Mediocrity Will Convert No One, but Beauty Will: The Purpose of Sacred Art in the Modern World

Kathleen Carr of the Chicago Art Institute details ‘the purpose of raising the mind and heart to God and expressing the mysteries of faith through the talents of artists, who are called to participate in God’s creative work through their artistic endeavors.’

The ‘Egg Tempera Painting in the Workshop of Blessed Fra Angelico’ workshop is underway, with instructor Matthew Conner, in late June 2023.
The ‘Egg Tempera Painting in the Workshop of Blessed Fra Angelico’ workshop is underway, with instructor Matthew Conner, in late June 2023. (photo: Courtesy of the Catholic Art Institute / Courtesy of the Catholic Art Institute)

The Catholic Art Institute is a Chicago-based nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of traditional sacred art. From classes and artists’ workshops, to lectures, online competitions, musical concerts and an annual conference, the institute has a mission to restore the Catholic arts. Additionally, the institute provides community and networking as well as financial support and promotion to artists through its annual sacred art competition. Founder Kathleen Carr recently spoke with the Register about the institute’s mission and ongoing projects.

Can you describe the mission of the Catholic Art Institute and when and how it came into existence?

The Catholic Art Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization working to restore a culture of truth, beauty and goodness. We empower artists to use their gifts to glorify God and captivate souls through beauty. Evangelization is at the heart of our work.

The Catholic Art Institute (CAI) recognizes the essential need for beauty to elevate our senses and illuminate our souls. Our senses are gifts from God, and we learn through them. As such, we believe that churches, as images of heaven on earth, should be adorned and designed by artists and architects pursuing the utmost excellence in their craft. Truly beautiful sacred art draws the faithful into prayer and contemplation, while also being a means to glorify God.

Our mission of the CAI is implemented through diverse educational programming, community building and, all-importantly, the prayers of the faithful and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Our spiritual home is St. John Cantius parish, a parish staffed by the Canons Regular, whose charism is “the restoration of the sacred in liturgy, music and art.” We are a lay effort supporting their charism.

Can you tell me a little about the Canons Regular?

St. John Cantius Church is distinguished for excellence in liturgy, music and art, taking great care to cultivate all three to the highest degree. The church building is beautifully designed and maintained, as well as great care given to the music program, vestments, instruments of the Mass, and art within the church. All the arts at St. John Cantius are working in concert to draw the faithful to prayer, contemplation and a sense of reverence, but are also there for God’s greater glory.

Given the liturgical excellence at St. John Cantius, it’s not hard to imagine the abundance of conversions and vocations that take place there. From my standpoint, their liturgies are an example to be followed, showcasing how the arts can be a tool of evangelization, as well as a means of drawing anyone who enters the church into the presence of God — all of which can ultimately inspire conversation and a growth in virtue. Impoverished worship is going to produce an impoverished culture, which is where we find ourselves today. Many have lost the faith, and perhaps it’s because the Mass has become too cerebral and devoid of beauty.

Some people may not be drawn to the beliefs of Christianity, but many are drawn to her beauty. This is true especially in Europe. Just take St. Peter’s Basilica, for example — how many people wait in long lines to enter that beautiful church, and this includes many nonbelievers. Because truth, beauty and goodness are always found together, the Catholic faith has been a catalyst for great beauty in a way that no other religion has been in history.

Today, our cultural heritage of beauty is threatened, and the ideology of Modernism is at the heart of the problem. Within academia, in major art institutions, in our culture at large, and, regrettably, within the Church itself, traditional standards of beauty are often seen as irrelevant or are directly attacked.

Why should we care about sacred art? What is the crisis of sacred art today, and what are its causes and effects?

As Christians, we are tasked with the Great Commission to spread the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. Every Christian has gifts that are needed in the body of Christ. Artists have unique ones that help make the invisible visible. God became flesh in the Incarnation and by instituting the Eucharist did not leave us orphans. The Church understands that the buildings in which the eternal love of God is made present in the Eucharist should communicate a vision of heaven as a beautiful space.

The faithful are helped to grasp the gravity of the Mass and to pray when the music, art and architecture that houses the Holy Mass communicates truth and transcendence. If beauty has the power to evangelize and convert souls, then what does a lack of it do? The crisis in sacred art today is what I would characterize as the result of utilitarianism coupled with a lack of understanding of the theological underpinnings of Church architecture and the human need for beauty. There is also an ignorance of the great patrimony of sacred music as well.

To be clear, Catholics are not aesthetes. Beauty is not only for the wealthy. Rich and poor can be spiritually nourished in a beautiful church. St. Francis took a vow of poverty and lived austerely, but austerity was never reflected in Franciscan church design. Early Franciscan churches were created to be beautiful and with great care given to the art and architecture as the domus Dei or “house of God.”

Many of the shapes and ornaments of a church have theological underpinnings: The central altar reveals the centrality of the Eucharist. Elements such as a Communion rail communicate that areas are set apart as increasingly sacred as one approaches the altar. The soaring height of traditional churches gives the faithful a sense of awe and humility that a low-ceilinged church cannot. Elements like these make theological statements about our deeply held Catholic beliefs and are not simply a matter of personal tastes.

What makes sacred art sacred?

Within the Catholic tradition, the term “sacred art” refers to the ways in which the Church community has expressed the transcendent mystery of God through artistic media in an effort to “evoke the mystery of the Word made flesh.” This type of art has the purpose of raising the mind and heart to God and expressing the mysteries of faith through the talents of artists, who are called to participate in God’s creative work through their artistic endeavors.

Devotional art, as a type of sacred art, seeks to “enrich the spiritual life of the community and personal piety of its members.” It is thus more directed to fostering personal prayer. On the other hand, liturgical art has a direct connection to the actions of the liturgy and, as such, plays a crucial role in the celebration of the sacraments. In this sense, liturgical art is a type of sacred art that can be said to be functional, to the extent that it is both expressive of, and oriented to, the celebration of the mysteries of faith. Examples of liturgical art include sacred vessels and vestments, as well as the principal liturgical furnishings of a church, such as the altar, crucifix, tabernacle, ambo, celebrant’s chair and baptismal font. As Pope John Paul II reminded us in his “Letter to Artists,” each has an important place in the Christian life of prayer and worship. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium noted that while the Church has never had any one style, all sacred art should possess certain qualities of “integrity, proportion, and purity” that make spiritual realities attractive.

Stained-glass workshop with Daprato Rigali Studios
Stained-glass workshop with Daprato Rigali Studios(Photo: Courtesy of the Catholic Art Institute)

You include everything from traditional icon painting to film in what you sponsor: How do you see these different mediums, some of which are modern, as being part of the whole tradition of Catholic art?

The institute is seeking to support all the arts, starting with the ones that are most germane to the Holy Mass. However, we also understand that other forms, such as literature, poetry and cinema, can be very powerful in evangelization.

We have all been moved by great storytelling, especially in cinemagraphic forms, such as movies and television series. While the left has used them to draw sympathy to their cause for decades, there is no reason Catholics should concede ground in such media.

Award-winning screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, well known for her work consulting with Mel Gibson on The Passion of the Christ, has brought a much-needed perspective on the need for quality in Christian cinema. There has been far too much low-quality work which undermines the Christian message. Thus, in all the Catholic Art Institute does, there is always a desire for high standards. I don’t believe anyone will be converted by mediocrity.

You have workshops for painting, screenwriting, creative writing and more. Who can participate? What have been some fruits of past workshops?

We have hosted a number of workshops over the years, and they have all been open to anyone who wishes to join. In the case of the illumination, egg tempera and composition workshops, we asked that students have some drawing and painting experience. However, we have had students from a wide variety of skill levels, from professionals to those with only a little bit of experience.

The workshops we host are always taught by masters of their craft. Students of all levels will always benefit from observing their techniques and art demonstrations, as well as the individual attention from instructors that takes place during each workshop.

‘Medieval Illumination’ workshop with Jed Gibbons
‘Medieval Illumination’ workshop with Jed Gibbons(Photo: Courtesy of the Catholic Art Instutute)

We host workshops on techniques that are not widely taught elsewhere and especially not in most university-level art programs. These include techniques in egg tempera, medieval illumination, gilding, as well as classical drawing and painting. We are working to continue these historical techniques not only to preserve them, but because they are very important to the creation of sacred art.

In addition to workshops, we also host conferences that address all aspects of the arts: music, architecture, painting, sculpture, literature, poetry and even filmmaking. Despite the latter not being part of the liturgy, filmmaking and storytelling are powerful means of inspiring virtue and possibly drawing the viewer to conversion. Here, we help educate laity, clergy and artists in the philosophy of sacred art and beauty.

We also sponsor competitions as a means of showcasing high-quality work, proving that beautiful work is still being produced. We hope that raising the profile of these artists will help them to receive more commissions, as well as network with each other. The annual “Sacred Art Prize” [submission deadline Aug. 1] and annual conference [in September this year] are our two biggest events.

In conclusion, can you tell us about the upcoming film festival and competition? This is the first one the institute is putting on: What are its goals?

When noted screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi joined the CAI Board of Directors last summer, one of her ideas was to establish a Catholic film festival, since nothing like it exists. She was a young Christian writer in Hollywood [when she] recognized that there needed to be high standards for writing, especially within the Catholic tradition. She wanted to establish this film festival to provide a unique opportunity for Catholic screenwriters and filmmakers. Like the annual Sacred Art Prize, we hope to run the festival annually, and it will be a means of showcasing and awarding artists with prize money who create high-quality work. There will be a live screening of selected winners and finalists in Washington, D.C., in April, which should prove to be a fun and energizing event for those who love cinema.

Editor’s Note: The Sacred Art Prize grand prize is named for Sister Paula Beierschmitt, of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who founded a past organization in Philadelphia called the American Academy of the Sacred Arts and was a painter and sculptor. She appeared on EWTN to talk with Mother Angelica about her art, including a sculpture at Mary’s Shrine. The photo shown at this link was taken in 1999.