Over the space of the last few decades the United States Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has published two remarkable documents about the building and renovation of churches. In 1978 the document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship was published, presenting principles and directives that were to shape the design of worship spaces. In 2000 our Catholic bishops issued Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, which would build upon the values spelled out in the previous document. Taken together, both documents offer an excellent overview of the role of art in our churches and in our liturgical celebrations.
Art has to do with human creativity. It is the making of things that have form or beauty. A work of art draws us beyond what our senses perceive to what the artist was attempting to express. Art, by definition then, is always somewhat elusive. We may agree that Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus is art, but we are not certain of all of what the artist was attempting to express. The sculpture, as any poetic work would do, presents us with an image and then invites the viewer to fill in the blanks with his or her own lived experience.
The bishops teach that in the Christian community’s place of prayer, art evokes and at the same time glorifies, in the words of Pope Paul IV, “the transcendent mystery of God - the surpassing invisibility of truth and love visible in Christ. Therefore the Church entrusts art with a mediating role.... Art is meant to bring the divine to the human world, to the level of the senses...” Art, then, that is chosen for churches is not simply something pretty or well made, nor is the church meant to be a museum for housing art objects. Rather, art is always to be at the service of the church and its liturgy, as well as at the service of the prayer and devotion of the people who gather there.
Both of the bishops’ documents list the two components of true and worthy art: quality and appropriateness. Quality is determined only by contemplation, by “standing back from things and really trying to see them, trying to let them speak to the beholder.” Quality is evident in the honesty and genuineness of the materials that are used, and in the love and care that went into creation of the art, whether it be an altar table or a piece of music. Appropriateness is determined by whether a work of art is able to “bear the weight of mystery, awe, reverence, and wonder that the liturgical action expresses, and by whether a piece of art serves rather that interrupts the rhythm and structure of the liturgy.”
These two documents encourage us to review our places of worship in light of these critical principles. Bogus art is not unknown in some of our churches. Our bishops advise us to “rule out anything trivial and self-centered, anything fake, cheap or shoddy, anything pretentious or superficial.” Mass-produced “art”, plastic flowers, Formica altars, electric candles and prerecorded music, no matter what their sentimental value, are unworthy of the house of God and the house of God’s people at prayer.