The Catholic Messenger

Father Catich wrote several articles that have appeared in The Catholic Messenger over the years. What follows is his article titled “History and Critique of The Image of Christ in Art” published on May17, 1958 and is presented here with permission from The Catholic Messenger in Davenport, Iowa.

The function of religious art in all ages is to help people in their devotional needs; to help them approach more easily and understand more clearly divine truths; and ultimately to move them, by the aid of grace, to closer union with God. To the extent that religious art does not do this it is not good religious art whatever other merits it may possess in the areas of technique and esthetic delight.

I have a threefold purpose in this article:

(1) To show how Christ has been historically pictured.
(2) To explain the presence of much vulgarity that passes for “Christian art” today.
(3) To suggest some positive artistic and theological principles by which we may produce a Christian art (particularly images of Christ) which will avoid vulgarity and fulfill the function of religious art as defined above.

This is, of course, a complex subject which cannot be adequately treated within the compass of one article. The most I can do is to indicate some of the main features of the matter and their relationship.

1) The first thing we notice about our subject – the image of Christ in art – is that we have no pictured information to tell us what Jesus looked like – we have no art images made of Him while He was on earth. While this may seem to complicate the work of Christian artists, introduce insuperable difficulties, actually it affords us a clue as to how artists must approach their work and it exerts a liberating  influence on the artists who produce that work, the image of Christ.

We are told that the reason we have no images of Jesus contemporary with His life on earth is because the first Christian converts, chiefly Jews, had an ingrained fear of idolitry, they had not completely escaped the influence of the Jewish law which prohibited the making of images of living individuals. Some respected biblical authorities even suggest that had Jesus lived elsewhere than in Palestine we would have had graphic and plastic likenesses of Him. After all, so the theory goes, we know what Caesar Augustus looked like from the many proven historical monuments. We even know what Alexander the Great , Philip of Macedon and others (who antedated Jesus by centuries) looked like from the evidence of their coinage, seals and other representations. Had Jesus lived in a Greek or Roman culture, would we not also have had images of Him?

Under normal conditions, a portrait of a great man would be among the very first mementoes of him.  In the age of Caesar Augustus, portrait painting reached its highest point in Roman art, yet we have no such portrait-memento of Jesus, nor does history record even the rumor of the existance of one.
True, we do have literary, Messianic idealizations in the Old Testament, one showing the Messia as “The Man of Sorrows,” (Isa. 53:2), the other, a symbolic epithalamium (Ps. 44), but these prophetic references can hardly be used as supports for he human visualization of Jesus.

I think the absence of artistic images of Christ in His time has another explanation which is more plausible and, if correct, has an important bearing on the work of producing visual pictures of Christ.

The Jewish stricture against images was not as rigorously enforced or exclusive as we might think. The First Commandment injunction is pricipally aimed at the first and last clauses – “no strange gods” and “thou shalt not adore them.” Many interpret that as an absolute prohibition of all images. Yet how can we reconcile that interpretation with the lawful use of bulls and lions supporting the temple basins, carved garlands of plant life, the images of the lions and bulls on the king’s throne, the cherubim of the covenant and the brazen serpent (prefiguring Christ) which Moses caused to be elevated in the desert encampment? All through the Old Testament there is a sanctioned use of dilineations of living things. We know too, that Jews practicing their Jewish religion in Rome during the first century painted pictures in the Jewish cemetery of Vigna Randinini. Nor did the first Christians fear idolatry. There are numerous catacomb pictures dating back to Apostolic times (second half of the first century). These artists – mostly Jewish converts – decorated the the catacombs not only with human and animal types but they even appropriated suitable pagan symbols to serve Christian religious art and the devtional needs of their Chriatian community.

I cannot, however, bring myself to believe that the absence of portraits of our Lord is accidental. It may well have been part of God’s plan that we were to have no pictorial statement of the Christ. This theory is reinforced when we recall that we do not have even a factual, verbal description of what Jesus looked like. The silence of the Apostles and desciples on this point is resonant. This unanimous silence is almost as if inspired by the Holy Ghost. It may well be that God withheld from us virtually all knowledge of Christ’s hidden, personal life because such knowledge was not deemed essential for our salvation. Consequently, I suggest that personal portraits of Christ were denied us so that each age and people could assimilate Christ as their ideal.

The art in the catacombs is instructive here. The representations of the Apostles peter and Paul, for example, are unvarying and were undoubtedly based on some strong oral, written or pictured tradition. St. Peter is consistently pictured with white hair and a short, cropped beard; St. Paul with bald head and a brown, pointed beard. This continuity over the centuries suggests a kinship with the original appearance of both Apostles, or studied attempts to record that appearance.

On the other hand, Christ is always pictured as an ideal type, one which varies with each age and culture. DSometimes He is depicted after the fashion of the classical Roman. At other times, He is patterned after the Greek philosopher type. For the first three centuries, Jesus is usually pictured as a beardless adolescent with one exception – a fresco painted about the year 300.
The earliest studies of Jesus in the Catacomb of Pretestatus, painted sometime during the first half of the second century, show Christ being crowned with thorns, healing and woman afflicted with the issue of blood, and conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. In these Roman catacomb scenes, the beardless young Jesus is garbed in the clothing common to the Greek philosophers.

After the first centuries, there is no consistency in the portrayals of Christ. In the catacomb frescoes, Jesus is sometimes painted as a mature man, sometimes as an adolescent about 15 years of age. And in in several of the baptism scenes He is shown either as a very small boy or as a midget, about half as tall as St. John the baptizer. A fresco in the tomb of Domitilla of the second half of the second century shows Christ seated among sheep, playing a lyre, in the guise of Orpheus, the mythological Greek hero.

The point is that the ideal and not the portrait-likeness of Christ was sought by Christian artists.
St. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the “Pedagogue” in the year 190, says that the full beard agrees with the Christian character. Yet, during these same centuries, Christ, the Christian’s ideal, is beardless. This is a curious contrariety made even more curious when we recall that in the early fourth century Constantine introduced the custom of shaving the beard – yet a short while later, Jesus is mostly shown bearded. My explanation is that in both these ages of early Christianity theologians and artists were attempting to emphasize the divinity of Christ. They rightly feared that likening Him to the ordinary man of those ages might give the distinctly erroneous impression that He was only a man.

The modern notion of Christ with a beard and long hair reaching his shoulders appeared for the first time at the end of the fourth century. From the fifth century through Romanesque times, Christ is pictured both bearded and beardless, with the beardless face more frequent.

Medieval and Renaissance likenesses of Jesus were influenced in good part by the ideal essayed in the apocryphal “Golden Legend” of the Dominican, Jacques de Voragine, who probably was inspired in his description of Jesus by the Davidic epithalamium. The “Shroud of Turin,” which is claimed gives us a true image of the dead Christ as He lay in the tomb from Good Friday until Easter, may also have been inspired by Voragine’s legend. I dismiss the “Shroud” as a 14th century fabrication.

Until recent centuries, then, the history of Christ’s image demonstrates that Christian artists were not preoccupied with making particularized portraits of Jesus. Most artists did not attempt “authentic” likenesses of the Saviour. Rather, the artists and their theologian-directors and clients used the ideal man of their culture as a point of departure for representations of the Saviour type.

Examples multiply indefinitely on how various ages used their ideal as the formal exemplar for their Christ-image. Usually the pattern is based on their notion of the highest type of man – most often the emperor, philosopher leader, apollo, warrior or king.

From Byzantine art, we have the the all-powerful Pantocrator molded on the emperor prototype. During the ages of the barbarian migrations the ideal stems from the leader warrior – for example, in a Ravennate mosiac, Christ is smooth-shaven and garbed in the costume of a military leader. In Caroline art, the classical Roman emperor re-echoes in figures of Christ. In Romanesque, Ottonian, Visigothic, early Gothic and Insular cultures, Christ is fashioned after the model of the crowned king, usually seated on a throne.

This is not to say that there have been no literary and pictorial attempts to establish the “authentic” portrait of Christ. In Constantine’s time, after the horror of the crucifixion had diminished following its extirpation as a criminal penalty, new interest in the person and relics of Jesus arose. For a short while after the relic of the True Cross was found we have the mature, bearded Christ. The artistic practice after the fourth century veers again to the picturing of the ideal. In general, this idealizing process continues into the Renaissance where it is re-molded in terms of Greek and Latin statuary. But here in the Renaissance a sly over-emphasis occurs, hardly noticeable on the surface but nevertheless harmful to the whole symbolic process and consequently damaging to religion.

Before examining in detail this critical error in much Renaissance art, I must clarify the mechanics of the symbolism, for symbolism is at the very core of religious art, indeed of religion itself.

St. Thomas states as a principle of theology that  symbolism must be used in arriving at our knowledge of God. He says: “We cannot speak of God except metaphorically.” (C. G. Lib. 1 cap. XXX). All our notions of supernatural realities we get from symbolic comparisons of things in the natural order – except, of course, in the case of those favored souls far advanced in the ‘unitive way’ who are directly illuminated by God concerning divine truths.

In the broad sense, a symbol is the expression of an idea in a material. In the restrictive sense, a symbol is that which stands for or suggests something; which calls to mind something (usually absrtact or unpicturable) by association, relationship or convention, but not by intentional resemblance; it is a visible sign of the invisible; it is an act, gesture or thing which, by analogy, directs our attention to some spiritual concept.
To illustrate: the ship’s anchor in the storm-tossed sea is the sailor’s assurance of safety. It is his hope, his security, for without the anchor the ship and its sailors are helpless and hopeless. Accordingly, St. Paul, writing to the Hebrews, says: “This hope (Christ) we have as a sure and firm anchor of the soul…” The anchor, therefore, from the earliest times, was a symbol of the Christian’s hope in salvation through Christ’s promise. It reminded the Christians of old that no matter how storm-tossed he might be in the angry sea of life he had a secure anchor, Christ crucufied, Who guaranteed him safety in eternity provided he remmained steadfast to Truth.

Now in symbolic usage the anchor is but a means, not the end; hence it must always be subordinate to the end. In religious art, any symbolic anchor which is too particularized, complicated or ‘realistic’ loses its symbolic quality. It calls attention to itself as a mariner’s tool; it distracts the symbol user who has difficulty seeing the anchor as a symbol of Christian Hope and sees it instead merely an illustration of a ship’s tool.

When the symbol reference (analogic predication) is lost or removed we have a superstition (from the Latin superstat) that “stands  over” an empty shell (symbol thing) with little or no vital, inner life (idea) to which it should point. Superstition and idolatry are not restricted to the worshiping of statues and the burning of incense to idols. In fact, the broad definition of idolatry and superstition is defective symbolism. We must clearly understand that a symbol “stand for” soemthing while a superstition “stands over” that thing.

This, then, the derangement of final cause, the wavering between illustration and symbol, is at the bottom of all disorder in idolatrous, vicious, bad and tepid religious art. When the details in a religious painting become too detailed, when they are loved for themselves, when they illustrate mores or are merely documents of archeological research, such a painting loses its symbolic nature and much of its religious usefulness since, at best, it only meagerly helps people to satisfy their devotional needs. Instead of being a stepping-stone to more efffective devotion, such art becomes a stumbling block.
The history of religious art and symbol-making is filled with examples of the pendulum’s swing between the symbol-thing and the idea to which the symbol refers and for which it stands. In periods of pioneering and experimentation, when new cultures are emerging, generally the idea is predominant and the visible expression of that idea in symbols is inferior so far as technique is concerned. In other periods, marked by growing traditions, craft accretions, iconographical expansion, hieratic discipline, familiarity with fixed religious types and needs, the emphasis in symbol-making frequently (and sadly) veers into the technique itself and to the material expression of the idea.

Obviously the greater damage in religious art occurs when the shift is away from the idea towards the thing being made, since the idea is the final cause and if that is frustrated by preoccupation with technique, overt personalisms and digressions, the harm is most serious. The ages which there is a delicate balance, a poise between idea and thing are few.

2) Up to the Renaissance, events in the Old and New Testament were conceived as happening in the artist’s own environment – his land, climate, clothing, building, flora, fauna, gesture, age and people. Flemish artists, for example, used the Flemish landscape as the background for scenes of the Passion and Crucifixion, even though they well knew that such backgrounds bore no resemblance to the physical Holy Land. The pre-Renaissance artists in Italy (the Sienese and Umbrians) for other examples, similarly painted sacred subjects in terms familiar to Italian eyes.

I shall return to this point later, showing the validity of portraying sacred ideas and scenes in contemporary terms. I mention it here as one of the impressive pre-Renaissance developments in the history of sacred art.

True humanists prior to the 16th century, as much as any other group of artists before or since, achieved a a superb balance in their sacred artbetween the natural and the supernatural, the visible and the invisible, the symbol-thing and its reference value, the idea. Such artists include: St. Francis, Dante, Giotto, Duccio, St. Thomas, Matteo di Giovanni, the Lorenzetti, Martini, Memline, Vivarini, to mention a few. Their art, whether considered  under the aspect of symbol-thing or expressed idea, was truly lofty. Their art production was a meeting-place for for natural, human, esthetic qualities and didactic, persuasive, religious values.The Renaissance, however, ushered in a new era which man, not God, was to become the center of interest and attention. This ego-centrism both nourishes and is nourished by a re-discovery of classical themes and ideas. This intoxication with the power and splendor of natural man, this naturalistic humanism, though it resulted in some magnificent artistic productions, rendered to religiona service which was not always wholly desireable.
The Renaissance shift toward classicism was not a sudden occurrence. It bagen, as a good usage, during the Middle Ages and blossomed in the later  age. Actually, Christianized classical allusions were present in Christian art almost from the beginning.

But the uncritical canonizing of classical things in the Renaissance introduces to the history of religious art paintings and sculpture with little or no religious symbol value, art which points to itself and to man rather than to religious ideas and God. So we see Nativities located in classical ruins; figures in the classical contrapposto and solidity of Greek statues; detailed excursions into the land of anatomy, chiaroscuro, perspective, landscape, architecture, flora-fauna, rocks and rills, mythology, drapery, texture and light problems.

In such an age, it is not difficult to understand why artists produced so many pictures of St. Sebastian – it gave them an opportunity for exploiting and demonstrating their newly-acquired anatomical information. Or why so many portraits of semi-nude women could be given the facile title, “St. Mary Magdalen.” Or why the star of the desert-saints, Jerome and Anthony, was in ascendency - the artists had a splended opportunity to exhibit their technique in painting rocks, lizards, lions, monsters, and imaginative desert landscapes.

It isundeniable that artistic genius, in itself, reached its highest peak in the Renaissance. What is significant, however, is that when this artistic genius turned to religious work, too often man and not God’s realm was the center of attention. This is a very difficult problem not made any easier by the astonishing magnificence of artistic production. Perhaps someday we may have more exacting norms for evaluating the properties fundamental to true religious art such as we have, for example, in liturgical music.

Coming closer to our own times, we find that the rise of the Academies, along with the neo-classical school of painting in the 18th and 19th centuries (officially sanctioned by the French court) pushed art even deeper into false realism. Pictures were judged according to their historical-archeological accuracy. Art had taken on the aspect of antiquarian science; painters like Greuze and David offered the public a view of authentic antiquity down to the minute details of swords, armor and shoe-laces. It was the age of the artist-commentators, the documentary “you are there” program, much like what Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is now doing in illusionistic, three-D, colored “biblical” movies.

The Nazarenes and pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, sensing confusedly the error of Renaissance, Baroque and neo-classical religious, artistic ideals, especially classical antiquarianism, tried to remedy the error by making one of their own: they would  return, as far as they were able, to “realistic” biblical antiquarianism, to to the actual conditions of Christ’s time. Thus, the pre-Raphaelite, William Holman-Hunt, could make a trip to Bethlehem in his search for traditional carpenter’s tools used there 1,900 years ago; he could talk at length with native carpenters, use native models for the picture of Christ in the carpenter’s shop and, in his finished picture, show Christ with upraised arms casting a shadow of the Cross on the wall of the shop.

The inter-acting influences of the pre-Raphaelites, Nazarenes, neo-Classicists and Romanticists combined in good part to produce the neo-Christian art at the end of the 19th century and the banal repository-Barclay-street art which still plagues the Church today.

I have already indicated the danger of making religious symbols excessively realistic, of making them call attention to themselves rather than suggest and point to religious ideas and concepts.
Two further examples of defective images must be mentioned before we go on to an investigation of some positive norms and principles for effective religious art.

The first is an accenting of the body at the expense of the spirit. A too-human Christ invites a de-emphasis of His divinity. We are then dangerously close to the heretical position of viewing Christ as Christ-man, the great teacher, psychologist, social worker, healer, rather than the true recognition of Him as Christ-God-Man.

The second defective image is the effeminate portrait of Christ. We are all familiar with this type, we see it everywhere: the up-gazing eyes; soft, downy beard; long, slender, ladylike hands and fingers. Our age is burdened with millions of reproductions of this hermaphroditic portrait-type that suggests not the Incarnate Word of better ages but a bearded lady fit only for exposition in the world of the circus and carnival sideshow.

There are beard and beards. A fresco made in the second half of the 13th century on the walls of the Cyriacus-kirche in Niedermendig shows St. Christopher bearing the infant Christ on his shoulders. The infant has a beard, something which may amuse 20th century Christians who may think the artist was naive, that he was ignorant of infant anatomy. The point that this artist well knew was that it was his duty to paint a child-like not a childish Christ-child, not what we would recognize today as a “North-Star” blanket illustration of a cuddly baby. The 13th century artist wanted to make absolutely certain that no one would err in reading his picture; he wanted all to see that the infant on St. Christopher’s shoulders was not an ordinary child but a special, unique Child endowed with Divine Wisdom. He , therefore added to what undoubetly was the accepted attribute in his age and clime of manhood and wisdom.

I must also mention a third kind of abuse in religious imagery which has entered as a kind of reaction to the abuses described above – I mean the exaggerated abstract symbolism, the abstractive, contemporary art in which the human configurations and features of Christ, for example, are eliminated or distorted unduly in an attempt to communicate pure spiritual ideas or “religious” emotions. The dangers of such art are obvious. Pure abstraction implies a denial or at least aserious dilution of thge fact that the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. Abstraction also invites the viewer to read into such art that one wants to read, encouraging “personal” religion and devotional relativity. The Catholic religion, on the contrary, is specific and concrete; it has definite norms and beliefs which cannot be placed at the mercy or disposal of arbitrary personal interpretrations.

3) What, then, is the right approach to religious art today? What is a fitting ‘image of Christ’ for our time? We may state as a fundamental principle that religious art must, above all, be theologically correct. This correctness excludes not only direct statement of theological error but, insofar as it is humanly possible, all statements which may unwittingly lead viewers into theological error.
The Church is the final arbiter on the theological qualities of any work of religious art. Her concern is theology. She uses art to help communicate theological truths. The artist composing a religious hymn or carving a crucifix is teaching theology; he is communicating religious ideas to those who hear and see his work. The Church, because of her sacred mission, is abidingly concerned with the kind of religious ideas these artists propagate, since religious art is, as it were, a minor branch of theology. The religious ‘statement’ in a work of art is always the final cause, the determining cause; the art itself is the material cause and, therefore, subordinate.

I have already pointed out some of the most gross errors in religious art, both past and present: excessively human portraits of Christ which minimize His divinity; excessively abstract symbols of Christ which deny His humanity; effeminate portraits of Christ which belie His verility and manhood; excessive realism and particularization of details which destroy, or at least attenuate, the symbolic function of sacred art and distract the viewer from the greater truths and the symbols are meant to convey; preoccupation with historical-archeological problems and personal artistic excursions which are not central to to religious truth.

In order, then, to arrive at sound norms and principles which would guide his work, the artist must know as much as what errors to avoid as what habits to perfect. He must know, for example, why a painting of a Crucifixion or Resurrection scene which is scrupulously exact concerning its historical accidentals of first-century dress and clime is, theologically, less desirable than the same scene represented in contemporary terms, in terms, that is, of our own age and culture.

Christ’s life, death and resurrection are. indeed, historical facts. Yet these facts are not ordinary history; they have an immediacy and relevancy for all souls in all ages. A religious picture which by inordinate attention to the historical accidentals surrounding these facts, would relegate Christ and His Redemption to a certain period of history, runs the serious risk of leading present-day Christians into the belief that they are but detached and passive spectators of these truths. It is a dogma, for example, that our sins in 1956, help crucify Christ. But it is difficult, indeed, to feel the force of this truth when we view Crucifixion scenes which, by freezing the meaning of the Crucifixion as a first-century event, encourage us to believe that the guilt belongs exclusively to the Jews and the Roman rulers and soldiers.

I suggest, therefore, that a basic principle of religious art is that we must express religious truths in contemporary terms; we must use the things proper to our own age. God chose to call us into existence in this age rather than another. For all of us now living, this is the very best age.

We cannot go back to any other age for a contemporary expression of Christ in art, not even to those earlier inspirations (Umbrian, Sienese, Medieval and early-Christian) which were authentic, which were truly peaks in the history of religious art. We may learn much from the manner of operation of those authentic artists; we may not imitate the external expression of those artists who were producing religious art well ordered to their time.

Nor ought we, as I have frequently indicated, clothe Christ in the garb of biblical Palestine. Religion is not a masquerade nor a costume party. The Gospel tells us nothing of clothing styles. We translate the Bible into the language of those who use it – verbal language. Should we all learn Hebrew and Greek because those were the original languages of the Bible? In order to understand Christ’s teachings, must we all learn Aramaic because He used that language?

I sometimes wonder whether the preference of some for Christ pivtured as merely a historic figure, a stranger from far-away places living in a remote age may not reflect a type of spiritual escapism. Such a representation of Christ in art does not disturb us unduly; it provokes no embarrassing questions about our part in His Crucifixion. If, on the contrary, Christ is portrayed as a member of our household, and our city, a person of our land and our language, we are thrust uncomfortably close to the truths we perhaps would rather not examine for fear of their personal implications on our lives.

The function, then, of the religious artist of every age is to state the eternal truths of Christianity in new, fresh, acceptable terms accommodated to the true devotional needs of his particular audience.
The prudent artist must guard against allowing his visual language to become stale and trite from over-use. But he must also guard against seeking novelty for the sake of novelty in his art.
Above all, the good religious artist not only avoids but actively fights against all forms of sentimentality in art since sentimentality by-passes reason and substitutes emotionalism for Faith’s intellectual assent to religious truths.

Earlier I said that each age makes pictorial statements of Christ in terms of the ideal of its time. What is the ideal of our time? I cannot answer that question with any finality, at least not for some time. One reason is that we no longer have kings, epic heroes, emperors and other serviceable prototypes for the ideal.

Meanwhile, until we do have an ideal to serve as our artistic prototype, there is nothing to prevent religious artists from parting company with the sentimental abominations now prevalent in religious art. Images of the effeminate Christ, referred to earlier, confront us everywhere: in homes, schools, seminaries, hospitals, convents and churches. This is a serious problem demanding full and immediate attention. One of the first duties of Catholic artists is to restore to Christ His Manhood which has been stripped from Him in recent centuries.

In ages of sentimentality, it is a most serious obligation of the artist, I am convinced, to register his distaste for sentimentality by producing works of art which will correct the error. In the case of the effeminate Christ inflicted upon the faithful, it is necessary to go for a time to a clearly masculine ideal until that wretched error is buried. In our time, one sign of manhood is trousers which, as garb for Christ, are a useful artistic device in the needful masculine-restoration process now demanded. Conversly, slacks for the Blessed Virgin would be inappropriate because repugnant to the idea of her sacred maternity.

In the task of showing divine qualities in the image of Christ, the artist is, of course, confronted by formidable artistic difficulties. It is impossible to discuss this delicate problem in great detail here. We may note, however, some elementary premises. the artist must use those forms, lines, shapes and colors which, by unprejudiced artistic consent, symbolically suggest higher values. To suggest power, for example, the artist would not use weak, effeminate, soft, overly rounded lines, or shapes, but rather more straight lines, verticles, horizontals, strong curves and starker contrasts suggesting solidity and strength. To indicate eternal beatitude, as another example, the artist would not use violent lines, shapes or colors – which may well be apt for picturing chaos – nor would he employ delicate posturings suggestive of daintiness which is incompatible with what we know about Christ.

In expressing Christ in contemporary visible language, I do not mean to imply that in the matter of clothes, for instance, we should strive for the latest “fashion.” To put Christ in a Brooks Brothers suit, or to make Him a candidate for one of the Ten Best Dressed Men of the year would be to return to that error of over-emphasis on the details of the clothes at the expense of the sacred Person. The clothes given to Christ should be niether too old or too new. They should be a general type, acceptable to our time, to indicate that its Wearer is living among us, that He is a partner to our secrets, sorrows and joys; that He is one Whom we can go to with full confidence in the knowledge that He is sharing our lot.

There is no universal “Catholic style” in art. That is to say, there is no one permanent artistic expression of Christ, frozen for all time. Each piece of good Catholic art is a unique expression uttered by the Mystical Body, an expression most fitting for the time and place where it occurs.
If God did in fact, withhold all graphic and literary records of Christ’s physical features, there must have been a reason. The reason cannot be, as some might infer, that we are meant to have no pictures at all of Christ. We need some religious images. It is true that some selected souls, far advanced in virtue, and some philosophers can dispense with the usual symbols and pictorial images in arriving at divine truths, The great majority of people, however, must have pictures. As St. Thomas says: “… it is fitting that divine truths be exopressed under the figure of less noble than nobler bodies; … especially in the case of those who can think of nothing nobler than bodies.” (S.T. I, 1, 9, ad 3.)

I have suggested, earlier, a possible reason why we have had no literal picturization of Christ: so that “each age and people could assimilate Christ as their ideal.” A more detailed examination of this possibility will conclude this discussion.

Could it be that God, in His infinite wisdom, withheld the pictorial image of Christ from us in order to discourage that type of idolitry which suggests that some special national or racial group was favored and superior to all others? True, the Jews were once the chosen people. God rescinded that choice snd invited non-Jews to His table. All who are Catholics are now the “chosen people,” chosen, however, by Grace and not by race.

By taking from us the temptation to paticularize on the features of the Redeemer, the Church is able to preach more effectively the truth of Jesus Who is “all things to all men.” To limit the image of Christ to a particular ethnic or racial strain is to impede the unreserved acceptance of Christ by the great variety of ethnic and cultural groups in the world. Insisting that Christ’s image be Latin because the Church is Roman is as much a blunder as demanding that the image be Jewish because He was born of a Jewish maiden to a Jewish people.

The Catholic Church is indeed catholic. She does not, and connot, identify herself with any particular culture. While she molds cultures; she is above them. She cuts across centuries and remains true to her divine direction to commend herself to all cultures in all times.

This is crucial these days of a shrinking world. The doctrines of white supremacy, Nordic ascendancy and superiority and kindred evils are diabolisms of the worst kind. Certainly, religious artists of all people should guard against unwittingly giving credence to these malicious myths. To project one kind of image patterned after a special, physical and racial type as the “true Christ,” is bigotry (either conscious or unconscious), injurious to the Faith and a contradiction of St. Paul who, inspired by the Holy Ghost, wrote:

“With the Jews I lived like  a Jew, to win the Jews: with those who keep the law, as one who keeps the law (though the law had no claim on me), to win those who kept the law; with those who were free of the law, like one free of the law… to win those who were free from the law. With the scrupulous, I behaved myself like one who is scrupulous. I have been all things to all men to bring salvation to all.” (I Cor. 9, 20-22.)

May we any longer say that a Mongolian Madonna with slanted eyes is wrong? May we object to Arctic natives making an Eskimo St. Joseph? What is the legitimate ideal of Christ for a normal, black native in Africa?

These are not academic questions. They are terribly important theologically, artistically, and, as we are beginning to see in our own country and throughout the world, culturally and socially. Their implications are enormously wide and deep.
                                    Father Edward M. Catich

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