Vatican Council II – Revisiting its Documents: Sacrosanctum Concilium Part XXVI

A multi-part series honouring the Vatican Council II by reviewing its documents.
We continue with a review of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.

Part XXVI: Chapter VII: Sacred Art and Sacred Furnishings

Since the beginning of her public life in the 4th century, the Church has understood art to be an important tool in teaching and expressing the Faith. We need only look to the numerous mosaics, icons, ancient churches and paintings of the Renaissance to see how significant art has been. But this hasn’t been by accident or for show; there are deep theological reasons why art is important to the practice of the Faith:

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Lord of Hosts), encaustic on panel, 6th century. The two different facial expressions on either side seem to emphasize Christ’s two natures, fully God and fully man. Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai.

Very rightly the fine arts are considered to rank among the noblest activities of man’s genius, and this applies especially to religious art and to its highest achievement, which is sacred art. These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands; they achieve their purpose of redounding to God’s praise and glory in proportion as they are directed the more exclusively to the single aim of turning men’s minds devoutly toward God (no. 122).

You see, contrary to popular belief today, art isn’t about self-expression. Up until the 20th century, art was always understood to be an attempt to represent and convey the deep truths of beauty, the human person, and man’s longing for the infinite. True art always leads us outside of ourselves, even beyond the artist, toward something greater. This is especially true of sacred art, whose object is God and the divine mysteries. For this reason the Church has long been one of the biggest patrons and contributors of art. Just look at the Vatican Museums!

For these same reasons, the Church has also intentionally incorporated artistic craft and merit to its various objects of practical use, such as vestments, sacred vessels, and church buildings. [A]ll things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world […] in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use (no. 122). Just because something is useful or practical, it doesn’t mean it should be ugly and poorly made.

Rather, the Church has rightly insisted that whatever is used in worship should reflect the importance and dignity of that sacred action: we ought to give our best to God (cf. Gen 4). But the Church has never insisted on any one particular style: she has remained opened to the changes in artistic style and expression as they’ve evolved over the centuries due to trends, culture and time (no. 123). This has contributed greatly to the beauty and diversity of the Church’s artistic legacy and the presence of art in worship. Bishops, therefore, have the duty to encourage, support and protect sacred art (no. 124). They ought to promote those forms that strengthen faith and piety, and remove those that offend true religious sense either by depraved forms or by lack of artistic worth, mediocrity and pretense (no. 124). They should have a special concern for artists, so as to imbue them with the spirit of sacred art and of the sacred liturgy (no. 127). Sacred art must always be subservient to Faith and the Liturgy; it isn’t for it’s own sake. It’s purpose is to helps us enter more deeply into prayer, contemplate the mysteries of God, and to further our knowledge and understanding of the Faith. (To be continued…)

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