Where have liturgical paintings gone? Part II: Bring Back Paintings for God's Sake

January 25, 2008

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Read Part I of this article: The Fall of Liturgical Paintings

To Form Anew XIV by Linda McCrayContemporary and abstract paintings have unique ways to create sacred environments that invite contemplation and open our hearts to God. Drawing from tradition and embracing our modern world, today’s paintings speak to believers as ancient paintings did in their day.

It is no mystery how powerful liturgical paintings have been. With such an inspirational history, why is it that so few painters today convey the deeply felt spark of religious truth? This article will address a few steps we can take to bring back paintings for God’s sake.

Open Our Hearts to the Lost Liturgical Art

We need to open our hearts to this lost art form and embrace the opportunities to help us enter into the mystery. There are places that call for paintings. Just imagine the Sistine Chapel without murals. Why not commission a mural that invites worshipers to open their minds and hearts to God? Why not have a painting reflecting the spirit of the faith community in the sanctuary? Why not transition the spiritual journey from our daily lives to the liturgical celebration with paintings in the narthex? Paintings can reach our souls on the deepest spiritual level.

Create as One Spirit

Michelangelo is revered as one of the greatest painters, architects, sculptors, engineers and poets. He was one pious, gifted man who unified many arts while creating the Sistine Chapel. He intertwines architecture and sculptural elements in his frescos, which take us beyond the architectural limitations.

In his place now, artists, architects, liturgical design consultants and the Church should work together as one from the beginning of the project to create a moving sacred place shaped especially for their community. Let us unify artisans today.

Foster Sacred Art Education

The New Stations of the Cross, Station X“Students who make works that are infused with spiritual or religious meanings must normally be content with analysis of their works’ formal properties, technique, or mode of presentation. The absence of religious talk is a practical issue because it robs such artists of the interpretive tools they need most.” James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), p. xi.

Old master painters were educated in art and theology. Michelangelo apprenticed under the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. He attended Lorenzo de’ Medici’s school with some of the most learned men of the century. This circle of intellectuals helped shape his ideas of art. At Santa Maria del Santo Spirito church hospital he studied anatomy.

As an art graduate student, I yearned for professors able to help me develop my spiritual concepts. I found most professors very uncomfortable with the subject and willing to say nothing on it, or they would change the subject to a discussion of formal elements. Being an art student and working on spiritual or religious concepts is nearly impossible in our mainstream art education system. Faith-filled art students need this to change. To enrich our sacred places, the church needs to encourage the very best inspired painters.

Let us create schools where students nourish their creative spirit and spirituality in their Catholic tradition, places where they learn spiritual painting traditions and are encouraged to explore new ways to connect us with the Divine. There are endless possibilities for classes that encompass both worlds. Imagine a course as basic as "Art Appreciation" enriched with non-mainstream contemporary sacred art and a course as specialized as "Prayerfully Creating Art."

Encourage a Sacred Painting Revival

Mural proposal“The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God. Now, I am led to the making of the Bible as a celebration of the Word of God for the twenty-first century in modern scripts and I realize now it is the thing I have been preparing for all my life. The Bible is the calligraphic artist's supreme challenge, my Sistine Chapel, a daunting task.”
Donald Jackson, calligrapher and artistic director of the St. John's Bible Project.

The St. John’s Bible is a shining example of the power of the best contemporary religious and spiritual painting. It is a contemporary masterpiece bridging the gap between the rich tradition of handwritten illuminated manuscripts and the present. Using ancient materials and techniques, Donald Jackson brings the Word of God up to date to connect with believers today.


Throughout history, painters have utilized unique qualities of paint to transform the ordinary into sacred spaces. Contemporary and abstract paintings designed to evoke contemplation and personal acts of devotion provide a fitting atmosphere for liturgy. If we continue to allow paintings to be a lost liturgical art, we are missing a powerful expression of faith. Let us bring back paintings for God’s sake.

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), 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 I: The Fall of Liturgical Paintings

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