He spoke about his craft, and why he has turned it toward helping to build the Kingdom of God, with Register correspondent Joseph Pronechen.
What first piqued your interest in liturgical art?
I've always had this interest in the faith and in religion. At one time I drifted away from the Catholic faith, then returned in my early 30s after a crisis in my life. As an artist, I realized I had a strong interest in religious subjects.
Were you, yourself, inspired by religious art?
Yes. I grew up in a little country church that had a great influence on me, St. Mary's in East Eden, N.Y. It's the second-oldest in the Buffalo diocese. I fondly remember the mural of the Assumption. I was a boy 10 years old when that mural, based on a mural of the Immaculate Conception by Murillo, appeared. I also remember the old Communion rail, the polychrome stations, the statues and the carved “wedding cake” marble altar that rose to the top of the ceiling 30 feet high. The image is etched into my mind. The whole foundation for any experience in religion goes back to St. Mary's Church. It's like bedrock to me.
How would you classify yourself as an artist?
I'm a traditional artist. I love figurative work. I like to paint figures of people in situations. But when I was 30 I went through a lot of problems when I returned to the University of Buffalo for a degree in fine arts. I was discouraged from any interest in faith. They tried to push me into abstraction — everyone was studying abstraction back then. But I felt the use of the figure in art was central to western civilization. I saw the history of western culture and the history of the figure in art were one. I knew eventually society had to get back to the figure. So I was a fly in their ointment because people were all trying to steer me to impersonal works.
Why do you see “the figure” as vital to artistic expression?
In Christian art, the Stations of the Cross, statues, the Passion — the great works of Raphael on the Ascension, the Transfiguration, for example — are all figurative art. There's a history to it. There's tradition. People have recognized this in every century. Until the mid-20th century we had an almost unbroken 2,000-year tradition of relating art and religion in the world. But in the 20th century we began chronicling chaos. Everything was broken down. It's an enormous problem.
What do you think brought on this development?
The movement goes back to many of those people who came from Europe after World War II. They were disillusioned. Many of them were atheistic and their purpose was to discredit Christianity and create art that was independent of our Christian roots and our history — our figurative, western-civilization roots.
How did this mindset work its way into Church art?
Some segments of Catholic society have lost their identity as a faith community. Some of our leaders have been duped, buying into a situation that is destroying us. They basically gutted the churches, ripped out the beautifully carved altars and painted over the murals with 10-inch rollers. And look what's happened to the Catholic Church in America in the process. How can the culture cut itself off from tradition and survive?
And art is a key component if we are to restore what's been lost.
Yes. We've got to build liturgical art up from the beginning. We've got to go back, pick up the pieces and rely on the example of art history and the great religious works of the past. We have to look at the work of the Renaissance — the babies, the children, the spiritually beautiful women. Renaissance artists weren't afraid to picture these things. That period comes down to us as perhaps the high watermark of western civilization regarding art and the Church.
It makes more sense for America to rebuild its artistic heritage on this rather than go to the orthodox style of art. Iconography is a different tradition. It's from Eastern Europe, Russia. It's not our nearest relative in terms of western church art. We need to look at Italian, German, Irish, French, English, Spanish and Polish cultures. There have got to be experts in art history who are willing to sacrifice their own careers for the bigger picture. We need the right leadership to step forward and talk about these issues for the good of the Church and the good of the arts.
Do you think art is essential to the Church?
Art and the Church are inseparable. I can't look at the Catholic Church worldwide without looking at the art. As Pope John Paul II pointed out in his Letter to Artists a couple of years ago, art and faith work together for the same goal: the salvation of souls, and the giving of honor and glory to God through his Son, Jesus Christ.
How do you approach a church-mural project?
In 1999, I did three paintings for St. Francis of Assisi Church in Buffalo. There's a major Crucifixion scene over the main altar. To the sides there's the Sermon on the Mount and the Baptism of Christ. Each is about 15 to 18 feet high and 10 feet wide.
I did a lot of research on them. I added local landmarks such as Niagara Falls to the Baptism of Christ just as Renaissance artists added local landscapes to their religious scenes. It got people's attention and brought it to their level where they could connect with the biblical scene. I hope, in all humility, that these murals are going to have an influence on generations of Catholics. I hope young people will see them, grow up, marry, have families, their children will see them. We need to start thinking about the young people again. The Pope knows.
I understand some local people find their way into your works.
Sure. For the life-sized angels in St. Peter's Church in Lowville, N.Y., for example, I used local grade-school children as the models.
What advice can you give to aspiring liturgical artists?
Practice the faith. Receive the sacraments. Pray for guidance because you're going to need to take on some civic or secular work to support yourself; liturgical art is not a lucrative career path. Young Catholic artists need to be good Catholics. They have to look for friendships and associations with other good Catholics.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.