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November 12, 2009

Sacred Art Rumblings

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

2Blowhards friend Nikos Salingaros alerts me that there has been issued "an appeal for the Catholic Church to return to human and spiritual values in its art and architecture. If it works it will be a revolution, since the Catholic Church is a big sponsor of the Arts. It might also shake up the nihilistic cult that now controls the Arts."

An article describing the situation is here. And a website Nikos linked to in his email is here.

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to meet with artists on 21 November, and the appeal was issued with that meeting in mind.

I'm not familiar with the current state of sacred art, but gather from Nikos' email that it might have slid into the postmodernism we see daily in venues from art galleries to magazine illustrations.

At any rate, I'm not sure what to make of this given that we are more than a week away from the meeting and Benedict either will or won't heed the appeal. And should he heed it, there is a question of whether he will heed some or all of the points it makes.

Should Benedict decide to become involved with the matter of sacred art, I suspect there will be a large outcry from many corners of the art community. And given the recent history of hostility to the Roman Catholic Church by news media, I further suspect that coverage of the Pope's actions will be pretty negative.

So we shall see what 21 November brings: nothing, a media firestorm, or "something completely different" as the Monty Python troupe would put it.

As for me, I think the Church has every right to do what it wishes regarding its art even though the process might prove to be a public relations problem.



posted by Donald at November 12, 2009


This is probably referring in part to the many churches built in the modernist style in the past 40 years. Some of them I find beautiful and inspiring; others are downright oppressive and boring, and still others are monstrosities.

Posted by: JV on November 12, 2009 3:14 PM

Re JV's point: when the baroque was a touch shocking, it had its good and bad specimens. Borromini's S. Carlo in Rome is just the cutest building on earth, yet when I visited smelly old Florence last time I was struck by how miserable a style Baroque can be when it is cut-rate or two-dimensional.

Mind you, baroque beats modernist overall. Modernism has allowed architects to express their loathing of humanity through their work, rather than through a stabbing or tavern brawl.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on November 12, 2009 4:24 PM

Strikes me as another step in Benedict's plan to position the Church as a true counter-culture. Benedict has stated that he thinks the Church is in for hard times ahead, with the neutrality of recent decades hardening into open hostility, with the flashpoints being abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage and ordination.

Recently, he's allowed the Tridentine Mass to be said again, freeing parishes from the requirement that their Bishop approve. He's published a great work himself on the Liturgy, and other works on art and music and the sacred. I think, though I have no proof, that this is a consciously enacted move to expose another flank of empty modernism: its dead art, its empty music, its soul-destroying architecture. Start poking at some sore points at the heart of modernism. Get some more flashpoints all pointy and flashing.

The Church is in for some exciting times. It's interesting, to me at least, that everytime I hear about this kind of thing from Rome, I want to cheer.

Dagnabbit, Benedict has actually become a hero of mine. Who would have thought it?

Posted by: PatrickH on November 12, 2009 6:27 PM


This is probably referring in part to the many churches built in the modernist style in the past 40 years. Some of them I find beautiful and inspiring; others are downright oppressive and boring, and still others are monstrosities.

Could you point out some concrete examples of modernist-style churches that you find beautiful and inspiring? I'm really curious.

By the way, it's not just about architecture, though the problem is most obvious there. The interior art of many modernist churches is equally atrocious. Just look at these examples (and I've seen plenty of such stuff myself -- it's not like they are outlandishly extreme by today's standards):

Posted by: Vladimir on November 12, 2009 11:16 PM

whilst i have not visited it I think that the Church or Light has a beauty and spirituality.

Whilst it certainly demonstrates modernist qualities, I think part of the power of the building probably comes from its rather modest scale as dictated by budget and other compromises.

Posted by: enrico on November 13, 2009 6:29 AM

St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco is one that I've actually been to and found breathtaking, particularly the interior:

I know I've seen others but can't remember the names. As for the monstrosities, the Los Angeles Cathedral is way up there:

My opinion, of course.

Posted by: JV on November 13, 2009 12:56 PM

The Catholic joke about this: What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?
Answer: you can negotiate with a terrorist.

Too many "modern" Catholic churches are built in the warehouse/airport school of design, and the services use hymns written by clergy without much talent, except of course for persuading other "liturgists" that only "modern" stuff is allowed after Vatican II.

Bring back art and music from the world's best talents, as they did in the past e.g. Gays (Michealangelo), Protestants (Bach) and agnostics (Mozart) are all welcome to apply.

Posted by: Tioedong on November 13, 2009 10:09 PM

I grew up in the Bronx, and even though our church was built in 1960, it was handsome and traditional, and vast. Another local church was done in a more modernist, 1960's space-age style, and it's no less gorgeous.

I am an artist, a painter- I have made a good living from it, my devotion to my craft. Some years are better than others, financially, it's a roller coaster. What I would like to ask is some evidence of the Church putting its money where its mouth is, here. Where are their grants, or exhibitions, or commissions, to make contemporary religious art?

Religious art- well it's why I deeply love my being Catholic. It is the source of my inspiration, the magnificent art. Stained glass, staues, paintings. It was an ennobling education, and I will defend that visual sensuality of the Roman faith forever. Not for me some austere Quaker/Calvinist vision of faith. Smells, bells, rapture, the glory of art as part of something powerful- I love this very much. Buddhism and Hinduism also has a wonderful visual tradition, and magnificent art.

My point: As an artist, I would love nothing more than to do a commission for a church. I must say, I'm not a very "good" Catholic- I question things, and Leonardo, Caravaggio, and Michelangelo weren't very "good' Catholics either. But I'm talented, and will always have affection for the Church. Even when I profoundly disagree with it. But I am a damned good painter.

I went to a very posh art school in NYC. A visiting artist told us, and showed us slides of a sculpture she installed at the invitation of the Vatican at the Casto Gandalfo. I was very impressed. It was a fresh and modern sculpture, actually. Like a chandelier of antlers over a garden, as I remember.

I'm digressing. If the Vatican would like to encourage the creation of sacred or religious art by -professional- artists, I would love nothing more than to be considereed for this. If they want to rail against the decadence of the "art world'- and they do have a point- I do wish they would actually make some movement towards that, and uh, actually fund and sponsor and commission working artists. Walk the walk, don't talk the talk.

The Church is notoriously skinflint though. Which is too bad. Art as a way of inviting people to engage with faith could be a powerful thing.

Posted by: Belvoir on November 14, 2009 8:27 PM

I would like to see Chicago get a new cathedral. Holy Name Cathedral is a small boring gothic revival building, not something befitting a world capital in architecture and one of the largest archdioceses in the world.

Posted by: Robert on November 25, 2009 1:13 PM

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