Is Catholic Art Making a Comeback?
A ubiquitous presence before fading into the American ether, Catholic art may be experiencing something of a renaissance, in the unlikeliest places.
"Whatever happened to Catholic art?"
Ask that question to a group of unassuming friends, and chances are they’ll produce a myriad of I’ve-never-thought-about-that faces and shoulder shrugs. While “Catholicism” and “art” have gone hand in hand for most of the centuries anno Domini, Western civilization’s recent technologically aided turn toward comfort and isolation has seemingly put a damper on the wonder and curiosity needed to create and enjoy beautiful art.
Nonetheless, Catholic art seems poised for a renewal, with promising signs of life in places you might not expect.
Minnesota, for instance, is known chiefly for its cold weather but is a hidden gem for Catholic arts. Already home to famed venues like the Gutherie Theater, it’s perhaps fitting that the Twin Cities’ Catholic scene is a hotspot for theatrical performances and dramas that bring the faith to life.
One of those leading the way happens to be a playwright priest. Father Kyle Kowalczyk runs Missed the Boat Theatre, a building-less outfit producing yearly, large-cast musicals. Their freshman effort, Catholic Young Adults: The Musical, a comical romp through the stereotypical “CYA scene,” debuted to wild success and raucous audiences in the fall of 2019. More than 2,700 attended the show over the course of its two-weekend run, with 95.5% of seats sold.
Missed the Boat returned in the fall of 2021 with another original play by Father Kowalczyk, Moonshine Abbey, a hysterical musical about a group of not-so-holy monks making hooch during prohibition and the team of all-female cops determined to bring them down.
“As we continue to grow, we are beginning to realize that our mission isn’t merely to form community but to also form the individuals in that community,” said Father Kowalczyk, pastor of the Church of St. Maximillian Kolbe in Delano, Minnesota. “Theater is really about the transcendence of the human person, and, fortunately for us, the Catholic Church has the market in that department."
Missed the Boat isn’t the only Catholic theater company in the Twin Cities. Inspired by Fyodor Dostoevesky’s insight that “Beauty will save the world,” Open Window Theatre has wowed audiences for 11 years.
But perhaps none of its shows were more impactful than the 2020-21 run of Lolek, an exploration of the early life of Karol Wojtyila, which took creative measures to pull off performances in the midst of COVID-induced restrictions. Desperate to bring the compelling story and heroism of the man who would become Pope John Paul II to a world-weary audience, Open Window Theatre’s founder, Jeremy Stanbary, rewrote what had been a one-man show for a cast of three, who performed Lolek four nights a week to COVID-restricted, quarter-capacity crowds.
The response was so strong that the play ran, on and off, from October 2020 until May 2021. And for those who felt more comfortable at home, Lolek was also filmed as an immersive video experience that could (and still can) be livestreamed.
A Legacy, Interrupted
The results from these theatrical performances speak loud and clear: Contemporary Catholic audiences, like those that came before them, are hungry for beauty.
For centuries, the Church and the culture she inspired were able to deliver. Everything from majestic, spire-adorned cathedrals to otherworldly chants and hymns were a product of this Incarnational worldview that took humanity seriously, as were tales of knights defeating dragons and the crafting of fine garments. Even the practice of brewing beer, perfected by monastic communities, emerged from a Catholic appreciation for the sensible.
And this legacy wasn’t only confined to the Middle Ages. Perhaps as a reaction to the totalitarian forces of communism, Nazism and fascism, which had little regard for beauty in their power-focused vision of the world and the human person, the period following World War II gave rise to a powerful new breed of Catholic writers, including the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh. Even in a new and modern setting, the Catholic imagination found a way to express itself through art.
But then a funny thing happened: Catholic art just seemed to stop.
Explanations may vary, but many Catholic scholars are in agreement that the sexual revolution played a significant role in severing the link between the human person and transcendent beauty.
For instance, in his book Family Planning and Modern Problems, Jesuit Father Stanislas de Lestapis asserts that a “contraceptive civilization is a form of rationalism that devalues personality and for which the expression ‘to place oneself at life’s disposal’ quite literally has no longer any spiritual meaning.” Life is reduced to the level of utility and “loses its halo of mystery and grandeur,” the sense of the sacred that serves as the life force of human art.
Father de Lestapis’ description of sex according to this mind frame could also be applied to art: “By means of contraceptive techniques it is requested to enter the category of commercialized leisure occupations. It is forced to undergo a kind of electrolysis which sterilizes its creative effects and retains only those which give sensual pleasure. When society officially authorizes such techniques, does it genuinely realize the nature of the revolution it is bringing about or the reversal of values it is causing? Happiness is no longer to be sought in the realm of free giving and creativity but only in that of possessions and financial reward.” A society turned in on itself, seeking its own pleasure, is incapable of producing truly beautiful things.
That art and beauty have suffered so severely during this revolution should come as no surprise. The peace, security, order, love and, yes, the beauty of a happy family provide the firm foundation for curious, creative minds to flourish. Or, as Pope Paul VI so eloquently puts it in Humanae Vitae, a healthy family helps the child “develop a right sense of values and achieve a serene and harmonious use of their mental and physical powers,” which is the only way to create something truly beautiful as an artist.
No doubt that great art has been produced through great suffering (for to know God is to know the cross), but as families have been shattered by divorce and fatherless homes, civilization quickly drifted into the isolation of movies, games, screens, metaverses and the great plague of pornography.
And art has suffered for it.
But Catholics are answering the artistic call.
The Desire Remains
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the need for expressions of beauty may be contributing to a heightened desire for it.
Called to help cultivate and respond to that desire, Graham Crawley is one of the founding members of Floriani, a men’s vocal ensemble specializing in chant. The group started as a barbershop choir back in 2013 at Thomas Aquinas College, occasionally singing at an off-campus Mass in Ventura County.
“We saw a desire for this return to a more traditional form of liturgical music and hoped to one day commit our lives to this revival,” said Crawley.
Incredibly, that dream began to take shape last year when all four members of Floriani agreed to move from other states and settle in Phoenix to pursue their now-full-time vocation.
“We want to introduce and teach people how to sing chant and sacred music beautifully, across the country and even the world,” said Crawley.
The interest is there. In the last year, they've amassed 5,000 social-media followers and gained nearly 200,000 views in their pursuit of “evangelizing social media with beauty.” Through their Chant School podcast, parish workshops and touring, Floriani is fast becoming a major contributor to the revival of the ancient chants of the Church.
Crawley beautifully illustrates the why: “Man wants to create something beautiful because he is a servant of the beautiful. He seeks to imitate that unparalleled beauty he sees in nature, crafted by the hand of God.”
And while the internet has more dark corners than windows, apps like Instagram and Etsy have become excellent sources for Catholic artists to spread the beauty they produce.
For instance, Tennessee-based painter and illustrator Emily Anderson has turned to social-media platforms to build an audience and display her work. The digital marketplace has allowed her to pursue her dream — “to raise my kids and support my family” through her artwork — one shared by many Catholic artists today.
Anderson’s family recently grew by one: She is a new mother to a baby girl, who sometimes takes naps in the art room and lets her mom get a 30-minute painting session in. The wife and mother looks forward to “finger painting” sessions with her little one. “My faith is a big source of inspiration,” said Anderson, “because I see a direct correlation in God as a Creator and me as an artist. I feel blessed that one of my God-given talents reminds me of my maker.”
“God made us in his image, and I find humans fascinating for that reason,” she continued. “We have the capacity to understand God’s law and invite the Holy Spirit into our discernment process. We also have the free will to reject his teachings. I think about these concepts all the time and how grateful I am for my faith and the way it centers me. My art does not necessarily get to the heart of these weighty concepts, but it does focus on people. I love portraying captivating expressions and people’s bodies in motion. God made us communal creatures who relate to each other through facial cues and exercise our bodies. I think my focus on people in my art is an effort to understand all the different personalities that surround us and how God is behind each unique soul.”
She added, “Jan Van Eyck is an amazing artist who mostly made religious paintings that were steeped in Catholic theology, but he also made secular work for patrons. I think there is something to be said for inviting God’s influence to show up in both obvious and subtle ways in art. I hope the readers find their own meaning in my artwork. They may see something I didn’t even intend to portray.”
Other faith-filled artisans like OréMoose are faithfully heeding John Paul II’s call to make their lives a “work of art,” creating stunning leatherwork while slowly expanding their brand into numerous markets. The writer’s group The Mezzo Consortium has been steadily building a community of Catholic writers, focusing on the intersection between faith and art. And with apostolates like Word on Fire, the Catholic Art Institute, Catholic Creatives and so many other talented painters, writers, musicians and artisans faithfully honoring their Maker by making, one begins to anticipate something much bigger ahead: a renaissance.
Jeromy Darling is a Catholic musician and actor living in the Twin Cities with his wife and children.