Art and Beauty in priestly training


    Formation is central to the journey of every Christian, as was recently stated in the letter in the form of Motu Proprio proclaiming the Year of the Faith Porta Fidei (11 October 2011), and all the more important is the formation of priests who, in the Church, incarnate «the ideal of complete self-oblation to Christ and the Church which inspired the thoughts and actions of the saintly Curé of Ars», as Benedict XVI stated in the letter proclaiming the Year for Priests dated 16 June 2009.

     The Second Vatican Council “solemnly” affirmed in the Decree on Priestly Training Optatam Totius the “extreme importance” of priestly formation. Indeed, in the council documents there are important reflections on this formation and clear indications on its contents and methods. From such reflections there emerges the fruitful interweave of formation: trained priests can be good formators; the formation of the faithful also depends on the formation of priests.

Art plays a special role in this interweave, since it is an important instrument for the  cultural, spiritual and liturgical formation of priests and faithful. 

     In Optatam Totius humanistic training is indicated as a priority: «Before beginning specifically ecclesiastical subjects, seminarians should be equipped with that humanistic and scientific training which young men in their own countries are wont to have as a foundation for higher studies. Moreover they are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church» (Optatam Totius, n. 13).

     The importance of humanistic training – and the specific role of art – is discussed in other documents, particularly in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosantum Concilium, in which the word “formation” recurs as many as 19 times, in reference to liturgical formation (number 17 and those following), training in music (number 115 and those following) and art (number 127 and those following) for priests, the faithful, artists.

     Art, in particular, is recognized as having a central role among human endeavours: «Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man's genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art» (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 122). It is specified that the formation of priests must include the study of the history of sacred art as well as the study of a correct theory of art[1], that is of the “sound principles” on which works of art are to be based: «During their philosophical and theological studies, clerics are to be taught about the history and development of sacred art, and about the sound principles governing the production of its works» (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 129). The connection between the artistic education of priests and the training of artists is immediately pointed out, inasmuch as priests having a sound formation will be able «to aid, by good advice, artists who are engaged in producing works of art» (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 129). The connection with the formation of artists is explored in depth: «Bishops should have a special concern for artists, so as to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy. This they may do in person or through suitable priests who are gifted with a knowledge and love of art» (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 127).

     The training of artists is a task for the Church, and refers to the role art plays in “educating” the faithful: «It is also desirable that schools or academies of sacred art should be founded in those parts of the world where they would be useful, so that artists may be trained. All artists who, prompted by their talents, desire to serve God's glory in holy Church, should ever bear in mind that they are engaged in a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator, and are concerned with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, to edify the faithful, and to foster their piety and their religious formation» (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 127).

A veritable formative interweave emerges: art educates priests. Trained priests can educate artists and works of sacred art educate the faithful. The dynamics of formation shows that it is not true that just any art can “educate”. It is not acceptable to assume that any type of art work can be educational. On the contrary: only an educated art, produced by artists who have received sound training from priests, can in its own turn educate priests, who are also formators. In the magisterial documents we find specific indications. First of all, the educational role of art resides in how it relates to beauty: «These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God's praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men's minds devoutly toward God» (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 122). In order to turn minds toward God, who is highest beauty, art must be beautiful. It should be observed that the resistance to any form of “dictatorship of relativism” finds great strength precisely in the objective nature of beauty, in the truth of beauty, which is a conceptual premise of the Magisterium.

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the question of art is addressed significantly in the analysis of the eighth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness”, highlighting the connection between art, beauty and truth: «The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself. Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect. But truth can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2500).

     Art does not justify itself, art is not an end in itself, but finds its raison d’être in its relationship with God: «Man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God the Creator by the beauty of his artistic works […] Like any other human activity, art is not an absolute end in itself, but is ordered to and ennobled by the ultimate end of man» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2501). 

     Furthermore, sacred art is formative for its connection with the liturgy, and with the Eucharist in a special way. Indeed, in the post-synodal exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of 22 February 2007, the connection between beauty, art and liturgy is stated clearly, and connected with formation. «The profound connection between beauty and the liturgy should make us attentive to every work of art placed at the service of the celebration. (122) Certainly an important element of sacred art is church architecture […] Here it is important to remember that the purpose of sacred architecture is to offer the Church a fitting space for the celebration of the mysteries of faith, especially the Eucharist. […] This same principle holds true for sacred art in general, especially painting and sculpture, where religious iconography should be directed to sacramental mystagogy. A solid knowledge of the history of sacred art can be advantageous for those responsible for commissioning artists and architects to create works of art for the liturgy. Consequently it is essential that the education of seminarians and priests include the study of art history, with special reference to sacred buildings and the corresponding liturgical norms» (Sacramentum Caritatis, n. 41). The importance of studying the history of sacred art is pointed out very clearly: knowledge of the tradition with which art has served the liturgy is an indispensable instrument of formation. And the Catechism states quite fittingly that «bishops, personally or through delegates, should see to the promotion of sacred art, old and new, in all its forms and, with the same religious care, remove from the liturgy and from places of worship everything which is not in conformity with the truth of faith and the authentic beauty of sacred art»  (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2503).

         Art is educational, also as a vehicle for the transmission of the faith, as was pointed out by the XIII Synod of Bishops (that took place from 7 to 28 October 2012) which, in discussing every aspect of the new evangelization, devoted much attention to art as an instrument for the communication of the Faith.  Already in the Instrumentum Laboris, drafted in preparation to the Synod, ample attention is dedicated to artistic beauty: number 157 of chapter IV expressly states: «Some responses refer to the subjects of art and beauty as places for the transmission of the faith and, therefore, are to be addressed in this chapter dedicated to the relationship between faith and knowledge».

     During the Synod various passages were dedicated to the topic of art, so much so that number 20 of the Elenchus of the 58 final propositions produced by the Synod is dedicated precisely to “The New Evangelization and the way of beauty”: «In the New Evangelization, there should be a particular attention paid to the way of beauty: Christ, the “Good Shepherd” (cf. Jn 10:11) is the Truth in person, the beautiful revelation in sign, pouring himself out without measure. It is important to give testimony to the young who follow Jesus, not only of his goodness and truth, but also of the fullness of his beauty. As Augustine affirmed, “it is not possible to love what is not beautiful” (Confessions, Bk IV, 13.20). Beauty attracts us to love, through which God reveals to us his face in which we believe. In this light artists feel themselves both spoken to and privileged communicators of the New Evangelization». The role art should have in the formation of priests is emphasized, referring explicitly to Sacrosanctum Concilium:  «In the formation of seminarians, education in beauty should not be neglected nor education in the sacred arts as we are reminded in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, 129). (cfr. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 129)».

     The question of formation refers, also within the context of the Synod, to the need to address the quality of art, on the basis of its truth: «It is necessary that the Church be vigilant in caring for and promoting the quality of the art that is permitted in the sacred spaces reserved for liturgical celebrations, guarding both its beauty and the truthfulness of its expression».

     Art is therefore an instrument of formation only inasmuch as it is formed itself. In this regard, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications Inter Mirifica promulgated on 4 December 1963 explicitly states that there are erroneous aesthetic theories and that the rules of ethics also apply to art: «The [second] question deals with the relationship between the rights, as they are called, of art and the norms of morality. Since the mounting controversies in this area frequently take their rise from false teachings about ethics and aesthetics, the Council proclaims that all must hold to the absolute primacy of the objective moral order, that is, this order by itself surpasses and fittingly coordinates all other spheres of human affairs-the arts not excepted-even though they be endowed with notable dignity» (Inter Mirifica, n. 6). The Catechism of the Catholic Church further elaborates upon the topic of art indicating which art can be legitimately regarded as sacred: «Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God - the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who "reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature," in whom "the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily." This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Saviour, the Holy One and Sanctifier» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2502). Authentic sacred art is therefore a formative crossroads: it educates the seminarian to the beauty of the priesthood, renders him capable of forming artists spiritually and theologically, and becomes an instrument of evangelization for all the faithful.  

[1] Cfr. R. Papa, Discorsi sull’arte sacra, Cantagalli, Siena 2012.