“Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.”
o wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Demons, one of four of his greatest novels. The Russian Orthodox novelist would find himself in agreement with a Polish Roman Catholic Pope, who more than a century later wrote of the Catholic Church’s need for beauty, and artists who could create that beauty.
“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence. It is an invitation to savour life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God…” wrote Pope John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to Artists.
Himself an artist as an accomplished actor and poet, Pope John Paul II saw the need to appeal to artists in particular to put their talents to use for the Gospel and the salvation of the world. He desired stronger collaboration between the world of art and the Church, once one of the world’s greatest incubators for the world’s greatest artists like Michelangelo, who created such enduring works as the Sistine Chapel and La Pieta.
“With this Letter, I turn to you, the artists of the world, to assure you of my esteem and to help consolidate a more constructive partnership between art and the Church. Mine is an invitation to rediscover the depth of the spiritual and religious dimension which has been typical of art in its noblest forms in every age,” John Paul II wrote.
It’s no secret that the Michaelangelos of the Church seem to be few and far between in this age, where some modern churches more closely resemble spaceships than houses of God, church bulletin design seems to be stuck in the 1980s, and some church choirs consist of two people who’ve never taken a music lesson.
However, a slow but sure movement towards rediscovering the importance of art and beauty seems to be afoot in the Catholic Church. Here’s how three different groups are working to put Pope John Paul II’s call for artists into action.
Bringing artists to Christ, and Christ to artists
Emily Martinez loves the arts. In particular, the theater.
She studied acting during her undergraduate years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she also also fell in love with Jesus, thanks to some missionaries she met through the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).
But while she loved Jesus and acting, she longed to see these two parts of her life intersect more. FOCUS had specific outreaches to Greek students and student athletes – why not artists?
Martinez wanted to change that. Partnering with a FOCUS missionary who had studied graphic design, Martinez created CREATE – Catholics Redefining Everyday Art Through Excellence. Every month, the group hosted different speakers and presenters from a vast array of the arts – dance, music, film, writing, theater – who spoke or performed in front of an audience of 30-50 students each time, and explained how they were using their craft to glorify God.
“It just made sense to me that we would be reaching out to people who are artists, because they’re going to be creating things their whole lives, things that are going to impact a lot of people,” she said. “And what if Christ was at the center of that? What if the beauty that they were creating pointed us back to God in some way?”
By the end of her senior year, Martinez’s plans to move away and go to grad school for theater had changed. Instead, she felt the Lord calling her to be a FOCUS missionary. Certain she’d be sent to a school without a strong arts program, Martinez mentally prepared herself to temporarily set aside her passion for art.
Until she received her assignment at New York University, one of the best art schools in the country.
“It was a gift, and I got to work with so many artists, because it’s New York City,” she said. “So I kind of just dove right in and started meeting as many artists as possible.”
She invited art students (typically freshman, who were looking for a home anyway) to join her bible study, which in some ways was more like a Christ-centered art class. They’d discuss religious paintings, plays and sacred music.
They read John Paul II’s Letters to Artists, which “just blew their minds” knowing that there was a Pope encouraging artists to create their art to the best of their abilities, she said.
At the end of the year, Martinez had her bible study put on a show. They each created pieces specific to their personal medium of art (acting, dance, fashion), based on the passage from the bible about the woman at the well, about a time that they encountered Christ, perhaps while looking for something different.
The show was a hit, Martinez said. The girls invited their friends, many of whom were not Catholic, to attend. They told their stories of encountering Christ in a way that was authentic and beautiful.
“It was cool to be able to demonstrate what their art can be outside of this bible study,” Martinez said. “You can do this all the time, you can ask God to be with you in your art.”
The following year, Martinez said she was able to go a little deeper with the young women in her bible study, since they had already bonded over their common passion for art. Now, she’s working on writing up a bible study for all of FOCUS to use, based on what she did with her study at NYU.
“I just did this, I didn’t know if I was allowed,” Martinez said of her artist bible study. “And soon a bible study will be out for all FOCUS artists.”
Catholic Creatives: Faithful artists come together
Like Martinez, brothers Marcellino and Anthony D’Ambrosio were millennial Catholic artists who longed to see more intersection between the Church and good art.
Both former youth and music ministers turned digital marketers and designers, the two would often meet with another creative friend of theirs Edmund Mitchell, to complain about the state of affairs with art and the Church.
“We’d end up talking about how bad Catholic dating is or how bad Catholic design or media is.” Anthony told CNA. “We’d have these sessions and so we were like well, what if we got more people together and actually tried to do something productive?”
The men started reaching out to other Catholic creative professionals and youth ministers they knew, and they decided to meet for the first time in Dallas, Texas.
The first topic to tackle? Terrible Church bulletin design.
“The invite was come, bring a six-pack of beer and an ugly bulletin, and we’ll solve this,” Marcellino said.
“And it was crazy. People drove from all over the place, they came from Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, people were sending in bulletins from Minnesota… it was like the first time anyone was like, oh my gosh, yes, I’d like to have a voice in this.”
After that initial meetup, the group, Catholic Creatives, was born. A collaboration of Catholic artists and creative professionals from across the United States, the group now has a website, a podcast, and a Facebook group with some 1,000 members, all advocating for better art in the Catholic Church across their respective fields.
One of the biggest obstacles to great art in the Church today, Anthony and Marcellino said, is the defensive posture that the Church has taken in modern times.
“In the last century, Church culture has put an extreme emphasis on truth over goodness and beauty. The orthodox Catholic apologetics movement that’s been so big over the last 50 years or so says we must defend the Church’s teachings. And so we have conferences and events about defending the church’s teachings, how to catechize kids and teach them the truth. It says that we need to make sure that people understand the Mass, if they just understood, they would come more, they would care more,” Marcellino said.
“But if Mass is in a really crappy building, and you have a choir that’s way off-key, and you have really ugly bulletins, and the priest is bored and boring, it doesn’t matter if they understand it. People who understand it are going to stop coming! Because it’s not what it’s supposed to be,” Anthony added.
Beauty, Anthony said, is an easy way to impact people’s hearts for the Gospel. It’s part of the reason Christ became man, he added – men need to encounter truth and beauty in a person, not just to understand it intellectually.
“It’s really hard to argue with a sunset,” ANthony said. “Beauty impacts people in a way that short circuits this whole defense mechanism.”
The goal of the group is “to be able to make change,” Anthony added. Not a change in the Church’s teachings or orthodoxy, but “to return Catholic art to the forefront of the wodl’s conversation. Not just the church but the world. We need to get the world to recognize the face of Christ again through good art, media and evangelization.”
Making Churches beautiful: The job of a liturgical projects consultant
It’s not just Church bulletins and other by-products of evangelization that need help. Modern Church history has produced some equally displeasing Church buildings and designs.
But Patrick Murray’s job as a projects consultant for Granda Liturgical arts is to bring beauty back to Churches. From projects as simple as finding new saint statues to as large-scale as retrofitting a Church for new windows and interior renovations, Murray works with Churches to create fitting houses for God.
“When it comes to big projects, my job is to go and provide some initial thoughts based on what I know about liturgical norms, and what I know about art history and architecture,” he said.
“Sometimes they want to really get back to traditional styles that are heavily based on traditional church elements, and so we help them figure out a way those can be applied to buildings from the 60s,” he said.
A millennial and art history buff, Murray said that within the world of Church design, there has been a slow but definite movement toward Neoclassicism, which is a return to the more classic and traditional forms of design and architecture such as Greek, Gothic and Romanesque.
“It doesn’t take an art history professor to go into an ugly suburban church and say this place feels like a spa waiting room or something,” Murray said.
“And I think that’s a pretty common experience unfortunately. You can tell when things are ugly and not fitting for sacred worship and when they are, and more than a particular style or movement, it seems to me that we’re slowly but distinctly starting to regain the sense of what is fitting, and I hope it continues, because I’m on board.”
Murray’s personal favorite style is Neoromanesque, a style that several new Churches have adopted very beautifully, he said.
He also loves strong, vibrant colors in a church because “if church is supposed to look like heaven, I’m pretty sure heaven is not beige.”
The importance of beauty in the structure and interior of a Church is something that was impressed upon Murray at an early age. Soon after high school graduation, he was a cradle Catholic lukewarm in his faith when he moved to Chicago with his family. Always someone interested in art history, Murray found himself in awe of the beauty of the art and architecture at his new parish.
“The whole church is based on Christ, but it’s gorgeous, and that was the first time I as a young Catholic person realized that all of this, and by extension all of the Basilicas in Rome and the Cathedrals in Paris, and everything else, belong to me, they’re my birthright as a baptized Catholic, just as much as to Pope John Paul II or St. Peter,” he said.
“So not only did I get interested in this and get a job in sacred art, but it also saved me from a lifetime of lukewarm (apathy) about Catholicism,” he said. “It got me interested in my faith and in how sacred art can lead people to Christ. I believe so strongly that sacred art lifts our hearts and minds, but it also connects us to the traditions that the Church has preserved for so long.”
How the Church can support artists
Because of the power of art to lift people’s minds and hearts to God, good art should be something that the Church is willing to sacrifice for, Murray said.
“We’re doing this for God, we’re building these beautiful churches and making these beautiful statues for God. If this is a worthy goal, it requires sacrifice on our part, and therefore we should make that sacrifice – which these days is usually monetary – to support those artists who are doing this great work and participating in the creative power of God.”
Anthony also said that “artists need to be able to support a family. Good art is not produced by people that do it on the weekends as a part-time thing when they get around to it.”
“Good art, excellent art, Sistine Chapel kind of art, that comes from people who dedicate their lives to their craft,” he said.
Marcellino added that the Church needs to stop operating out of fear, and needs to take a more aggressive approach to evangelization through good art.
“Bishops and priests have to stop operating out of fear, they have to stop putting the decisions of ministry in the hands of lawyers and insurance companies,” he said. “Because when safety is valued over and above good expression and over innovation, it shuts downs artists being able to do their thing.”
Anthony also stressed the need for artists in the Church to not become discouraged, and to continue to hold themselves to the highest of standards.
“Don’t settle for mediocrity,” he said. “There is such a low bar for art in the Christian world that you can get away with being mediocre.”
“The world needs excellence to reach the 90 percent of people that think that Catholicism is totally archaic and meaningless, those are the people your art is supposed to reach.”
By Mary Rezac