Beauty in Sacred Art


            The longstanding and fruitful tradition of Christian art presents itself as an uninterrupted journey of proclamation of the Faith. It is not just the successful outcome of the encounter between art and Christianity, but rather a new dimension of art that could not exist without Christianity: Christianity has generated art, so much so that Christian art is, more profoundly, Christic art, Christ-centred art, art that is born of Christ and for Christ.

            Jesus Christ is the Verbum Dei made flesh and manifests Himself as Imago Dei; in Him  Verbum and Imago come together, He is the Word that can be seen, an Image that Speaks. In some respects, the Nativity introduces the need for a new way of depicting and describing the Word made Flesh.  Jesus Christ, Verbum Dei and Imago Dei, reveals the Father by means of words and actions and provides the exemplary syntax of a new art capable of conveying the Good News.

            The narrative system of Jesus’ parables is translated by Christianity into painting, which, according to tradition, was initiated by Saint Luke, who produced the first portrait of Mary (just as, according to tradition, Nicodemus was the first to create a sculpture of the Crucifix.) Sacred Christian painting translates the evangelical narrative system into images.  

            In fact, narration is the purpose of the Christian pictorial tradition: Christian painting does not consist of icastic representations, ideograms of single words or concepts, but is a narrative language, by which images are constructed using an internal grammar and syntax, according to the logic of a discourse that unfolds over time.

            It is for this distinctive feature, which has to do with the Incarnation of the Verbum Dei and is imbued with the narrativeness of the evangelical parables, that Christian painting has become the Biblia Pauperum. The principle of figuration and narrative, which are intrinsically bound to the Incarnation, are interpreted according to different sensitivities, depending on the different cultures, but cannot be sidestepped when speaking of Jesus Christ.

            For its intimately Christ-centred nature, Christian painting is art for the liturgy: it shows the Word, helps to contemplate the Word, inasmuch as it has a narrative immobility, a stable narrativeness.

            And it is precisely for this ability to narrate through the stability of images that painting is an aid to contemplation; quoting Benedict XVI (General Audience, 31 August 2011) “Some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed, they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are works that were born from faith and express faith.”

            Therefore Christian art is, in and of itself, proclamation of faith, since it is intimately and entirely sustained by the Faith in Jesus Christ, without which it would not exist.

That is why, as John Paul II stated (in his Speech to the Participants of the National Italian Conference on Sacred Art on April 27 1981), “Religious art, in this sense, is a great open book, an invitation to believe in order to understand.”

            Christian works of art, born of the Christian faith and intended for worship, have sought and produced beauty, creating grand works, also with the use of precious materials. The material element is only an aspect that is at the service of worship and prayer. Gold, for example, which is extensively used in sacred art (not just in the West) is chosen for its luminosity, permanence, pliability; no material is too precious when it comes to praising the immense beauty of God. Sacredness demands separation from vulgar things. The beauty of Christian sacred things is rooted in the beauty of the Cenacle, a place on the second level, prepared and equipped. The Vulgata uses the term “stratum”, which is translated in art history with decors and tapestries, like for instance in Leonardo’s Last Supper, where the decors allude to the virtues that embellish the soul.

            In fact, the history of beauty reveals that beauty has always been tied to holiness, the virtues, divine perfections, and that the image of the history of sacred art as associated with wealth is the result of a widespread and erroneous historiographic approach, which stems from a non-Christian and in some cases even anti-Christian ideology. 

            Throughout the Catholic tradition, beauty has an ontological quality such that it is included among the transcendentals, that is those features that all beings possess, precisely inasmuch as they are and to the extent that they are. They are perfections that can be traced to truth, goodness, beauty. Every reality that partakes of being partakes of such ontological perfections, which originate from God the Creator. God is, in fact, supremely true, supremely good, supremely beautiful, and all of reality is in a way true, good and beautiful, precisely because it was created by God. Such a metaphysical theory has a longstanding and sound tradition.  

            Although the transcendentals are not covered by the Magisterium (because they belong to metaphysics, and therefore to philosophy, that is they are accessible by reason, which all people possess), the Magisterium, and the documents of Vatican Council II in particular, nonetheless refer to them constantly.  Truth, goodness, beauty, as features that belong to God and, by extension, to all beings, constitute a fertile ground or thematic frame which reflection on the Revelation constantly refers to, implicitly and explicitly. In the Audience to Representatives of the Communications Media on 16 March 2013 Pope Francis stated, “The Church exists to communicate precisely this: Truth, Goodness and Beauty ‘in person’. It should be apparent that all of us are called not to communicate ourselves, but this existential triad made up of truth, beauty and goodness.”

            In Christianity, beauty is principally bound to Holiness, for it is found primarily in God and only by consequence in things. God is Supreme Beauty and source of all beauty.

            Also artistic beauty is fundamentally bound to holiness. This point is very clearly argued in the Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images written by Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti in 1582, a very important text for the theory and history of sacred art (and art in general), in which art is recognized as an expression of Christian nobleness: “There is also Christian nobleness, which is more sublime and honoured than all others, just as the law of the Gospel that was taught to us by our Saviour is by far more perfect than all the others belonging to previous times (Summa, 1.2 q.91 a.5). We feel that such nobleness must rightly be attributed to the art of giving shape to images.”[1]

            We note, what is more, that such a position is very much in keeping with what Giovanni Damasceno stated in the fist discourse on the Defense of Sacred Images, quoting and agreeing with Gregory of Nyssa, and that is that divine beauty shines forth from a beautiful shape only if the latter is first informed with and then contemplated through the beatitude of virtue[2]. 

            So artistic beauty, and especially the beauty of sacred images, is bound to the exercise of virtue, to the nobleness of the soul, to holiness.

            Beauty, figurativeness and narrativeness are therefore the fundamental principles of Christian sacred art and, inasmuch as universali[3], can be expressed in the different languages of cultures, always centred on Christ, for as Pope Francis stated in his first Homily during Holy Mass with the Cardinal Electors on 14 March 2013, “When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the wordliness of the devil, a demonic wordliness.”


[1] G. Paleotti, Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane (1582), L.E.V., Roma 2002, pag. 33

[2] Giovanni Damasceno, Difesa delle immagini sacre, a cura di v. Fazzo, Città Nuova, Roma 1997, I, 50-51.

[3] Cfr. R. Papa, Discorsi sull’arte sacra, con  intr. del card. A. Cañizares  Llovera, Cantagalli, Siena2012.