MYSTIC, Conn.—Steven Schloeder looked over his audience of 125 artists, architects, writers and others gathered at the inaugural conference on Catholic Art and Culture in the Third Millennium.
“We're made for truth, goodness and beauty,” said Schloeder, himself an architect, author and founder of the architectural design firm Liturgical Environs.
He and his audience were participating in conference held by the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art. The institute, a ministry of St. Edmund's Retreat, held the conference on May 21–23 at its retreat center on Enders Island in Mystic, Conn.
Attendees came from throughout the United States to hear leading Catholic architects, artists, editors and authors discuss the dawning Catholic Renaissance in art and culture which is beginning to surface in America.
“We can only be fed partial goods and ersatz beauty for so long before we get hungry for the reality of [what it claims to represent],” Schloeder continued. “Theologians and liturgists got swept up in fashion, but the Church is not about fashion — it's about those things that endure.”
Throughout his talks, Schloeder emphasized that “anthropology underpins art, architecture and liturgy. … We have to recover an understanding of the human person, the nature of humanity.”
Keynote speakers Father Benedict Groeschel, author, psychologist, director of spiritual development for the Archdiocese of New York and co-founder of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and Deal W. Hudson, publisher and editor of Crisis magazine, and host of EWTN's “The Church and Culture Today.” They underscored Schloeder's starting point for sacred art. They did so by defining the spiritual and philosophical context which must inform Catholic art and culture if either is to bear genuine witness to Christ's transformation of the world.
“The characteristic of modern man is that he attempts to live life in the immediacy of pleasure,” said Hudson, framing the dilemma of the sacred artist who must communicate divine realities to others and who nevertheless can find himself unwarily ensnared in its assumptions. “Sacred art should be life-enhancing. [It is based on the] recognition that truth speaks through gesture, figure and form.”
Hudson defined art as the habit of making beautiful things and, drawing on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, both he and Schloeder defined beauty as being made up of proportion, order and clarity of form.
Matthew Brooks, painter, sculptor, president of Art for the Catholic Restoration and academic director for the St. Michael Institute, concurred with the definitions.
In a talk which exposed the inviolable relationship between God, truth and beauty, he stated: “How can art be sacred if it rejects the order of God? … In sacred art we have to bear in mind the existence of an objective truth — of God and the order in his creation.”
“Beauty is the subset of truth, most perfectly seen in God's creation,” Brooks continued. “When truth leaves, she takes beauty with her. But as the new evangelization brings the culture back to truth, it will naturally bring beauty back also.”
Impact of Art
Brooks said that modern, often barren-looking churches offer no counterbalance to the media's powerful images, which bombard people all day long.
He further noted that our Lord and his Mother repeatedly used images to communicate powerful divine messages of love and mercy to men; for example, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the statue and medal of the Immaculate Conception and the Merciful Heart of Jesus as revealed to Blessed Sister Faustina.
In contrast, Father Groeschel said, “modern art is perhaps shocking, intriguing or entertaining, but it is not beautiful. So much of what passes for modern art is craftsmanship or talisman.” He reminded attendees that sacred art, such as an icon, proposed apicture of heavenly realities and was meant to bring the viewer to another world.
He referred to the convent of St. Mark in Florence, where every room is decorated by Fra Angelico and can leave a viewer in such awe that he nearly forgets where he is.
“Human beings recognize beauty because the image of the Holy Trinity is impressed on our very souls,” he said. “Christian art should be the most sublime, the most beautiful.”
“Don't underestimate beauty,” Father Groeschel cautioned. “It will return. Like goodness and truth, it will overcome. It will be a sign of restoration [amid] the decadence in our culture, if we can rediscover a sense of beauty.” And in a striking parallel to the passion and resurrection of our Savior and to the vicissitudes of life, he referred to the art concept of chiaroscuro (light and shade), saying that in the new millennium the brightness of divine light may shine more brilliantly in contrast to the darkness that surrounds it.
“Darkness and light are essential parts of any Christian art,” he explained. “It's the job of the believer, the one who prays, to remind people that without God, this world is a horrible joke — without faith, it is utter and absolute darkness. But with faith, we have a Savior who overcomes evil by an act of love. … The darkness does not overcome the light!”
In addition to talks, the conference offered a two-room gallery of sacred art, featuring works by many of the participants. Every imaginable medium was represented: watercolor, charcoal, wood carving, oils and pastels, in addition to frescos, icons and transparencies of illuminated manuscripts and architectural feats.
Pentecost Sunday Mass brought the three-day conference to a close. Brooks noted the fitting parallel between the artists assembled and the apostles huddled in the upper room, who were sent out into the world after receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Father Groeschel underscored man's utter dependence on the Holy Spirit to perform any purely good work, including creating beautiful sacred art.
At another moment, St. Edmund's Retreat director of operations Mark Gordon spoke of the St. Michael Institute's plans to produce a resource catalog of artwork and architecture by next year. He said the institute in its first year had already received inquiries resulting in more than $150,000 worth of commissioned sacred art, which he had referred to various artists.
“This conference spoke to me very much,” said professional artist Mary Billingsley of Chester, Conn. “What I'm trying to do was reinforced by the talks. It's very encouraging. I didn't know anyone else was doing this work at all, and now I've discovered kindred spirits — there's a real movement going on.”
“This is something that has been needed for a long time for people like me,” said Jed Gibbons, creative director of Frankel, a Chicago-based marketing firm. Exhibited transparencies of his work included a stunning 40-inch gold-and-silver monstrance inlaid with more than 150 rare jewels, an intricate inlaid-wood Church floor and a gold and silver chalice, all commissioned by St. John Cantius parish in Chicago.
“It's good to see lots of this work coming back, judging from the number of commissions I've been getting,” he continued. “There's a whole market opening up for artists and designers that has been gone a long time. It's not like I'm the only one in Chicago; I'm hearing lots of others here say the same thing. It's great to get together with other people and see what they are doing.”
“I love it,” said New York City artist and teacher Al Torres. “Being a Christian artist, especially in New York City, I feel like I'm a needle in a haystack. But this gives me a chance to replenish the artistic side of my soul — to converse with other Christian artists, to share ideas about art in the Christian context.”
“I don't know if this conference has changed my painting,” reflected Philadelphia landscape artist Richard Gerst, “but it has changed me. It has also changed the way I see sacred art. It makes more sense now. I didn't realize how powerful the iconography of the modern age is, and how much of today's art is influenced by that.”
“When we give our gifts to God, he's never outdone in generosity,” said Brooks. “This has been one of the most exciting weekends that I've ever been part of. … There are many priests out there struggling to lead their flock to heaven and they don't know where to go for help sometimes. I wish you could see the people and read the letters — to see what a difference beautiful art makes in the lives of parish priests and their parishioners.”
“The Second Vatican Council laid the foundation for a renewed relationship between the Church and culture, with immediate implications for the world of art,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his recent letter to artists. “In the modern era … another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself … [but] true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience.”
The Holy Father also recalled the appeal of the Second Vatican Council to artists: “This world — they said — needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time.
“Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age…. I appeal to you, Christian artists … to declare with all the wealth of your ingenuity that in Christ the world is redeemed: the human person is redeemed, the human body is redeemed, and the whole creation. … The creation awaits the revelation of the children of God through art and in art. This is your task. Humanity in every age, and even today, looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.”
For more information about the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art, call St. Edmund's Retreat at (860) 536-0565.
Karen Walker lives in Corona Del Mar, California.