Art as Identity

November 07, 2007

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St. Joseph in Saginaw - Guadalupe ShrineImages have power and engender strong feelings in the people who use or "misuse” them. National flags, religious statues, photos and logos are keenly appreciated in their reverential use and are often sharply defended when thought to be undervalued, discarded or threatened with destruction.

The use of images within the worship environment enjoys a long if sometimes embattled history. From earliest times, there were differing views on the appropriateness of images in Christian worship. The power and appeal of images was often set against the fear of idolatry. While it's hard to imagine at this point in our history that any Catholic would actually be worshipping an image, contemporary church documents (e.g., The Directory on Popular Piety [EspañolFrançais.]) continue to caution that the honor rendered to the image is directed to the person represented and not the image itself.

The World Is Filled with Visual Stimulation


Contemporary society exists in a world of images. People are accustomed to the rapid succession of images on television and computer screens. The fleeting nature of such “thin” imagery can perhaps dull the viewer to appreciate the riches found in art that endures. Reflection on art that is multi-leveled  -- that goes beyond the “quick” messages or familiar signs -- has enjoyed a long history in the spiritual life.

Images Were Limited in Light of Vatican II


In the years following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic parish communities removed or built without much of the imagery that formerly filled churches. This was in an effort to focus on the primary symbol and actions of the worshipping community. Much of the removed artwork was admittedly of a poor quality from an aesthetic point of view. On occasion communities introduced non-objective art (abstract) art into their churches with varying degrees of acceptance by their parishioners. Sometimes the art introduced, while admittedly “religious” in nature, reflected the personal spirituality of the artist. Even if it was of high art quality, these images were sometimes unable to speak to a community and its tradition. Communities composed of people from different cultures were faced with additional challenges if the directives to limit imagery were followed. In these cases the question often became “whose” image would be introduced into the worship area.

Too often the art that remains in a worship space is simply an uncritical re-appropriation of images from the past. Sometimes the images in the worship space are ignored or inaccessible (not connected) to the viewers. Sometimes they are used for their “sign” value as being “Catholic” without necessarily being integrated with the prayer life of the community. People with the good intention of promoting liturgical renewal may somehow set up a strong tension between the primacy of the liturgy and any religious imagery.

Devotional and Communal Art

Devotional art is often understood as affective images used for private prayer. Often in contemporary churches, these images are located in smaller shrines areas adjacent to the main worship area. Sometimes this imagery can be introduced by a small group of people or even an individual. The Directory on Popular Piety (EspañolFrançais.) instructs communities to “avoid the de facto imposition of images on a community inspired by private devotion of individuals (no. 18).” This same document suggests “rigor in drawing up iconographic schemes (no. 18).” There is an opportunity for communities to engage in reflection on what images might truly reflect and support not only individuals but the entire community -- and help them pray. The art may not be directed solely towards devotional prayer but as a support to liturgical action as well.

Experiences from the Past


There is a history of mining the rich tradition of biblical imagery – not merely to tell the stories contained within its covers, but to expand upon contemporary experience by placing it in dialogue with the biblical message. There is also a tradition of placing imagery in particular places within the church to reinforce, unveil or expand upon the liturgical celebration. Many Catholics see the presence of images in their churches as part of their religious identity, something not shared with all other Christian denominations.

Today's Possibilities

How then do communities select and integrate art into their church buildings? How can the art that is there speak to the viewer? The following topics may be helpful in discussing identity and possibilities for art:

+  stories that parishioners tell about themselves
+  the identified mission and ministry of a parish
+  cultural and background experiences of the people
+  effects and experiences associated with sacrament life
+  world events that are impacting the community
+  future hopes

Certainly, the context for discussing art is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The paschal mystery, experienced and expressed sacramentally and communally, organizes and identifies our worship spaces. Art introduced into these places has the ability to reinforce this mystery. It can reflect a given community and challenge viewers to contemplate the God we cannot see, but is revealed to us in many ways.

Mark Joseph Costello is a Capuchin priest living in Chicago.  He works nationally as a liturgical design consultant.  A graduate of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago with a Master of Divinity Degree, he also received a Master in Fine Arts in Interior Architecture from the School of Art Institute in Chicago.

Photo credit: Mark Joseph Costello


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