“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the indivisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or the other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery. The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force.”
— Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to Artists 12
Art, especially literary art, is a necessity. As a Church, we used to understand this. We used to know that beautiful frescos and statues and great literary works were as imperative to the Faith as praying a Rosary is. Recent trends, both within and without the Church, and towards a more stripped aesthetic. If it isn’t directly related or absolutely essential, it very often gets the boot. This is a loss for the Church.
I still remember how, before I could read, I would look at the beautiful paintings of the life of Christ on the sanctuary wall behind the altar of my childhood parish. The images rose from both sides of the altar and culminated in a painting of the Ascension directly above the crucifix. It was a perfect telling of the basic tenants of our faith, and it was how I first learned about the person of Jesus. Right before my First Communion, the church was remodeled and the wall was painted over in plain white and light blue.
This has happened in many parishes, although it’s not an exclusively Catholic problem. We see this same trend in the secular world, especially with financial cuts to art and music programs in public schools. Our society fails to see art as important in comparison to more practical and tangible pursuits. The problem with this—especially for Catholics–is that we know that there is something greater than the physical world—something that isn’t limited to what our senses can perceive. We know that the world is more world than our own community or culture, and that there is a whole spiritual realm. Art, in all its different forms, helps us express and experience these realities.
The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes teaches, “Literature and the arts are also, in their own way, of great importance to the life of the Church. They strive to make known the proper nature of man, his problems and his experiences in trying to know and perfect both himself and the world. They have much to do with revealing man’s place in history and in the world; with illustrating the miseries and joys, the needs and strengths of man and with foreshadowing a better life for him” (62). Art is necessary because it is a visceral vehicle of hope.
God is, before all else, a good artist. He created every tiny aspect of the world, put it into motion, and endowed it with his love. John Paul explained, “The opening page of the Bible presents God as a kind of exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator…Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God,’ and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity and then exercising creative dominion over the universe which surrounds him” (Artists 1). Creating art is a profound way to serve others. Indeed, when does man live more in the image of our Creator God than in making great art for the sake of the common good?
Pope Francis’s “dream” encompasses this. Last year, on the Feast of Christ the King, Pope Francis encouraged the young people present—representatives from World Youth Day host countries Panama and Portugal—to embrace the beauty that God dreams for us. He said, “Let us not settle only for what is necessary. The Lord does not want us to narrow our horizons or to remain parked on the roadside of life. … God made us capable of dreaming, so that we could embrace the beauty of life.” This is the dream of the artist, to embrace and express the beauty of life. “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable” (Artists 13). Beauty leads us to transcendence and art leads us to beauty.
Art can ease the suffering of the world and allow us to dream, even amid great sorrow. That is why art is so important and why it is imperative that our Church and the wider culture must take a renewed interest in it. It is not something of long ago but of right now. We are called to be co-creators with God and art is an irreplaceable and important mode of this that benefits us all.
“Some respond to the suffering of a crisis with a shrug…But such a response misinterprets God’s creation as static, when it’s a dynamic process. The world is always being made…God wants to bring forth the world with us, as partners, continually…Humankind has a mandate to change, to build, to master creation in the positive sense of creating from it and with it. So what is to come doesn’t depend on some unseen mechanism, a future in which humanity is a passive spectator. No: we’re protagonists, we’re––if I can stretch the word––co-creators. When the Lord told us to go forth and multiply, to master the earth, he’s saying: Be the creators of your future.”
— Pope Francis, Let Us Dream, p. 4
Image: Interior of St. Mary’s Catholic Church (Massillon, Ohio).
Theresa Zoe Williams is a writer with credits all over the Catholic inter-webs. She received her BA in Theology, Catechetics/Youth Ministry, and English Writing from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She has contributed to the books Catholic Hipster Handbook: The Next Level and Epic Saints: Wild, Wonderful, and Weird Stories of God's Heroes. And has written her own book, A Catholic Field Guide to Fairy Tale Princesses. She is Pennsylvanian by birth, Californian by heart, and in Ohio for the time being. She writes at The Future Patron Saint of Liars and Fakes at www.theresazoewilliams.substack.com. Yinz can find her on Twitter @TheresaZoe.