Since the earliest years of the Catholic Church, sacred art has been a universal fixture of Catholic devotion and culture, forming an integral facet of the irradiation of Catholic doctrine and practice into the daily lives of its members and influencing the broader culture in which they lived. Across the centuries, Catholic sacred art has taken many forms, adapting the styles and trends of each culture and artistic movement of its time and incorporating them into its self-expression and piety; despite these manifold transformations and varieties of sacred art, it has retained a core, at least in its most authentic examples, which makes it both sacred and distinctly Catholic. The purpose of this essay is to identify that core, explain its nature and thus gain a clearer insight into its essence, particularly through exploring the myriad expressions it has taken over the centuries.
Although Catholic sacred art is founded upon art itself, the natural human capacity for what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “Sub-creation” or the making of “a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses,” which is on its own an imitation of God the Creator, it is specifically the elevation and sanctification of art through the sacramental imagination of the Church, the making holy or “setting apart” of art for the purpose of loving and serving God more perfectly, just as water is made holy through Baptism and bread and wine through the Eucharist. This act of sanctification, being sacramental in nature, is founded ultimately upon the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who, by taking on human nature and through it providing an explicit manifestation of the divine Son of God within the material world, sanctified not only humanity but also the whole of Creation, since “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Despite the attacks of iconoclasm against sacred art in Catholic history, both in the East and West, the Incarnation has remained the fixed point to which the Church has returned to justify and celebrate the essential value and deepest meaning of its art. From this core, Catholic sacred art can be recognized by three ubiquitous attributes: sacrament, sanctification and effoliation.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Rom 1:19-20) While explicated by the Incarnation of Christ, this statement expresses the faith not only of St. Paul as a Christian but also as a Jew and was in accordance with the Greco-Roman religious and philosophical outlook of the Gentiles as well as Jewish Christian converts to whom he wrote his letters. For St. Paul and many thinkers of Antiquity, the material world is sacramental, with its seemingly mundane objects serving as efficacious symbols of and portals into the nature of God; this sacramental imagination inspired the liturgical rites of both pagan and Jewish religions and would be taken up even more fully, from the Incarnation, in the Christian celebration of its sacraments. For this reason, in the earliest examples of Catholic sacred art, such as those in the Roman catacomb graffiti and at Dura Europos, the artistic portrayals are not only historical reminiscences of biblical events but also use material objects to symbolize the deeper and higher signification of these events and to visualize the mysteries which they revealed.
From this foundation, Catholic sacred art has remained fundamentally sacramental. As Jacques Maritain explains, Catholic religious art must be not only religious and thus authentic to doctrine and piety, but also intelligible, filled with symbolic objects, sounds, scents, gestures, poses and words that help the devout viewer (or listener or reader) participate in and understand more fully the realities portrayed. For Catholics, and indeed for most religious peoples throughout history, the divine is not obvious or easy; while this has been a stumbling block for many, the Church has always understood that this divine obfuscation is necessary not only due to human freedom and finitude, but as a romantic courtship whereby the Bridegroom and Bride, namely Christ and his Church, prove themselves to one another through covenantal promises and acts of loving devotion. Sacred art thus functions as a kind of love letter, akin to Scripture itself, helping the Bride of Christ to remember, long for and prepare herself to receive her Bridegroom at the eschatological “marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:9) Throughout the history of Catholic sacred art, this sacramental and romantic perspective has inspired Catholic artists to infuse their work with layers of meaning and significance, expressed most of all in those objects which are directly connected to the sacraments or devotional practices such as churches, liturgical vestments, altars, statues, Books of Hours, missals and sacred music, as well as in Catholic literature, including the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Alongside the sacramental imagination of Catholic sacred art, Catholic artists have always been inspired by their incarnational worldview and by the promotion of the Church to inculturate and sanctify those elements of popular culture, whether Christian or not, which they found to be good, fulfilling St. Paul’s command: “[W]hatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philip 4:8) In the earliest centuries, Catholic artists took up the artistic motifs and symbolic language of both Jewish and Greco-Roman art to express their faith, incorporating what they found to be good (and thus from God) and correcting what did not correlate to Christ. Through this work, Catholic churches came to emulate both the Jewish Temple and synagogue, as well as the imperial basilicas of Rome, combining and modifying them to fit Catholic doctrine and imagination, such as in the addition of a sanctuary and cruciform transept to the Roman basilica and the orientation of churches toward the East, ad orientem, the direction of the rising Sun and the Second Coming of the Son of God. Even elements from Roman paganism, such as the images of the shepherd and orans figure used to decorate Roman tombs, were sanctified and reinterpreted as Christ the Good Shepherd and his praying disciples.
After the disintegration of Roman imperial authority in the West, Catholic sacred art continued to hold the ideals and culture of Rome in high esteem and thus the artistic language developed during the patristic age lived on. However, it was soon met by the influence of other cultures, particularly the Celtic and Germanic, and in the East by the Slavic, which the Church, while upholding its valuation of Antiquity, soon began to inculturate and sanctify as well. As the examples of Insular manuscript illumination, with its knotwork patterns and abstract imagery, as well as the fortress-churches of Romanesque architecture, the Old Saxon Heliand and Old English Beowulf, the monastic invention of musical notation to fit its Gregorian and Byzantine chants, and the emergence of the Eastern iconographic tradition demonstrate, the Church actively encouraged the incorporation of artistic themes and creativity from its newest convert cultures as well as from those of the Roman Empire which continued to develop over the centuries. Nevertheless, Catholic sacred art remained essentially incarnational and sacramental, religious and intelligible, always remembering its core even if to do so required the occasional correction of the Magisterium of the Church.
Arguably, the pinnacle of Latin Catholic sacred art, particularly in its aspects as sacramental and sanctifying, is Gothic art. Finally free from the external threats of earlier centuries, including Roman persecution and barbarian raids, Catholicism in the first three centuries of the second millennium after Christ was the principle and spiritual heart uniting all of Europe as Christendom and dispersing its faith in Christ across all fields of cultural expression. Beginning with the work of Abbot Suger, who helped transform bulky Norman Romanesque architecture into prisms of light and towers reaching up to Heaven through the introduction of pointed arches, thin walls, tympanum reliefs and column sculptures in portals, rib-vaulted ceilings and a profusion of stained glass, the plethora of Gothic cathedrals which sprung up rapidly across Europe inspired artists in other fields to adopt their new mindset, called “Gothic” derogatorily by later Renaissance aesthetes. Producing magnificent, illuminated manuscripts shining like stained glass, chivalric romances and mythic poetry like that of Chrétien de Troyes and Dante Alighieri respectively, the culture of Christendom was in turn influenced by the rise of Scholasticism and the universities which themselves reflected the sense of order, grandeur and luminescent beauty exemplified by Gothic cathedrals, most of all in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas (a key influence on Dante’s Divina Commedia).
Gothic art, most explicitly in its rose windows, floral capitals and forest of columns branching into ribbed vaults, exemplifies the third element of Catholic sacred art listed above: effoliation. This term, explained and arguably coined, at least in its particular usage, by Tolkien, signifies a specific conception of the purpose of art most applicable to sacred art, what Tolkien called “the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.” Just as God, through his divine simplicity in which are the virtual types of all things that can possibly exist, as ways by which his infinite Being may be secondarily participated, knows all that he can and will create, and thus expresses his infinite creativity through an endless variety of creatures throughout his cosmos, artists, who “make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker”, contribute to this “multiple effoliation,” like the fractal branching and forestation of tress. As Maritain explains, when we conceive of a new form in our mind, “combining nouns and redistributing adjectives”, and then express this form onto God’s material rearranged “through the work of their hands,” we imitate the creativity of God, and it is this imprinting and shining forth of form, the splendor formae, which, both in Creation and in our own works of art, constitute beauty. For this reason, Maritain writes that religious art is not limited by any particular style or technique; rather, it is regulated according to the Catholic worldview and the rules for its expression as given by the Church. Thus, not only has Catholic sacred art inculturated and sanctified elements from the surrounding cultures, the Church has also encouraged genuine creativity amongst its artists and has even come to accept elements, such as nude figures and pagan motifs, which at times it had cautioned against, as in the works of Michelangelo.
In the Renaissance, the art of the Middle Ages came to be denigrated in comparison to the idolization of the art and learning of Antiquity by humanist scholars; nevertheless, the Church sanctified this love for Roman art, a love which had already been present in medieval Christendom, and encouraged the innovations and rediscoveries made by Renaissance artists, such as perspective, naturalism and the printing press. For Renaissance art, the Church corrected some of its deviances, especially during the Counter-Reformation, and guided it according to the sacramental and incarnational core of the Catholic imagination, eventually leading to the effusion of grandeur and brilliance in the Baroque and Rococo styles which took up the wondrous legacy of the Renaissance and used it to fill churches with magnificent sculptures, paintings, altarpieces and new architectural designs which countered the growing tide of materialism and iconoclasm in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In this way, the Church, as it had done since Antiquity, saw the value of the effoliation of Creation for sacred art; it was not necessary that Catholic artists simply repeat the same styles and themes, but rather that their free expression, guided and inspired by the Church and the tradition of Christendom, could be allowed to effoliate Creation for the glory of God. It would not be until the intrusion of secularism into the realm of art, when genre painting, political propaganda and more modern styles which emphasized the feelings or attitudes of the artist above the good of the artwork itself or the love of Christ, thus obscuring its sacramental core, would subordinate sacred art beneath private or state art, that the great artistic heritage of Christendom would begin to fade. Although Catholic sacred art has continued to this day, it has, as Maritain mourned, often become commercialized, sentimentalized and succumbed to the individualism of modern artistic styles, forgetting its sacramental core and the need for it to remain intelligible and authentically religious.
The history of Catholic sacred art demonstrates, in its enduring legacy, the true heights that may be achieved by Catholic artists who are inspired by the Incarnation of Christ, the sacramental imagination that flows from it and the impetus for sanctification and effoliation which it gives. As Gothic cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts, the paintings of Da Vinci and Caravaggio, the sculptures of Michelangelo and Bernini, and the music of Gregorian and Byzantine chant as well as the polyphonies of Palestrina and the Mass settings of Mozart and Beethoven prove, authentic Catholic sacred art is an inviolate and lasting reminder of the love of Christ and the salvation to which he continues to call his Bride the Church. It is this love which may, even today, summon Catholic artists to rediscover true sacred art and sanctify not only the culture in which they live and the modern Church, but themselves and those who will come after them, through their art.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1964), 68, 73.
 John Paul II, Letter to Artists (4 April 1999), §1.
 John Paul II, Letter, §5.
 John 1:3, The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition (Washington, DC: The Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1965-1966), at BibleGateway, www.biblegateway.com.
 John Paul II, Letter, §7.
 Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism (Tacoma, WA: Cluny Media, 2016), 148.
 John Paul II, Letter, §7.
 Taylor Marshall, The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity (Colleyville, TX: Saint John Press, 2009), 99, 103.
 Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 148.
 Régine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages! (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 79.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 89.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 15, a. 3, ad. 2, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 75.
 Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” 74.
 John Paul II, Letter, §6.
 Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 25-27.
 Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 150-151.
 Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 145-146.
 Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 150.