Where have liturgical paintings gone? Part I: The Fall of Liturgical Paintings

December 17, 2007

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Read Part II of this 2-part article:  Bring Back Paintings for God's Sake

"In the beginning there was art for God’s sake, then in the Renaissance there was art for man’s sake. Beginning with Impressionism there was art for art’s sake. Now, unfortunately, we have no art for God’s sake.” G.K. Chesterton, early twentieth-century author, quoted in Art and the Religious Impulse, ed. Eric Michael Mazur (London: Bucknell University Press, 2002) 15.

Inspirational History

Silent Night by Linda McCrayThrough the ages painters have been inspired by their faith. The earliest Christian paintings date back to around 200 AD and are found in Roman catacombs. These early wall fresco paintings in burial places near Rome illustrated the Christian story. In texts, the Book of Kells is an example of an illuminated manuscript dating back to around 800 AD. It contains the four gospels of the Bible ornately painted by Celtic monks. From 1512 to 1515, Matthias Grunewald painted the Isenheim Altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony hospital chapel. For years, richly panel-painted altarpieces represented religious subject matter. Michelangelo created frescos that have inspired many believers. We all know the iconic image of the Hand of God giving life to Adam that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel between 1508 and 1512. Through the ages, artists have painted in their then-modern ways to express their beliefs. Why does the modern religious painting trail seem to end here?

The Fall of Liturgical Paintings

Cup of Compassion by Linda McCrayPaintings have taken a greater fall from liturgical art than any other medium. There are a number of reasons for this. Since the Protestant Reformation and the related spiritual crises, society has not embraced religion as greatly, and therefore not embraced religious art. It is no wonder that many refer to our times as being in spiritual crisis. We need to bring back expressing our faith through the quite contemporary language of paint. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Industrialized printing has led to the fall of illuminated manuscripts. Today we commonly read mass-produced Bibles. For a real treat, read The Saint John’s Bible, a current-day, handwritten and illuminated manuscript that revives the old tradition. The artful hands of Donald Jackson and his helpers have created contemporary sacred paintings and beautiful calligraphy that bring the Word of God to life in our time.

In the U.S., during the Great Depression, the government hired artists through the Works Progress Administration ("WPA") and supplied them with materials. One of the media in which these artists worked was the “artist print,” conceived then physically printed, in a limited number, directly by the artist. Because so many WPA workers chose this medium, they created a wave of printing that painting has not yet caught up with. Too commonly today, the public mistakes reproductions of paintings for original artist prints. Reproductions are not the “real deal.” The freshness of a painting cannot be reproduced. “Contemplation sees the hand stamp of the artist, the honesty and care that went into an object's making, the pleasing form and color and texture.” Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1978) plate 5.

There was a time when the church was the major patron of mainstream arts and attracted the very best artists. As the church lost this role to the bourgeoisie, painters followed the money and painted portraits and landscapes. Over time, this trend has developed an ever-growing and enormous gap between mainstream art and sacred art. The church needs the very best contemporary sacred paintings to powerfully communicate the Word as paintings have done in the past. To bridge this gap, the church must bring back commissioning contemporary painters.

Why original paintings?

“Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.” Leonardo de Vinci

To Form Anew XV by Linda McCrayLeonardo de Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, is just one example of how painters have expressed their faith through their hands. The artist’s hand and heart directly apply the paint for a most direct expression of faith. Painting is not a multiple-step process that separates the artists from their creations. Painters are constantly experimenting with the new materials and creating exciting new ways to communicate the Word, ways that can connect modern society with the spirit. Icons are often referred to as windows to heaven. Ancient icon painters did not paint ancient art. They painted modern art of their day. Let’s invite contemporary paintings into the church to open the windows of God’s mystery for today’s believers.


Part I: The Fall of Liturgical Paintings covered the inspirational history of painting, its fall from the church and the importance of commissioning original contemporary paintings. Part II: Bringing Back Paintings for God’s Sake will focus on how we can revive this lost liturgical art.

Linda McCray is an abstract spiritual painter living in Clancy, Montana. A graduate of The University of Montana, Missoula with a Master of Fine Arts: Painting and Drawing degree. She has taught art at Carroll College (Diocese of Helena) and The University of Montana-Missoula, and currently teaches art at The University of Montana-Helena College of Technology.


A Brief History of Spiritual Art
Be Not Afraid of Abstract Spiritual Art
Passing on the Faith through Contemporary Visual Language
Where have liturgical paintings gone? Part II: Bring Back Paintings for God's Sake

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