The Role of Religious Art Over 50 Years: An Assessment

Volume 50, Issue 3 :: James Hadley

Matisse windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Photo: Flickr/Monica Arellano-Ongpin Creative Commons License, CC BY 2.0.

Henri Matisse’s windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, France, 1951.

‘Paschal Candle’ by Ettore Spalletti. Photo: Carlo Vannini

‘Paschal Candle’ by Ettore Spalletti, 2012, Cathedral of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Dominican fathers Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey embarked on a pioneering work to eradicate from sacred art – signifying nothing more than simply the preponderance of “art in churches” – all that had become the handicraft of kitsch taste which, from the 19th century, seemed definitively condemned in the art world. According to Couturier and Régamey, religious art must really be art in the spirit of its time, taking into account the self-consciousness that the artist gained in the modern age as Jacques Maritain defined in his art philosophy. In them was the confidence that the artist, though not necessarily a believer, was the bearer of a spiritual experience that alone could render justice to images of faith. From this perspective, there were two “miracles” (the term used by Couturier himself): the Matisse chapel of Vence (1951) and Notre-Dame-du-Haute at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier (1954).

Beyond the crisis of catalogue art that marked Christian “religious” art of the period, a more fundamental conflict was at hand between art as representation, mimetic form of the visual world as it had been for Plato and Aristotle, and a new art that according to persons like Klee and Kandinsky was anything but mimetic. Klee saw art as a manifestation of the invisible, a revelation, as if to afford the viewer the possibility to return to time immemorial and the obscurity of origins.¹ Art for Kandinsky, similarly, was itself of a spiritual reality inasmuch as it represented a vibration and resonance in the human spirit as the experience of the absolute. Art ceased to be representation, transforming into the visual language of pure form and color.² The “function” of art was not to point to external objects but affirm its own internal reality born out of and giving vision to both the limits of human being and the unknown horizons of existence; a dialectic between the finite and infinite. In so doing art expressed truth—the truth of itself, becoming symbolic and auto-referential.

‘Untitled Installation’ by Dan Flavin. Photo: Public

‘Untitled Installation’ by Dan Flavin, 1996, Maria Annunciata, Milan, Italy.

Couturier and Régamey understood this new art critically and intuitively—chromatic surfaces, pure material, objective geometry, expressive, symbolic, spiritual. Projects such as those at Vence and Ronchamp served as prophetic embodiments of contemporary arts forming places of Christian worship. The art in such venues began to take the characteristic of “art as idea as idea” a là Kosuth, becoming a mental act, a search for its own proper language in which reality of the world seemed inexorably excluded.³ At the same time this seismic shift in the nature of art, and therefore religious art, left many religious institutions writ large, not least Roman Catholics, confused and bewildered.4 Every antique point of reference for sacred art seemed to be lost in argumentation to which no more sure coordinates were given.

The story of religious art continues to evidence the same contours more or less as those seen by Couturier and Régamey. If we are to think of the past 50 years of religious art broadly construed, we see contested territory; not only that of art, but also of belief. In a pluralistic Western culture that no longer operates according to metanarratives, this should not be surprising, nor frankly, concerning. Yet, inasmuch as faith is a matter of adherence to religious experience it does propose a challenge to faith communities to speak of their belief within a modern context, but this should not consign us to be prophets of doom, nor provoke angst in the face of a world that yields ever so slowly to change.

‘Cosmic Correspondence’ by Giovanni Ruggiero. Photo: James Hadley

‘Cosmic Correspondence’ by Giovanni Ruggiero, 2011, International Museum of Ceramics, Faenza, Italy.

Everything in the Fragment

Religious people today are perhaps people of fragments who traverse a staccato society and human relationships finding the whole in the part. Michel de Certeau wrote that God communicates by robbing us;5 the infinite, the absolute is never found whole but it permeates the pieces. To this extent we are freed from the need of metanarrative and hold fast to fragments in which the whole is hidden. This perhaps is a telling analysis of what religious art can be today: tangential incomplete representations of human religious experience but also of the divine that they represent. Let’s consider three desirable fragments that define artistic searching today. While I write as a Christian in the Church of England, I think that what I say has some resonance for other faiths as well.

Fragment 1: From Liturgical Image to Work of Art

The Christian tradition has never truly spoken of art or artistic expression but of cultural images used by the Church in the celebration of the liturgy and for meditation and personal prayer. The image is created to speak of an encounter between God and God’s people. They are not commissioned to realize a work of art per se, but to serve underlying ritual exigencies and spiritual needs. At the same time, even liturgical elements as altars, ambos, fonts, and vestments are works of art inasmuch as they are to evoke admiration, to be studied, to be analyzed, to be enjoyed. More significantly, the image becomes a place of experiencing the profundity of the real and interior life of the viewer. The liturgical image implicates the personal and draws forth a dialogue: Why does the work engage me? What is it saying to me? Does it want something from me?

‘Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)’ by Bill Viola. Photo: Cecilia Musmeci

‘Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)’ by Bill Viola, 2014, Kira Perov, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London.

As a liturgical work of art an image/object cannot render the work simply an aesthetic text to decipher sign after sign, form after form, as if a grammatical construction. Since Couturier and Régamey this struggle has remained present. Overly didactic symbolic coordinates can condemn the liturgical object to an embarrassing superficiality, robbing it of its power. Counterclaims are leveled arguing that without obvious symbolic lexicons contemporary images are embarrassingly, and dangerously, incomprehensible.6 What must be recognized is that comprehension is not simply, nor primarily, a matter of “reading” the work. Art is evocation—not explanation. To enter into the mystery of the work, to sympathize with the work, is to grasp its sense. It is in form, material, and color that artists invest themselves personally, searching to translate in their own language the mystery of the Christian faith for a contemporary audience. One thinks to the “Paschal Candle” (2012) of Ettore Spalletti. Highly evocative the monumental column is split in two evoking the passage through the Red Sea. The blue polychrome marble evokes not only water but the pillar of cloud by day; the glimmering gilded interior, the pillar of fire by night. Its rising out of a black abyss suggests the resurgent Christ from the tomb.

It must also be said that liturgical works of art are not only liturgical furniture. Various factors have contributed to decades of contemporary architecture and design in American churches but rather little art. This thankfully is changing. Since the American artist Dan Flavin’s light installation in Milan’s S. Maria Annunciata (1996) there is a new awareness of the dimensions of “devotional” art that may or may not appear devotional in a traditional sense, but which are artistic investigations meant to drive one towards meditation, interrogation, and prayer. These works may often be individual as Giovanni Ruggiero’s striking ceramic and bronze work “Cosmic Correspondence” (2011), or like Flavin’s installation, serve to create immersive spiritual environments that unify the entire liturgical space. One such example is the work of the painter Valentino Vago who treats the entirety of the interior architectural space as a canvas.

Fragment 2: Art as Encounter

‘Via Crucis (Station 1 - Jesus in the Garden of Olives)’ by Marcello Mo. Photo by the artistndazzi

‘Via Crucis (Station 1 – Jesus in the Garden of Olives)’ by Marcello Mondazzi, 2015, Church of San Giuseppe Lavoratore, Parma, Italy.

Today art does not define a set of objects named by the artist as works of art. Art is not comprised of “rigid designators,” to use Saul Kripke’s language,7 but is a directive move in which referent and referee are embodied in me. Art, in short, is a type of encounter. Already in the 19th century many artists spoke of art as an encounter with presence, mystery, of otherness, the unknown, the sublime, the divine, or cosmic spirit. In this sense the dialogue created by art was itself a religious experience. In western culture and its fragmentation, or sheer rejection, of metanarratives and God, art’s claim to religious experience is held suspect. Yet Massimo Iiritano has suggested that in the face of desacralization the experience of aesthetic fragments themselves, which connote searching, absence, and suffering, are the authentic referential experience of a human nostalgia that seeks to find a lost God.8

Religious art in the Christian key proposes an aesthetic dialogue based in the memory of the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, dead and risen for the salvation of humanity. The image renders the invisible visible, it renders present the absent. Through it, the represented is manifested to the community and the faithful become, in this way, contemporary to the mystery. The image is not intended to explain belief as much as it is meant to carry within it the truth and profound sense of the encounter. To this end the affective dimensions are of utmost importance. The work of art must be believable and speak to the “newness” of the encounter. As the symbolic place in which the believer recognizes their own experience the work must both point to mystery and speak in the language—the esthetic canon—of our time, as Bill Viola is adept at doing. Artwork that is kitsch, do-it-yourself, or updated-neo, is inadequate to the task. The best work of the past 50 years is that which opens the door to the absolute, to transcendence, to the mystery of life. One thinks of the sensitive and gestural bronze work of Giacomo Manzù (1964) in this respect, or the more recent “Via Crucis” of Marchello Mondazzi (2015). His “Via Crucis” is a metaphor of a universe that makes a journey, a conversion, a passage. A continuous dialectic between sculpture and painting, the images appear overlapping with inaccessible transparency and imperceptible visions. The materials form and dissolve in a game of thin shadows, suggesting lightness, and levitation. Out of the decomposing material, the light transforms the surfaces into places of silence that demand ransom and liberation.

Fragment 3: Beauty

, by architects Aymeric Zublena and Traversi+Traversi. Photo: Maria Zanchi

Interior of the Chapel of St. John XXIII in Bergamo, Italy, by architects Aymeric Zublena and Traversi+Traversi Architetti, with artwork by Andrea Mastrovito.

In postmodernism the noti on of beauty and the sublime are no longer an aspect of art, generally speaking. Rather, according the philosopher François Lyotard, aesthetic judgement is now anchored upon the speculation of the market9: What will sell? Money is the only absolute criteria of judgement. When the concept of beauty is considered, a diversity of aesthetic articulations of beauty along with a bewildering diversity of criteria for esthetic judgments create seemingly implausible contradictions. Are we speaking about anything, really? Is beauty just a passé equivocation for pretty? The fragmentation of beauty has left its aesthetic mark on our society in movements such as “found art,” “readymade art,” and “junk art.” Perhaps even contributing to what Pope Francis has called the throw-away society. Art may now in fact be ugly and be art.

Religious art today plays a critical role in the search for artistic beauty. Rooted in the three classical metaphysical categories of the true, the beautiful, and the good, the best of religious art has retained a dialogue between artistic object and the capacity to transmit to the viewer via content, form, and color an embodied experience of visual purity or rightness. Indeed, Vatican II considered beauty to be the essential element of religious art as a reflection of the divine itself (Sacrosanctum Concilium 8).

While in some cases there have been attempts to define a closed and rigorous cannon of what “beauty” looks like, and what therefore constitutes “beauty” in religious art and architecture, there is general appreciation of a necessary poly-systemic approach when art is an encounter between referent-referee-me. The experience of art contains both subjective and objective aspects. We arrive at the moment in which beauty is not purely “aesthetic judgment, simply describing some object in the world. We are giving voice to an encounter, a meeting of a subject and object, in which the response of the first is every bit as important as the qualities of the second.”10 These qualities of experience can include symmetry, order, proportion, closure, convention, harmony, novelty, openness, imbalance, excitement, energy, discovery, and much more

Detail of Andrea Mastrovito’s crucified Christ in the Chapel of St. John XXIII in Bergamo, Italy. Photo: Maria Zanchi

Detail of Andrea Mastrovito’s crucified Christ in the Chapel of St. John XXIII in Bergamo, Italy.

If we are to speak of Christian beauty we would concede its presence in works of art that have the capacity to express the mystery of God in the story of humanity, that reveal the story of humanity and its salvation. Beauty in this sense is not so much aesthetic quality as it is the experience of impregnation and bringing forth life. Certainly there are physical qualities implicated, but more important is the ethical relationship between the image and human life. The image that brings forth life by expressing what is true and what is good, in its most profound dimensions, is beautiful. This experience of ideal beauty is hit upon when one feels a contemplative distance with the work as it provokes respect as knowing and pointing to a reality that is beyond me.11 At the same time, it stands as a confrontation evidencing a divine measure against which I must reevaluate myself. The correlating indicator of beauty is that of being pushed toward prayer. Ideal beauty forces us out of being a passive spectator, putting in play our liberty and our critical capacity. Beauty calls to us, interrogates us, invites us to come out of ourselves. In this way beauty becomes a form of prayer as it illuminates the mystery of life and death and puts at risk feelings of self-sufficiency pointing us toward a desire for salvation and nostalgia for the lost God until we enter the House of the Father. Unfortunately, the great seal of contemporary religious art, not only considering aesthetic elements, but in its very capacity to express the mystery of God in human history, has been embarrassingly superficial and banal. A recent unicum against this trend is the chapel of St. John XXIII in Bergamo, Italy (2016). In the context of a hospital the suffering and death of humanity is confronted with a serene and sure dialogue. Nothing seems left to chance. The Garden of Eden is evoked within the concrete etched walls and graphic digitized windows give an almost cinematographic depiction of the suffering of Christ. The space is defined by the fundamental role of natural light that permeates the walls and ceiling in shades of gray and gold. Here the merger of artistic sensitivity and profound invocation of Christian faith create a space of calibrated but stunning beauty.


It seems to me that the power of religious arts of the past 50 years has been their capacity to invite us to gaze more intently into the fragment, the incomplete reality we feel has seized us, and there begin to perceive the possibility of human psycho-spiritual and physical wholeness restored in the divine. The experience of beauty is perhaps one of the unique vocabularies in which religious art is called to speak today. Not that something is to be found pretty, but to serve as a provocateur of a deeper encounter that renders through aesthetic form a sense of the way things ought to be, and the way they can be, not only in houses of prayer, but in a deep ethical sense of life and community that unites humanity binding its piecemeal nature together beyond individual, corporate, and national self-interests. This indeed is a gift of faith on which to build.


  1. Paul Klee, Théorie de l’art modern (Paris: Denoel, 1985), p. 34.
  2. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (New York: Dover, 1977), p. 43.
  3. See Lucy R. Lippard, Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972 (Berkeley: University of California, 1997), pp. 72-73.
  4. A more detailed history can be found in James Thomas Hadley, “Ars Gratia Artis: The Freedom of the Arts in the Twentieth-Century Liturgical Reform and Today,” Studia Liturgica 45 (2015), pp. 176-198.
  5. Michel de Certeau, L’étranger ou l’union dans la difference (Paris: Seuil, 2005), p. 42.
  6. François Boespflug, “La liturgia Cristiana una sfida per l’arte contemporanea,” in F. Boespflug, G. Ravasi, E. Fuchs, eds., Liturgia e arte. La sfida della contemporaneità (Milan: Quqajon, 2011), pp. 80-81, 93.
  7. Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp (Chicago: MIT Press, 1996), p. 74.
  8. Massimo Iiritano, “Arte e/è esperienza religiosa”, in M. Iiritano and S. Sorrentino, eds., Arte e esperienza religiosa (Naples: Fridericiana Editrice Universitaria, 2011), pp. 12-15.
  9. Vittorio Gregotti, Il Sublime al tempo del contemporaneo (Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 2013), p. x.
  10. Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 61.
  11. See, Simona Chiodo, La Bellezza: Un’Introduzione al suo passato e una proposta per il suo futuro (Milan: Pearson, 2015), p. 102.

The author is an Oblate of Saint Benedict and currently teaches the history, theology, and design of liturgical art and architecture at The Catholic University of America’s Rome Campus, as well as culture and faith for the Australian Catholic University, and doctrine for Saint John’s School of Mission (Nottingham, UK). He can be reached at