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In Defense of Christian Art

January 6, 2021 29 min read
By Dr. Elizabeth Lev Professor of Art History, Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas
Woman Praying before an Icon

The following text is found in Renewal of Catholic Higher Education: Essays in Catholic Studies in Honor of Don J. Briel, published in 2017 by University of Mary Press.

Art historians have long debated whether or not there is such a thing as Christian art. Even the most prestigious museums clump Christian-themed subjects together with their secular counterparts under the same chronological umbrella such as “Late Antique” or “High Renaissance.”1 Thus, Leonardo’s portrait of Mona Lisa, the wife of a Florentine merchant, holds court over Christ Crowned with Thorns by Titian in the Louvre. In the National Gallery of London, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus stands between Guido Reni’s Rape of Europa and a raucous Lute Player by Hendrick ter Brugghen. In these contexts, the accident of the subject appears irrelevant for the classification of the work.

While some works may have a Christian subject or depict a sacred scene, one can fairly ask whether there is a real distinction to be made that justifies the creation of a specific discipline. After all, we don’t speak of “floral art” as a proper category, despite the fact that there are enough paintings of flowers to justify this classification. Nor does portraiture enjoy a privileged status alongside Baroque or Renaissance art, even though portrait-painting occupies an important niche in the history of art. Moreover, between sacred and profane art the techniques employed remain the same: The same type of chisel carved the Pieta and the Venus of Cnidos, and the same fresco technique produced Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. As C.S. Lewis quipped in his essay on Christianity and literature, “Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan.”2

So is it a fruitful investment of time for a student of Catholic Studies to focus on “Christian art”? If there is nothing unique or distinctive to be gleaned from a “Christian art,” the student might be better served with a broad survey of global masterpieces to develop his or her aesthetic palate independent of subject matter. Furthermore, the brief semester a Catholic Studies student spends in Rome already offers full immersion into the papacy and a fair amount of contact with Roman theology, so why draw attention to Christian art?

Most teaching programs in Rome offer survey courses covering the art and architecture of Antiquity. Some span the breadth of Ancient Rome from the Republic to the fall of the Empire: about 1,000 years of art. Still others stretch back to the Etruscan age or era of Classical Greece, adding another 200 or 300 years to the mix. Studying these vast periods, students learn to recognize patterns in architectural orders and painting styles through the Hellenized world, which are rendered increasingly more complex as the Romans began to annex new territories and incorporate new styles into their Empire. One can witness how certain qualities and characteristics developed over time in the art of pagan Rome; this, in turn, offers insight into the various stages of the Empire. Few bother, however, to investigate the 1,000-plus years of artistic production of Christians in Rome, from the first hastily drawn images on a catacomb wall to the Sistine Chapel painted some 1300 years later. Could we learn specific lessons or discover particular qualities in the art produced by and for Christians, or are they indeed simply indistinguishable parts of the larger historical current?

The discipline of Art History, born in 1764 under Johann Winckelmann and carried forward a century later by Jacob Burkhardt, developed under an ideology that separated the subject matter from the formal qualities of a given work. Under this optic, the greatness of the Last Supper by Leonardo is solely the fruit of Leonardo’s vast artistic talent and has little to do with the narrative that opens Christ’s Passion. Similarly, Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saul is thought to be extraordinary for its innovative use of chiaroscuro, but not for how it relates to St. Paul’s missionary vocation. Yet one might ask whether this artificial separation of substance and form does justice to art. Were form and technical prowess, for instance, all that mattered to the artist at work, the patron who commissioned him and the viewers who stood in awe of his work? While Michelangelo may have used tools similar to those of the Greek sculptors, it is doubtful he would have considered his David the same as Praxiteles’ Hermes, and he certainly was not producing art for the same audience. Indeed, Greek sculptors of the Classical age would have been quick to disassociate the Florentine from their ranks. The lack of proportion in the colossal work, the anxious expression on the face of the teenage hero and the awkward tensions in the muscles—all of this defied the ideal that the Greeks had striven to bring to art. It was the distance that Michelangelo knowingly put between himself and his pagan predecessors as well as his thematic continuity that first sowed the seed of developing a course that would survey a millennium of monuments in Rome, from the legalization of Christianity to the Renaissance, looking for patterns and characteristics that would distinguish Christian art.

After developing a course on Christian art over a decade ago and teaching it to Catholic Studies students for the last seven years, I have grown to believe that it is neither a particular brushstroke nor even a biblical theme that renders a work Christian. Two principal qualities emerge to define art as distinctively Christian: 1) the unique doctrine of the Incarnation that permeates Christian art irrespective of medium, style and technique, and 2) the purpose and function of art in the life of the Christian viewer, an aim pursued especially in the pilgrim city of Rome.

Naturally, the earliest Christians tended to follow their elder brethren in eschewing anything that could be mistaken for idolatry, and they would have continued on this course if it hadn’t been for one exceedingly important element: Christians proclaimed that the invisible, all-powerful God had become visible, knowable, touchable and relatable in the person of Jesus Christ.

While stylistic similarities—whether horror vacui in sculpture or naturalistic garlands in mosaic and painting—tempt viewers to believe that all late Antique art is essentially the same, the Christians lived in an environment that made them constantly aware of their uniqueness, whether through social ostracism or outright persecution. From worshipping a “new” divinity to extolling the virtue of poverty, everything the Christians did went against the social grain, especially in art. In 220, Origen found himself defending the Christians against the attack of the pagan intellectual Celsus for not producing art. Origen writes: “Celsus accuses that we shrink from raising altars, statues, and temples; and this, he thinks, has been agreed upon among us as the badge or distinctive mark of a secret and forbidden society.”3 But Origen asserts that while indeed distinct, this is no secret cult, explaining that temples have little purpose since “there is no comparison even between the Olympian Jupiter of Phidias and the man who has been fashioned according to the image of God the Creator.”4

Origen’s disregard for art came in an age when Christians, having grown out of the Jewish tradition where images were discouraged, shied away from the use of imagery. The first commandment excluded “graven images,” so subsequently the number of pictures in the ancient Jewish tradition is miniscule. Naturally, the earliest Christians tended to follow their elder brethren in eschewing anything that could be mistaken for idolatry, and they would have continued on this course if it hadn’t been for one exceedingly important element: Christians proclaimed that the invisible, all-powerful God had become visible, knowable, touchable and relatable in the person of Jesus Christ. At the heart of all Christian art there is the fact of the Incarnation, the Word made Flesh, which elevates the dignity of the entire human experience but also indicates for all persons the ultimately divine destiny of man. Both of these Christian realities can be traced in the evolution of art, and often the creative tension between them has guided styles and typologies in the history of art. In studying images from the era of the Mendicants, for example, one sees the humanity of Christ placed at the forefront of art, whereas in the era of Byzantine influence on Roman art one witnesses a greater emphasis on Christ’s divinity and transcendence.

The Christian understanding of the Incarnation pervades Christian art, far more in the early centuries than in the modern era. In the representation of God-made-Man in narratives or icons, the real, historical event of Jesus Christ is called to mind. Jesus Christ is God the Father’s artistic masterpiece, the perfect icon or image of Himself, and the model or exemplar for the creation of man, as Aquinas reminds us.5 Henceforth, when the Christian makes art, he imitates God himself.

This translates into architecture as well. Although the early Christian church can initially appear as no more than a derivative of the Greco-Roman basilica, Christians deliberately infused the building with elements that contrast pagan worship spaces, accentuating specific facets of the design to proclaim the unique nature of the Christian message. At first glance, the Roman cathedral of St. John Lateran, the first legally-built Christian church in the world, looks much like the Basilica Giulia in the Forum with its double row of columns and high clerestory windows, but several modifications decisively altered its character and made it a distinctively Christian building.

The exterior of the original church was coated in simple brick, anathema to Roman architects who adorned the exteriors of their religious structures with costly imported marbles.6 The Christians, however, saved the precious veneer of imported yellow marbles for the interior, situating them alongside golden candelabras and silver altars.7 The contrast would underscore the teaching of God-made-man, sturdy and humble on the exterior but glorious within. Size also distinguished the early Christian churches. While pagan temples were designed for worship sub divos in the open air, and other cults made small, dark and exclusive spaces, the Christians built for size and luminosity. “Obscurity and invisibility are not goals for Christians,” points out historian Paul Corby Finney.8 A basilica design could be expanded as far as capacity required, and the high windows flooded the space with light. Add to this the axiality demanded by the Christians with the apse in the west and the façade toward the east, and the resulting edifice evoked Christ’s own words: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Architecture holds a privileged position in the Christian world, as worship spaces bring the people of God together on a common journey. In spite of the aforementioned implications of the Incarnation, painting and sculpture, however, would have to struggle to grow in a climate suspicious of imagery. In the “eyes of Christians,” writes Marcel Laurent, “art had become an accomplice to idolatry,” and, as a result, “warrens of errors and habitations of demons.”9 Art in the Christian tradition would be challenged over the centuries, from its inception to the iconoclast movement to the Reformation, and arguably even in the modern age. Yet the first and last line of defense in the Christian tradition, from St. John Damascene to the 25th session of the Council of Trent, was the proclamation of the Incarnation as the fount from which all Christian art springs.

The earliest image of Christ is found in the Catacombs of Priscilla and dates from the late second or early third century. This fresco, painted in an almost impressionistic style, with delicate tendrils of plaster to enhance the image, is one of the first images we visit in the Christian art course. Standing in a dark, narrow tunnel crowded with tombs, students crane their heads upwards toward what is believed to be a martyr’s tomb, decorated with a man pointing toward a star who is standing in front of a woman embracing a child. That child turns from his mother’s arms toward the viewer. As we look upon the first Madonna and Child, we see Christ already looking for us. The universality of this image illustrates the “visible God,” knowable and paintable, or in St. John Damascene’s words, “God made visible in the flesh.”10 It also resonates in contemporary culture. Pope Francis describes the personal encounter with Christ as “treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him.”11 A few steps later, students see a mural of the Epiphany, the most repeated Christological scene in early Christian art. In those three silhouettes, painted in three separate colors and wearing the peaked caps recognizable from Imperial art as those of a freedman, the visible God becomes universal in his Epiphany, as does his mission to save all who turn to Him from the slavery of sin. This theme enjoys continuity throughout the history of art, even when Byzantine influences produce more regal images of Mary as Theotokos, shrouded in precious gold mosaic tiles or painted in lapis lazuli blue: She always engages the faithful with wide-open eyes and long fingers to direct the viewer’s gaze to her Son the Savior. Ultimately, students find that this same theme guided the hand of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, as the seemingly odd juxtapositions of Genesis scenes, prophets and pagan sibyls draw the eye inevitably from the Creation of Man through the stories of Noah only to return to the altar, completing this cycle of the Father’s act of creation and the Son’s act of salvation.12

Along with the doctrine of the Incarnation, which suffuses the entirety of Christian art and distinguishes it from all other art forms, the purpose and function of art in the life of the Christian viewer are also defining characteristics, especially in the city of Rome.

By the Renaissance era, the understanding of God-made-man had taken on greater richness, so that the poet Petrarch could rhapsodize that “God came to us so that we could go to Him, and at the same time our God was mixed with men, when ‘having been found clothed as a man’ he dwelt in us.” Artistically, this invites the artist—whether poet or painter—to raise man to glory, as “a marvelous aggregation of wholly unequal things.”13 Giotto’s focus on common human actions and reactions and Michelangelo’s heroic figures fit comfortably under the same umbrella of the Incarnation. Even the rough taverns and humble personages of Caravaggio, Velasquez and Gerrit van Honthorst continue to illustrate the endless artistic fruits of Christ’s arrival into human history. Up until the contemporary era, when abstraction removed even form and legibility from many religious images, Christian art remained rooted in the theology of the Incarnation.

Along with the doctrine of the Incarnation, which suffuses the entirety of Christian art and distinguishes it from all other art forms, the purpose and function of art in the life of the Christian viewer are also defining characteristics, especially in the city of Rome. Like other forms of communication, art involves both a communicator and a receiver of the message, as well as a particular medium through which the message is conveyed.

In the digital age, wherein one can obtain virtually any image and enjoy its contemplation in the quiet of a classroom or library, the idea of on-site classes may seem counterproductive. In the age of online classrooms and the ease of accessibility offered by cyberspace, the insistence on place and setting could be described as outmoded. The expense of tickets and the haphazardness of opening hours can indeed be detrimental to serious study. As students swarm abroad, often to enjoy lax drinking laws or to take advantage of facilitated travel with few academic expectations, one can easily look askance at the on-site experience as an obstacle to real understanding. Even in the academic community it is not an unheard-of phenomenon that the tenured residents of well-resourced institutions look down at their country cousins abroad.

And yet, although baseball broadcasting offers virtual spectators a bird’s-eye view from behind home plate and instant replays, sports fans nonetheless continue to fill stadiums in order to enjoy the immediate experience. Sitting in the stands, side by side with fellow aficionados, they share an irreplaceable community experience. Even in our cyber era, there is a real distinction between seeing something on television and “being there.” Somewhere between the private study of the game—with the privileged images of replays and slow motions—and the experience of listening to the crowd cheer and gasp lies an understanding not only of the technical rules and statistics of the game, but also of what draws people to the sport, what makes a player great in the eyes of fans and what makes baseball so quintessentially American. In Christian art as well students benefit from time in the classroom, which enables them to make comparisons with other images and to get more context through written sources, but it is the site visit that fixes the lesson in the memory and allows the student to understand, in a way that cannot be duplicated, when and how the form suits the purpose of the artwork and the Christian mission itself.

As a religion of community, Christianity and its art benefit from the shared experience of discovery and wonder. Standing at the narrow orifice of the Holy Sepulcher amid myriad faces and languages, one knows distinctly the universality of Christ’s salvific sacrifice; entering the shimmering space of the Hagia Sophia with Muslims, Jews, atheists and others illustrates the vast impact of beauty. Experience is part of the Incarnation, and its pale relative, the visual arts, works within the confines of man’s abilities and gifts to proclaim that “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands: this is what we proclaim to you.”14

One of the field trips for Catholic Studies students has as its destination Ravenna, which for a brief period in the fifth and sixth centuries was the capital of the Roman Empire. Students take a long bus ride to the northern edge of the Adriatic coast and emerge in a small town that bears the nondescript hallmarks of postwar rebuilding. They walk from one end of town to another, finally arriving at what looks like a poorly-tended urban garden with a small brick structure plunked in the grass, looking more like a gardener’s shack than a UNESCO monument. And yet after the unprepossessing exterior they step inside and fall into silent wonder. The interior, coated in blue mosaic tiles, invokes a somber peace. Large stone sarcophagi define the site as a place of burial. As the students look around the room, their eyes are led from an image of St. Lawrence, carrying a slender cross as he walks cheerfully toward his fiery grill, to the lapis night sky illustrated on the vault with golden stars orbiting a shining cross. Then, in the direction of the door and the light, they see Christ in a bucolic setting among His saved sheep. Their reading has told them about the mosaic technique; the classroom lectures give context to the patron, but the space illuminates the Christian belief in death, resurrection and salvation in a way that resonates even 1600 years after its construction. Many come, are awed and leave; the Christian art student understands and thus gains a richer understanding of the oft-used phrase “rest in peace.”

Christian art becomes more than a hurdle toward graduation or a diversion between meals, but a portal to a community of pilgrims, saints and sacred stories.

When St. Paulinus of Nola decorated his shrine to St. Felix in the fifth century, he left explicit instructions on how to view his frescoes. “Crane your neck a little until you take in everything with face tilted back. The man who looks at these and acknowledges the truth within these empty figures nurtures his believing mind with representations by no means empty.”15 The shared experience of truth and beauty among the students speaks to all the other facets of their Catholic Studies education.

Paulinus even goes so far as to claim a moralizing influence over the shared experience of art, instructing the faithful to “point out and read over to each other the subjects painted … In this way, as the paintings beguile their hunger, their astonishment may allow better behavior to develop in them.”16

My own experience is that the students do spend a lot of time “guiding” each other through the art, and while the question of “better behavior” is beyond the scope of this essay, Catholic Studies students do share more edifying conversations and make a point of seeing more art together—even on their independent travels—than many of their peers. Christian art becomes more than a hurdle toward graduation or a diversion between meals, but a portal to a community of pilgrims, saints and sacred stories.

As the continuous home of a Christian community, not to mention the See of Peter for 2,000 years, with a corresponding influx of pilgrims and a central focus on the sacramental life of the Church, Rome has a very particular relationship with art. Visitors enjoying a gelato break or a photo op in front of the Trevi fountain rarely ask themselves why the continuous line of successors of St. Peter would shower the city with so many beautiful, useful and pleasurable monuments. This richness of postcard-worthy piazzas also tells a story—that of Rome, St. Peter and conversion. The papal art of Rome is driven by deep aims, and one of those purposes is to establish a visual emphasis on the ancient tradition of St. Peter’s presence in Rome.

Within the first week of their arrival, Catholic art students are taken on a tour of the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica. They start in the wide space that once held the Circus of Nero, where St. Peter and his companions were killed in gruesome ways by the Roman emperor. St. Peter’s body, they discover, was claimed by a few followers and carried for a hasty burial a few steps away in a pauper’s grave consisting of a hole in the ground covered with bricks. They walk through proud monuments of pagan merchants and freedmen perched on the Vatican hillside until they reach the simple niche that concealed St. Peter’s bones for almost 2,000 years. A flight of steps takes them from the germinating seed of St. Peter’s body to the glorious flowering of the basilica. This scene sets the stage for the Christian art student: the triumph of the sacrifice of the martyrs celebrated not through memory of brutality and injustice, but through beauty.

Where the papacy did not commission monuments and decoration directly, the popes played a major role in preserving the vestiges of the ancient city. Despite the history of cruelty and persecution that the Forum and Coliseum represented, the papacy sponsored and restored Rome’s most grandiose vestiges, from the Pantheon to the Coliseum. In the eyes of the papacy, these were the proud objects of a civilization of men-turned-gods that had fallen into ruin and was refounded for God-turned-man by the new Romulus and Remus, Saints Peter and Paul.

Pope Benedict XVI, speaking on the feast day of these “twin” patrons of Christian Rome, said, “It was through their martyrdom, that they became brothers; together they founded the new Christian Rome…; they are founders of a new sort of city that must be constantly rebuilt in the midst of the old human city that is threatened by the opposing forces of human sin and selfishness.”17

It becomes evident to every Christian art student when visiting the excavation under St. Peter’s Basilica that the concentration of visual beauty around the Vatican is no mere accident. Peter’s tomb and the successive monuments that surround it are very much the epicenter of Christian art in Rome and tell the story of the underground religion, once relegated to hidden churches and catacombs, that was finally able to stand side by side with temples and altars only to continue to grow and transform long after these crumbled.

The faithful from near and far have also constituted a purpose for papal art commissions. Although visitors have been flocking to Rome since the age of the Republic, with the advent of the Christian era, pilgrims far outnumbered those who came to Rome driven by political, mercantile or even cultural motives. In the Vatican Museums, Christian art students have the opportunity to see the oldest Christian inscription in the world, a slab of stone from Turkey that reads:

Abercius by name, and I am the disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds flocks of sheep on mountains and on plains, who has great eyes that, from above, look on all sides. He [the shepherd] taught me in faithful Scriptures and he sent me to Rome, to behold a kingdom, and to see the queen with goldenrobe and golden shoes. There I saw a people bearing a splendid seal. But everywhere I had associates having Paul as a companion… Everywhere Faith led the way.18
This object attests to the Bishop’s pilgrimage to Rome in the late second century, and to the fact that he found others who did the same thing. The students that come to Rome every semester are yet another generation of a tradition that stretches back to the age of the apostles.

For the centuries that the papacy governed Rome, first in fact and then in name, they took pains to make the city a place in which pilgrims could see not only the resting places of Peter, Paul and the martyrs, but also in which the faithful could deepen their faith and understanding of the history of salvation. Surveying Christian art over a vast chronological expanse reveals the long-standing concern that art serve not only to delight the weary pilgrim, but to teach and persuade through beauty.

St. John Damascene explained the didactic function of art in the eighth century during the height of iconoclasm. He wrote that Christ, having

lived upon the earth and dwelt among men, worked miracles, suffered, was crucified and rose again, and was taken back to heaven. Since all these things actually took place and were seen by men, they were written for the remembrance and instruction of those who were not alive at the time in order that though we saw not, we may still, hearing and believing, obtain the blessing of the Lord… for this reason the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images as being acts of great heroism.19
During the era of the Counter-Reformation, as the threat of iconoclasm returned, the role of painters increased in importance. Archbishop Gabriele Paleotti of Bologna wrote his Treatise on Sacred and Profane Images articulating the new, increased responsibilities of the artist toward the viewer. In writing of the “office and end of the painter,” he explains that “just as orators have it as their office to delight, teach and move, so painters of sacred images, who are like mute theologians, must do the same, and that pictures will be more or less perfect to the degree they approach this mark.”20 Paleotti’s treatise demonstrates not only how, over the centuries, Christian art grows in freedom of expression but also in awareness of its duties.

Students are never more aware of this than when on-site in Rome. Despite crowding and noise or cold and discomfort, the setting provides essential clues to the story. A Google Earth video may take us through the ancient catacombs, but until we feel the close space tightly packed with silent tombs, touch the damp walls and breathe in the earthy smells, the power of this Christian witness remains untapped. Furthermore, students see the limited repertoire and austere design of catacomb frescoes give way to splendid if distant icons shining in the golden apses of early churches. These expressions, in turn, undergo a further metamorphosis that engages the heart and the mind of those who view the art of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

The Christian lens gives a new dimension to the history of art, adding texture and meaning to facts and phenomena, while the understanding of the site allows the work to reach out from its historical period and communicate with the present day.

During the modern era, as art history developed as a discipline, the disconnect between substance and function grew. Purely formal qualities overshadowed both the content and the original placement of a work and particularly its role during the liturgy or personal worship. While formal analysis is an indispensable tool for examining a work of art’s diagnostics, it can often result in a clinical understanding of art devoid of spirit. As essential as technical data is to the discipline, seeing an object in a Christian space and recognizing its Christian meaning and function provide a deeper and fuller understanding of a work of art than mere dimensions, precedents, contracts and technique.

Michelangelo’s Pieta has garnered a fame that occasionally seems to suggest that St. Peter’s Basilica is merely a backdrop for this masterpiece. But despite its incorrect placement in a larger space and the impediment of the glass shield, Christian art students can penetrate beyond the magnificent carving, the mastery of antique art and the personal achievement of the sculptor to delve into what really—day after day—draws thousands of people to stand before the work, often in tears.

Michelangelo’s refusal to follow traditional conventions of the subject matter can be easily discovered in any good biography, and the triangular composition is textbook Florentine design. But the body of Christ, easily identified as deriving from a classical matrix, alerts all students of art history to the anomaly of the details of His lifeless body drawn from empirical observation, which adds poignancy to the scene. The Christian art student will be sensitive to the break with classical culture. Instead of the immortal gods posing among the porticoes, this is a God who died. The figure of Mary, too, has been interpreted in myriad ways depending on the sweeping winds of explanatory fads: from the psychological (Michelangelo mourning his lost mother) to the humanistic (imposing the classical ideal on the figure of a young Jewish girl). Again, here a Christian art student will have seen enough images to recall that Mary’s face is identical to the endless depictions of the Annunciation in Florence, specifically as Mary acquiesces to the Angel’s message with the words “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”21 Through this lens, the stability of the triangle, the gentle expression and the lack of violence recorded on the body all point to the heroic fiat of Mary. Thus the work grows beyond an appropriation of antique elements and beyond a harmonious compositional grouping of bodies into a deeply challenging presentation of a Christian ideal. But while even this could be gleaned from study, one element can really only be understood on-site: Mary’s lower body was carved disproportionately large in relation to the rest of her body, undoubtedly to increase the impression of vulnerability of Jesus in her lap. The Body of Christ, however, does not fit compactly but “seems poised to tumble from her knees despite their breadth. As an altarpiece, the destination of the body would be the altar, site of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ.”22

Several students in the Catholic Studies program are seminarians and on occasion have been invited behind the glass of the Pieta to assist the Pope before Mass. Standing at the altar, they experience the fullest understanding of the work, imagining the day that they will lift the Host above the altar, to the space occupied by the polished, luminous body of Christ, here set off by the deep carving of Mary’s robes, and say the words of consecration that are clearly illustrated by this work: “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.”23

The Christian lens gives a new dimension to the history of art, adding texture and meaning to facts and phenomena, while the understanding of the site allows the work to reach out from its historical period and communicate with the present day.24

A class on Christian art distinguishes not only the uniqueness of the Christian message and experience in the painting, sculpture and architecture produced by and for its adherents, but also a uniquely Christian understanding of art and beauty themselves. Especially in the earliest examples, the art of the Christian community was dictated by its eschatological subject and its intended viewers. Therefore, in most cases the best way to understand the Christian nature of a work of art is by understanding its placement and function and how the stylistic choices made by the artist reflect these considerations.

Over the last 10 years of teaching Christian art in Rome, I have found that non-religious students also gained a greater respect for the history of art as a discipline through the study of Christian art. I have employed a methodology that takes into account the enormous weight that religious content carried for the society in which the work was produced. Simultaneously, Christian students grasp the critical contribution that faith and sacraments have made to art and beauty, but also learn how to apply a rigorous process to discern the spiritual content of a work of art and its relationship to technique and form, instead of simply imposing pious meaning to a Christian-themed image. This facile approach to art history,  which bypasses analysis in favor of a spiritual stimulant, is a form of art historical “heresy” almost as problematic as the secularist narratives thrust upon sacred images in popular novels. In teaching students a more disciplined approach to art, this course takes its place among the other pillars of Catholic Studies, working to teach students to find harmony between faith and reason.

Though art has always existed outside of Christianity, within the faith it found its natural environment and true home, and not surprisingly produced some of its finest works. Christian art is not only a proper category unto itself; it is, in a very real sense, what art was meant to be.

1 Many authors have questioned the legitimacy of a Christian art, especially in the late 19th century as more and more Christian frescoes and sites were coming to light in the rampant era of archeology. These were led by Ludwig Von Sybel’s Christliche Antike; Einfuhrung in die Altchristliche Kunst (Marburg: N.G. Elwert'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1909). This tendency re-emerged in the 1970s with Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1971), and recently with Yukako Suzawa’s The Genesis of Early Christian Art: Syncretic Juxtaposition in the Roman world (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2008).

2 C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections (London: Fount/Harper Collins, 1981), 15.

3 Origen, Contra Celsum, Book VIII, ch. 17.

4 Ibid.

5 Cf. Summa Theologiae, I, q. 35, a. 2; I, q. 44, a. 3; I, q. 93, a. 1.

6 Richard Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (New York: Penguin Books, 1970), 49.

7 Sible de Blaauw, Cultus et decor: Liturgia e architettura nella Roma tardoantica e medievale, 2 vols. (Studi e Testi, 355-56) (Vatican City: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1994), 118.

8 Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 291.

9 Marcel Laurent, L’Art Chretien des Origins a Justinien (Bruxelles: Societe Royale Archeologie de Bruxelles, 1956), 17.

10 “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh” (John Damascene, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth [New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003], 82).

11 Pope Francis, “Easter Vigil Homily,” April 19, 2014, Libreria Editrice Vaticana,

12 Elizabeth Lev and Jose Granados, A Body for Glory: Theology of the Body in the Papal Collections (Vatican City: Edizioni Musei Vaticani, 2014), 69.

13 Petrach cited in Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, vol. I (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 37.

14 1 John 1:1.

15 Cynthia Hahn, "What Do Reliquaries Do for Relics?,” Numen 57 (2010): 303.

16 Ibid.

17 Pope Benedict XVI, “Homilies of His Holiness Bartholomew I Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI: Homily of the Holy Father,” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008,

18 The Engraved Word: The Bible at the Beginning of Christian Art (Vatican City: Vatican Museums, 2005), catalogue of the eponymous exhibition at the Vatican Museums from September 29, 2005, to January 7, 2006, 72.

19 St. John Damascene, “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1963), Bk IV, chap. 18, 88.

20 Gabriele Paleotti, Discourse on Sacred and Profane Images, trans. William McCuaig Getty (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2012), 309.

21 Luke 1:38.

22 Elizabeth Lev, “Reading Theological Context: A Marian Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Roman Pieta,” in Revisioning: Critical Methods of Seeing Christianity in the History of Art (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013), 214.

23 Luke 22:19.

24 For a lengthier explanation of the original placement and function of the Pieta as altarpiece, see Lev, “Reading Theological Context: A Marian Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Roman Pieta,” 207-22.

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