the restored angels and brightened patterns of the rafters of our cathedral. Rich bright patterns as well as garden plants -vines and flowers- have always been associated with our idea of the splendor of heaven. Stars on a blue field, too. They are some of the few ways we humans can attempt to depict a sense of heaven. The heavenly angels high up on the walls of the cathedral, pleasingly appearing in peaceful pastel colors, support the rafters of heaven.



It is a glorious ceiling and most fitting for a Catholic church. Take heart in the rafters of heaven next time you participate in Mass at the Cathedral.


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.

Restoring A Sense of the Sacred in Sacred Heart Cathedral

May 29th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

pair psdClick on the picture to see a larger image.

While attending the deacon ordination rite on Saturday, I realized, once again, a major weakness with our cathedral: the altar is not prominent. It is in the middle but it is too low and there is no suggestion of it as sacred space. That was by design, of course.

The people in charge of the renovation of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester believed the congregation or community should be emphasized, not the altar and not the priest. Sacred space, to them, is the whole space when occupied by a congregation. They did not believe in a hierarchy of spaces. No space is more sacred than another in their theology of liturgy. In fact, no space is really sacred in itself. Only people gathered make a space sacred, according to their thinking. It is not a concept without some merit, in my opinion –“Where two or three are gathered in my name… ” But, of course, we also have in our tradition the influence of the Old Testament Temple layout and liturgy with its sacred spaces in hierarchical order , actions, prayers and theology. Jesus, we recall was a Temple goer. So were the earliest Christians until they were excluded from the Temple and synagogues. The Eucharist that they had always had to celebrate apart from the Temple/synagogues took on an increasingly Temple-like liturgical style to fill the void. Fairly early on in Christian history the priests/bishops, when celebrating the Eucharist, were compared to the High Priests of the Jerusalem Temple.

A desacralization of churches and the liturgy followed Vatican II. (We could argue endlessly as to whether that was what the Council Fathers had in mind.) But, tradition seems to be making a comeback. Slowly but surely –“brick by brick” some say– we are returning to a sense of the sacred. A more balanced understanding of liturgy in line with tradition and Vatican II thinking on the liturgy is evolving.

I have a proposal that would, I think, restore a sense of the sacred in our cathedral. You can see my proposal in the illustration at the top of this post. I think my proposal to raise the altar one step higher and to cover the altar with a ciborium would go a long way to restoring the Cathedral to Catholic tradition.

This is not the first time I have posted this proposal. It is the third time.

Saint Mary’s Church, Dansville, NY

April 13th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Dansville, New York, has a beautiful church that has avoided ruin through “Spirit of Vatican II” activism.

web 01bae5e57efea590ab7f6be82aaf955e110c7f55a5_edited-1Saint Mary’s in Dansville is a mix of styles. I would call it Romanesque but it has a Renaissance/Baroque main entrance, Gothic Revival coins at the corners and a prominent pediment, and touches of Byzantine in a domed cupola and stone/brick banding toward the top of the tower.

web 01f23438a9bcb34ca34acc4936d10c22ceb3a99c10_edited-1The church is in the style of an early Christian basilica and includes an open timbered ceiling, characteristic of the earliest of Christian churches. There is a large nave and two side aisles but no side chapels. The apse houses a gorgeous classical Renaissance altar designed to appear to have a baldachin or ciborium. The tabernacle was never moved after the Second Vatican Council and so is in the center of the cancel, on the altar. The vaulted ceiling is  coffered with rosettes.

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Appropriately, the back and side walls of the apse are painted in a rich, gold pattern reminiscence of a king’s throne room.

The draped opening between the columns of the altar cries out for a painting but we are offered an aesthetically underwhelming (to me) suspended sculpture of the risen Lord. I’m wondering if a painting was once there or was at least planned for that space.

web 01d6a58bd89dcbcc95e6b8ac98d69b2c006c25f0c6_edited-2Unfortunately, banners have been hung on some of the sides of the piers (square columns). They are at least well designed but, alas, they are banners and I dislike banners. In this case I think they distract from the Stations of the Cross. The piers were designed to be unadorned except for the Stations. Thankfully, the colors of the banners harmonize with the architecture and they are in good proportion to the sides of the piers.

web 01db2453d20195dda066a1a05767c9c2c69bb836ab_edited-1The Stations of the Cross are outstanding in Saint Mary’s. Renaissance in style, each has a touch of Byzantine in the gold mosaic-like skies.


Yet another style appears to us in the spandrels between the piers (those triangular spaces over the piers). A heavenly host of angels rendered in the Art Nouveau style look down on us and announce that we are in sacred space –the throne room of the King, the temple of the Lord. (Yes, yes, I know, in the New Covenant the people are the Temple.)

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Like nearly everything else in this church, the stained glass windows are beautiful. Rich in detail and outstanding in rendering they each invite study and reflection.

web 01e00df7767c17fa51f22ea19b6ea8e78071a45f0b_edited-1 Look at the wonderful elaboration of the main entrance. Something important happens here. This isn’t just any building.

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More Information about Saint Mary’s

Blessed Sacrament Front and Center

March 4th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From the National Catholic Register

Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison Wisconsin discusses diocesan deadline for suitable tabernacle placement.

Read more here.

Quality Restoration Work at Saint Jerome’s

February 10th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie
In progress restoration painting work by Liza Barzac

In progress restorative painting work by Liza Barzac

Something like 28 years ago, Liza Barzac and her husband saw a man whitewashing over the pastel colored Stations of the Cross in Saint Jerome’s Church in East Rochester, New York. They thought he was putting a primer coat of paint on the Stations to prepare them for restoration. Then, the gentleman applied a second coat of white –and left them that way. The pastel colored stations were going to be white from then on, until a month or so ago.

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White washed station to be tinted during restoration work by Liza Barzac.

Liza Barzac is now restoring the stations to their pastel coloring. She was asked to do so by Father William Leone, the current pastor at Saint Jerome’s. Liza, has been painting since her retirement. She is a member of the Penfield Art Club and has had her paintings exhibited through that group. She also has been fixing broken statues and figurines for people. When she does those jobs she always has to repaint the arms or legs or whatever to blend the colors of the new with the old. She was doing the same kind of work in Saint Jerome’s basement, fixing up statues and such, when she restored a statue of Saint Joseph that was in a closet. Father Leone noticed how Liza had restored the statue of Saint Joseph and asked her to do the same kind of painting in restoring the stations in the church. And that is what she is doing.

Jesus meets His mother on the way to Gogotha. This station is also in the process of being tinted.

Jesus meets His mother on the way to Gogotha. This station is also in the process of being tinted.

They are not finished, yet, but we can see the approach she is taking in restoring the pastel colors to the white stations.

The Stations are not the only things being restored at Saint Jerome’s. The church has very fine stained glass windows in the nave that were restored by Godfrey Müller Studios which fabricates and restores fine stained glass (585-482-0251, 115 East Main Street, Suite 442, Box 17, Rochester, NY 14609).

The stained glass windows in the nave pair New Testament scenes with those in the Old Testament that prefigure them. Here we see, on the left the New Testament multiplication of the loaves and fish and Bread of Life discourse paired with the Old Testament story of the Manna in the desert.

The stained glass windows in the nave pair New Testament scenes with those in the Old Testament that prefigure them. Here we see, on the left the New Testament multiplication of the loaves and fish to feed the hungry following Jesus paired with the Old Testament story of the miraculous daily manna from heaven that fed the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.

Here are more pictures of the nave windows.

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When I arrived to take photographs of the stations and windows I bumped into Jeffrey Müller who had just finished installing a new “Pieta” window in the narthex of the ground floor.

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It was the last of new windows he has recently been creating as part of the restoration of the front section of the church: the narthex on the ground floor and the narthex on the first floor where the entrance to the church is. Click on the following pictures to view full images.

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This window is in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

This window is in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.

A mural is presently being executed of the “Transfiguration” that will be installed in the ceiling of the narthex to the church. I will return to photograph that work when it is installed.

This is all orthodox, quality work; a real gem in East Rochester and in the Rochester diocese.

Saint Jerome’s has adoration, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every Tuesday. I believe there is benediction in the evening on Tuesdays but you probably should call the parish office to check on that.

Saint Jerome’s parish website is HERE.

“Thank you!” to Glenna Steven for alerting me to the restoration work at Saint Jerome’s.

When to worry about the bathrooms, diversity and community.

February 7th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

I have not been called, yet; not from the rebuilding committee at Saint Pius Tenth Church. I expect a call anytime now requesting my guidance on making the new church building truly Catholic.

(chirp, chirp… )

I will be ready, however. Here is the list I have been preparing (for any new Catholic church in the planning stage, not just Pius Tenth).

1. Make it look like a Catholic church both inside and out. The Romanesque style is my preference and the most recognizable as Catholic. The Baroque, too, fully espouses Catholic theology, as well as the Byzantine but with an eastern twist. Modernism, however, has proved a failure. Please avoid it.

Use stone, brick, wood and stained glass. Hide the steel. (Concrete, only if you must.)

Please tell the world through the architectural style you choose that the building is a church: not a store, bank, Target, suburban house, town center, concert hall, or a dairy farm. May the new building announce that something really, really important and serious happens there. A church building is sacred space in which we offer sacrifice in worship of the Holy Trinity led in that worship by the Second Person of that Trinity, Jesus Christ. We have malls, senior citizen centers, youth centers, theaters and town halls to do other things; places meant to cater to us and our personal and community needs.

Please, not like this.

Please, not like this.

2. Use the traditional basilica ground plan: Latin or Greek Cross. It has worked for 1,700 years. Emphasize the linear, not the circular. We are traveling to heaven, not wandering around in circles. Our focus is on God and we want to rush toward Him without sociological, political, or faddish distractions.

Latin Cross Plan

Latin Cross Plan

The governing concept here is that salvation history has a definite beginning and a definite end. It is a whole lot different from the thinking of far eastern religions that delight in endless and limitless oceans of “being”. So, stress linear movement to the altar and not so much a gathering “around” the altar.


3. Speaking of beginnings and endings: Place the main entrance at the opposite end from the altar and make that entrance glorious. It is, after all, meant to mark movement from secular into sacred space. Symbolically, those doors represent the gates of heaven. Surround the doors with images of the saints and angels. Christ enthroned, the vision of Ezekiel or Last Judgment scene would be most appropriate over the doors. The doors themselves must be heavy wood or bronze and display Biblical scenes –perhaps the Annunciation, the angel on one door and Mary on the other. I prefer heavy doors on churches; doors that insist on being taken seriously. Please, no see-through glass doors. This isn’t K Mart.

arkansa door

Bronze doors with images of the Twelve Apostles.

The concept here is mystery: Catholicism exudes mystery and the doors should convey that experience.

Additional entrances should be treated in the same way except, perhaps, in scale. Marian and saint themes might be best at those entrances. (A “Marian” door and a “Saint Pius Tenth” door would be nice.)

4. Yes, the baptismal font should be right inside the main doors. I prefer the combination pool and pedestal style. Whatever it is, include imagery of the Baptism of Christ as part of it. At least that. There are plenty of other figurative baptismal imagery from our Catholic past that could be used.

5. At the far end opposite the main doors and font should be the altar, freestanding and covered by a beautiful ciborium (if the building is Classical, Romanesque or Byzantine) or a baldachin (if the architecture is Classical or Baroque).

The altar itself should be stone or at least one with marble facing and sculpted on all four sides, perhaps with the Last Supper on the front and scenes of Old Testament prefiguring of the Eucharist –Melchizedek, Sacrifice of Abraham, multiplication of the loaves and fish– on the sides.

The altar should be raised on a platform, 3 steps high. Some kind of railing or boundary should enclose the chancel marking off the space of the chancel as special.

6. For the love of God, visually center the Tabernacle in the church. It’s the Catholic thing to do. I prefer that the Tabernacle look like a temple or an ark. Images of angels all around the space, please.

7. Lavish the inside and outside of the building with images of saints and Biblical scenes carefully programmed to reinforce Christian teaching and that convey a sense of hierarchy of theology as one moves from the doors to the altar. Include rich patterns, especially in and near the chancel that suggest a king’s chamber or a paradise.

8. Please, original works of art only –created by liturgical artists with training in traditional Catholic styles! No insect-like figures. The best figurative styles to use as a guide can be found in our rich Catholic tradition: Gothic, Baroque, Byzantine, and even Art Nouveau. Avoid Realism. Figures should express a sense of being redeemed, transformed by grace, transfigured. They are in heaven and should appear noticeably ‘better’ than they would on earth.

Art Nouveau Style

Art Nouveau Style

9. After all that –and only after all that– you can concentrate on bathrooms, building community, and respecting diversity. Anyway, those are things of concern like coffee hours, movie nights, social justice committees, Rosary Society, Knights of Columbus, youth organizations, choir. You should have all those things already.

Can’t wait for my invite! Excited!

Josep Obiols, An “Other Modern” Artist

January 24th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From the New Liturgical Movement website and Matthew Alderman

pintures-josep-obiols-redim-w500-h500From time to time, the New Liturgical Movement covers the work of artists and architects from recent history, whose work, while “modern,” nonetheless took a different and more traditional path than that of the “modernism” of Le Corbusier or Picasso, a path which we call “the Other Modern.”

Read more about one such artist HERE

Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 3)

January 23rd, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously: Part 1, Part 2

The Undisguised, Unambiguous or Plain Cross

Two events that took place toward the middle of the 4th century may have created an atmosphere in which the unambiguous cross and even the crucifixion could become the preeminent symbol(s) of Christianity. The first event was the discovery, in Jerusalem, of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified and, second, the banning of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and location of Golgotha.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and location of Golgotha).

In 326 the bishop of Jerusalem had the site of Calvary (Golgotha) excavated in preparation for the construction of a large church over the place of Christ’s crucifixion. Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem in 327 and devoted her efforts and prayers to finding –at the excavation site– the actual cross of Christ’s sacrifice. The sign that Pilate had placed on the cross “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was found but unattached to any post or beam. How the rest of the cross came to be identified is the subject of speculation. At any rate, the “true” cross had been found. Soon that cross became the foremost object of veneration in Jerusalem. Small fragments (relics) of the cross spread across the Christian world.

Some scholars are of the opinion that by the 4th century execution by crucifixion was already falling out of favor across the known world.  Some argue that Constantine banned crucifixion –he probably did– out of respect for the way Christ died. Others claim that crucifixion was eventually banned as a simple trend towards more humane behavior and that piety had nothing to do with it. Whatever the cause, crucifixion gradually fell from public consciousness after a generation or so.

The eclipse of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment and the development of Golgotha as a site of pilgrimage –as well as the subsequent dispersal of fragments of the true cross across the Christian world– led to a change of attitude regarding the avoidance of the image of the plain cross in Christian art.

Apse Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, ca. 400

Apse Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, ca. 400

In 420 a large gold, gem encrusted cross (crux gemmata) was erected on the rock of Golgotha. That cross may have been one of the very first appearances of the unambiguous Christian cross. The Golgotha cross no longer exits but an image of it appears in the apse mosaic at the church of Santa Pudenziana, in Rome. In the mosaic, the rock of Golgotha has steps cut into it and the cross is depicted as made of gold and precious gemstones, an image that corresponds to the written accounts of early Christian pilgrims who visited the site.


Bobbio flask (ampullae) 6th c. By an unknown handicraft worker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Picture Source.

Solidus (Coin) of Tiberius II, A.D. 57882. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold; 4.44 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.15.

Solidus (Coin) of Tiberius II, A.D. 572-582. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.15. Picture Source.

Many of the earliest depictions of the cross are on small flasks (ampullae) for holy oil that were pilgrim’s souvenirs from the Holy Land. These ampullae crosses may be depictions of the gem cross.

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Apse Mosaic. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Ravenna (Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region) ITALY. Picture Source.



Enthroned Gem Cross.


Santi Cosma e Damiano chancel mosaic, 6th c. Picture Source.

Depictions in the art of the period sometimes indicate the use of the cross as a stand-in for Christ himself. This can best be seen in the 6th century apse mosaic in the church of Sant’ Appollinare of Classe, Italy. The mosaic depicts the transfiguration of the Jesus: Moses and Elijah flank a disk containing an image of a gold, jeweled cross with a small medallion of the bust of Christ at the crossing. It’s the same type of cross as the one shown in the Santa Pudenziana mosaic. A star-filled sky surrounds the cross. Peter, James and John are represented by lambs in a paradise-like garden. Finally, the Hand of God hovers over the scene. The cross in this program represents Jesus and not the crucifixion. The cross in the Santa Pudenziana, however, is meant to identify the cityscape as that of Jerusalem and so it represents the site of the crucifixion.

The Crucifix or Crucifixion Crosses
2 diagram2 AN00186312_001_l

Drawing of an intaglio in the British Museum. Picture Source .

A very small intaglio found in Romania may be one of the earliest representations of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is dated to the 3rd or 4th century. If it is from the 200s then we really have a very early representation of not just the cross but of a crucifix (or a possible narrative of the crucifixion). However, the inscription is J(esus) Ch(rist)] S(on) [of G(od)] S(aviour) and the 12 apostles are shown, 6 to each side of the cross. Saint John was the only apostle at the crucifixion; the others had fled in fear just after Jesus was taken prisoner. They were not standing at the foot of the cross. The presence of all the apostles suggest that perhaps the image has a dogmatic or symbolic meaning that is in addition to the Gospel narrative. In addition Christ’s body is not actually attached to the wooden cross and his arms are posed in the orans position of prayer.

RomStaSabinaDoorCrucifix 222_edited-1

Crucifixion Panel from the wooden doors of Santa Sabina church in Rome. Picture Source.

Another one of the early appearances of the crucifixion in Christian art is from a set of wooden church doors from the early 5th century (422-433). The doors consist of panels showing scenes from both Testaments. The panel thought to represent the crucifixion occupies the very upper left corner of the left door. The scene is somewhat ambiguous. Three standing nude male figures in loin cloths are arranged next to each other horizontally, as we imagine the crucifixion might have looked like. The center figure is larger suggesting the figure of Jesus. The other two are thought to be the “good” and “bad” thieves. But, all three figures are in the orans position of prayer. They do not seem to be suffering crucifixion –the arms are not pulled straight from the tug of body weight as they would be from crucifixion. Adding to the ambiguity is the absence of any vertical posts or horizontal beams that would form crosses. Rather, three pitched roofs or pediments are supported by vertical posts, located between the figures, suggesting architecture. A window can be seen in the left pediment. If we compare this image with the much smaller intaglio we just looked at we can see that the figures are in the same orans pose but the intaglio is much more descriptive; we can see the cross. Why did the door carver leave out the crosses? On the other hand, why did the intaglio artist include the 12 apostles? It would seem that these first appearances of the crucifix or crucifixion scenes suggest a period of searching for the proper reason for depicting the crucifixion. Should it be depicted in order to identify/symbolize Jesus or to relate the Gospel narrative.

passion scenes 222 B

Carved Ivory Casket (box). ca. 420-30

A carving on an ivory casket (small box) may be even earlier (420-430). This is obviously a narrative crucifixion and not just a more descriptive symbol. True to the Gospel narrative Mary and Saint John as well as Longinus, the Roman soldier, are included in the scene. Adjacent to the scene on the left is a depiction of Judas hanging himself. Other scenes from the passion occupy other sides of the casket. This casket obviously narrates a story.

What is interesting in the casket carving, however, is something that can be seen in many of the early depictions of the crucifixion; Jesus does not appear to be dead or even suffering. The common explanation is that the savior’s divinity was being suggested by a figure that does not appear to be suffering. It’s a difficult problem for an artist to show: humanity and divinity united –but still separate– in one person. Artists solved the problem by depicting a crucified human figure with an emotion suggestive of divine peace.

The crucified Christ with the presence of Mary, John, and Longinus became the basic icon of narrative crucifixion scenes.

We have gone a bit beyond the evolution of the cross as the symbol of Christianity; we have gone from the Gospel narrative to a visual symbol (the plain cross) and then to pictorial narrative (crucifix/crucifixion scene).

Interesting Critique: “A Tale of Two Churches”

January 18th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From The Catholic World Report

by Aurora C. Griffin

The final scene of Disney’s masterpiece Fantasia shows a group of monks processing through the forest at dawn, with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” playing softly in the background. As they walk and pray with their candles, the trees before them begin to join together at the tops, forming what are unmistakably… 

More here.

See a video of the interior of La Sagrada Familia HERE. Don’t let the introductory music turn you off. Stay with it.

See a short video of the interior of the Seville Cathedral HERE.

Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 2)

January 1st, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously: Part 1

Disguised or Ambiguous Crosses

The reluctance to graphically represent the crucifixion (see Part 1) and yet still refer to the sacrificial nature of Christ’s passion and death may have been ameliorated by the use of what some historians refer to as disguised crosses. Some of these “cross markings” include the anchor, the T-shaped tau cross, the Egyptian looped cross (the ankh, a symbol of life), and also the mast of Jonah’s ship. Most historians would agree, however, that it is very difficult to determine if any of these refer specifically to the crucifixion. Identifying the intended meaning of any of these symbols is now understood as a fruitless quest.


Christian Roman epitaph of Atimetus from the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, Rome. Inscription flanked by Christian symbols, an anchor and a fish. When closing the loculi, the relatives of the deceased often inscribed messages on the slabs. The anchor could stand for faith or hope, or the role of Christ in one’s life.

The anchor symbol is one of the earliest and most popular of markings. There is general agreement that the anchor itself is a symbol of hope as it refers to an anchored ship at rest in a secure harbor which is what every sailor hopes for at the end of the day. That it is a symbol for Christ is also generally accepted as Christ is the secure hope of all Christians. Some see in the vertical shaft and crossing arm of the anchor a reference to the cross which, of course, strengthens the identification of the anchor with Christ. Some writers at the time did make clear parallel associations between such things as anchors and masts with the cross. Given the funerary context of the use of the anchor image in the catacombs, however, the more appropriate interpretation is probably that of simple hope or faith in God.

The Hebrew letter “taw”.

The Hebrew letter “taw”.

The tau cross was derived from the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the taw, and eventually became identified with the cross of crucifixion through a trans formative process. The “sign of the cross” as well as the graphic symbol of the cross probably grew out of the mark of the taw written on the foreheads of the righteous, referred to in Ezekial 9:4—6 (the tau spared them God’s wrath that was about to befall Jerusalem.)

Chi Rho, Catacomb of San Callisto

Chi Rho, Catacomb of San Callisto

The chi rho is one of the earliest cruciform symbols used by Christians. Formed by superimposing the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek, it is not technically a cross but did invoke the status of Jesus as the Christ. Reminiscent of the taw it did have associations with the cross. There is early evidence of the chi rho symbol on Christian rings of the third century (200’s).

Constantine had a vision of the chi rho and was inspired to attach the symbol to the top of the vexillium, a military cross frame standard from which hung a flag, so that his troops could rally under the patronage of the “One God” rather than many different gods. In place of a flag was suspended a banner bearing portraits of Constantine flanked by his two sons. The Romans referred to the new design as the labarum.



Derived from the labarum was the an image consisting of the cross form of the vexillium surmounted by a wreathed chi rho.

Victory Cross, Rome, Vatican. Sarcophagus of Domatilla (from Catacomb of Domatilla), mid-4th century On top of the cross form is the wreathed chi rho or Christogram.

Victory Cross, Rome, Vatican. Sarcophagus of Domatilla (from Catacomb of Domatilla), mid-4th century
On top of the cross form is the wreathed chi rho or Christogram.

The wreathed chi rho is called a Christogram and together with the cross form suggested triumph over enemies and death through faith in Christ. As the Christian church began to enjoy the patronage of Constantine the victory crosses -as they are called- and the Christogram eventually appeared on every conceivable object from mosaics in basilicas to glass goblets.

Feliz Navidad

December 23rd, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie
feliz navidad

By artist Alfredo M. Arreguin. (With the permission of the artist.)

I have featured the work of Alfred M. Arreguin on this site a couple of times (Here and Here and Here) He is a contemporary artist who lives in Seattle, Washington and is originally from Morelia, Mexico. You can check out my other posts on Mr. Arreguin.

I think this nativity Madonna exhibits (besides Mexican or “Latin” characteristics) an interpretation appropriate to Christmas. It presents us with a visual sermon on the Incarnation. Nature appears totally transfigured: rich and full of life as it was meant to be. It’s typical of Mr. Arreguin’s work. Contemporary liturgical artists could learn from looking at his work.

Some emphasize the cross, of course, when discussing our salvation but our redemption actually begins with the Incarnation, when God became man. That happened at the Annunciation but Christmas is when Mary gives him to us.

Mr. Arreguin is represented by The Linda Hodges Gallery ( His own website is .

Gaudete Sunday @ Saint Thomas the Apostle Latin Mass Community

December 14th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Follow the link to a brief video of clips from Sunday’s Latin Mass in Irondequoit, New York (Diocese of Rochester).

When you get to the link, select the video in the bottom right corner of the page.

Below is a clip showing the Cope and Chasuble worn at the Latin Mass Community Gaudete Sunday Mass at Saint Thomas the Apostle (Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Irondequoit, New York).

Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 1)

December 12th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


The Early Absence of the Cross

It is a curious fact that there is an absence of the cross in the pictorial repertoire of the Christian faith between the first century and the early years of the fifth century. Even when it finally did appear it did not represent the cross of Christ’s passion and death but was a symbol of his transfiguration, his victory over death, and his pledge of the second coming. The crucifix —the cross with the image of the body (corpus) of Christ affixed appeared even later.

The absence of images of the plain cross from the earliest period of Christian art has been a difficult puzzle for art historians and theologians to solve because the redemptive power of Christ’s passion and death on the cross was a theme explored by early Christian writers. In addition, the sign-of-the-cross was a common part of the liturgical life of the earliest Christians. In fact, it was in the liturgy where the first association of the passion and death of Christ with salvation was made (Hippolytus ca. 200)(1).  Early in the third century Clement of Alexandria speaks of the Cross as tou Kyriakou semeiou typon, i.e. signum Christi, “the symbol of the Lord”(2) and in the first half of the third century Tertullian referred to the body of Christians as “crucis religiosi” –“devotees of the cross” (3).  St. Augustine said that by the sign of the cross and the invocation of the name of Jesus all things are sanctified and consecrated to God. In addition to the tracing of the sign on the forehead of candidates for Baptism, individuals daily made the gesture when beginning various activities (although more likely to ward off evil than to recall the passion) (4). But, while the cross was a primary subject of interest to the writers and theologians of the early church, the earliest artists and those responsible for commissioning images, ignored it. They chose, instead, to present the itinerant, miracle-working ministry of the rabbi, Jesus. It was the very human Jesus of the gospels that captured the imagination of those responsible for early Christian art. The saving power of a crucified transcendent deity popular in the early texts does not get any play in the earliest visual arts of the faith (5).

Some assign the discrepancy in emphasis to a lack of popular interest on the part of the ordinary faithful in Christ’s passion and death (6). Atonement theology, they believe, was a construct of the professional theologians and not really the gospel message received by the common, ordinary person Jesus was interested in. This interpretation does not ring true, however, as the visual exegesis of the Christian faith used in the catacombs and on sarcophagi would have at least been approved by the leaders of the church in Rome and in other metropolitan centers. It seems the cross should have appeared.

Additional evidence of the unity of belief between the professionals and the faithful is the consistency of visual expression found among the thirty-two Roman catacombs dug under the donated private property of different families. The symbols and stories as well as their artistic presentation are consistent from catacomb to catacomb. In fact, artisans probably had a hand in decorating several different sites utilizing catalogs of images and scenes available to all the professional workshops. Also, the fossores (excavators), the professional diggers of the catacombs, were also charged with the preparation and internment of the dead. In the third century they were considered among the clergy in the lowest rank (6). This is evidence of the active involvement of the local church leaders in the administration of the catacombs and so it is difficult to see how a difference in faith between the clerical leaders and the common ordinary Christian could have crept in.

We have to search out other reasons for the discrepancy between the emphasis laid on the passion and death of Christ in early Christian texts and worship, and its absence in the art of the catacombs.

ass crossChristians may have feared that their pagan neighbors would not have understood. Crucifixion was a particularly horrible and humiliating form of execution reserved for the worst criminals, law breakers who occupied the lowest strata of society, peasants and slaves. As a result of misunderstanding, scorn and mockery would have been heaped upon Christians had they brandished the cross as a symbol of their faith. This would be a particularly difficult problem for Christians during periods of persecution. In fact, there seems to have been real reason for Christian fear as graffito was discovered in 1857 in a building on the Palatine Hill of Rome used as a paedagogium or boarding-school for the imperial page boys (7). It depicts a figure with a human body but the head of an ass hanging on a cross. To the left stands a male figure —probably meant to be the Alexamenos referred to in the inscription— pointing or worshiping. The complete inscription translates something like, “Alexamenous, worship(s) (his) God!” There is no certainty as to the date this was made but sometime before the end of the third century is likely. No doubt Alexamenos was a Christian and he was being mocked for his worship of a crucified man/animal god. It was a common accusation that Christians practiced onolatry (worship of donkey) (8).

Fear of mockery, persecution, class hatred, or sarcasm may seem initially to be a good reason for the absence of passion images in the catacombs but it fails to satisfy for the simple reason that the catacombs were, for the most part, not open to the general public. They were extensive, true, but they were private, Christian for the most part, and visited only by relatives and friends of the faithful buried there. In addition, the fossares were Christian and so there is no reason to suppose the painters were not as well. The opportunity for pagans in any numbers to visit the catacombs was probably quite limited and so the cross could have been displayed without much fear of misunderstanding.

There may be a reason, however, that is somewhat related to a fear of sarcasm. Passing by a crucified criminal must certainly have been within the experience of many citizens. The gruesome nature of the torturous death of a man was no doubt overwhelming to nearly all who witnessed it, even given the taste for blood sport favored by the ancient Romans. As a deterrent to crime, it was the intention of the Roman authorities that the execution be gruesome and very public. Might the graphic display of the crucifixion —even of a simple cross— be too much for the earliest Christians themselves to handle? How do you depict this humiliating and horrible event truthfully and yet respectfully communicate a sacred mystery (9)? It seems likely that the cross, and even more, the crucifix, could not be used as symbols of the redemptive suffering of Christ until people began to forget just exactly what that torturous death entailed. That would not happen until Constantine outlawed crucifixion out of respect for the way Christ died (10).

While the passion and death of Christ redeemed mankind and offered eternal life with God, the overwhelmingly traumatic lived experience of crucifixion to Christians may have mentally blocked any thought of its graphic use as a symbol of hope appropriate in the funerary context of the catacombs. Most scholars see in the Christian catacomb imagery scenes and themes of deliverance from danger. Given that line of interpretation you would think that scenes of the resurrection of Christ would be numbered among the more popular scenes on display. Surprisingly, the resurrection of Christ is not depicted in the catacombs. On the other hand, there is no description of the actual event in the gospels, either.

In the next post we will look at the tentative introduction of the cross as an icon of Christianity.
1 Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, (New York, Routledge
2006) p.136
2 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, in P. G., IX (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913) Jan. 7 2009 10:57
3 Tertullian, Apology, c. xvi, P. G., I, (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913) Jan. 7 2009 10:57<>
4 Jensen 136
5 Jensen 135
6 Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, (Lowrie Press, 2007), p.44
7 Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Walks in Rome, Volume 1, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2005)
p. 201 <>
8 Tertullian, mentioned ca. 200 that Christians along with Jews, were accused of worshiping a deity with the head of an ass. In the Histories, Tacitus tells how the Jews, exhausted and dying of thirst in the desert followed a herd of wild asses that led them to water. In appreciation they consecrated an image of the animal.(V.3) in the Jerusalem temple. This story, Tertullian claimed, probably is the source of the rumor that Christians worshiped an ass. (Apology, XVI).
9 Jensen 134
10 Elizabeth A. Dreyer, The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, (Paulist Press, 2001) p. 21-22

Basic Christian Iconography: the Last Supper or Eucharist

December 2nd, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


The icon of the apostles at table with Jesus is recognized as symbolic of the Last Supper and the Eucharistic Liturgy. In this post we will consider the origins of this imagery.

The meal scene originated from pagan forerunners during the earliest centuries of Christianity. However, the banquet scenes we find in the Christian catacombs from the early centuries are problematic as to what they actually represent. More than likely early Christian “meal” scenes conveyed the same primary meaning as the pagan ones: a wish that the deceased might have enjoyment in the afterlife. As with many pagan images they were not incompatible with Christian sentiments. Later, however, they took on a more specifically Christian interpretation.

People are quick to see in the catacomb meal scenes a representation of the Last Supper or the Mass. That the scenes have some Eucharistic layer of meaning is probably true but that they literally represent the Last Supper or the Eucharistic liturgy is questionable. The meal scene is more likely a metaphor for an eschatological –heavenly– banquet. The pagans utilized similar compositions to illustrate the domestic comfort enjoyed by the deceased in his or her earthy life. It may have been suggestive of a hope for similar enjoyment in the afterlife (murky as their understanding of the afterlife was). The Mass, of course, is understood, among other things, as a foretaste of the sacred banquet in heaven so it’s easy to see the broad implications of the shared image of the meal scene.


The most common composition deployed in representations of the meal scene shows seven persons seated at a semi-circular table, all on the far side. The number seven is usually symbolic of completeness in biblical numerology and so to some people, in fact, may be suggestive of the complete roster of twelve apostles at the Last Supper. However, it may also be symbolic of all who are called to the mystical supper including, of course, the deceased person whose tomb it is. The table usually holds loaves of bread (five or seven loaves or baskets, sometimes more) and containers of wine –and plates of fish. The presence of the fish –and seven baskets of bread– invites various interpretations, especially among those who find problems in identifying the meal image with the Eucharist or with the narrative of the Last Supper.

The presence of images of fish on the tables has led to various interpretations of the meal scenes. Some see them as references to the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, others, perhaps the post-resurrection meal of grilled fish shared by Christ with seven of his apostles (John 21:9 – 13). Other scholars see a depiction of an agape meal, due to the often animated poses of some figures.

We saw in the inscription by Bishop Abercius we looked at in a previous post in this series a metaphorical interpretation of the fish as Christ. A late appearing Jewish feast included the eating of a rather large fish at a special meal in anticipation of a future messianic banquet. (Robin Margaret Jensen, “Understanding Early Christian Art”, New York, Routledge 2006, p 57). Possibly, then, the images of plates of fish in the meal scenes of the catacombs provide a messianic layer of meaning but point more to a future sacred banquet than to the Last Supper narrative or a Eucharistic liturgy as conducted in the first few centuries.

Some hold that the meal scenes may be nothing more than a representation of the traditional funerary meal (the “refrigerium”) held at the grave site by family and friends at the time of burial and on the traditional ninth day after of a person’s death. This was a common practice in antiquity and there was certainly nothing about it Christians would have found offensive. (Although Saint Augustine of Hippo found it necessary to suppress the continued traditional celebratory meal practice of recent converts whose grave side meals got a little out of hand.) It was common for the food at such meals to be shared with the deceased by way of basins and tables to hold food, or pipes to conduct libations into the grave. Archaeological evidence reveals that fish was sometimes one of the foods offered to the deceased. It is reasonable to assume that Christians would have continued the tradition as a simple pious act of familial devotion. It is not likely the stone or marble tables found at some graves were altars used for Eucharistic liturgies.
It is possible the meal scenes had many shades of meaning — surely including a Eucharistic one—but, given the funerary context, it is more likely they symbolized a hoped-for celestial banquet.

Basic Christian Iconography: the “Good Shepherd”

November 10th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

In the Christian catacombs dating from the second through the fourth centuries, there are two categories of images painted on walls and ceilings, and carved on sarcophagi. In one category we find scenes depicting stories from scripture. That, of course, does not surprise us. However, in the second category, there are many images that do not appear to be part of a story. In fact, these images are shared, both in design and in primary meaning, with those decorating pagan burial chambers.

Shared images —those images we find in both pagan and Christian funerary art— are sometimes referred to as non-narrative images because they appear most often as isolated images lacking an environment or background that would suggest a story line.

Shared non-narrative images were usually depicted in the same fashion whether appearing in a pagan or Christian context. In fact, in many instances it is difficult to tell a Christian burial chamber from a pagan one based solely on the images depicted on the walls and ceilings. Standard pagan funerary images were often used in Christian context as long as they did not contradict Christian sensibilities and as long as they could be understood to have a Christian interpretation.

(click on the photographs)

Left: Hermes (Mercury) as a shepherd. As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes ("guide of the soul"),  brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. Right: Calf-Bearer , ca. 570 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Christian imagery got its start through the adoption and modifica- tion of pagan images. If we were to substitute the calf in the pagan statue above with a lamb we might very well identify it as the Christian ‘Good Shepherd’.

Left: Hermes (Mercury) as a shepherd. As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes (“guide of the soul”), brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. Right: Calf-Bearer, ca. 570 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Christian imagery got its start
through the adoption and modification of pagan images. If we were to substitute the calf in the pagan statue above with a lamb we might very well identify it as the Christian ‘Good Shepherd’.

The image of the (good) shepherd is one example of a non-narrative image (it is, in this case of course, also related to the biblical story of the “Good Shepherd”). There are variations in the depiction of shepherd imagery whether pagan or Christian. He is usually shown as young, beardless and wearing a short tunic with boots and often carrying a purse, musical pipes or a bucket filled with ewe milk. In some cases he is shown standing among a few sheep, carrying one on his shoulders. At other times he is shown milking a ewe. Carrying a lamb/sheep is the most common representation of the shepherd type.

dobl shepherd

Left: Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is represented in this Christian catacomb as carrying the deceased (represented by the lambs) to heaven (“Paradise”, as represented by the trees and birds). In the painting we see some context: trees and birds which help us understand the Christian meaning. The statue on the right has no context. It is now known as Christian and yet it was thought to be pagan for a long time after being discovered.

The Christian icon of the Good Shepherd is, of course, well known to Christians and we think of the imagery as unique to Christianity and so it may be troubling to learn that it originated in pagan imagery. That seems, somehow, to cause us to think that perhaps Christianity is not all that unique –and truthful– after all.

I was once on a flight seated next to a man who noticed I was reading the Divine Office which he interpreted as being a Bible. He remarked that he used to be a Christian but was put off when he learned that so many Christian “things” actually had origins or similarities to paganism. I’m not sure if maybe he thought I was ripe for picking. I told him that his observation of pagan “inspiration” was one of the reasons why I became convinced of the truth of Christianity.

Pagan, polytheistic, and other pre-Christian religions were not so much evil inventions as misguided attempts to reconnect the fallen world with God. They represented man’s searching for a way back. They had some sense of which way to go but lacked a truthful, reliable, guide. With the Incarnation, God came into the world as it was and redeemed it. All those previous wandering routes could be made straight, realigned, reoriented in Christian truth. Tweaked, as it were. (It’s more than just that, of course, but I’m trying to be brief and simple, here.) God, in the Incarnation, redeemed man and the world. He didn’t destroy man and the world in order to make something entirely new.

The shepherd image, when used by the pagans, personified gentle protective care, and charity or philanthropy; good sentiments. The shepherd, sometimes, was also a symbol of the god Hermes who guided the deceased to the underworld and the afterlife. The Christian image of the Good Shepherd, on a primary level, communicates the same sentiments (with exception to the reference to Hermes).

In their myths pagans yearned for a “good” shepherd. God provided the “Good Shepherd” who, in addition to being gentle and protective, laid down his own life for the flock so his sheep might enjoy eternity with God.

Several Christian icons or symbols have their origins in pagan imagery. I’ll post a few as part of this series on “Basic Christian Iconography”.