Art and Integral Catechesis

Caroline Farey FAITH Magazine November-December 2006

Art fascinates. Liked or disliked it attracts the curious, especially those, consciously or unconsciously, looking, searching, desiring deeper meaning in their lives. People search in art for that ‘something’ that might fill the mysterious, sometimes aching, gap that words have failed to fill. The extent to which words are accompanied by concrete supportive evidence tends to be the extent to which we can trust them.. ‘I love you’ would mean very little if there were no gesture, no sign, no action of love that ‘embodies’ the words. Such an action carries the words, lifts and transports the meaning from the life and heart of one, into the life and heart of another.
The Catholic faith is not just a faith of words, not just a message, not just a doctrine nor simply a moral code; it is fullness of life in Christ Jesus, and therefore it is also ecclesial, liturgical, devotional, Eucharistic. It involves the body of Christ in people, in gestures of charity, in priests, rites, vessels and vestments and the very ‘making flesh’ of the body of Christ for us to consume. Catechesis delivered only as words is a sad reduction of the vast, rich, gratuitous pedagogy of God that the General Directory for Catechesis urges us to follow.

Edwin Muir, a poet from the Orkney Islands spoke of the tragedy of there being nothing more than words in the Calvinist form of Christianity with which he was familiar:

How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh is here made word again,
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological instrument…

Christian art, especially art rooted in the fullness of Catholic faith, assists in that necessary transmission of the faith which must always be more than words because it must be fully incarnated. Catholic art is a step towards the ‘incarnation’ of our faith; towards the ‘making flesh’ again of Christ in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Art and words affect us in different ways.

Using art in catechesis is, therefore, not just a nice idea for the artistically minded. For those with no
artistic skills, both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church have works of art with short explanatory notes included. These works of art are integral to the message and it is not permitted to publish these texts without them.
In these new catechetical documents, the Church is only continuing her concern for catechesis through art about which she has spoken and written from very early times. The Church Fathers of the Second Council of Nicea in the year 787AD wrote strongly against the opponents of images:

‘We define that… the representations of the precious and life-giving cross, and the venerable and holy images as well … must be kept in the holy Church of God … in houses and on roads, whether they be images of God our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ or of our immaculate Lady the Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of all the saints…. For, the more frequently one contemplates these pictorial representations, the more gladly will one be led to remember the original subject whom they represent…’(ND 1251, DS 600)

On the twelfth centenary of the Second Council of Nicea, in 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter in which he is very aware of what he calls a ‘resurgence of interest’ and ‘the growing need for a spiritual language of authentically Christian art.’ He explains,

‘Authentic Christian art is that which, through sensible perception, gives the intuition that the Lord is present in his Church, that the events of salvation history give meaning and orientation to our life, that the glory promised to us already transforms our existence. Sacred art must tend to offer us a visual synthesis of all dimensions of our faith.’ (Duodecimum Saeculum, 11)

In a new one-year distance-learning course at Maryvale Institute, called ‘Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic perspective’, this paragraph of Pope John Paul II is explored in detail. Here let us simply say that any artwork that supports catechesis needs to follow these same criteria in order to be authentically catechetical.

There is an ancient tradition in the Church of appreciating two senses of Scripture, a literal sense and a spiritual sense (CCC 115-118). The spiritual sense has three Christological dimensions to it: a portrayal of Christ, of the Christian moral life, and an indication of the fullness of Christ, Christus totus (CCC 795), head and members, in glory. True Christian art can have the same depth of meaning.

Let us look at two examples of ‘visual synthesis’ of the faith. Most people are aware of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the visit to Abraham’s dwelling, by the Oak of Mamre, of three messengers who were invited to stay for a meal (Gen. 18:1-5). Most people are also aware that this is popularly known as Rublev’s icon of the Blessed Trinity. What has the great artist done? A literal scene has been authentically interpreted as also able to portray the spiritual truth of the Trinity being present amongst the people he loves.

For a second example, look at the art work by the Canadian artist Michael O’Brien that accompanies this article*. Here is another example of a true awareness of the Catholic faith in an artist and an ability to create ‘a visual synthesis’ of both the literal and the spiritual. The literal sense of the painting is revealed by its title: ‘Joachim entrusting the Blessed Virgin Mary to St Joseph’.. The hand of the father figure that points upwards into the sky is pointing to a moon and twelve stars (they are not visible in this black and white reproduction). The moon set among the stars is a symbol of Mary, Queen of the Apostles (Rev. 12:1).

Look again, however, for the spiritual senses portrayed here: two men an older and a younger, symbolise God the Father and God the Son. A dove represents the Holy Spirit. The Father looks down at the dove and points up to the moon and stars. This is the heavenly ‘moment’ before the incarnation. The angel Gabriel, as we know, tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, the power of the most high will overshadow her and the Son of God will be conceived in her (Lk 1:35).

The ‘visual synthesis’ continues. This is a devotional picture, its purpose is to assist prayer. It is also doctrinal in that it professes faith in the Blessed Trinity, in the Incarnation, the immaculate heart of Mary and the birth of the Church as the work of the Trinity. It is a picture that supports a moral sense of loving attention, of gentleness and of willing obedience. Once pondered and explained, such a painting ‘through sensible perception, gives the intuition’ of the rich coherence and beauty of the Catholic faith. Such paintings are outstandingly catechetical and visually represent, that harmonious whole towards which all Catechesis strives.

Miss Caroline Farey is Director of the distance-learning BA in Applied Theology (Catechesis) programme at *Reproduced in the FAITH magazine Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, and Co-director of the one-year certificate in Art, Beauty and Inspiration in a Catholic Perspective. She is also joint author of the ‘Learning through Art’ pages in the catechetical journal The Sower, published by Maryvale Institute. For further information see

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