The meaning of sacred art

Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “The artist lives in a peculiar relationship with beauty. It can be said, with profound truth, that beauty is the vocation to which the Creator called him with the gift of “artistic talent”.

Luís Eugênio Sanábio e Souza – writer – Juiz de Fora

The Church has always understood and taught that the arts, but above all sacred art, aim “by nature to express in some way in human works the infinite beauty of God and seek to increase his praise and glory insofar as they do not any purpose other than that of contributing powerfully to directing human hearts to God” (Second Vatican Council: SC n. 122). Undoubtedly, man also expresses the truth of his relationship with God through the beauty of his artistic works. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “The artist lives in a peculiar relationship with beauty. It can be said, with profound truth, that beauty is the vocation to which the Creator called him with the gift of “artistic talent”. And this too is certainly a talent that, in line with the Gospel parable of the talents (Mateus 25:14-30), one must surrender. Here we touch an essential point. Anyone who has noticed in himself this kind of divine spark that is the artistic vocation (as a poet, writer, painter, sculptor, architect, musician, actor…), at the same time realizes the obligation not to waste this talent, but to develop it in order to place it at the service of others and of all humanity” (“Letter to Artists” No. 3, April 4, 1999).

In the 8th century, Saint John Damascene explained it like this: “The beauty and color of the images stimulate my prayer. It is a feast for my eyes, as much as the spectacle of the field stimulates my heart to give glory to God.” With his writings, Saint John Damascene defended the Church against the iconoclasts, who condemned the use of images in the Church. Iconoclasts regarded the veneration of sacred images as a return to pagan idolatry. Against the iconoclastic heresy, the Church solemnly spoke out at the Second Council of Nicaea held in the year 787. This council reaffirmed the traditional Catholic distinction between true adoration, which is due to God alone, and respectful veneration or prostration of honor, which is given to icons (images), because “the honor paid to an image is addressed to the original model” (St Basil) and “whoever venerates an image venerates the person who is painted on it” (Council of Trent, XXV session). In the sixth century, Pope Saint Gregory the Great had already insisted on the didactic character of paintings in churches, useful so that the illiterate, when contemplating them, can read, at least on the walls, what they are not able to read in books. In the thirteenth century, Saint Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed that images lead us to God incarnate: “Now, the movement that directs the image as such does not end there, but tends towards the reality of which it is the image” (explained the Doctor of the Church) .

Thus, the Catholic Church has defined and determined: “The venerable and holy images, as well as the representation of the precious and life-giving cross, whether painted, mosaic or any other suitable material, must be placed in the holy churches of God, on the utensils and sacred vestments, on walls and in pictures, in houses and on roads, both the image of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and that of Our Lady, the most pure and most holy Mother of God, of the holy angels, of all the saints and the just” (II Council of Nicaea, year 787).

We know that not everyone is called to be an artist, in the specific sense of the term. But, “according to the expression of Genesis, every man has been given the task of being the craftsman of his own life: in a way, he must make it a work of art, a masterpiece”. (Pope Saint John Paul II: “Letter to Artists” No. 2, April 4, 1999).

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