Thursday, August 27, 2009

Art in Sacred Spaces

At various moments in the history of Western art, churches have taken the risk of installing art of the time in their liturgical space and the result has been a rich, abundant tradition of art which not only complements but is also vital to the life of the church. The Church's invitation to artists has always been to create artworks that engage with the liturgy, sacred space and life of the church while formally remaining free to be informed by the impulses and shifts in the languages and modes of less religious art. The separation between the religious institution and the institution of art has however somehow liberated the genre of religious art from the repetition of nostalgic and overly sentimental kitsch. The split from the church has forged space for a rediscovery of the potential for art to speak more truthfully in its avoidance of imitation and repetition. Art that is truthful gives expression to the profound mysteries of life and can lead people to an encounter with God. My hope is that churches of the third millenium will take a more active role in encouraging and supporting the installation of contemporary art in their sacred spaces. The arts must be allowed to serve their highest purpose; to manifest transcendence. Throughout the centuries, art and theology have striven to move beyond the boundaries of human experience and to penetrate into that which Karl Rahner termed 'the expanse of the unperceived perceivable.'

Proposing to permanently install contemporary art in the sacred space and gathering areas of a church will usually prompt at least three different reactions. One of these will undoubtedly be supportive but the other two will range from indifferent to hostile. All reactions will need to be handled with patience and perserverence. The parishioners and parish council might be initially excited by the idea but then become suspicious of the motives of contemporary art and eventually reject the idea in preference of a more reliably pious and perhaps more easily interpretable art of the past. They may even consider the option of "making do with what we've got" for if 'good' worship has taken place within the buildings in the absence of art, then "why do we need to change the space." For artists encouraged to be involved, the suspicion might fall on the church and the motives of the art program; why would a church which has so actively scorned and censored contemporary art be interested in taking such a risk? The final reaction might be one of excitement and enthusiasm; seeing the process as a sign of hope for a future where faith once again plays a vital role in shaping culture.


  1. Karl Barth spoke of the task of culture as “the realisation of our humanity.” Surely we can say that the gospel and the incarnation in particular have this same purpose. It is evident that our culture and the Christian faith will propose quite different answers to the question of what it is to be human.
    The culture may say that wealth and pleasure are central, or education or power. Christianity sets forth its answer in the person of Christ who is the model of humanity. To be fully human requires that we be in relationship with God. Perhaps we can see how important it is for the faith community to have its voice present in the culture of which it is a part. The gospel comes as an alternative to the agenda of the society; it offers a different understanding of what it means to be human.
    Art is able to express this in subtle and meaningful ways and to do so in a “language” those outside the church will understand. In this way the art of the Christian can be what one author has called “redemptive art.”

  2. The greatest artist of our time (rather than devout churchgoers with mediocre skills) should be invited to install works in our churches. I think that churches could do more to educate contemporary artists about the function and liturgical meaning of specific spaces within the church. If artists are going to sensitively engage with the space, then it is important that they understand the relationship between the building, rituals and art. The most appropriate works for a church may not necessarily be produced by artists who are active members of the worshipping community. The most sensitive and considered works may come from artists who are seeing the the space for the first time. To understand the significance of the confessional space in relation to the sacrament of reconciliation might be easier for someone with no previous experience and no pious baggage. It is indeed a risky business, inviting non-religious artists to produce artworks for liturgical space, but if we take a lesson from history, it has been the key to success.